Formally, even under the modest, craftswoman-like term “writer,” Rebecca Solnit is a holistic architecture critic. Her London Review of Books Diary of 7 February is aesthetically deep and illuminating in its criticism of the urban planning of the San Francisco Bay Area. She is indeed correct as to the damage done by booming, mining, and frontierism in the American West.

As of December 21st, a group of Bay Area residents have begun to react against the now-famous institution of the Google Bus, smashing one of its windows to express its anger.

Google must respond now to the popular outcry by doing what Google does best: giving some more freebies to appease the people.  Google has no choice but to reflect on its practices and its collective effect on the communities of the Bay Area.

Yet, somehow, Solnit’s piece occludes a pivotal aspect of the history and architectural contour of the Bay Area: the entire East Bay, whose largest cities include Oakland and Berkeley. She admits that until the Second World War the geographic area known as Silicon Valley was mostly rural, but fails to mention that the cosmopolitan action was happening to the East of the Bay, separated by three bridges, five islands, and two of the most notorious prisons in the nation.

Solnit displays her distaste for landlords, CEOs and people who prefer not to take public transportation. She writes, for instance,

“Two much-loved used bookstores are also being evicted by landlords looking for more money; 16 restaurants opened last year in their vicinity.”

What, then, were the motives of the landlords who first installed the bookstores, possibly through evicting the previous tenants? What makes Solnit think that these sixteen restaurants will not also eventually be “much-loved,” and who is the agent of this squandered love beyond Solnit herself?

Solnit’s propinquities represent a special brand of leftism that I believe is only in half-truth attributed to the Bay Area. In the following paragraphs, I detail the reasons for my objection.

The East Bay Area is an incubator for influential thoughts of all forms, both productive and destructive.

In 1889, J.H.E. Partington, along with his wife and children, left England for Oakland, where he set up a tent on the banks of Lake Temescal. Two years later, he founded an art school in San Francisco. His brick-and-mortar home would later serve as a social place for Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and George Sterling.

Temescal by J.H.E. Partington

Four kilometres downhill to the southwest, across the street from Oakland Technical High School, the alma mater of Huey P. Newton and Marshawn Lynch, at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, Bruce Lee opened his first martial arts studio.

Five kilometres north, Newton, Thornton Wilder, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Paul Mooney all graduated from Berkeley High School within the same decade.

Within walking distance, Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Center for the Arts bears the name of the nation’s premier prewar female architect–and one of the greatest architects of our time. Morgan was commissioned for her most extensive work, the “Castle” at San Simeon, by the reclusive newspaper tycoon who inspired Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s name adorns the Greek Amphitheatre at UC Berkeley, and Hearst was a key figure in building the Bohemian Grove, which was at once the social birthplace of nuclear strategy, the party locale for Nixon and Reagan, and the architectural work of Morgan’s colleague, Bernard Maybeck, also known for San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. The Palace, until very recently, housed The Exploratorium for a rent of $1 per year (in Pacific Heights), partly because it was founded by the morally embattled Manhattan Project physicist, and artistic visionary, Frank Oppenheimer.

Palace of Fine Arts, 1919

Maybeck at Bohemian Grove, 1932

The Bay Area is not necessarily a left-wing or right-wing place, despite its stereotypical image. Certainly it has its vocal pacifists, but it has also produced a great number of warriors in politics and aesthetics.

A political warrior is simply someone who advocates and orchestrates killing certain humans on behalf of other humans, like Henry Kissinger, Napoleon, Columbus and Mao Zedong.

An aesthetic warrior is an unknown quantity: a subtle, oblique radical, who shakes things to their foundations by channeling unseen levels, frequencies, and possibilities.

And finally, perhaps, there is a grey area, of which the Bay Area is a percolating spring, constituted by performers drawn to hyperbole, risk, and spectacle.

The current employer of such luminaries as Judith Butler, Wendy Brown and Michael Pollan (and one-time employer of Foucault, Sun Ra, and Maxine Hong Kingston), the University of California at Berkeley, is still best known as the research facility that birthed the Manhattan Project. The man responsible for hosting Vannevar Bush, Seaborg and the other architects of the use of nuclear weapons was Ernest O. Lawrence, whose name adorns the popular science museum for children overlooking Berkeley.

Ernest O. Lawrence in 1934

They say Berkeley is a left-wing city, but they’re wrong. London, Barcelona and Paris, maybe, but not Berkeley. Like New Orleans, Berkeley is truly laissez-faire, far beyond the political spectrum. “Building a bomb? Come on down!”

Any university would have savoured the chance to host the Manhattan Project, but it has left a giant imprint on the Bay Area.

Drive to the Marin Headlands and you can see the barren Nike Missile launch site, a beautiful, surreal landscape reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a reminder that, in its fear, the United States brought itself dangerously close to the USSR. The Black Panthers, formed by an Oakland Tech alum and his friend just a few kilometres from both Piedmont and Berkeley, borrowed (or sampled, if you like) the gestures of national leaders and Hollywood actors: they “stuck to their guns.”

The city of Oakland throws a protective geographical shroud around its ultra-wealthy pearl, the city of Piedmont, which is a bubble within it.

In 1907, Piedmont declared itself to be independent of Oakland, and Maybeck built several homes there. Piedmont, and the adjacent Piedmont Avenue commercial district, pioneered streetcar travel to San Francisco and public transportation in the region at large.

Less than a decade after Piedmont’s independence from Oakland, Robert McNamara, the man who brought us the Vietnam War, was raised there. “Experimentalists,” indeed!

In Dick’s eminent 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, set in San Francisco’s financial district, an alternate future exists, in which California is under the rule of Imperial Japan. As with the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, Dick’s racist fear (specifically, of the Bay Area’s “Asian Invasion”) is an unfortunate source of his inspiration.

Likewise, Solnit, in the interpellative application of both racial markers and the ironic term “Alien” to the tech employees who seem to be treading on her low-rent lawn, betrays an unfortunate set of preconceived notions.

Solnit’s “mostly white and Asian” young Alien Hordes either have no moral qualms with the thoroughly military posture of both the United States and the Bay Area, or they keep these qualms separate from their expressions of self while under the employ of Silicon Valley companies.

Or perhaps a much more plausible thing is happening: these Alien Hordes are actual people, like Solnit herself, who also want to live in peace and harmony and interact with others in public. Their talents delivered them to the Bay Area for a short-term worldly goal, and they may have incentives to go back to the Alien Mothership (i.e., everywhere else, especially Europe and Asia) eventually, for good. Would Solnit prefer that? Would she still describe herself as living on the perimeter of Silicon Valley if the global brain drain reversed itself and Google hired only locally?

I first came to read Solnit’s piece because I noticed that she gave a talk on dark matter, an interest of mine, at a symposium hosted by Disney in Los Angeles.

When I search the internet for talks on dark matter, one of the few names that emerges is Michio Kaku, the preeminent theoretical physicist in the United States, whose political (and general) worldview is so distinct from Solnit’s that it is as if they are from different planets. His discourse is completely scrubbed of generalizations and stereotypes about individuals, and he talks frankly about the effects of racism on his own life.  He also talks about growing up in the Bay Area, the internment of his family, and his academic sponsorship by the Manhattan Project physicist (and inspiration for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove), Edward Teller.

Michio Kaku and Family

Solnit is doing something completely different from Kaku: generalizing racially in the supposed service of interrogating whitey (symbolized as money itself in the service of technology) on behalf of art (symbolized as the lack of money, a familiar association).

Kaku believes that humanity is approaching the level of a “Type 1 Civilization” which can harness the entire energy of the sun, its closest star, in order to begin interstellar and intergalactic travel. Solnit, I’m sure, would support this idea of full energetic alignment, and might even support efforts to make the United States power system resemble that of Germany, which draws a much greater percentage of its power from the sun, despite a much smaller solar exposure than the United States.

But then Kaku adds something that terrifies Solnit and evokes the self-styled “ancient modern man,” Bernard Maybeck, drawing in his studio. For Kaku, evidence of humanity’s advancement can be found in rock music, blue jeans, Louis Vuitton, and, perhaps, even Solnit’s dreaded Google. All of the above are symbols of a global culture where human criticism is eclipsed by the peripheral ubiquity of the standard consumer object. Dick called it, succinctly, “Ubik,” and for him it was Spinoza’s God incarnate.

Global culture is appealing to all of those who just feel like being normal, if only for a moment, until the new thing comes out. The injunction to normality can be pathological. The criminal, most of the time, just wants to be a normal guy. Hence the story, told and retold, of the boy who dies over a pair of Jordans. This is why public intellectuals, from Sontag to Solnit, can be important: because they remind us of the inestimable value of the immaterial, including civic and cosmic duty.

Solnit, however, has confused the power of global culture with financial doom. What principle do Navajo, Kikuyu, or Cubans hold, ancestrally, that goes against wearing blue jeans, listening to rock music, or Googling? Very likely, none whatsoever. But it doesn’t necessarily make them move to Milpitas or renounce their “traditional” ways. Google gets woven in.

Google is not imposing itself on Solnit any more than she, choosing the West Side of the Bay, imposes herself on it. It is her formless, infinite anti-muse. She is Archie Bunker under a leftist veneer, and her tech-geek Aliens are just brilliant immigrants with a diverse array of cultural characteristics.

If most current Google employees were Black people, Solnit would not be calling them Aliens! The present fact of the statistical absence of Blacks in Silicon Valley is a sign that a major presence is forthcoming.

Perhaps Solnit could find a moment to look more closely at her architectural predecessors and find a compromise with the Alien Invaders. Or, rather than looking in “wonder at the store clerks and dishwashers, wondering how they hang on or how long their commute is,” she should close her laptop and work in retail or food service. Out of frustration with the craft of writing and the world of academia, I did just that, and I have no regrets.

2 Responses

  1. Devon

    This kind of clarity of thought and intellectual honesty is so rarely seen, and so often maligned. Thank you! IMHO – the biggest fear regarding the Google bus is that it’s riders, being a more diverse group than Oakland itself, ostensibly deprives the self-disenfranchised, special interest groups of their precious race card. That is an anathema, tantamount to deicide.


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