The Presidio Brat

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

No More Cookies for Marin

Well it's not exactly Presidio news, but today Presidio business resident George Lucas moved ahead with his plans to build a low-income housing complex on his Grady Ranch property in Marin.

As you may know, he's been trying to build a studio in Marin for many years, but protesting NIMBYs (who call themselves the Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association) have sentenced his plans to bureaucratic hell. The scary part of the story? They've been fighting him on development issues for TWENTY-FIVE YEARS. Seriously.

So he's finally moving on. And taking his studio plans with him. And leaving behind plans to build low-income housing on the land instead, because, frankly Marin, take that!

The homeowners group has said that his proposed studio - a "263,701-square-foot digital technology production company" - was going to be too big, displace too much dirt, and interfere with the path of a creek running through the area. In other words things that belong in the category of CBD - complete bureaucratic dishonesty. If they really gave a damn about the direction of a creek or the amount of dirt displaced, they'd be willing to work with Lucas to mitigate those hazards. What they seem to want is total control. They want to decide exactly what's in their "their" backyards, because they've fallen prey to that fallacy that when you own land, you own the whole community.

But the truth is, whenever you buy (or rent!) a house, you are investing in something that is subject to fluctuating property values, societal and environmental changes, hell even roughneck neighbors with pit bulls. I guess the Marin residents in question don't want to have to put up with things they don't like. The real question is: George Lucas is building a digital arts studio - I'm sorry, is it a nuclear power plant? An international airport? Is he building a VOLCANO? What the hell is wrong with you people?

They're leaning pretty heavily on their "environmental" and "historical" reasons, saying that the studio would be out of keeping with the bucolic surroundings. It means they obviously haven't seen his Letterman Studios, which displaced the historic Letterman Army Hospital:

And replaced it with a new Digital Arts Center:

Yeah, boy that George Lucas, he obviously needs a lesson in taste. What's remarkable about the Letterman Center is that it managed to be even more in keeping with the Presidio's style than the previous building was. Good Lord, he made the place look BETTER.

I think anyone can trust Lucas and his team to provide development that is not only respectful of the ambiance, but that is beautiful in its own right -- and that may actually improve the existing environment. Naturally, the same would be true in Marin. Why wouldn't he want to build the best possible thing - in his OWN backyard?

Marin NIMBYs, one more strike for your ridiculous sense of entitlement. I wish you many low-income housing complexes in the future. Maybe losing one of the country's most innovative and successful businessmen and having to rub shoulders with the lesser-entitled instead will give you a bit of perspective.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Disney Magic Indeed

So I finally went exploring the Walt Disney Family Museum. You know, the place people see on a drive-by and go: why is that here? That was my question too, the first time I saw it. And after a few hours in the place, I found a personal answer of sorts - see below. But first I will say that it works exceptionally well to follow the complexity of someone’s life through the labyrinthine corridors of a Montgomery Street Barrack.

The name of the museum should have made this completely obvious, but the place is all about Walt Disney – the father, artist and businessman. It is not about Disney in the sense that we normally use the word – to refer to the studios, the movies, or for that matter anything cartoonish (or schmaltzy, depending on your generation, I think). So I was a little surprised to discover that when you enter the doors, you begin a chronological walking tour focusing expressly on one man’s life and rise to fame. It begins with a history of the Disney family’s emigration from France and it ends with Walt’s death from lung cancer in 1966 – and then boom, you’re out the door wandering dazedly through a very un-Disney-Store-like gift shop, where I bought a post card of the historical Presidio in 1846. (?)

In my ignorance I was expecting an inside look at the Disney I knew from having raised a kid in the 90s. But forget about Belle and Mulan and Princess Jasmine - the movies on display stop circa Peter Pan. Instead, this place offers a real slice of American history – the development of Hollywood, World Wars I and II, depressions and strikes and Communist infiltrators – and of course the birth and rise of a great American cultural icon, Mickey Mouse. Around this is a parallel history of filmmaking and animation, which is fascinating.

Warning to the mild: there is a phenomenal amount of stuff in this place! You could spend three whole days there and still not absorb it all. About a third of the way through even I was overloaded.

But the exhibits are fabulous – lots of movie clips and interviews and animated histories, old film projectors and story boards and drawings of all kinds, everything very beautifully displayed. There is a lot of personal memorabilia – family photos and interview clips. Walt, it turns out, was a collector of miniatures. He spent quite a bit of time hunting down small things. There’s a whole display of his little tea sets and shotguns. I started getting the idea that this obsession for The Small was one of the reasons he liked kids so much.

Salvador Dali and Walt Disney, Untitled from "Destino", 1946
But I was most surprised by Walt the artist. I always imagined him as a very savvy, hard-driven businessman, but he was also a passionate artist in his own right, the kind of guy who took his pencils and sketch pad with him to war. He also had a deep, early love for technology, and he pushed the boundaries of it like nobody’s business. (Such an excellent combination of creativity and acumen – very George Lucas.)

But most of all, he was driven by a pure desire to take children and adults to a place of primal innocence, and – if only for the course of a movie – to restore their faith in the core of goodness at the center of life. That longing drives some of the greatest fantasy – underlying Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the idea that a beautiful world was lost, something innocent and good that we can never get back to. But the author is going to find a way for us to get back there, dammit. (Yes, I just compared Tolkien and Disney. I know.)

If I may make a leap, I think this is partly why the Presidio is amazing. It’s a natural place that was somehow magically preserved amidst the concrete obscenity all around it, and for me, and probably for many other people, it retains a feeling of all the good and mystical things of childhood. It’s transcendent, full of signposts from a forgotten age, and, kind of like Chief Wu said: a Disneyland of its own. So in fact, it’s very fitting that the museum is here.

Anyway, the place is well worth a visit (and maybe three or four).

the Oscar for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves"
Things I liked:

All the mind-boggling colors and sounds.

A break from all the mind-boggling colors and sounds at the back of the building, where you have a spectacular view of the bay through glass walls.

A huge café (with cupcakes) and plenty of space to put up your feet.

Things I didn’t like:

Not being able to take pictures.

While I personally love getting lost in an enormous labyrinth of a building, especially when there’s so much to look at, it’s all fun and games until someone has a seizure in the Mickey Mouse room, and all the good-hearted visitors go running around desperately looking for an exit so they can get downstairs and get some help for the poor woman. A bit more flexibility in the escape routes would have been nice. (But hey, at least it’s across the street from a fire house.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

El Polin

the spring at El Polin

Well, it sometimes happens that the Trust offers a free historical tour, twenty people sign up, and only three people end up braving the pouring rain on a cold Saturday morning.

My husband and I were two of the three who stood beneath umbrellas on March 31st to hear about the history of El Polin. Despite the bitter cold, we felt like we’d struck the jackpot -- we got a whole archaeologist to ourselves. And the spring, which is near the MacArthur housing complex, was as quiet as mysterious as it must have been when the Briones family settled there in the early 1800s.

Behind Kari, the "oldest road in SF"
Before going, I had a chat with my mother, who is a retired army wife and Presidio historian in her own right. She recounted the army’s El Polin "tour" twenty-five years ago. What stood out in her memory was the legend of the spring – that drinking from its waters could induce fertility and longevity. Trust archaeologist Kari Jones revealed the possible source of this legend: Guadalupe, the oldest daughter of the Briones family, had twenty children, most of whom survived into adulthood. And she lived to be over 100 years old. Not bad for a “pioneer.” Hell, if you could show me a woman who could do that today, I’d still be bowled over. 

What was especially interesting was getting a peek into an archaeologist's brain. Kari's factual tour was rich and fascinating, but equally intriguing were the question marks about the place - things the Archaeology Lab is still trying to piece together. A small brick reservoir across from the spring could have been used for any number of things - watering cattle, washing clothes, mixing adobe - but this is where archaeology demands the ability to mentally reconstruct a different time and place -- and getting to see some of that process was a real treat.  

The new Presidio renovation of the spring is spacious and designed to be bucolic, but the spring itself still has a dark mystery, with water bubbling constantly, the flow hidden among plants and shrouded in superstition. A strangely post-modern metal frame filled with stones marks the old Briones home, inviting you to stand in what was once their main room and ponder how ridiculously small it was for such a large family. The road leading past El Polin is called “the oldest road in San Francisco.” It led from El Presidio (approximately, the location of the current Officer’s Club) to the “city”, which was nothing but a small mission busily suppressing the Indians.

Unanswered questions of the past hang there as well: What about the natives, who used the spring and considered it sacred? Were they able to protest a family moving in right next to the spring and taking control of its waters? What thousands of years of history did the natives have there that were never recorded? If anyone is going to explore these things, it seems to me that the archaeologists at the Trust are capable and passionate enough to do it. For a list of their upcoming events, click here