Monday, January 09, 2006


City of Love

One of the more bizarre episodes from the annals of the Public Good Project was the Parkmerced tenants' battle of summer 2000. I had just returned from Europe the previous summer, had relocated that fall from Puget Sound to the San Francisco Bay Area, and was celebrating my second consecutive year of pursuing happiness by avoiding public affairs and activism of any kind.

But in an unguarded moment one evening, I mentioned to my colleague and partner at Public Good, Paul de Armond, that I was beginning to get a little bored spending so much time on bikini patrol at the beach, and that it might be nice to have a small project to work on during my days off from work. It wasn't a week later, as I recall, that out of the blue some woman from San Francisco e-mailed him up in Bellingham, Washington that she'd discovered our website while searching through pro-democracy links and could he be of any help with their impending rent-control battle.

My initial response to Paul was what in the world is she doing contacting Public Good when there are more professional activists and organizations per capita in San Francisco than practically anywhere else on Earth? As time went on, though, I came to realize that was exactly the problem. She had no idea where to begin. There was a rent-control initiative on the ballot that was garnering attention from career activists, politicians, and city-wide organizers, but no one seemed interested in the specific problems of Parkmerced tenants, despite its 3,482 units comprising one of the largest residential apartment complexes in the Western US.

After getting notice of a substantial rent increase in their mailboxes, the Parkmerced renters were holding an initial meeting to discuss forming a tenants organization that weekend on the San Francisco State campus across the street, and she wondered if Public Good could help. Paul phoned mid-week to see if I was interested in advising them on the basics of community organizing (pro bono), and Sunday after breakfast I tooled over to observe the doings.

As with most initial attempts at organizing, it was pretty chaotic, with various pros, amateurs, and veterans with varying degrees of lucidity, all competing for the microphone while the audience squirmed and fidgeted, anxious to be told who their new leader was and what to do next. I almost laughed, but during a short break I caught the woman who'd taken the initiative to contact us and her neighbors to tell her she needed to get a table set up pronto in the hall outside to sign people up for mailings and to solicit donations for postage. Then, leaving her a Public Good business card and good wishes, I went to the beach.

After a couple weeks of looking into the matter, Paul had the goods on the holding company, the tenants organization that had gotten the civil penalties dough from the first time the Parkmerced slumlords had illegally ripped off their tenants, and the name of the lawyer who'd won the case way back when who was currently a candidate for District Attorney.

With lots of sordid details on the developers' finances in the white paper he produced, Paul was able to position the nascent tenants group to be a deciding factor in the fall election. Through the summer, I continued to mentor the woman via e-mail on the arts and sciences of neighborhood organizing and media relations.

In the end, she neglected to send us our requested letter of appreciation for our pro bono services, but we still felt good about our ability to respond in a timely and effective manner, on completely new turf, in circumstances somewhat outside our previous experience. Maybe someday we'll write up the story in detail for the San Francisco Weekly or Bay Guardian about how a couple of unfunded yokels from the Canadian border one-upped the more sophisticated do-gooders in the City of Love. Now that'd be fun.

--Jay Taber


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