Three Birthdays

The story may be apocryphal, but Ken Burns was supposed to have said that, to understand this country, one must understand three things: the Civil War, baseball and jazz. While I agree, I might suggest another trio of important keys to understanding the American character.

Three exemplary American institutions had recent birthdays. Two turned 75, the third turned 68. Together, they’ve shaped and reflected our nation’s identity.

The first is the Golden Gate Bridge. It is, as my friend Chris Forsyth recently reminded me, very American to look at the distance between two seemingly unlinkable points, then design and build a bridge between them. The bridge was, at the time it was first suggested, thought impossible to build. The Golden Gate Straight is long and naturally very deep. Contemporary bridge building techniques were unequal to it. The design was, therefore, necessarily revolutionary. It is also aesthetically revolutionary. And it has stood the test of time. It remains breathtaking. It is one of the great human constructions of all time, and is rightly an icon, not just of San Francisco, its home, but of the entire country.

The second institution celebrating its 75th birthday is the Sigmund Stern Grove concert series. For 75 years, the grove has hosted a series of extraordinary open-air concerts during the summer months. Always open to the public. Always free. The grove was purchased by a wealthy San Francisco family (They were relatives of Levi Strauss, of Levi’s jeans.) and given to the city to be held in trust and developed with the express purpose of providing a venue for the free entertainment of the city’s people in an open, natural environment. Through the Stern Grove concerts, many people have had their only opportunities to see symphonic music, grand opera, traditional American and world music. The grove is an example of those times in which business elites thought and gave to make their communities better, stronger and more hospitable to their cities’ working class.

The third institution might, more than any over event in the history of this country, be responsible for America’s democratization. Before the Second World War, about 10 percent of Americans, typically the monied elite, went to college. That changed when, 68 years ago, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, giving millions the access, for the first time, to higher education, and many many more people the expectation that higher education was accessible and affordable. Much of our political, social and economic progress as a nation is directly due to this one policy initiative.

Happy birthday to these three great American institutions. Time to make some more films, Ken.

Heroes? Please.

This will be no less than heresy to some of my politically progressive friends who consider them new-era heroes but after watching the protests yesterday, I am now completely convinced the Occupy Movement is an utter failure.

The first responsibility of any political candidate or movement is self-definition, providing answers to the following questions: (1) Who am I? (2) Why am I here? (3) What am I going to do or advocate? (4) By what means?

Examples of movements that did this well? Anti-Apartheid in South Africa, independence in India, Moratorium to end the Vietnam War here in the U.S.

The Occupy movement? Hates corporate capitalism and greed. (Hates greed. Really? How do you feel about sloth? Lust?) Wants to do something or other in pursuit of undefined social and economic “justice.” Camps out in city parks. Performs street theater and drum circles. Wastes precious media time engaging in pointless and fruitless arguments about police tactics, which is not the point of the movement. At least, I don’t think it is.

Occupy’s sole concrete result has been reflected in recent reports that some Wall Street firms are working to refurbish their public images. More work for PR firms; great accomplishment.

That some still consider the people of the Occupy movement heroes of the working class puzzles me.

Want to see what a real hero of the working class looks like? This is Jack Balestreri (below), the last living person who worked on building the Golden Gate Bridge, the construction of which cost 11 lives. Balestreri passed away last week at the age of 95. The Occupy movement had plans to shut the bridge down yesterday, in protest of something or other, but decided against it at the specific request of the Bridge’s union workers, preserving, for the moment, the work and sacrifice of real working people, like Jack Balestreri.

A Lesson of History

Many times and from many quarters, we San Franciscans have been derided, sometimes to humorous effect, at other times, less so, for being retrogressive, nostalgic, romantic and overly protective about our past. We can seem to want to slap an historic designation on almost any structure older than a few years, from 1950s diner mascots to winking billboards. We can seem more reverential about some of these pieces of our civic history than the Greeks about their Parthenon.

Recent case in point: the brouhaha over the Gold Dust Lounge, a kitschy bar in the touristy Union Square shopping area. [Disclosure: I love the place and hope it lives forever.] You’d think people were fighting over the fate of the Golden Gate Bridge.

That said, there are a lot of physical places I knew growing up here as a child that no longer exist. The loss of some make me sad and make San Francisco a significantly poorer place, in my opinion. We’re not, in the great scheme of things, a very old place. We don’t have bottomless stores of architectural beauty and history. We should appreciate and preserve the important things we have.

‘Stones make a wall, walls make a house, houses make streets, and streets make a city. A city is stones and a city is people; but it is not a heap of stones, and it is not just a jostle of people.’ – Jacob Bronowski

San Francisco has the character it does because of what’s here and who’s here. And we should all be conscious of that and exercise no little measure of care when we’re considering saying goodbye to either – buildings or people.

Courage, please

During the last great economic upheaval in America, in the 1930s, there were a lot of people out of work, hungry, without decent places to live, without access to meaningful educational opportunities, unable to afford spending on the goods and services that make our economy and our society function.

Like now.

Then, unlike now, we had a leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ably articulated a path forward based on American principles. We would spend, he said, on projects that would put our fellow Americans back to work. We would build things of lasting social benefit, like roads, schools, dams and bridges. We would create public art. We would write books and plays that would enrich our lives. And we would get benefit, not only from the specific things these projects created, but from the renewed ability of presently unemployed people to again take full part in both the economy and the society.

And the result?

We got highways we still use, dams that still generate power and divert water to agriculture and cities, schools that still educate our young people (I went to a Depression-era school myself, San Francisco’s George Washington High.), plays that ennobled and entertained, murals and other art still recognized as exemplars of their age, running water and electricity extended to millions who otherwise would have done without (Are you listening, my friends in Texas? This is how farms in your state got electricity.), and bridges,¬†including what is one of the best known and most beloved landmarks in the world (its picture, below).

And even more, we enabled our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings, to feed their families, to regain some measure of dignity and self-respect, to achieve some measure of engagement with their own country. We stabilized our middle class. We made our economy, not to say our society, functional again. We avoided many of the class warfare difficulties felt in Europe during the same period.

Now, facing similar economic disruptions, where is the leader who is willing to buck the “free market” tide (that got us into this mess to begin with)? Where is the leader who is willing to say that we need more public sector spending, not less? (Employment is now growing, by the way, except in the public sector.) Where is the leader brave enough to conceive of and communicate an agenda as audacious as Roosevelt’s? Where is the leader who has enough confidence in American principles, and the American people’s sense of fairness and rightness to even say this out loud?

Where? Sitting silent and afraid.