Can Critical Mass be saved?

December 22, 2009

San Francisco’s Critical Mass, the rolling gathering of bicyclists that has become a familiar enigma of the last Friday of every month, is in a fight for its soul.

Critical Mass riders fill the intersection of Market and Castro streets in 2005.

Critical Mass riders fill the intersection of Market and Castro streets in 2005. Photo by Flickr user Charles Haynes used under Creative Commons license.

Chris Carlsson, a thinking man’s bicycle activist who is a Critical Mass participant from way back, has a thought-provoking article on StreetsblogSF about what’s happened to San Francisco’s incarnation of this international form of transportation protest.

My own opinion of Critical Mass is no secret. I think it has long outlived its utility as a means of changing either private minds or public policy. It doesn’t even seem like very much fun anymore, with the promise of pointless confrontation with random motorists apparently the major attraction to some riders.

But Carlsson and his colleagues at the newish San Francisco Critical Mass web site aim to change all that, giving context to Critical Mass and offering advice on how to ride in it without being a big jerkface.

Cyclists will have a great chance to put these ideas into action in the Critical Mass ride this Friday, Dec. 25 — Christmas Day.

Read more about the efforts to revitalize Critical Mass on StreetsblogSF, and visit the San Francisco Critical Mass web site.

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‘Footloose’ on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

December 21, 2009

San Francisco has a worldwide reputation as a wild, anything-goes town in which no form of debauchery or unbridled rumpus would be shocking. It is that, sometimes, but at other times the city has favored a prudish, conformist side that fastens its buttons a bit too tight. Would it surprise you to find that mere months before the Summer of Love, dozens of people trekked to City Hall to testify against allowing teenagers to dance at an Ocean Beach concert hall?

Poster advertising The Turtles in concert at Donovan's Reef, March 3 and 4, 1967.

Poster advertising The Turtles in concert at Donovan's Reef, March 3 and 4, 1967. Image from Rock Prosopography 101.

The Rock Prosopography 101 blog has a story of San Francisco when listening to music and dancing to it were two very different (and, in the view of some residents, dangerous) moral issues. Some of it, no doubt, will seem familiar to people concerned about the recent state crackdown on San Francisco nightclubs.

History is written by the winners, but sometimes the story of the losers can be more revealing. Most scholars of San Francisco rock music are at least generally aware of how the Fillmore battled with the City of San Francisco over various permits. San Francisco had a peculiar law left over from prohibition that required separate permits for presenting music and allowing dancing. In most cities, it was assumed that the right to present music implies the right for patrons to dance, but in San Francisco that was not the case. Apparently the original purpose was to discourage Speakeasies, but by the 1960s it had become a form of de facto bureaucratic control over San Francisco nightlife. …

It is informative to actually read the San Francisco Chronicle in 1967 and see how much pressure there was from younger people for the City to join the post-Prohibition era. One saga that received extensive play in the paper for months on end was an establishment called Donovan’s Reef, located at 2200 Great Highway (at Rivera), on the very Western edge of both San Francisco and North America. The venue had originally been called The Sea Breeze in the late 19th century, and then Roberts-At-The-Beach, after its proprietor, Shorty Roberts. It had not survived Prohibition very well, but had continued on as a sort of destination amusement palace and carnival. …

The Board Of Permit Appeals shot down every effort to allow a Dance Hall Permit for Donovan’s Reef. The club already had a Concert Permit, but patrons would be arrested if they danced. The strange tone of the article above, from the February 7, 1967 edition of the Chronicle, only makes sense if you understand that it is a sort of Ocean Beach replay of Footloose, arguing over the right to dance in public without police interference. After months of struggle, Donovan’s Reef had already opened, presenting rock bands but preventing patrons from dancing. Needless to say, it did not make for an ideal teenage experience.

Read the rest of the story at Rock Prosopography 101.

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I love Twitter, but I hate this book

December 15, 2009

I put off writing this review of “140 Characters” for far too long. The problem is, I love Twitter but I hate this book.

I think part of my problem with “140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form” is due to its subtitle. The truth is, it’s not much of a style guide.

‘140 Characters’ isn’t about how-to help

140 Characters: A style guide for the short form

140 Characters: A style guide for the short form

In the 12 years I worked in newspapers, I turned to the Associated Press Stylebook for advice on everything from the difference between Baptists and Lutherans to the correct way to note the caliber of pistol ammunition. I still keep the stylebook close at hand. But the AP Stylebook is a practical, no-nonsense guide to how to construct discrete elements of whatever it is you happen to be writing, regardless of whether it’s a serious analysis of international monetary systems or a column about a new cartoon show on TV. It spends little space trying to inspire writers to write, encouraging them to be creative or gushing about the joy of being a journalist. Even the AP’s Guide to News Writing is more “how to” than “how marvelous.” “140 Characters,” on the other hand, seems mostly concerned with convincing the reader of the unbearable wonderfulness of using Twitter.

I love Twitter. It’s interesting and informative — dare I say wonderful? — and I use it every day. I really wanted to like this book, but I don’t have any time for 179 pages of syrupy evangelism for Twitter. If “140 Characters” had been subtitled something such as “Find your voice on Twitter” and presented as an inspirational tome, the book might have been easier to swallow and might have been more clearly targeted toward the kind of people who go to writers’ groups to talk about how great it is to be a writer.

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