Sam Sam, The Sunset, and San Francisco

I-280The geography of San Francisco is complicated, and the east and west sections of the city can sometimes seem quite divided. This is even more so when one is transporting a cat across the city, as I did on Thursday to bring Sam Sam from CatSynth HQ in the downtown area to our longtime vets at Especially Cats Veterinary Hospital in the western Sunset District. There are several tall hills in between, and the most efficient route is to hop on I-280 around the southern portion of the city and then up into the Sunset.

CA 35 The Sunset is an interesting and intriguing place, almost a separate city. From 19th Avenue (CA 1), the alphabetically arranged streets and numerically arranged avenues slope gently down towards the Great Highway and the ocean. The Great Highway should be CA 35 all the way up to its northern end, rather than ending in the southern corner of the city along Sloat, but it does. Especially Cats is on Taraval Street, one of the main east-west strips in the neighborhood.  It even boasts a streetcar line down to the sea.

Taraval Street

Sam Sam with sockThis photo was from 2015 when I brought Luna in for her biopsy. It was a normal overcast gray summer day in the Sunset. Sam Sam’s visit was on a hazy sunny and warm day at the start of the current heatwave. The return to Especially Cats was a warm experience as well, albeit a bit emotional as it was our first reunion since Luna passed away. Fortunately, Sam Sam received a clean bill of health and charmed the staff with her cuteness. And she was remarkably well behaved on the trip over, just complaining a little bit. We decided to take the more geometrically direct but hilly and windy route back, taking Taraval to its eastern end a swanky neighborhood around Laguna Honda, and then over Portola and Market back to our corner of the city. The spot where Market and Portola meet is among my favorite in the city, with commanding views of downtown and beyond. And in between, there are dips and valley with unexplored roads and walks that I need to come back to when I don’t have an impatient cat in a carrier.

Elizabeth Street, San Francisco

The whole of the city used to be mine, as I regularly moved from neighborhood to neighborhood for work, fun, or errands. Downtown San Francisco can be a bit of a gravity well when one both works and lives there. It’s a fine situation, in truth, but I can sometimes get a bit restless to move about rest of the city again. Especially some of the older sections, or the more industrial spaces that formed the backbone of my visual art (and “Wordless Wednesday”) but are rapidly disappearing. When will the last dilapidated warehouse give way to a banal medium-rise apartment building?

Finding this balance, doing all we want to do, and have to do, is perhaps this moment’s biggest challenge. But on this day I was happy to simply do right by a loved one while exercising a bit of the wanderlust.

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KSW Presents Means of Exchange: Program Launch

We at CatSynth have a special place in our hearts for art about our home neighborhood in San Francisco, South of Market (SOMA). Means of Exchange is a new project presented by Kearny Street Workshop that teams up artists Weston Teruya and Kimberley Arteche with local businesses in the neighborhood to create storefront artworks that highlight the history and culture of the neighborhood.

SOMA has a rich and diverse history. Long a sprawling district of warehouses and working-class houses with large streets and small alleys, it became a mecca for artists, bars, and clubs. It was a thriving center of gay culture in the city and still includes the “Leather District.” It is a center for the Filipino diaspora in San Francisco, and includes the SoMa Pilipinas historic district. In the 1980s and 1990s some of its most run-down areas were turned into the Moscone Convention Center and a hub for several museums and cultural centers. And more recently, the neighborhood has become home to many large technology companies, as well as a proliferation of luxury high-rises and not-so-luxury-but-still-expensive apartment complexes. With so many different forces at work, the neighborhood means different things to different people, and tensions and conflicts inevitably have arisen between many of the longtime residents and institutions and newcomers.

The publicly viewable artworks will celebrate many of these aspects of the neighborhood. But the history, contradictions, and conflict were also highlighted by the readers and performances and the launch event this past Friday. The evening opened with a reading by Mary Claire Amable, a Filipino-American writer who was raised in SOMA and the adjacent Tenderloin neighborhood.

Mary Claire Amable

Amable reflected on her upbringing, including the struggles and challenges faced by her immigrant parents, the small apartments where she lived that are now threatened by redevelopment, and the increasing unaffordability of the neighborhood for many longtime residences, particularly immigrants and people of color. Her story provides a different perspective on places and streets I have come to know well.

Next was a reading by Tony Robles, a longtime poet and activist in San Francisco who was a short-list nominee for poet laureate of SF 2017.

Tony Robles

Like Amable, Robles was born and raised in San Francisco, and his writing reflects on the changes in his hometown and the effect it has on his communities, on artists, and on those facing displacement. He spoke both nostalgically and somewhat cynically of San Francisco’s mythic past and of the struggles of people to survive here in the present; but he also shared writings from his visits to the Philippines, including a humorous piece about “The Province.” You can get a feel for his writing Maryam Farnaz Rostami, a San Francisco-based performance artist who has staged several solo and ensemble shows, including her latest Late Stage San Francisco.

Maryam Farnaz Rostam

Rostami also works as a designer in the architectural world, and her performance cleverly weaves that experience into laments about gentrification and displacement in the city. She decries the traditional “enforced cuteness” of San Francisco architecture, but also questions contemporary minimalism, as it applies both to design and life. She took us on a tour of The Battery, an exclusive club that popped up a few years ago and most of us loved to hate from the moment we heard about it. The descriptions of glass and metal contrast with the ugliness of the institution’s sensibilities and target clientele. But Rostami also offered notes of optimism and hope, such as ways we could organize the city more equitably and sustainability (e.g., more high-rises, but also a lot more natural space). And she did this with a heightened exaggerated style from her drag performances.

We had a large and appreciative audience for the event, full of familiar faces from the KSW community as well as newcomers. I look forward to seeing the full art project as it unfolds on the streets of my neighborhood.

Kearny Street Workshop Auto(SOMA)tic Bus Tour

A few weeks ago, our friends at Kearny Street Workshop concluded their Auto(SOMA)tic program with a performance bus tour around the South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood of San Francisco. Regular reads of CatSynth will know that SOMA is our own neighborhood in this city – it is a place I have grown quite fond of, and I have watched the rapid changes here with a mixture of openness and apprehension. The tour featured performances at several locations around the neighborhood, all of which were geographically and visually familiar, but contained surprising and diverse cultural histories.

In terms of format and style, the event borrowed heavy from KSW’s SF Thomassons Performance Tour back in 2010 (which I also attended). This included having Philip Huang as our host, joined this time by Allan S. Manalo.

Philip Huang
[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

Our first stop was at the intersection of Russ St and Minna St. This otherwise modest intersection in the middle of a larger block was a center of Filipino-American life in the neighborhood, and the street is closed off to form a community park. Here we saw a performance by MeND Dance Theater combining dance with song and spoken word.


There were moments of minimalist form, and others that channeled the thoughts and ambitions of young women who could have easily lived on this block. The performance certainly captured the attention of those of us on the tour.

[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

We then moved on to St. Joseph’s Church on Howard Street, a site that was also on the Thomassons tour in 2010 because it is a maintained but unused building that closed after the 1989 earthquake. This time it was setting for a performance featuring Cynthia Lin and Rachel Lastimosa.

[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

The musical performance featured arrangements of songs vaguely related to activities of the former church such as prayer. But the highlight of the set was a lively gospel tune with the refrain “Come on in” that started straight but quickly because a satirical play on the rising costs of living and working in the neighborhood, and the problem of displacement in the midst of the tech boom. ”If you can pay the rent, then come on in!”

[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

Next we stopped at a large vacant lot at the corner of Harrison St and 8th St, which was once the location of Gordon’s Sugar Works, a large sugar processing plant founded by George Gordon. A nearby alley (coincidentally adjacent to the Stud club on Harrison) bears his name. However, we were here to see a performance by Hālau o Keikiali’i, a performance and cultural group dedicated to preserving and nurturing traditional Hawai’ian culture, particularly hula kahiko (ancient dance).

[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

The performance was energetic but also had a very serious quality to it, with its invocations of gods and respect for the land. Indeed, part of the connection to the tour was a tribute to the land that has been industrialized and redeveloped many times. At the corner itself was a ‘Ōhi’a Lehua tree – I had seen that tree plenty of times and never realized that. The performance ended with an offering at the tree and an invitation to us to do the same on our own “land”.

We then headed east across the breath of SOMA, even passing quite close to CatSynth HQ, before coming to the Embarcadero and a bayside park at the site of the former Pier 36. Here, we were met by Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour.

[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

The introduced us to the history of South Asian immigrants to San Francisco in the early 20th century, focusing in particular on one young man who came to study at UC Berkeley. He encountered racism and xenophobia, but also a community and the chance to encounter progressive ideas that he and others put to use organizing support for eventual Indian independence from the British Empire. Look for a report from the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour here in the future once I finally have a chance to attend.

Our final stop was, at least in my own opinion, not in SOMA at all, but south across the Mission Creek in the partially developed Mission Bay neighborhood. Here, in a construction site on the edge of the new UCSF Mission Bay campus and housing developments, we were treated to a series of skits by Granny Cart Gangstas.

[© Kearny Street Workshop/Mido Lee Productions]

This all-women-of-color troupe “pokes fun at pervasive media representations of women, pop culture, and consumerism in our daily lives.” One of the more amusing ones centered on a young woman convinced she was Ariel from the Little Mermaid.

Overall, it was a fun afternoon, and provided some interesting ideas and information as I continue and wander the neighborhood where I live. Thanks to Kearney Street Workshop and co-presentedShaping San Francisco, and to our hosts Philip Huang and Alan S Manalo for a successful event.