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Max Glücksmann’s is not a houshold name, to be sure. But were it not for him, the Argentine recording and film industries would not have developed as quickly as they did or –- especially in the recording of tango– with such formidable results.
An Austrian and part of the important Jewish immigrations to Argentina in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Glücksmann arrrived with his family in Buenos Aires in 1890, when he was fifteen years old. Max was a very industrious young man, and he went to work soon after his arrival in Argentina for Lepage y Compañia, a photography studio. He was one of three employees in a shop that was seven by twenty-five meters in its entirety. He often bragged later in life, shrugging his shoulders in the Buenos Aires manner of humorous acceptance of one’s fate, that his first salary was fifty pesos a month. Even in 1890, this was not a lot.
Lepage y Compañia recognized the coming importance of the moving picture, and expanded its operations in 1900 to that primitive but exciting art. In the meantime, the possibility for recording voice and music had also become a reality. In a 1931 interview, Max explained what had been happening in Buenos Aires: “Forty years ago, the first Lioret phonographs were imported from France. They used celluloid cylinders. Then came cylinders made of wax. And finally in 1900 disks appeared, even though they were pretty bad.” Max understood that, although these first recordings were mostly by opera singers like Enrico Caruso, the real market lay in popular music artists of the period. In a day in which radio was in its own infancy, these recordings were usually the only way that large numbers of people could hear different kinds of music.
“When the gramophone really came into its own in Argentina,” Max said, “it was thanks to the popularity that, day by day, was enjoyed by criolla music (music from Argentina itself). Also from the time of the payadores (itinerant singers) like Negro Gazcón, Gabino Ezeiza, Villoldo and others, who were singing just as the disk was perfecting itself.”
Max, recognizing that cinema and recording were the coming industries, applied himself to his work so intently that, in 1908, when Lepage y Compañia now had one hundred fifty employees, he bought the company.
Soon thereafter, he built the first recording studio in Argentina, taking advantage of new technology that allowed recordings to be made by the thousands. He also worked to establish the legal rights of music authorship for performers, which resulted in artists’ royalties, something that had not previously existed in Argentina.
Eventually Max Glücksmann was personally to build the Argentine recording and film industries into a business powerhouse. He also had extraordinary taste when it came to popular music, and he knew he was onto something when he first heard the singing voice of Carlos Gardel.
A former street singer, Gardel had made an early reputation as half of the Razzani-Gardel duo that was popular on the Buenos Aires music scene before and during World War I. Eventually the two split up, and Gardel continued on as a single, signed to an early recording contract by Max Glücksmann. Gardel was still a criollo singer whose music had a country flavor heavily influenced by the music of the Argentine pampas and the gauchos.
But he was an urban kid.
As in many great cities, there were populations in Buenos Aires that had been forced to emigrate from other countries by war or economic difficulties. There was chaotic urban noise and emotional dissociation, the alienation that comes from the break-up of families and the loss of community, and the the anger and rage that result. Gardel was no stranger to this, and his first solo recording, in 1917, was a tango entitled “Mi noche triste ,” about a man sitting alone in his Buenos Aires room, crushed because his lover has just left him.
It was the first such recording ever made. Tango had existed for years before this, but more as a folkloric music and country dance. This that Gardel was singing was urban, new, and instantly popular.
Gardel went on to become the biggest-selling music star in the Spanish-speaking world, an international phenomenon of enormous proportions. On October 12, 1924, Gardel made one of the first live radio broadcasts to be produced from the studio of “Lo Grand Splendid”, Glücksmann’s headquarters housed on the upper floor of his new “splendid” concert theater. (Now transformed into the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever seen, the Ateneo Grand Splendid is located at Avenida Santa Fe 1860 in Buenos Aires.)
Gardel himself became a movie star so well thought of by Hollywood that by 1934 he was being prepared by Paramount Studios to become the next Maurice Chevalier. On March 5, 1934, Glücksmann arranged for a short wave radio hook-up, broadcast by Radio Splendid in Argentina –- from a studio in the Grand Splendid — and NBC in the United States. The artists were Carlos Gardel and his long-time guitarists Guillermo Desiderio Barbieri and Angel Domingo Riverol. This occasion was memorable for a unique reason, since in fact Gardel was singing in New York while the guitarists were playing in Buenos Aires. It was one of the first such international broadcasts ever made.
Glücksmann had essentially gained control of the Argentine record industry. He did it while nonetheless becoming a hero to musicians through his practice of paying them royalties. He was the first in Argentina to suggest this, and in so doing made Carlos Gardel a world-class star and a multi-millionaire. Other Argentine musicians may not have climbed to Gardel’s heights of fame, but they all benefited from Glücksmann’s careful protection of their artistic rights..
Max Glücksmann died on October 20, 1946.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, with Pablo Neruda as the main character, will be published early next year. A translation to Spanish by the noted Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer will appear later in 2019.
On August 9, 2018, a jury in San Francisco awarded 289 million dollars to Mr. DeWayne Johnson, a school grounds keeper, as a result of a suit he and his family filed against Monsanto Corporation. Monsanto makes a product called Roundup, which contains a chemical called glyphosate. Johnson regularly used Roundupte to spray fields when he was at work, and contracted a case of incurable non-Hodgkin lymphoma while doing so. He suspected that Roundup was the culprit, and sued Monsanto.
In her statement to the court after the verdict, Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos said that Monsanto “acted with malice, oppression or fraud, and should be punished for its conduct.”
As it happens, I played a minor and very unimportant role in this trial, but one that, given the verdict, was justified.
A month and a half ago, I was in the pool of San Francisco citizens called to the court for the jury selection process for this trail. Jury selection required three full days, no doubt because of the importance to both parties of the trial itself. I witnessed the first two days of selection and, as always, was fascinated by the process. I feel that the justice system as designed by the Founding Fathers and properly employed by courts and juries is part of the life’s blood of the U.S. democracy. It doesn’t always work perfectly (the fate of black people during slavery being one signal example of its failure, the misuse of the jury system in Jim Crow states after the end of the Civil War being another.) But the idea and its strict enforcement in the U.S. is a consummation be wished, and one that is usually achieved.
So I never complain when asked to participate in the system as a potential juror.
In this case, the two teams of attorneys asked a half dozen important questions each, of each of the prospective jurors. For example, “Do you think, sir, that you can fairly judge the facts of this particular case without bringing prejudicial knowledge of or opinions about Monsanto Corporation’s business in the invention and making of chemicals?” Or, “Do you think, Ma’am, that there are too many frivolous suits brought against corporations in product liability cases?”
The questions from the attorneys were justified in view of the need for fair decision-making on the part of jurors. I was surprised, though, by how many of the jurors, especially those who were eventually selected, answered these questions with bland agreement with the premises of the questions themselves. Just as often, there was a shrug of the shoulders and a kind of “Well, I suppose so” easy acquiescence to what was being asked. I thought that, because this trial was clearly going to be a major one, with very large stakes for both parties, there would be more questioning or active involvement on the part of the prospective jurors.
That was not to be, which for me made the process, especially through the second day, surprising and, finally, boring. “Don’t these people care?” I thought to myself. I myself had a few thoughts, the responses to which by both parties would truly clarify whether I would feel qualified to be on this jury.
I was brought to the chair for questioning on the morning of the third day. The official jury had been seated, and those of us still to be questioned would be alternative jurors, if selected. An attorney for the plaintiff asked me two questions in rapid succession, which had to do with my occasional profession as a journalist. “Do you agree that it’s the journalist’s obligation to be fair in seeking the truth? Is this your sense of the profession and what it requires?” I answered that I felt it was. This attorney had no more questions for me.
The attorney for Monsanto than asked me the question about whether I could listen to the evidence being presented by both parties in a fair and impartial way. I replied that I did not think I could, and she asked why that was so.
I thought about it, and then offered the following: “I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam war. I did not participate in that war, but I did witness it. I knew at the time about the deadly Agent Orange chemicals that were intended to defoliate Vietnamese jungles, in order to make it easier for American allied troops to do battle against the enemy. Of course, Monsanto was the manufacturer of Agent Orange.” I then mentioned Monsanto’s denials after the war of the dangers of Agent Orange chemicals to the lives of allied soldiers and Vietnamese non-combatants, denials that were proven false in courts of law.
That was the entirety of my response. I was not on a soapbox. My answer did not come with the strident tone of voice that often accompanies political motivation. It was simply a statement of proven truth.
My response caused a sensation in the courtroom, a combination of gasps and laughter.
The Monsanto attorney, surprised, flustered, and perhaps embarrassed, asked no more questions of me. When the judge asked the attorneys for any of the still potential jurors to be peremptorily excused, I was the first to go…quickly… at the request of the Monsanto team.
I had assumed that day that any juror would know of this history of Monsanto and Vietnam. But it has been more than forty years since the end of that war in 1975, and I think that at least half of the jurors selected for the trial were born after the end of the conflict. So perhaps I was explaining something of which most of them were unaware. No wonder that this morsel of truth was so difficult to accept by the Monsanto team. Knowledge of the truth of Agent Orange’s effects on human health would be, they assumed, prejudicial to their case.
My fate as a prospective juror notwithstanding, the jury that was selected clearly made the right choice in this matter. The system worked, and justice was done.
Here is an account of the trial.
On that day in 1994 I didn’t know how to walk.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Nora Olivera stepped toward one of the chairs at the edge of the practice room, before a large mirror. She sat down and crossed her legs. I felt vulnerable before her, a laughable figure wet with sweat.
I could not see how I would ever achieve the sensuality in this tango dance that I had seen others achieve. That was completely out of the question, so remote a possibility that it seemed to have disappeared even before it had appeared, especially in view of the fact that I did not know how to walk.
(Nora Olivera and Edward Neale)
“Poeta,” Nora said. She looked at me with a smile of great regard, as though I might actually have a bit of talent. “You walk like the English.”
I turned away, gesturing into the air.
“Wait!” she said. “Don’t get me wrong. I have respect for the English.” She placed an index finger below her right eye and looked up at me with comic sincerity. This conversation was taking place 12 years or so after the Malvinas (or Falklands) War between Argentina and Great Britain. “They nice people.”
She stood and stepped out to the middle of the practice room. She positioned herself with her feet apart, her shoulders slightly hunched, her head hanging a bit forward. Her black hair surrounded her head and hung down from it like ringlets of obsidian.
“And this is how they walk,” she said.
Nora took several steps, her feet a few inches apart from each other as she moved. There was little fluidity in her walk. She plodded like the Tin Woodsman stiff with rust.
“You see? The Industrial Revolution, yes?”
“Nora . . .” I whispered, amused by her characterization of my gait.
“But now, when you walk like this…”
She suddenly grew liquid, and she sauntered forward, her knees and ankles lightly brushing each other. There was something about her feet, the way that, as one passed the other in mid step, they appeared like two doves caressing each other in flight. Her shoulders moved as sensuously, her arms held up slightly, but sinuously, so that her erect head, that looked aside just now with a smile on the lips… so that she appeared to be heading for an unusually pleasureful union of some kind — just where, no one knew – some sensual bower, some assignation.
“You see?” Nora asked, coming to a halt.
“Yes. But what do I see?” I asked.
Nora’s eyes opened wide. “¡Che, Buenos Aires!” she said, gesturing at the ceiling. She turned back toward the mirror, adjusted her hair, and then smiled at herself. “And Buenos Aires, poeta, is tango.”
Viewed from outside, tango does not necessarily seem so all-involving. It is a slow, complicated walk by two people in each others’ arms. We are simply dancing, and often — except for those true masters like Nora and her husband Edward Neale — without distinction, to incredibly sad music. But when you are engaged with the person dancing with you, when you can feel her in your arms and can feel the feline contracting and stretching of her muscles, the intensity of her in your embrace, so private an embrace…
So that day in 1994, Nora began teaching me how to walk.
“You have a hallway?”
I was living in a long Victorian apartment in San Francisco, on the second floor. There was a hallway that ran the entire length of the apartment, the living room at one end, the kitchen at the other. Two bedrooms, a bathroom and a laundry room were connected to the hallway at various intervals. A Turkish rug runner ran the length of it. It could be rolled up, so that the hardwood beneath could be revealed.
I described the hallway for Nora.
“Good.” She surveyed me. “You have a belt?”
“Good. You take that belt from your pants and put it around your knees.”
“No! In the hallway!” Nora grinned. “You take the belt and you tighten it around your knees, so that they are always together.” She began walking. “Then, put on the music. Something slow. Slow Pugliese. Slow Di Sarli.”
Her steps were exaggerated but nonetheless very stylish. Her knees remained tightly together, and she proceeded in a straight line across the floor.
“This way, you’ll learn how to walk,” she said. “You can learn it in many other ways. And the ability you have…I’ll teach you. But this way you learn it quick.”
I was peeved. Maybe defeated.
“You want to get around in Buenos Aires, poeta,” she said, “this is the way you do it.”
So, that evening I put the belt around my knees. I hopped over to the stereo and put on the tango “Gallo Ciego”. Hopping back to the beginning of the hallway, I started walking and fell down.
The music swirled. I gathered myself up to my hands and knees. I helped myself to my feet by grabbing the knob of the door that led to the kitchen. The bandoneon in the recording sounded like a lascivious church organ. I began walking again, and fell again.
The music continued. I felt Nora’s voice. I felt her kindness. Che, I felt Buenos Aires! If I could find that walk, I could maybe find tango.
I took the doorknob again, pulled myself to my feet, and began walking. Slowly at first. Very clumsily. I stumbled once or twice more. But my knees were together. Then, surprisingly, almost as if naturally, my ankles brushed each other as I ascended the length of the hallway, two very clumsy doves.
I have studied twice a week with Nora since that day in 1994, and I can assure you that I now know how to walk.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, will be published in early 2019.
It’s a given that Argentine tango has a significant influence on contemporary music around the world. Most of the musicians who are responsible for that are themselves exclusively Argentine. There have been few notable tangueros who were not born in that country.
Among those groups in which non-Argentines do play a significant role is Trio Garufa, based in San Francisco. While their co-founder and fine guitarist Guillermo García hales from the Argentine city of Bahia Blanca, their bassist Sascha Jacobson is an American who is renowned for his work in several genres of music, from jazz to contemporary classical to, of course, tango. The third member of the group is bandoneonista Adrian Jost who, though born in Switzerland, received his master’s degree in electrical engineering and music technology from Northwestern University, and is the other co-founder of Trio Garufa.
Adrian is superb on his instrument. He has a complete understanding of tango’s unique underlying rhythms, and plays his bandoneon with exceptional drive and humor as well as with a real respect for tango’s underlying heart, which is famously large. He brings authentic emotional authority to the music that is rare among players who do not come originally from Argentina.
At the moment, Adrian is playing with one Argentine who exemplifies that authority, the pianist Pablo Estigarríbia. One of the most noted younger Argentine players, arrangers, and composers of tango, Pablo has made several recordings (one of which, Tangos para piano, was the recipient a few years ago of the Premio Gardel, the most prestigious award offered by the Argentine recording industry. His latest collection, with legendary singer María Graña, has been nominated for a Gardel this year.)
Adrian makes clear why he so enjoys playing with Pablo. “It’s a privilege for me. He’s such an accomplished and creative tango pianist…definitely a virtuoso. And his recordings are not just recordings. Anyone can make a recording, but his albums and projects are revered by his contemporaries.”
Pablo and Adrian are unusual as tango musicians, in that both are devotees of the dance as well as the music. Each was initiated into the subtleties of tango through their dancing of it. “Most of the professional tango musicians I know don’t dance,” Pablo says. “But of course one of the most direct ways of learning the intricacies of rhythm in tango is to get out on the floor.” This was so important a revelation to Adrian that, when he and Guillermo García of Trio Garufa first met the bassist Sascha Jacobson, they realized that, although a first-rate musician, Sascha didn’t yet have the dynamics of tango, the surge of it, in his blood. So they told him to go out and learn the dance. If you hear Sascha play tango now, you realize how good that advice was.
Adrian and Pablo were both in Buenos Aires recently, and spent an evening over pizza with the virtuoso bandoneonista Victor Lavallen. Victor was a principal arranger for many years for Osvaldo Pugliese, and is something of a tango immortal himself in Buenos Aires. (Pablo and Victor, joined by bassist Horacio Cabarcos, have collaborated on the recording De Menor a Mayor.) Riding in a taxi afterwards, Adrian and Pablo decided to play together, and sealed the deal with a handshake.
Adrian is quite specific in his reason for wanting to play with Pablo. “It’s the attention to detail in his music,” he says. “Pablo introduces new elements to his tango, but it remains connected to and deeply rooted in the tradition of tango. Nevertheless his tango is very much his own.”
Pablo is indeed a stickler for precision in the music, and is devoted to practice and rehearsal. “And that’s one thing I like especially about Adrian. He’s Swiss. So he practices. He’s always on time to a rehearsal, which you can’t say is the case with most Argentine musicians. Above all, he knows tango and what makes it work. He loves the music that I love, and I love the music that he does.” The list of composers and musicians the two men admire includes classic tangueros from the Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s (Troilo, Pugliese, et. al.) as well as players on the contemporary scene in Buenos Aires, and even some concert-stage composers and players, most notably, of course, Astor Piazzolla.
There is often a gulf in taste between those musicians that specialize in traditional tango, and play principally for the dance in milongas, and those concert-stage musicians who may be more classically trained, but who still care for the tango form. “Concert musicians don’t often do milongas, because of their training,” Pablo says. “And milonga players often feel that all that classicism is way too restrictive.” He thinks that this need not be the case. “You’ll find it unusual that Adrian and I do both concerts and milongas. Because we feel that, in the end, tango is a dance. It can have all the subtleties that a classical training can bring to it, but it is always danceable.”
At first, their coming together as a duo featured an unusual practice schedule. “It was a real debut experience for me,” Adrian says. A large smile appears. “At first, I thought it was crazy. We had trouble rehearsing because I was in San Francisco, and Pablo was in Buenos Aires. So he would harmonize a tango, and then send audio to me of the piano by itself, as well as the written score. I’d figure out the bandoneon part, and send back audio and ideas for Pablo to critique.”
Pablo laughs with this description. “Yes, I believe it was the first series of rehearsals in the history of music to be conducted on ‘WhatsApp.’”
Pablo and Adrian are concertizing this month on the west coast of the United States. They are in the planning stages for their first recording together.
Terence Clarke’s essay “Fathers, Sons, and Seizures” was published last month. A new novel, The Splendid City, is based on a life-threatening event in the life of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It comes out early next year.
This following is the opening gambit of an essay I’ve written about my father, my son, and me. They both have suffered from a very difficult affliction, which I have witnessed. The essay is titled “Fathers, Sons & Seizures.”
I had told A. the story of my son Brennan, how it is that his unrelenting epilepsy and severe learning disabilities have always reminded me of my father Hank’s infirmities, who had himself died in the middle of an epileptic seizure in January 1971. Hank’s illness had sickened his mind as well in the last ten years of his life. His speech had been reduced to the simplest of expressions. He said the same things over and over, with occasional long pauses between utterances, and so was very similar to how Brennan is now.
Their epilepsies are not related genetically. My father’s seizures were caused by a slow-growing brain tumor, while my son’s have no demonstrable cause of any kind. Nonetheless, the symptoms of their epilepsies are, to me, almost alarmingly similar, as are the two men themselves. They look so much alike that my son appears to me as a kind of copy of my father, the way my father appeared as a young man in his twenties in old photos. And they are most alike in how they are afflicted. The leaden talk. The long monologues. The repetition. I am frustrated by my son in the same ways I was frustrated by my father. Angered by them similarly. Crazed by them similarly. And I recognize how important I am to my son, and how my father so insistently sought my approval by raining down so much approval on me. The fact that neither man really knows much about me, or could know much, occasionally deadens my feelings for myself and for what I feel I must do to understand the two of them properly.
When I speak with Brennan now, twenty-six years after the death of my father, I realize that he was born less than a year after my father died, and that when he is attempting to tell me a personal anecdote of some kind—his personal story—it is then that he sounds most like my father.
I tell A. all this and, silent in the gloom of the car, she looks out into the surrounding darkness.
“Well, it’s clear to me,” she says abruptly. “Your son is your father, that’s all, come back to tell you what you missed.”
“What did I miss?”
“The truth about yourself.”
Terence Clarke’s latest book is a story collection titled New York. Kirkus Reviews says of it, ““Tales like these feel like new takes on classic stories of New York by Salinger or Capote—fine company, all in all.”
The tweet is an inadequate vehicle for the forming of political strategies, foreign involvements, and important documents of state. Some may say that I’m being a fuddy-duddy about this, but for those who find The Gettysburg Address better than the average tweet coming from the White House these days, I hope my caution is deemed wise. I think the world has been enriched by the statements of so many presidents and others, like Christ, Abraham Lincoln, The Buddha, Edith Wharton, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Jane Austen and the many others who preceded the founding of Twitter.
I have difficulty imagining what a tweet from Prime Minister Churchill during the Battle of Britain might have been like, although I suspect that, given his intelligence and amazing ability for language, his would have been better than the ones we’re getting now from, well, Our Current Leader. Even Churchill would have trouble fitting the story he tells in his six-volume The Second World War into two hundred eighty characters. But to be fair, no tweet from Our Current Leader could be expanded into a six-volume history of a world-involving military conflict that resulted in a re-ordering of the planet at the expense of countless millions of people killed. I suspect the president would grow weary of the effort after, maybe…two hundred three characters? Two hundred seven?
But speaking of The Gettysburg Address, maybe he would do better with a speech like that. It contains, after all, just two hundred seventy-two words, which would fit quite nicely into the tweet format, and offer the president a vehicle he could…that he could…. But that’s two hundred eighty characters, isn’t it? So, even with his ability to explain politics and diplomacy with a sneering claim of personal success or an off-color remark about the size of his hands or the size of his button (all created for the benefit and understanding of the white uneducated) he would still have trouble being as eloquent as Abraham Lincoln.
He could save space though by shortening that phrase “Four score and seven years ago” to “Eighty-seven years ago.” He probably doesn’t know what a “score” is (in this context, anyway.) Maybe he doesn’t even have the experience to know what that other kind of score is—the one he uses when speaking of women. Besides which, “eighty-seven years ago” doesn’t have quite the lilt, does it?
This piece first appeared in HuffPost.
San Francisco has long avoided the explosion of dull, ho-hum facelessness that has characterized the architecture of our major cities during the last hundred years or so.
Very tall. No decoration. Blocked views.
Until recently, the single word one heard more than any others from San Francisco visitors was ”charm.” The charm of the city simply could not be denied, and few who have seen it have attempted to do so.
For me, the city is a kind of secret haven in which marvelous food, amazing views, fine weather, great music, sophisticated writing and, now and then, if you really look for it, good art can be found with little effort. I’ve been here off and on my entire life, and look out at the rest of the United States as though I am a protected species.
But I am more of an adventurer than that, and I look to see what’s happening in other cities and countries. So I leave San Francisco every few years, and go live somewhere else. Thus far, that has included a few years each in Sarawak (on the island of Borneo) and Paris, a most unlikely combination of venues. Also, long sojourns in Argentina, Mexico, Great Britain, Nicaragua, Ireland, Guatemala, California’s Humboldt County, Texas, Berkeley, and that other distinguished California capital, Oakland.
Most particularly, though, I enjoy New York City, the place in which the fictions in my latest book are situated. I even gave the book the very original title of New York, the only words I could think of that would do justice to the intensity of life there. Say the two words, and you are immediately taken up by excitement, or at least I am.
Just now I’m reading Mike Wallace’s amazing Greater Gotham, the second volume of his projected series on the history of that city. I read the first volume, Gotham, (written by Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows) when I was living in Manhattan in the early 2000s, and the book became a kind of compendious guide for me, to every aspect of New York City’s history up to 1898.
In this new volume, Wallace writes about the unstoppable explosion of business activity and building after the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx into an enormous single city. You learn everything important about what happened during that revolutionary re-purposing of the lower reaches of the Hudson River from 1898 to 1919.
I love the New York City we know now. I marvel at it. I also recognize that there is a downside to what happened during those early twentieth century years, a downside that regularly muscles its way onto the stage to this day. Wallace writes, “In 1856, Harper’sMonthly had declared that New York was notoriously the ‘least loved of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.’ The velocity of transformation in the early twentieth century left the nineteenth century’s turnover rate looking turtlish. Henry James decried the city’s ‘restless renewals’ that dehistoricized its landscape and left its citizenry marooned in a provisional present. By 1913 critic James Huneker could argue: ‘In our town memories like rats are chased away by the ever-rising flood of progress. There is no room for ghosts or landmarks in New York.’”
It’s the same in 2018.
We’re in the midst of a similar change in San Francisco. Until recently, San Francisco was a manageable entity. Yes, there were the kinds of large, characterless skyscrapers that you find in New York City: the Bank of America’s leaden California headquarters at California and Kearny Streets and the U.S. government’s hideous Federal Building at Seventh and Mission, to name just two. Even somber religious institutions got involved, most particularly with the unintentionally comic Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary of The Assumption at Geary and Gough Streets (about which I wrote extensively in my novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro.) But for the most part, charm remained the guiding design principle in this city.
Now, though, the downtown of San Francisco is being transformed with the neglect of good taste, the amazing speed, and the anti-human design that so distinguished the building of New York City between consolidation and, say, 1930. Everything is tall. The competition for the highest building has only just begun. The design principle seems to be that the top look exactly like the bottom, which itself looks like a shined-up cardboard crate that has windows in it. Money talks. Taste starves. The city grows tooth and nail towards no particular goal, other than getting that square-foot rental-rate higher than it was last year.
There are a few buildings that do wow the soul, if it wishes to be wowed by grand impersonal plainness. For example, we now have the new SalesForce building. Located at the corners of First, Mission and Fremont Streets, it looks to have been inspired by the “Gherkin” in London, a building named after the famous pickle. The San Francisco version has sixty-one stories, and is the only building that can be seen from offshore in the Pacific Ocean as you approach California’s coast. This despite the fact that a range of hills separates the coast from downtown. All off-color priapic references to this eyesore are appropriate.
And “The New Gherkin” is just a few doors from the Millennium Tower at 301 Mission Street, now called “The Leaning Tower of San Francisco.” A silver giant of no architectural interest, it was found in 2016 to be sinking. It is sixteen inches shorter than it was on completion, and is tilting toward the northwest, two inches at the base and six inches at the top. The city’s populace is waiting for it to fall, and in the meantime, numbers of people who bought the super-expensive residences inside are suing the developers. One wonders, if the shadows cast by these buildings now are so threatening to the light on the sidewalks below, imagine what they’ll be like when the Leaning Tower’s summit touches that of The New Gherkin.
There are many such buildings now almost everywhere you go in this downtown area. Walking especially through these many blocks, and most especially south of Market Street, is like crawling through the shadowy darknesses of the tallest tunnel on the west coast. San Francisco streets in this section of town are narrow, and there is little room between these structures for air, much less human frivolity, artistic wander, or heart-felt laughter. You can find very hip branding firms in San Francisco now, writing cute sales-generating copy for all these buildings. (I know about them because I have worked for a few of them.) There is much assured self-congratulation among the software engineers (seemingly everywhere in the streets) who write the code necessary for all the buildings and their attendant businesses. While walking around in the open air, they don’t have to restrict their exchanges with each other to lines of ones and zeroes. But to hear them talking with each other, you might prefer that they do so. They have, so far, no interest in the arts. They don’t seem to know that they exist.
If you want fresh air, bright light, and good views, go to Montana. But you had better get there quick, before all these people arrive there themselves. And for those of us who do admire charm…as they say in New York, “Forget about it!”
This piece appeared originally in HuffPost.