Archive for June, 2019

Namu Gaji’s colorful new paint job

June 12th, 2019

Namu Gaji's new paint job
 

A few months ago a building at the corner of Dolores and 18th Street started a somewhat belated seismic retrofit, which meant the temporary closure of its two ground floor tenants: hip Korean restaurant Namu Gaji and the ever popular Bi-Rite Creamery.

Bi-Rite Creamery never closed entirely, instead operating out of a food truck parked right outside until they recently reopened their indoor ice cream parlor. Fans of Namu Gaji are still waiting for it to reopen, or have been heading over to its sister restaurant Namu Stonepot on Divisadero.

Today I wandered by to find the Namu Gaji space is preparing to reopen with a colorful new paint job. According to their Instagram page it’s the work of Namu Gaji’s own @danseung and @maliciouslee, along with local muralist @rys78.

Visually it’s the biggest change to that corner since Dolores Park’s renovation. Namu Gaji itself largely retained the dark gray-ish exterior it inherited from that one woman’s boutique it replaced many years ago.

When it reopens Namu Gaji will rejoin the 18th Street “gourmet ghetto” including Delfina and its sister pizzeria, Tartine Bakery, Bi-Rite (both the grocery/deli and creamery), and Dolores Park Cafe — and soon a new offshoot of Al’s Place.

Vaillancourt Fountain

June 9th, 2019

Vaillancourt Fountain
Vaillancourt Fountain Vaillancourt Fountain
 

Of all the controversial elements of San Francisco, Vaillancourt Fountain easily evokes the strongest love-it-or-hate-it response of any water feature. Sitting in the corner of Embarcadero Plaza (formerly Justin Herman Plaza) it looks like a large knot of rectangular pipes spewing water in various directions — when it’s on, that is.

Over the past couple decades the fountain hasn’t always been running, but was turned back on three years ago and has mostly been running since then.

Many critics today point out that the fountain fit the area better when it was in the shadow of the similarly Brutalist architecture of the Embarcadero Freeway. They have a point. Aside from the visual style, the fountain’s pump moves water at a blistering pace, creating a loud soundscape of splashing water that could easily down out the sound of the freeway that once stood behind it.

 
Vaillancourt Fountain
 

Unusually for a fountain there’s a walkway through it on a number of concrete slabs. This seems to be a major attraction for kids, but be warned it’s always slippery and you’ll likely get wet walking through it. Also note there’s no handrails so be careful down there.

It’s certainly worth taking a chance on the walkway if you’re up for it, the view from there is completely unique.

 
Vaillancourt Fountain
 

At some point in recent years the back of the fountain was fenced off. This is unfortunate; two staircases behind the fountain lead to overlook points facing toward the Embarcadero Center (and away from the former Embarcadero Freeway) which was a nice spot to take photos if nothing else. Perhaps there’s a safety concern, but then again these stairs and overlooks always seemed safer to me than walking through the fountain down below.

For some reason the fountain is operated by the city’s Recreation & Parks Department despite being located on private property — it’s part of the Embarcadero Center office/retail complex. This arrangement gives the fountain some protection against critics who want to see it demolished.

I will say this: critics of the fountain only seem to crop up when it’s not running. There’s a lesson here about public art. If it’s going to be successful in the long run it needs a maintenance budget. Pretty much everyone appreciates the idea of public art, but when it’s sitting there broken it’s not going to win over any new fans.

What was “The Latitude”? Part Three: In Bright Axiom

June 8th, 2019

I’ve been meaning to conclude my first two blog posts about Nonchalance’s The Latitude (part one, part two) with a final wrap up since 2016, and yet somehow I never quite knew what I wanted to say. Tonight, I finally have an excuse to get all my thoughts written down once and for all — because there’s now a film about The Latitude.

Earlier tonight I went to the first public screening of In Bright Axiom, a documentary(ish) film chronicling the rise and fall of The Latitude. The film is directed by Spencer McCall, who was also the director of The Institute — a similar “documentary” about Nonchalance’s previous project, The Jejune Institute.

Watch the trailer for In Bright Axiom here:

 

In Bright Axiom – Trailer from Spencer McCall on Vimeo.

 

The Film

I went to the theater not quite knowing if it would be ex-members, or just people interested in watching documentaries since it was presented as part of SF DocFest. It turned out to be a mix of both, a suspicion confirmed right away when I saw a guy sitting a few seats down from me wearing a Jejune Institute t-shirt.

Before the film started, a DocFest presenter came to the stage and introduced The Professor (Geordie Aitken) who came up to the front and warmed up the crowd with some jokes. He’s remarkably good at working crowds.

Unlike The Institute, McCall went with a more straightforward documentary style for In Bright Axiom. Even though it takes an artistic license here and there for the most part it presents (as far as I know) events as they really happened. The major exception is a pretty obvious one, which finally gives the story of The Latitude a proper ending.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers away as it’s a wonderful film, but here’s a few key insights:

  • The Latitude initially held retreat(s?) in Mendocino out in the woods with a series of rituals, artists, and characters.
  • Nonchalance head honcho Jeff Hull confirms a number of aspects that were widely rumored — he’s independently wealthy and (if you do some basic multiplication) was spending about a million dollars a year to run The Latitude.
  • Much of the screen time goes into why The Latitude fell apart. The relationship between the creators and the participants deteriorated pretty rapidly, particularly when members were asked to pay to support it.

The question on my mind is who should see the film. Certainly anyone who took the time to read about it — whether on my blog or anywhere else — should give it a watch. The videos of The Latitude’s incredibly well designed spaces do them much more justice than static photos and descriptions ever could.

I also think creative types who are interested in immersive design should give it a watch. It’s a cautionary tale about how this type of art can become a victim of its own success when the boundaries are ill-defined. The irony of this failure when The Latitude’s internal story was all about breaking down boundaries was not lost on anyone, at least in retrospect.

The film ends with a mysterious logo appearing on the screen. What does it mean? Well, The Institute ended with the logo for The Latitude… wink, wink.

 
In Bright Axiom premier
 

After the film there was a Q&A session with three of the people behind it, seen in the photo above. On stage from left to right there’s Geordie Aitken who played Professor Walter Kinley, director Spencer McCall, and Jeff Hull.

I had a few questions, though I never got to ask them because others beat me to the punch. I did sort of want to make an in-joke and ask Geordie if he was going to force us all to make tea, but I worried that would be too obscure. (For the record, Geordie played the poorly received Antoine Logan of the Jejune Institute in its final seminar, and he wanted us to make tea.)

One question aimed at Geordie was how he became involved in Nonchalance in the first place. He said he read about The Jejune Institute on a blog, and became so fascinated he talked Jeff into letting him take part.

Looking back, I remember after The Jejune Institute ended a bunch of us went up to Jeff, sort of ganged up on him really, and asked questions about what was next. He sheepishly mentioned he was working on an “automated house” of sorts, and that it “came to him in a dream.” In retrospect it’s obvious the “automated house” was The Latitude’s Book One, and his dream ultimately became a waking nightmare.

Though I don’t remember the question, in the Q&A it was brought up that The Jejune Institute’s designer Sara Thacher is now an Imagineer at Disney, and was most recently involved in creating the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land at both Disneyland and Disney World.
 

The Latitude’s Online Presence

Getting in to some other aspects of The Latitude I haven’t covered yet in previous posts, let’s talk about the user-facing interactions. Despite the somewhat anti-technology bent to the whole endeavor, the primary way to interact with The Latitude was online.

The website was kind of like a social network with a unique focus on sharing blog posts and earning badges for completing tasks. Here’s a screenshot of my profile page during the final stages of the site before it was taken down.

My username was “The Mister,” a reference to both the name “MrEricSir” and a humble riff on Doctor Who character “The Master.” The URL to my profile page was https://thelatitude.com/HEXA-AZURE-4280, with HEXA-AZURE-4280 being the “index code” on the back of my invitation card.

Emails from The Latitude always had a unique design as though they were a confidential telegram sent on special paper. Here are couple examples:

 


 

Praxes

The Latitude’s website had a calendar with many events throughout the week known as “Praxes” (plural of Praxis) which ranged from the introductory Greenhorn Praxis, members gathering for brunch, watching Saturday morning cartoons, etc.

My favorite of the praxes I attended was a workshop to build your own terrarium. Cosmic Amanda, best known as the creator of local online radio station BFF.fm, hosted the workshop. I’m proud to say one of the terrariums I built is still intact.

There never seemed to be much direct connection between The Latitude and most praxis events; it was more of a loosely connected social club where members could meet one another. Some were held in private spaces, others in public.
 

Closing Thoughts

If it’s not obvious enjoyed The Latitude and was sad to see it go. For my part I only joined months before the end so I was largely unaware of the internal drama that came before my time.

That said, the entire project seemed insanely ambitious. Nonchalance was renting numerous spaces in one of the most expensive cities in the world, telling a complex story, all while trying to keep a veil between themselves and the members of the (fake?) secret society they created.

The tipping point seemed to be asking for money. On one hand the membership fee wasn’t a lot for most people, on the other some members were obviously contributing a great deal of time and energy already. Perhaps there should have been a sliding scale aspect to the membership fees.

It’s also worth remembering this all took place in a part of the world where the economy is weirdly distorted: people spend $1,000 a month to live with roommates, yet eat food or take Uber rides that are heavily subsidized by venture capital — often without realizing it. Point is in the Bay Area we’ve all been conditioned to have very unrealistic ideas about cost.

On the flip side The Latitude “competed” in a way with a similar immersive experience run entirely by volunteers: Elsewhere Philatelic Society (EPS.) It wasn’t uncommon to see members of The Latitude with EPS patches sewn onto their jackets. Ironically, EPS was initially a fan-made offshoot of The Jejune Institute. With significantly lower overhead, EPS outlasted both The Jejune Institute and The Latitude, and is still around today. I think there’s a lesson here about creating these types of immersive art projects that can have a similar impact on the audience while spending far, far less money.

As what’s next for Nonchalance, they are once again working on a new project — what is it? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Until next time, in bright axiom; compeers and dark horses alike.

South Beach security droid

June 5th, 2019


 

Recently housing/retail complex The Beacon, located by the 4th and King Caltrain terminal and the Giant’s ballpark, added a roaming security droid on the sidewalk surrounding the building. These are increasingly common in shopping malls, but on public sidewalks? Is that even allowed?

The first time I saw this particular droid was outside the Taco Bell Cantina at the corner of Third and Townsend. My mind immediately jumped to Star Wars, I couldn’t help but to hear the Cantina Band song in my head as it lumbered around, immediately reminding me of R2-D2.

I went so far as to ask around to see if anyone I knew owned a C-3PO costume so I could go hang around the droid in character as his companion. Unfortunately even the geekiest Star Wars fans I know don’t have one; a shame because that would have been a great Halloween costume pairing.

When I presented all of this to my boss, he insisted that no — this wasn’t R2-D2, it was a Dalek from Doctor Who.

That’s a much scarier proposition. R2-D2 is a harmless little droid whereas the Daleks are hell-bent on exterminating “inferior” races. All things considered I wouldn’t want a Dalek hanging out near my office.

Finally today the argument was settled as far as I’m concerned. While talking a walk by the Beacon with my boss, we both filmed the droid as it made its rounds. As you can see in the above video a random guy came up to it and said “R2-D2, I love you!”

I’m still not sure how I feel about private droids patrolling public space, but if you want to see R2-D2 in person it’s significantly cheaper than heading to Disneyland’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Pink Triangle Park and Memorial

June 4th, 2019

Pink Triangle Park and Memorial
Pink Triangle Park and Memorial Pink Triangle Park and Memorial
 

After delving into the potential futures of Harvey Milk Plaza yesterday, I thought I’d hop across the street and discuss one of the most overlooked public places in San Francisco hidden in plain sight.

Located on a small triangular piece of land between Market Street and 17th Street, Pink Triangle Park and Memorial — often simply referred to as Pink Triangle Park — commemorates the LGBT victims of the Nazi regime during WWII.

According to PinkTranglePark.org:

Being one of the earliest minority groups targeted, approximately 100,000 men were arrested during this time and as many as 15,000 were sentenced to work and death camps. Assumed feminine by nature, Homosexual men were tagged with Pink Triangles. Lesbians however, were not considered Homosexual but Asocial, they were given Black Triangles and forced into prostitution.

During the later part of the 20th century, the Pink Triangle transformed from a symbol of hatred to one of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Queer pride.

From Market and Castro there isn’t really a designated safe way to approach the park as Streetsblog SF pointed out last year. Unfortunately whatever plans were in the works to address this issue were never completed. Your best bet is to carefully walk from the 17th Street side, but be warned that for whatever reason motorists absolutely floor it down this tiny residential street! Still, at least it’s a one way, one lane street at this intersection.

So as memorials go it’s not the most serene place by any measure, with cars whizzing by on two of the park’s three sides. Still, at least the shape of the place is appropriate. The space is maintained by volunteers; if you’d like to help out visit PinkTranglePark.org for more info.

“Save Harvey Milk Plaza” written in dust

June 3rd, 2019

Save Harvey Milk Plaza
 

Yesterday while walking through Church Station I noticed the renovations there were winding down, and behind the semi-demolished storage area someone had written SaveHarveyMilkPlaza.org in the dust on the orange railing.

This is a reaction to proposed changes at Castro Station, the next station outbound from Church. The plaza on the south side of the station was dedicated to Harvey Milk back in 1985, and hasn’t changed much since. Muni intends to make some changes to the plaza to address ADA compliance issues, which somehow ballooned into a complete overhaul of the plaza. Two years after deciding to make big changes, the architectural firm they’ve hired still hasn’t settled on a final design.

The people behind the the aforementioned “save the plaza” website would prefer making minimal changes to the plaza, although even they have some ideas to improve it, like installing murals, AIDS memorials, and other historical links to the area. The groups who want to replace vs. restore Harvey Milk Plaza may have more common ground than they think; both want a nice subway entrance at Castro and Market, and both agree that some changes are necessary.

For my part I don’t have any particularly strong opinions about whether the plaza should be renovated vs. replaced, mainly because I don’t really like the idea of transit plazas in the first place. Just look at the 16th and Mission BART plaza or the Powell Station sunken plaza by the cable car turnaround — nobody would argue those are excellent uses of public space.

Fortunately Harvey Milk Plaza is significantly smaller and doesn’t suffer from the same problems, but it’s not perfect either. For my part I’d advocate for making the following changes.

First, the above ground portion of the plaza isn’t well integrated into the bus stop along Market Street. In part this is due to the geography of the area, but the bus stop is on a narrow part of the sidewalk and is located a ways back from the main plaza entrance. One way or another this should be addressed.

Second, the plaza’s maintenance is an embarrassment. The sunken garden part of the plaza was fenced off and abandoned long ago, the exposed concrete is dirty and covered in streaks of rust, etc. A new plaza alone isn’t going to address this issue — or could make matters worse if it’s designed without a maintenance plan and a budget to accompany it.

There is a certain irony of course in advocating against certain changes by scrawling in a thick layer of dust to reveal a 1970′s orange paint job. Then again, if they’d simply written “WASH ME” I might not have taken the time to write this blog post.