Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dia de los Muertos, Weeping for the Mission and Don Cooksey

The word on Mission streets this year was that Dia de los Muertos is officially played out. The Mexican holiday/arts and culture celebration used to be one of the few times that people in the Mission forgot about neighborhood politics and partied together. Burners painted their faces, gave puppet shows and danced in the park, while working class families and long-time Mission residents built altars in honor of loved ones who had passed away, and everyone came together for the street procession at dusk.

Not so this year. The Examiner ran a front page article about neighborhood concerns over how large the event had grown, which featured the rather unfortunate quote, "They just don't want white people involved." SFist encouraged its readers to "try not to ruin Day of the Dead this year," and, most importantly, the Mission Cultural Center's art show for the holiday focused on themes of eviction and gentrification. It was titled "Weeping for the Life and Death of the Mission District," and the opening was held at the same time as the procession.

It was sad to see something that used to be a fun, low-key neighborhood event get caught up in land-use politics, but it wasn't surprising. This is, after all, San Francisco. And the complainers did have a point. Rene Yanez, a long-time Mission resident and one of the key figures behind bringing the Dia de los Muertos event to San Francisco, is currently fighting an Ellis Act eviction. 

But none of that stopped us from going. Quite frankly, we had lost too much this year not to go. 

We stopped by the park early to avoid the crowds, where we built a small altar. It could have been the daylight hours, or because some artists chose not to exhibit this year, but the altars seemed smaller and less impressive than in the past. Maybe all of the best people were over at the Mission Cultural Center. Their opening proved to be the most memorable part of the evening. That's not doing it justice. It was brilliant. 

There were over 50 artists who created altars for Weeping. One of the most intense was a monument to the hundreds of women who've gone missing in Ciudad Juarez. Their faces lined the wall in the small room where the altar was placed, and a documentary played on a screen at the back of the room. Other altars dealt with issues of class, loss and culture, and some were simply well-planned traditional altars in the style of the holiday.

The most memorable, were the ones dealing with the ongoing class struggles of the Mission. An entire row of altars was dedicated to businesses and cultural icons of the neighborhood that have closed, or been forced to move, in recent years. These remembered places like Discolandia, Modern Times Bookstore and Encantada Gallery. City College of San Francisco was honored with an altar due to its ongoing accreditation struggles, and an altar created by Linnette Morales and Claudia Arenas used prominent symbols of the new economy to mourn the "tech takeover" of the neighborhood. It featured a skeleton sporting the fuzzy, pink mustache of a Lyft car, a cutout of a Google bus running over a street vendor, and a traditional alter candle that had a slightly pixelized image of Mark Zuckerberg's face.

After seeing the exhibit, Russell Howze and I walked down 24th St. to get back to my car. The streets were crowded, and the event was clearly much larger than it used to be. Russell observed that instead of a crazy march with torches through Balmy Alley, it was now a horde of bridge and tunnel folks lined up to watch. 

Is the event's popularity really such a bad thing? 

Not necessarily. Just because something is popular doesn't mean it isn't good – things often become popular because they're good. But there is something kind of unseemly about watching so many white, upwardly-mobile people celebrate a Mexican holiday, at the same time that their presence is pricing out the artists and Latino population responsible for the festivities.

The crowded streets of 24th proved too much for us, and we cut through an empty Balmey Alley to get back across Potrero. When we reached my car, I opened the trunk and pulled out a fuzzy pink mustache, which I attached to the front of my car with zip ties and carabiners. It was almost time to go to work.

I went to the park to remember some of the people and things I lost this year. A sampling of them are memorialized below, in no particular order.


CELLspace was a collectively run community arts center on Bryant St. I was a member from the fall of 2000 until the spring of 2007. During that time I lived in a small box in the ceiling, sat through hundreds of hours of ritual theater, called 911 more than once, and had some of the best times of my life. I also worked like a dog. The story of the rise and fall of Cell is told in a previous post on this blog, "An Obituary for CELLspace." To remember Cell, I brought an old T-shirt, and Russell Howze brought some "Long Live Cellspace" flyers.

Juan Cardenas

Juan was one of the nicest people who ever worked at the Circus Center. His hugs, smiles and handshakes were genuine, and he was always there with an encouraging word for a struggling performer. I typically ran into him on those late nights at the circus school when I would stick around to practice my act for upcoming gigs. He never once complained about having to clean around me. His death at the hands of a hit-and-run driver was tragic, and criminal.  I didn't have anything to leave for Juan, but Dian drew a lovely card for us to place on our altar in his memory.

Don Cooksey

When I was a kid, I thought of Don Cooksey as an eternal bachelor – he was always at our house instead of his own. Don loved pizza, had an intense stare, and played a mean hand of spades. In later years, after I grew up and moved away, Cooksey started a family of his own, but he'll always be a part of ours too. I didn't have much to remember Don either, but I wrote his name down on a piece of paper, and taped a Marlboro cigarette to it.

Victor Ayala

Victor was a good friend, a skilled electrician, and someone I used to call "the most feared man at CELLspace." He was famous for coming down from his room at 3 a.m. and screaming at event producers about the mess they made. Victor was a bit of a nut, be he had a sweet side too – I used to always talk him into taking me on late-night Burger King runs after a long night house managing at Cell. To remember Vic, Russell brought some flyers with his photo, and I brought a pack of Marlboros. Hopefully, he will share them with Cooksey.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An Obituary for CELLspace

CELLspace, community arts center, closed its doors at the end of 2012.

During the late '90s and early aughts, there was no better place to see the Mission District’s artistic, multicultural vibe than CELLspace.  San Francisco prankster Chicken John was known to decorate the 10,000 square foot warehouse as a Las Vegas casino; the Flaming Lotus Girls created their first large scale fire installations in the CELLspace metal shop, and during Carnaval, the space would burst at the seams from the ritual drumming, colorful rattling costumes and sheer number of teenagers involved in groups like Loco Bloco and Danza Azteca.

Michael Sturtz was so impressed by CELLspace that he named his industrial arts school, The Crucible, after their art gallery.  

“The name was inspired by the Crucible Steel Gallery, which was the CELLspace gallery at the time,” he said.  

Burning Man’s Arts Advocate and Community Events Producer Steven Raspa held his first interactive art exhibit in that gallery.  "Cell has played a vital and significant role in the underground creative community in the Bay Area for many years,” he said, adding that he could recall, “numerous mad-capped happenings that defied explanation.”

Most people who went there, went to those mad-capped happenings: all-night dance parties that began with a yoga lesson and ended with the Extra Action Marching Band, literary events with David Byrne, beats from Bassnectar when he was DJ Lorin, breakdancing competitions, mechanical bull riding, hip hop theater, live chainsaw massacres, puppet circus suppers, blindfolded transcendental meditation workshops, and youth hip hop nights where gang members from the Nortenos, Surenos, Westmob and Big Block all danced together.

And it all began with a window in the bathroom.

Jonathan Youtt, Justin Bondi and Tryntje Rapalje were living in a dusty, illegal unit attached to a warehouse screen printing business, in what was then called the North East Mission Industrial Zone.  It was a lively apartment, with live music, puppet shows and independent film nights.  In the quieter moments, they would gaze out the bathroom window and watch the T-shirts dry.  They would imagine a better world.  A world with art.  A world with community.  

It was 1996 in San Francisco.  A time when you could still find a room in the Mission for $300, and the dotcom boom hadn’t turned empty warehouses into prime real estate.  When the screen printing business moved out, the dreamers moved in.  They signed the papers on the Spring Equinox.  

The early years at Cell were marked by chaos and construction.  Dave X was known to test his flamethrowers behind the building on Florida St., Jojo La Plume created an open craft loft in the homemade mezzanine, and the Sisterz of the Underground offered free breakdancing lessons for aspiring b-girls on the main space floor.  On some days, you might have seen all three happening at the same time.

This writer first walked through the doors in the fall of 2000, looking for a place to practice juggling.  Tamara Li, one of only three employees — in a space open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. — said, “for something like that, you could just pick a couple of chores off the chore board.”

Jonathan Youtt pointed out that CELLspace was never just about Burners.  When some local youth were discovered painting graffiti on the outside of the building, they were encouraged.  Those walls later hosted many great street artists, like Swoon, Spie, and Joel Bergner.  Joel Bergner painted his first outdoor mural, “De Frontera a Frontera,” on 2050 Bryant, for which he won Best Public Mural from Precita Eyes in 2004. 

“We were the only community space for a while that would even touch youth [programming], and youth hip hop shows,” Youtt said.  “We provided a place for the Third Eye Movement, United Playaz, and other groups to organize against Prop 21,” a 2000 ballot initiative that made it easier to try juveniles as adults.    

But it wasn’t all playa dust and b-boys.

The caretaker system — where members traded “20 hours” of work in exchange for cheap rent upstairs — led to burnout, and monetary theft.  The space was run by collective consensus, which involved painfully long meetings.  One irate member could freeze decision making, and some meetings ended in screaming matches and tears.  And there were constant problems with the city.  The building at 2050 Bryant St. was never meant to be a public space; bringing it up to code proved to be a nightmare.  CELLspace was temporarily closed by the police or fire departments so many times that some members lost count.  

During these shutdowns, CELLspace had to look outside of its doors to bring in money, and that led to an expansion.  Jonathan Youtt convinced the owner of an empty warehouse and parking lot out back to let Cell have fundraisers there.  A group of members envisioned a flea market for the Mission, run with the CELLspace ethos in mind. This writer insisted it would never work.

The Mission Village Market grew to be Cell’s biggest moneymaker, and rivaled the Alemany Flea Market as a destination for vendors.  Mission Urban Arts — a Cell-founded after school program — used the extra building to teach breakdancing, DJing and other skills to Mission youth, and the bike-education group The Bike Kitchen taught their first free workshops at the Mission Village Market. 

With two buildings, in-house youth programming, official 501c3 non-profit status, and an eventual Place of Entertainment permit in 2005, the once kooky warehouse space had grown up.  But as CELLspace became more established, the culture changed.  The space relied less on volunteers, artists and live-in caretakers, and more on paid staff.  Collective consensus gave way to weekly staff meetings, and monthly board meetings, as nonprofit status required by law.  

During this transition, most of the original members left.

“In the '90s it was, live there for nothing, work your ass off,” said Russell Howze, a longtime CELLspace member.  But by the time Howze quit volunteering in 2005 he said, “the culture of making art for participation’s sake was pretty much gone.”

Despite changing the guard, the space appeared to be thriving.  

Cell’s 10th birthday party in 2006 was attended by a who’s who of Mission nonprofit workers, and politicians like Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly.  But later that year, CELLspace lost its second building to make way for a housing development, and was forced to close the Mission Village Market.  Cell had to move all of it’s programs into one building, and the needs of the competing programs clashed.  Tension grew between the events department and the staff who ran the youth program, leading to subtle accusations of racism on both sides.    

Grants helped to cover the loss of income from the market, but a lot of the money was wasted.  After one of the larger grants was received, the staff were given cell phones (no pun intended) for conducting CELLspace business.  Within one year, they would have no business to conduct.

“Essentially, large amounts of money were mismanaged, one grant in particular from DCYF (Department of Children Youth and Families). Money was spent on things it shouldn’t have been, there were gang dynamics in place — it became a high risk situation in some of the decisions that were made, programmatically and financially,” said one former employee who preferred to remain anonymous.  

In early 2007, employees who argued about the direction the space was going were let go, beginning with this writer.  Later that year, paychecks for employees of Def-Ed, the Adult Art Education Program and Mission Urban Arts started bouncing.  After months of assurances, waiting and mystery from the admin, everyone was laid off.  Classes were cancelled, events business fell off, and a locked door at 2050 Bryant St. became the norm.  

Helen McGrath, the former Programs Director, was heartbroken to tell the 200 kids in Mission Urban Arts that the program would end, and didn’t want to let CELLspace close.  McGrath, Lizbett Calleros, and former Board President Dorian Johnson reached out to older members and formed a small coalition of volunteers to save CELLspace.  

“Dave X and Dorian Johnson really gave it a go,” said Howze, who also came back to volunteer after the crash.  But in 2009, the fire department told CELLspace that even though they had a Place of Entertainment permit, they would now need a separate Place of Assembly permit.  That meant construction, and Cell didn’t have the money, or the volunteer base to get it done.

The space limped along for years, but by the end of 2012, the landlord was fed up with Cell’s inability to pay the rent on time.  2050 Bryant St. was given to new management and officially became Inner Mission on January 1st 2013.  Inner Mission is the first ever Bcorp entertainment business.  A Bcorp is a new type of corporation that places a higher emphasis on sustainability, ethical sourcing and equitable treatment of employees, but still operates on a profit model.  

Russell Howze and Jonathan Youtt saw the transfer of CELLspace from a non-profit community center to a for profit entertainment business, as another symbol of the Mission district’s gentrification, and the decline of the arts culture in San Francisco.

“In the long run, the spirit had moved to Oakland,” Youtt said.

Dave X was less forgiving.  He felt that the space could, and would have survived, if more people had pulled together to finish the final construction project for the POA — an enclosed exit in the back.

“In the end it went down not because it was getting shut down by the cops or whatever, but it closed because of our own incompetence,” he said.  

CELLspace is survived by a warehouse arts culture that moved to Oakland, and a crew of former volunteers and employees, who, despite being spit on, shot at, bankrupted and worked until they couldn’t see straight, will miss it dearly.

CELLspace will be remembered with a private memorial service on March 21st — which would have been Cell's 17th birthday — at Inner Mission, 2050 Bryant St.  7 p.m. until whenever.

Post your corrections, remembrances, rants, raves, diatribes and essays in the comments.

Thanks for reading,
—Devin Holt

Monday, January 21, 2013

6 Black Power songs (and one bonus video) for MLK Day

In his lectures at City College and SF State, music historian and author Ricky Vincent likes to point out that, "you can learn about the ideas and arguments of black identity by listening to the music."   So today -- in honor of the MLK Holiday -- we're taking a little trip into civil rights music history.

First up: Say it Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud -- James Brown
In 1968, civil rights activists were running out of national leaders.  Huey P. Newton was in prison (the case was later dismissed), Malcom X had been assassinated, and on April 4th, Dr. King was shot while standing on his motel balcony.  In this environment, black musicians and artists became de-facto spokesmen for civil rights.  James Brown stepped up to the plate with, Say it Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud!  

For more on this, check out the excellent documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston.  But for now, let's just watch James do what he did best:

2. The Revolution Will Not be Televised -- Gil Scott Heron
Perhaps one of the most borrowed phrases in hip hop history, the poem has been sampled, remixed and referenced by artists like KRS One, Public Enemy, Common and even Snoop Dogg.

Gil Scott Heron's message of non-commercialism and commitment to the cause is still relevant today, perhaps even more so.  "The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox, in 4 parts without commercial interruptions..."

3. The Message -- Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
James Brown's legacy didn't end in the 60s.  He was also a direct inspiration for the artists who created hip hop.  Pioneers like Kool Herc rapped over James Brown's funky beats, and the original b-boys danced to the "breakdown" section of James Brown records.  But until The Message dropped in 1982, hip hop was known more for rocking parties than political consciousness.  

Ironically, Flash himself never wanted to do the song.  He thought the beat was too slow, the gritty street tales were too depressing, and that people wouldn't dance to it.  According to Dan Charnas in The Big Payback, the The Message was conceived by Sylvia Robinson at Sugar Hill Records, who did an end run around Flash to Melle Mel when he turned her down.

4. You Must Learn -- KRS One and Boogie Down Productions
While he never received the mainstream recognition that Public Enemy did, KRS One was an important figure in the early days of conscious hip hop.  The Temple of Hip Hop founder is considered by many -- including Grandmaster Caz -- to be the greatest live emcee of all time.  Known as "The Teacher," among hip hop aficionados, his raps focus on storytelling and education, but still rock the house.

5. Fight the Power -- Public Enemy
No way could this list be complete without a shout to PE!  While they got in a little hot water over some of Proff Griff's comments about Jews (he later said the tape was doctored), the group defined the political hip hop sound throughout the 80s and 90s.  Chuck D played the professor, Flava Flav mocked the minstrels of old, and Griff brought that militant feel to their stage shows.  

These days Chuck D is known more for his books -- and Flava more for his tv show -- but here they are at the height of their fame.  

6. The Coup -- Dig it
Ok, I admit it, I added this one partly to get some Bay Area up in here.  But the city that brought you the Black Panthers is well served by Boots Riley and company.  Known for funky hooks, marxist lyrics and killer DJ Pam the Funktress, The Coup proves that not all hip hop on the west side focuses on guns, drugs and misogyny.  Here they are with a track from their first album, Kill the Landlord.  Tell 'em Boots!

Bonus video:  I Have a Dream
And, of course, the one ring to rule them all.  If you've never seen the whole thing, it's worth all 17 minutes.  Rest in Power Dr. King.

Did I miss something?  Let me know in the comments section.