Friday, April 13, 2012

Interwoven destinies: A review of Richard Walker’s Country in the City

The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay AreaThe Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area by Richard A. Walker

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is sometimes a perception that two things must be polar opposites: the poor preservationist and the well-off landowner; the city and the country; the rural and the urban. Richard Walker’s The Country in the City: the Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area (University of Washington Press, 2007), however, makes it a point to demonstrate that the presence of one of the above is not mutually exclusive to the other. In fact, Walker notes, the preservation of so much green space in the Bay Area was reliant upon an interweaving of factors that might otherwise seem oppositional. As examples, the efforts of well-to-do landowners trying to preserve the uniqueness of their exurban land were just as critical to keeping the Bay Area green as were the protests of poor urban minority families suffering the ill effects of pollution. For another, having so much “country in the city” — parks, beaches and open space in the immediate urban area — was critical in keeping the Bay Area from overflowing its current spatial limits. According to Walker, a juxtaposition of idealists and money, the country and the city, and accidents of geography all helped preserve some sense of nature in the Bay Area.

The Country in the City provides a detailed historical overview of more than 100 years of development in the Bay Area and the corresponding efforts to keep it in check. With more than a million protected acres of state parks, wilderness areas and other green space, compared with “only” about 750,000 acres developed, the Bay Area is unique in its mixing of the city and country. While some more-ardent preservationists may decry having a public seashore next to an airport, a mountaintop preserved but ringed by subdivisions, or a reservoir serving as an urban recreation area, the countryside woven into San Francisco’s urban landscaping may well be a model for the foundation of any future conservation movement (Kareiva, 2008). Walker’s premise from his own introduction — that as the Bay Area goes in terms of conservation, so eventually goes the nation — is dependent on establishing that local preservation projects have had national implications. For the most part, Walker succeeds. But while trying to put to rest the “myth of Bay Area exceptionalism” in terms of conservation, Walker also leads one to believe that the Bay Area is indeed unique thanks to its special geographical and social makeup.

Early on, Walker points out that Olmstead’s goal of having the “country in the city” meant much human intervention. Golden Gate Park (created by flattening of sand dunes and planting of tall non-native tree around the periphery), numerous recreational lakes (created artificially with dams), the pastoral hillsides (once covered with harvested redwoods) — all are taken for granted as “natural” by much of the population, yet are each as artificial as a freeway interchange. But this nearness of “nature” to the city helped inspire many environmental idealists. In some places, this might have led to a struggle between idealistic lower-income city dwellers and the moneyed classes on the outskirts. Yet, “all is not class harmony when the forces of capital storm the gates of landscape consumption. Many times the redoubts of the rich have been threatened by urban expansion, and many times the privileged have had to take on developers head to head,” (page 11).

Walker calls the mixed-social standings of the moneyed and the idealists who led calls to preserve open space “the two-headed nature of greening” (page 131). While each may have different inspirations on the surface for their work, deep down both the rich and the idealists have self-interest at heart — the rich want to preserve their property values and the idealists their principles. In reading Walker’s work, it is apparent that the author believes that the San Francisco Bay Area has a neo-liberal bent — the private sector is leading the charge, both in favor and against development. For every Maxxam (page 33) or similar company seeking to maximize profits for its shareholders, there is a well-off Samuel May (page 132) who helped a group of like-minded citizens found the East Bay Regional Parks District while a professor at UC Berkeley. The book abounds with such examples.

Such thoroughness in collecting the history of the Bay Area’s environmental movement sometimes works against The Country in the City. While Walker tries to avoid relying on “great man theory” in his history, sometimes he goes a little too much Howard Zinn-like in his talking about the “ordinary people” who contributed to the cause of preservation. “A critique of growth arose spontaneously from a thousand voices and a broad mobilization to protect the land and waters bubbled up from below,” he writes (page 83) before seemingly naming each voice. The author tends to occasionally get hung up on including names or organizations, many of which are only mentioned once in passing. This tendency to overly detail complicates the narrative.

A list of the giants of the conservation movement has always had a California lean: John Muir, Ansel Adams, and the like. Walker seems to suggest the names of such local environmentalists as Caroline Livermore, Dorothy Ward Erskine and Ralph Nobles (among many others) should be added to the list. While those names might lack the cachet of their predecessors, their efforts in promoting smaller projects (Livermore helped prevent Angel Island being bulldozed for a new transbay bridge, Erskine was instrumental in creating People for Open Space and Nobles preserved Bair Island from becoming a new Foster City) helped create a quilt of a green and nearly sustainable Bay Area from the patchwork of conservation efforts that have historically shaped the region.

Walker’s text is authoritative, but also opinionated and sometimes snarky. The death of a protester whose tree is cut down beneath him brings a comment of, “apparently, saving Redwoods is more fraught than the old conservationists ever imagined.” Calling the clear-cutting of the Bay Area’s redwood trees a “slaughter” is just one example of loaded language that Walker frequently uses, along with numerous unveiled slams at the planning process in the Los Angeles area. The text also occasionally suffers from inconsistencies in Walker’s message. For example, on page 142 he writes that peripheral suburbs “are generally ruled by a class alliance … looking to profit from growth and the machinery of government rests in the hands of city managers looking to expand their domains.” Not only is the latter part of the quote an insult to Wilsonian-inspired public administrators, but on the very next page, Walker cites the examples of Petaluma and Livermore as enacting early and influential anti-growth measures. In another passage he praises the planning that kept Walnut Creek’s downtown “thriving,” yet calls the same downtown “banal” on page 153. While a thriving downtown could still theoretically be banal, it is one of a number of mixed messages in the book.

On the positive side, the attention to detail in The Country and the City, while sometimes harming the book, is generally effective in showing how ideals developed over time. Walker succeeds in describing how “urban environmentalism,” usually recalled as a Bay Area invention associated with 1960s efforts to save the Bay (Davis, 1990), has spread nationally. There have been more failures in preserving the natural state of the Bay Area as there have been triumphs. To his credit, Walker is not afraid to address them. In fact, he does a good job at showing how cyclical the environmental process sometimes seems to be.

Indeed, the Bay Area seems to have reversed a national trend: as land use restrictions or environmental opposition in outlying cities make new housing construction difficult (for example, the current disputes over redevelopment of former Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City), residents are returning to redeveloped residential areas in the urban core. Observers note that San Francisco and Oakland seem to be fast becoming “bedroom communities” for Silicon Valley workers (Solnit, 2000). People are returning to the central city — and, as Walker would note, the interwoven country close at hand.

Davis, M. (1990). City of Quartz. New York: Verso.

Kareiva, P. (2008, February 26). Ominous trends in nature recreation. Procedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, 2757-2758.

Solnit, R. (2000). Hollow City: Gentrification and the Eviction of Urban Culture. New York: Verso.

Walker, R. (2007). The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
View all my reviews

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Is this the worst protest song ever?

In 1999, the province of Kosovo, in what was then Yugoslavia, erupted in ethnic violence as Serbs and Kosovars battled over the small Balkan territory. Eventually drawing in NATO, the brief war over the region displaced thousands.

David Burchwell, an Ohio native studying at Cañada College (above) in the hills above Redwood City, was so moved by the carnage that he write a song called, “It’s a Troubled World.” The song was placed on an independent album designed to raise money to help relieve the refugee situation in the Balkans.

"(I) was watching the news and hearing about ethnic cleansing and ... Congress saying ‘We want an exit strategy before we commit anything.’ In the meantime, we’ve got people over there, our own young men and women, getting shot at," Burchwell told me when I interviewed him in April 1999. “Having been a soldier, the last thing you want is power brokers that are indecisive about supporting you when you’re over there fighting.”

Cañada College was also the site of a benefit concert for the refugees, thanks to Burchwell.

I wrote a story about Burchwell's efforts in a May 1999 issue of the Redwood City edition of The Independent. Besides an interview, Burchwell also helpfully gave me a home-burned CD with several versions of "It's a Troubled World," including a "dance mix" and "garage mix."

After I listened to the CD to get some perspective for my story, I struggled to continue writing because the song was just plain awful. I played it for my then-girlfriend and she also panned it. Horrified, I hid the CD in some files and rediscovered it recently while cleaning.

"It's a Troubled World" is at least as bad as I remember.

Maybe it's the insistence on repeating "It's a troubled world, yes it is" ad nauseum throughout the song. Perhaps it's Burchwell's singing like he's trying too hard, with an unnaturally strained voice. Alternatively, it's the distracting, off-pitch shouting of the background singers during the chorus.

Whatever the case, it's bad.

Judge for yourself. Here's the song, in all its glory:

It's no "Blowing in the Wind," is it? The "dance" and "garage" mixes are even worse, but I didn't want to torture my readers with them.

Still, the song was for a good cause -- and I admit that I could not do better. I never would have criticized the song like this at the time, but I think 13 years is enough time to get some distance from the events and put the awfulness in perspective.