Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City

I am from Flint, Michigan.

I was born and raised in a crappy little city perched on the edge of a dying industry. The ominous creaking sounds coming from below sounded like a pretty clear warning, so I got the hell out. I graduated from a halfway-decent suburban high school in a district that my parents fought like hell to keep me in, renting claptrap houses on the edge of the boundary line. I left with a few AP credits, a 1986 Chevy Nova, and a seriously fucked up attitude. Being from Flint was important to me. I thought it conveyed important information to the outside world, information about my work ethic, my disappointments, my belief in the higher power of Buick Automotive.

Flint had helped win the War. My grandpa dropped out of school to help design the M18 Hellcat Tank for Buick, trading in a career as an architect for the promise of a pension and a world free of Nazis.

Flint had started the labor movement. My dad was a proud union representative, joining generations of men and women inspired by the Great Sitdown Strike to restore the power balance between owner and worker. He would sing Woody Guthrie’s song down the echoing hallway during tense negotiations. Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union. I’m sticking to the union, till the day I die.

My family stayed. Flint crumbled. Everyone who could afford to moved away. My suburban school district installed metal detectors. I went to graduate school and met people who had never heard of a carbureted engine. I’d come back home for holidays, dragging bemused boyfriends and waving around my new words, new ideas, big opinions. I’d come home to re-hear the stories that had defined me. Funny stories of disasters too big not to laugh at. People doomed by their own stupidity. Companies collapsing from their own greed. Fights at basketball games. People shooting out the lights on cop cars. Things falling off of trucks. Apocalyptic decisions made by people entrusted with our public good. Flint stories.

Recently, one of my neighbors wrote a book filled with his own Flint stories. Gordon Young lives a few blocks away in my new hometown of San Francisco. Oddly, we have never met. He went to the other suburban school district – those southside swine that were always beating us at quiz bowl – and left about ten years before I did. He’s been writing a blog called Flint Expatriates, and a few years ago he did this weird thing. He tried to go home.

The book is called Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City. Gordon writes about life in Flint and San Francisco, often through a lens of real estate. He has gone through the process of trying to buy houses in both cities, a testament to his tenacity and possibly some kind of undiagnosed brain injury. Anyway, you should read it because it’s awesome and it says many of the things that should be said about Flint. The ending is really strong, and I found myself saying “hell yes” out loud a few times. Leaving Flint seems to have given him the perspective he needed to make some peace with the goddamned place.

You may have noticed, I’m still searching.

South Detroit

The 70’s band Journey is kind of a big deal out here. Apparently they are from the Bay area, and there is a San Francisco civic statute requiring all radio stations to play Journey songs every three hours. Or, so I gather.

While doing a deep textual analysis of the song Don’t Stop Believin’ (sic) this morning, I noticed the phrase “Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit.”

As a Michigan native and Flint Expat (good blog, btw) my librarian senses began tingling. South…Detroit?
South Detroit.
Huh.

Let’s just check the map.

Detroit mapDetroit…
Yep, there it is. Suspicion confirmed! South Detroit is Windsor. Also known to Geographers as Canada.

I guess that Midnight Train going Anywhere was the Via Rail, huh?

(cue guitar solo)

Library Tourism: The San Francisco Main Branch

Air freshener

I’ve escaped my parental bonds for a moment, thanks to my husband, so I have a few minutes to tell you about my recent trip to the SF Public library. The big one downtown. The one I visited a long time ago and left, convinced that public librarianship in a large city belonged to the realm of the nostril-less.

San Francisco has a Big Beautiful Library, located in the Civic Center across the street from City Hall. The building is full of glass and marble and echo-y ceilings, in the grandest tradition of main library excess. As a young library tourist, I had visited this landmark eager to see Library Done Right, and learn what can be made when budget constraints are erased and the architects are released from their fetters. Unfortunately, I had failed to consult with a resident when planning the walk there, and found myself entangled in The Tenderloin, SF’s most unpleasant neighborhood. I dodged madmen in wheelchairs and puddles of vomit for a few blocks, and arrived safe but shaken. Which is not to say that the special Tenderloin atmosphere ended when I went inside.

Due to its location, the SF Library Main branch has struggled with strange bedfellows. City Hall, the Opera, the Symphony, and a few lesser monuments surround the building, but the clientele and the smell remind you that the Tenderloin ends only a block away. Nine years ago, this meant the entire bottom two floors were permeated with Eau Du Armpit, and the best reading chairs were occupied by scruffy men with newspapers over their heads. This may have influenced my decision, upon moving to the city, to avoid the downtown branch entirely.

However! When Adorable Daughter and I visited the library two weeks ago (after some discreet nursing in the car) we encountered a cleaned-up building, with a less lived-in look. We visited the small soulless cafe downstairs, wrestled with the wireless (mommy has an iphone MMORPG problem), and found a nice browsing collection staffed by two friendly and incredibly overqualified librarians. The homeless problem seems to have abated somewhat, and I noticed security guards everywhere.

One of the things that prompted me to give it another try was an excellent article in the Chronicle announcing “the country’s first full-time psychiatric social worker stationed in a public library”. A quick google search reveals this to be a much-press-released, and apparently effective tactic on the part of SFPL to combat the library’s struggle with homeless patrons.  It might have been a coincidence, I’m just a single data point, but there did seem to be an improvement since my last visit.

If you want a reason to be grateful for your current job (assuming you aren’t an SF Public librarian), you might enjoy reading the many Yelp reviewers who have shared their encounters with some of the library’s pants-eschewing patrons. If you want to save thirty bucks on a newly-released hardback, you might enjoy the Main Branch’s science fiction collection.

The San Francisco Library Main Branch: Four stars. Would visit again.

Stupid girls, stupid pepper spray, stupid racist cab driver

A listing of grievances:

  • Two stupid girls have a hair-tearing fight on the bus
  • Liquid and curly fries fly everywhere
  • The guy in front of me puts up his arm, so I do too
  • The fighting high school girls roll out the door as it stops
  • I continue listening to my podcast, because, meh, stupid girls
  • People start coughing and opening windows
  • PEPPER SPRAY! Hooray!

Interlude

  • The guy in front of me has pepper spray in his eye
  • I have some on my face
  • The fighting girls are long long gone
  • We all have to get off the bus
  • We are coughing
  • We are annoyed
  • The 24 bus comes roughly every three years
  • Why can’t they fight on a busier route?

Interlude

  • My cheek hurts and I want to go home
  • I get a cab
  • I tell the driver what happened
  • He immediately asks “What race were they?”
  • I ask him what that has to do with anything
  • He tells me he is interested in “Sociology”
  • I say anyone who knows a damn thing about sociology knows better than to draw from a single data point
  • I tell him that we aren’t going to talk any more
  • He tells me he isn’t racist because he campaigned for Obama

Interlude

  • I stiff him on the tip and go inside to take a shower
  • Stupid girls
  • Stupid pepper spray
  • Stupid racist cab driver

A nerdygirl review of the Game Developers Conference

Greetings from an ethnic librarian working in the games industry!

I’m posting this review of my experience last year at GDC (the Game Developers Conference) held every year here in San Francisco. It was originally part of a letter to my team here at Linden Lab, but I thought you librarians might be interested/amused, considering the gender ratio at most library conferences.

-Erica

Hi guys –
I went to the Game Developers Conference last year and found it to be of dubious value.

The best part of the conference for me was the Expo room, which proved to be a valuable source of alternative employment opportunities. I learned that if I want to move to Las Vegas and design slot machine interfaces, I can more than double my salary, which I’m keeping in mind for when I have a stroke and develop an unquenchable desire for polyester and/or chicken wings. I enjoyed scanning the various game interfaces set up to demo motion graphics products, and filed away a few ideas from the Pirates of the Caribbean MMORPG.


Photo by ruminatrix

For me, however, the most memorable moment was riding the escalator of the Moscone center and gazing across a sea of black-clad gamed developers among whom I was the only woman.

As a Person of Estrogen and part of a numeric majority in this world, I’m used to seeing many female developers, operations experts, and release managers at work.

This isn’t the 1970s. Nerdy women exist and thrive. San Francisco is a welcoming place.

GDC. Was. Not.

I get the feeling that all is not well with an operation that returns such a limited array.

The scene: riding the escalator, about five years too old but still worried about being mistaken for a boothbabe.

Behold my personal benchmark for outsider discomfort.

wurst

In summary: meh to the GDC.

Borrow someone’s pass and check out the Expo. Cruise the demo games. If you really care about a session, read the person’s book or website instead. And if you really care about making better games, spend the three days watching user observation videos.

West Coast Phrases To Know

My mother, the real librarian (not a digital muckety muck thingamajig like me), will be visiting me here in San Francisco next week. Since she will be hanging around with non-Midwesterners, I thought it would be good to provide her with an introduction to west coast language. I know, right?

  • I know, right?

    Rumored origin: L.A.
    Literal meaning: “Can you believe this thing we are talking about? It goes without saying, and yet we are saying it.”
    Connotation: “We are all in agreement here. Also, I have never read Beowulf.”

  • Hella

    Rumored origin: NoCal.
    Literal meaning: Intensifier. “Their pie is hella good.”
    Connotation: “I am twelve.”

  • Yeah yeah yeah

    Rumored origin: Coffee-fueled Berkeley undergraduates
    Literal meaning: “I agree so strongly that it can be quickly dismissed with a rapid exclamation.”
    Connotation: “We are getting things DONE in this conversation.”

  • Chill

    Rumored origin: The 1960s.
    Literal meaning: “Good. Calm. Without trouble. Easy.”
    Connotation:”I have had lots of therapy and/or drugs.”

Got more? Send ’em in!

Municipal compost

San Francisco, my adopted home, offers a municipal compost service. They give you a big green wheeled garbage bin, and you can toss in everything from coffee grounds to wooden crates. It’s not gross, like home-composting, in that you don’t have a huge bag of festering goop in your house.

It’s just like taking out the trash, except you split the stuff into two bins – one for dead food stuff, and one for everything else. In our case, since we have a recycle bin too, “everything else” is mostly cellophane packaging, and it’s amazing how little garbage you actually generate when you pull out the food waste.

All the compost gets turned into soil for farms, vineyards, landscaping, and highway erosion projects, instead of piling up in landfills.

Plus our trash smells better, because all the icky stuff goes outside in the big green bin.

Valentine’s day in the Mission, San Francisco

Tonight I walked home from the 24th and Mission BART stop. It was Valentine’s day, and the neighborhood celebrated by being outside.

Stores stayed open late. Perfumed Latino guys pushed and egged each other on, nervously buying flowers for sweethearts and would-be sweethearts. The bodas civiles joints lubricated their trade with sidewalk tables of cheap teddy bears wrapped in red cellophane.

I walked home in my pink dress. Women holding little girls walked by, clutching roses, boxes of chocolates. Women completed errands, hauled children, and bought food with the same grim determination, red cellophane emerging from their purses.

I saw a beautifully happy couple. Their little daughter ran up the sidewalk in front of them. I caught the man’s eye as I passed and saw satisfaction on his face.

More people were on the street than usual. More police were around. I saw two huge officers, giants. One had his hand on the back of a tiny fast-talking man. There was no sense of potential violence, just a solid hand on the back and a posture that clearly communicated that whatever jig there may have been was now thoroughly up.

There was music and the smell of onions cooking. The jazz club was setting up a show. As I walked home, buses drove back and forth full of people like me, heading home, and out, and home again.

Haiku for the fog

2 AM awake
Awake, asleep, and awake
Foghorn on the Bay

sunmoon.jpg

There’s no sky today in San Francisco, just fog. Outside, buses and dogs and flowers are memory-distant.

I’ve never heard the Bay foghorn from my bed. I happened to wake at the right time.

My dad was raised on Lake Michigan, in a town of car-ferries and shipping. He is a connoisseur of foghorns, from the old BE-OH to the new less macho (but further-carrying) OOOOP. I woke up happy. His sounds of home have become my sounds of home.

An Interview with Myself

Bowing to the demands of my own powerful curiosity, I have agreed to a give an exclusive interview to myself. My publicist disagrees with my decision, but I believe I have a strong connection with myself and I think I can be trusted to report my answers fairly.

tat3.jpgQ: Hello Erica. I’m glad you agreed to this interview. You have been pretty reticent with the press lately. What’s been going on?

A: There have been major changes in my life this year. I haven’t felt it was appropriate or respectful to write about them here.

Things have settled down a bit recently. I’m no longer engaged, and I’m living in rural Ithaca near some friendly horses and sheep.

Q: Wow. Do you want to talk about what happened?

A: No. Thank you.

Q: I hear you are moving to the Bay Area in the next few months?

A: I’ve been looking at the Bay Area and NYC as possible places to relocate. After visiting last week, I decided to move to San Francisco.

San Francisco is one of the geekiest, friendliest places I’ve ever been. The city is beautiful, I’ve got good friends, there are interesting projects, and I’ll be among my fellow dorks.

I’m really looking forward to learning the city, starting a new job, volunteering at 826 Valencia, and being immersed in the calm, weird, sunny West Coast atmosphere. Come visit. Bring chocolate babka.

Q: Where are you going to work?

A: An excellent question. I’ve interviewed at a few places where I would like to work. I will know more by next week. Stay tuned.

Q: Don’t you like Ithaca?

A: I love Ithaca and I adore my job at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is why I’ve been here for four years.

However, that translates to about 40 years in Internet Time. It’s time for me to start a new project. I might return to Ithaca someday, once I’ve made my fortune. I’d like to live on a big farm with dogs, books, a wood stove, and all my friends.

Q: Ok. That covers the big topics. What else is going on?

A: I’m having the best year of my life. This weekend I swam in a waterfall, watched a turtle lay eggs, drove a sports car really fast, petted dogs, helped a friend find tractor parts, drank local beer, picked flowers, was charged by a deer, and met one of the first US African refugee coordinators who was working in Botswana in 1965.

Q: Well, thanks again for letting me interview you, Erica.

A: I’m welcome. Thank me.