Thursday, December 15, 2011

The American Prospect

Judith’s and my choice to spend our sabbatical in San Francisco, where we have family and a free place to stay in the SoMa district, has stirred up quite the economic tornado in my psyche.

For those of you familiar with San Fran, you already know that Market, which cuts a northeast to southwest diagonal through the city, was known as “The Slot” for being the location of the first underground metal cable trough in which constantly whirred the cables pulling trolleys up from the waterfront and into the city. North of The Slot is where the rich folk lived and worked and remains home to Union Square, Nob Hill, etc. South of The Slot was where the immigrant communities, the docks, the warehouses, tenement buildings, saloons and gambling halls were to be found (as well as Jack London’s birthplace). That is until the 1960 and ‘70s, when the national phenomenon of “urban renewal” grabbed San Francisco by the throat, shook it a few times, and succeeded in ripping its working class guts out of its downtown area.

Today South of The Slot is known as SoMa or South of Market, mirroring the trendy SoHo (South of Houston) neighborhood in New York City, another converted warehouse district. But what you’ll find in SoMa, instead of the gorgeous and historic cast iron warehouses-cum-expensive lofts and shops of SoHo, are newly built condo-scrapers; the blocks long Moscone Convention Center; and a large mall-like development known as the Yerba Buena Center. And mostly you’ll find high tech conventioneers (lots of ‘em); tourists; and, well, the 1% who can afford to live here.

And for a month, me and Judith.

We’re just up Folsom Street (which for you may conjure up images of Folsom Prison; for me, a gay person from the 1970s, Folsom Street was known as the leather district or, er, the “meat district”) from a fine restaurant named Prospect, a second restaurant launched in 2003 by award-winning chef Nancy Oakes of Boulevard fame. San Francisco today is a foodie’s food town as many fruits, fresh produce, wines, etc. all hail from the surrounding region, and Oakes and her restaurants sit near the zenith of foodie heaven.

The trick with all of this foodie-ness (in which we of course happily partake) is, well, the amount of hunger and homelessness that immediately surrounds it. You can literally cross one block, at 5th Street on Market, and go from fancy-dressed shoppers bustling in and out of the Apple Store, Abercrombie and Fitch, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue to sidewalks empty of any other than men in sleeping bags, blankets, and cardboard on the street.

This is not even to mention that the leather bars and baths anchoring the west end of SoMa were closed by the City in the early 1980s thanks to the AIDS epidemic. That same epidemic considerably weakened the gay component of SoMa’s working class and artist communities, eliminating some of the strongest community resistance that originally existed to the gentrification of this neighborhood.

In light of all of this, the name Prospect captured my imagination.

“Prospect” as a noun means “a. an apparent probability of advancement, success, profit, etc. b. the outlook for the future: good business prospects.” Or how about “something in view as a source of profit,” or “a potential or likely customer, client, etc.”

And then there’s the verb form of the word, also highly appropriate both historically and currently in this neighborhood: “to search or explore (a region), as for gold; to work (a mine or claim) experimentally in order to test its value.”

In other words: to be a gold digger! An optimistic gold digger: a prospector with prospects!

And that’s pretty much who surrounds us now, South of the Slot in SoMa: a lot of people with enough money to make them believe they can and will always have more. Surrounded on all sides by folks who have nothing: not homes, or warm coats, or food to eat. Soup kitchens underfunded by federal budget cuts at the same time they are being overwhelmed by the working poor: people who work full-time but at jobs that don’t pay enough for them to feed their families.

We’re on an island of prosperity kept afloat by the surrounding sea of despair. And I have to tell you, much of the time I feel I'm drowning.

Interestingly, the Latin root of “prospect” is “prospectus” which meant to foresee, to see far off, to watch for / provide for / look out for. What if an “American Prospect” on life could shift from self to other; if we could really look ahead, see the future, and want to provide and look out for each other?

The challenge is crossing The Slot.

It doesn’t sound difficult, but it is filled with whirring machinery which seem to separate these two worlds as widely as if they were on separate continents. Instead of pulling us together, the ceaseless motion of the Slot’s cable divides us--until we trip, stumble, fall into it.

Take for instance how we best know the term “prospectus” today: as “the formal legal document required by the Securities and Exchange Commission about an investment offering for sale to the public.”

So much for the long view.

Might we define an era as “The American Prospect?” Can we cross The Slot?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why Are We 'Waiting for Superman'?

Geoffrey Canada, a fellow Bowdoin graduate, founded the Harlem Children's Zone in 1990. The Zone's goal is "to do whatever it takes to educate children and strengthen the community." In Harlem, this has meant establishing new methods to end cycles of generational poverty.

The phrase "waiting for Superman" is Canada's term for his own childhood belief that the ghetto in which he was growing up was in such crisis it could only be rescued by a superhero. He and filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (Academy Award, "An Inconvenient Truth") believe that public education in the U.S. is an a similar state of severe crisis.

Why are we "waiting for Superman" to fix our public education system, the foundation of our democracy, innovation, and U.S. leadership throughout the world--and so evidently in decline? The filmmakers hope, and ours in screening this film at the Opera House March 3, is that the powerful stories of children and their families it documents will give all of us, in each of our communities, a launching place for dialogue and action to improve our schools. The film shines a spotlight on key education reform issues and the importance of great teachers, and will hopefully not only spark conversation and action but also galvanize the community support essential to bringing about meaningful and lasting change in our public schools.

As part of the "Waiting for Superman" house party movement in which the Opera House will participate on March 3, the film's producers, Participant Media, have created a Social Action Campaign around four key initiatives: celebrating great teachers; ensuring world class standards; encouraging more great schools; and raising literacy rates. You can learn more about how to participate in any of these areas, before or after seeing the film at the Opera House, at

Monday, January 3, 2011

Front Page News

Some of the underlying topics in our upcoming winter production of Christopher Shinn's drama, "Dying City," made the front page of the New York Times yesterday in this story of the Army missing (or ignoring?) signs of potential suicide among its overburdened corps.

Shinn's taught, three-character play takes audience members into the rippling sea of violence which runs through and impacts all of our lives--whether we are privileged, Harvard-educated New Yorkers, hard-working fishermen (or fishermen's wives), or working-class suburban California boys who sign up for the Army Reserves. We don't know exactly how one of the protagonists, Craig, died while on his second tour of duty in Iraq; but the play suggests he may have been one of the record number of military personnel since 2004 who, like Craig, are "mentally exhausted and traumatized from repeated deployments to combat zones" and have committed suicide.

But Craig is only one-third of this play. The impact of subtle and not so-subtle family and cultural violence on him, his brother Peter, and his wife Kelly is what leaves audience members, at the end of 90 minutes with no intermission, gripping the arms of our seats and asking ourselves some important questions. Who do we become in coping with the everyday violence in our own lives? Can we see and touch the fear which underlies so many of our interactions? How do we prevent it from eating us up?

"Dying City" is constructed on the metaphor of Craig's understanding of his company's mission in Baghdad: "ordered to protect themselves from violence by actively doing violence, which leads to more violence to protect themselves against: no sane person could survive these tasks." Baghdad is dying, yes, but its not the only city that is, whether in reality (see recent news reports from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico) or in this play, in which each individual is his or her own "city."

Shinn prefaces his play with by an epigram from Aeschylus--"A lie sweet in the mouth/is sour in the stomach"--but more to the point for why we're producing it at the Opera House is this statement which comes about two thirds of the way through the play: "If you really care about the truth, you can't just speak to your own tiny group, you have to figure out how to speak to the community . . . People who may not be like you but that you still have--something in common with. A basic humanity."

"Dying City" by Christopher Shinn, February 3-13, 2011. Directed by Peter Richards. Starring Juri Henley-Cohn and Therese Plaehn. An Opera House Arts' Actors Equity production at the Stonington Opera House. Click here for tickets and additional information.