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“Bitter Melon” – Reinterpreting the Dewey Monument in Union Square

Robert Aitken’s 1903 sculpture atop the Dewey Monument. Alma de Bretteville was the model. The trident represents Admiral George Dewey’s naval victory. The wreath honors the memory of U.S. President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz. 2008 photo by Studios.

Although the U.S. declared victory in the Spanish-American War, Filipino insurgents continued to fight for their independence – this time, against the United States. That conflict – the Philippine-American War – began in 1899 and lasted until the U.S. military quelled the rebellion in 1902. Again, U.S. troops were deployed through the Presidio in San Francisco. Thus, in both the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, military personnel were sent through one former Spanish colony (San Francisco) to fight military personnel  in another former Spanish colony (the Philippines).

In the year following the conclusion of the Philippine-American War, the Dewey Monument, a collaboration of sculptor Robert Aitken and architect Newton Tharp, was dedicated in San Francisco’s Union Square. The monument commemorates Admiral George Dewey’s defeat of the Spanish in Manilla Bay in the Philippines, and celebrates the American victory in the Spanish-American War.

The Dewey Monument in Union Square. 2006 photo by Robert Cutts.

Now, over a century later, the Dewey Monument is the subject of a new collaborative work by local artists. On May 25-28, 2012 at 8:00 p.m., “Bitter Melon” will be performed in Union Square as part of the annual Union Square Live program. Ben Wood and his technologist, David Mark, will do large-scale 3D video projections on the Dewey Monument, while choreographer Raissa Simpson and her Push Dance Company will use dance and movement. Their project reinterprets the significance of the Dewey Monument by drawing attention to the costs of war and by considering the ways that war can set human migrations in motion – including the resettlement of Filipinos in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Wood and Simpson, the lead artists, are approaching their interpretations of the Dewey Monument in slightly different ways. Wood is focusing primarily on the Philippine-American War and subsequent attempts by the United States to extend its military influence in the Pacific Rim. He is combining previously-existing film and video content with original material. For the images that he will project onto the Dewey Monument, Wood’s sources include a personal Philippines travelogue film, “Message to Magellan,” as well as his own photographs of cannons in San Francisco’s Presidio that date from the days when California was under Spanish control. Using the soundtrack of the Phoenix Learning Group’s 1974 documentary “The Lure of Empire: America Debates Imperialism,” Wood has selected actors’ spoken recreations of the testimony of Emilio Aguinaldo, Mark Twain, and other participants and contemporary commentators on the Philippine-American War.  Wood will combine these sound recordings with original music composed by José Gimena and performed on traditional Filipino instruments.

A sample of the images that will be projected in 3D on the Dewey Monument by Ben Wood and David Mark.

Regarding public monuments, Wood commented to me,

We often ignore them. There’s a thousand people walking around Union Square not paying attention to the Dewey Monument. How can we bring this story to life? What would happen if we looked at the monument as having been complicit in the notion of war as glorious? What if we looked at it as a living thing that’s been a witness to the horrors and tragedies of war?

Whereas Wood will be depicting specific persons and events, Simpson is taking a different approach. She has drawn on stories from her own Filipino and African American heritage to inspire the Push Dance Company’s performance in “Bitter Melon.” In particular, she has turned to the her family’s experience of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which she speculates may have galvanized the migration of African Americans from the South to other parts of the United States in a way that foreshadowed the later migration of African Americans from the South to San Francisco during World War II. Simpson has also drawn upon her family’s experience during the Philippine-American War. During that conflict, American military personnel subjected Filipino prisoners to a form of torture called the “water cure.” Simpson was struck by the way in which water – something necessary for human life – had galvanized her family to migrate in order to escape flood and torture. The conflicting meanings of water are highlighted in the performance’s title. Bitter melon is a watery vegetable that figured prominently in the Filipino foods that Simpson ate as a youth. Her family had left the Philippines – and the devastating ways water was used there – yet brought the practices of making and sharing watery, life-giving food with them.

Push Dance Company in rehearsals for “Bitter Melon”

As Simpson observed,

This is a piece about what happens to people when they are subjected to violence, tragedy, forced labor, natural disaster. What does that do to people? I told my dancers they’re not necessarily portraying anyone in historical times. I don’t rely on the dancers to tell the story. I’m dealing with the emotionality. I asked my dancers – what was the first time that you had to leave home, the first time you migrated? How did you end up in San Francisco? What compelled you to stay? It’s important to realize that people back then came to San Francisco for some of the same reasons that you and I did.

“Bitter Melon” will be performed May 25-28, 2012 at 8:00 p.m. in Union Square. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit the Push Dance Company website.


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“The Maltese Falcon” – Copies Without an Original

The Maltese Falcon statue that had been displayed at John's Grill. It was stolen in 2007 and remains missing. 2006 photo by Eddie Codel.

In Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 noir thriller  The Maltese Falcon, private detective Sam Spade encounters an international gang of thieves who have come to San Francisco on the trail of a stolen statue – “a glorious golden falcon encrusted from head to foot with the finest jewels… painted or enameled over to look like nothing more than a fairly interesting black statuette.” Hammett describes the disguised treasure as a “foot-high figure of a bird, black as coal and shiny where its polish was not dulled by wood-dust and fragments of excelsior.” The plot also involves a fake of the disguised statue – a black enameled copy made to resemble the original.

Since its initial publication, the novel has been adapted for both stage and screen. Perhaps the most famous adaptation has been John Huston’s 1941 film starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.

John's Grill, at 63 Ellis Street. 2006 photo by Mark Coggins.

According to Steve Rubenstein and John Koopman of the San Francisco Chronicle,  John Konstin, the owner of John’s Grill, sought to purchase one of the statue props from the 1941 film for display in his restaurant. Konstin’s restaurant is mentioned in The Maltese Falcon, and he has used that connection to promote his business. Although he was unable to acquire the movie prop, he did receive a plaster copy that Warner Bros. had created for publicity purposes. The plaster cast came to Konstin from Elisha Cook, Jr. – a San Francisco actor who played gunsel Wilmer Cook in the film. This statue was a copy (the plaster cast) of a copy (the prop from the film) of a copy (the fake statue). Konstin prominently displayed the statue in his restaurant until 2007, when – like the statue in the novel and film – it was stolen. To replace it, Konstin commissioned Academy of Art professor Peter Schiffrin to create a new bronze version of the statue – a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.

The replacement falcon, created by Schiffrin and his students and now on display at John's Grill. 2011 photo by Eddie Codel.

That statue at John’s Grill is not the only Maltese falcon to be found in San Francisco. In fact, there are multiple statues. Whereas a group of crows is a called a “murder,” and a group of larks is an “exaltation,” a group of falcons is a “cast.” The term is particularly apt when describing the falcon statues in San Francisco insofar as the term reminds one of a cast of a statue, which serves as a copy; or a cast of actors, whose job it is to impersonate.

In addition to the statue at John’s Grill, another statue has been in Dashiell Hammett’s former apartment at 891 Post Street #401. Hammett lived there while writing The Maltese Falcon in the 1920s,  and some literary critics also identify it as Sam Spade’s apartment in the novel. Former occupant Bill Arney, who is affiliated with the Film Noir Foundationredesigned the apartment as an homage to Hammett – including a statue of the falcon. Writer Robert Mailer Anderson has since taken over the apartment and taken additional steps to restore it to the way it appeared when Hammett lived there. The apartment’s interior is now featured on the poster for this year’s Noir City film festival.

891 Post Street. Apartment #401 is on the top floor, on the corner at the intersection. 2012 photo by Drew Bourn.

Another of the statues is on display in the lobby of the Flood Building at 870 Market Street. Hammett had worked in that building as a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Another statue is displayed behind the bar at the Tosca Café in North Beach. Owner Jeanette Etheridge has recounted that she discovered the statue at the bar when she bought it decades ago, and that its origins are a mystery. Another statue is located in the Dashiell Hammett Suite at the Hotel Union Square. Yet another Maltese falcon appears in the artwork above the consession area at the Metreon movie theater. Don Herron, who has been leading a Dashiell Hammett walking tour since 1977, has shared with me his understanding that a Maltese falcon statue once stood in what is now the Nordstrom department store at 895 Market Street, the former site of Samuels Jewelers where Hammett had once worked; and that he has seen statues of the Maltese Falcon displayed in the offices of local detective agencies.

Above the concession stand at the Metreon movie theater. 2011 photo by Drew Bourn.

I’ve created a Google Map to indicate the location of these Maltese falcon statues. If you are aware of additional statues, please feel free to let me know – I’d be glad to include them on the map. If you decide to go hunting for the statues, it might interest you that Market Street Railway Museum has described the 1920s public transportation that the characters from The Maltese Falcon would have used to move among some of these locations.

The fact that there are now so many Maltese falcon statues located throughout San Francisco is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it is ironic insofar as the plot of Hammett’s novel  revolved around the difficulty that the characters encountered in trying to locate the statue – a difficulty that was compounded by the existence of a copy. Secondly, the existence of so many statues recalls the work of Jewish German philosopher Walter Benjamin. In his 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin contrasts photography and film with other forms of art. Whereas painting or drawing involves creating an original from which copies can be made, film and photography have no originals. Each print that is struck from a negative is identical to every other print; each is a copy, but no “original” positive print of the film or photograph exists. For movies like John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon,” endless new prints can be struck from the film negative, but there is no “original” film positive in the same way that there can be an original painting. Similarly, the reproductions of the Maltese falcon statue can be seen as copies for which there is no original. Hammett’s 1930 novel is a work of fiction – it does not recount a real episode of San Francisco history, and there was never an actual Maltese falcon statue. Yet despite the absence of any original statue, copies nevertheless proliferate in San Francisco today just as multiple prints of Huston’s film exist.

For those who are interested in further background on the statue, two publications may be of interest: Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett Tour Guidebook and Richard Layman’s Discovering the Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade.

For film enthusiasts, the Tenth Annual Noir City film festival will be featuring a special Dashiell Hammett program on Sunday, January 29 at the Castro Theatre. The screenings will include both Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 version of “The Maltese Falcon,” as well as John Huston’s 1941 version.


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Changing Place Names to Change Historical Memory

Oakland-based graphic designer Kenji Liu has recently embarked on a project that puts him in a long line of artists and polititians who have changed place names in San Francisco. His Decolonized Area Rapid Transit (DART) map is based on the official San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station map. Liu has substituted the names of counties, bridges, transit stations and natural features that appear on the BART map with the names of local Native people and progressive political activists. In doing so, Liu has provided a vivid demonstration of the potential for using place names to invoke or erase local history. That same potential has also been revealed in battles over re-naming that have occurred repeatedly in San Francisco.

In the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, thousands of San Franciscans lost their homes and began a process of re-settling the city in new patterns of density and demographics. Three years after the disaster, a commission of the Board of Supervisors convened to address those population shifts by updating the names of the city’s streets and reducing the confusion of new place names. Many of the changes – such as eliminating the multiple use of the same name for different streets – provoked little or no controversy. However, upon proposing renaming streets of the Richmond and Sunset districts with names drawn from California’s Spanish past, some residents of those neighborhoods protested vociferiously. They denounced the prospect of becoming San Francisco’s “Spanish Town” so soon after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American war. While some concessions to residents were made by the Board of Supervisors, the use of Spanish names (such as Anza, Balboa, Cabrillo, Arguello, and Ortega) was nevertheless implemented for many of the streets.

Editorial, San Francisco Call, November 24, 1909, page 6.

Other street name changes have been less ambitious than those carried out by the 1909 commission. In 1988, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti successfully petitioned the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to change the names of twelve streets to commemorate local writers and artists. The new names included Jack Kerouac Alley, Isadora Duncan Alley, Dashiell Hammett Street, and Via Bufano.

Nick Jaina band performing in Jack Kerouac Alley. 2008 photo by Chantel Williams.

While Ferlinghetti’s changes highlighted the city’s artistic past, other San Francisco streets have been re-named to highlight the city’s political past. The Board of Supervisors voted in 1985 to change the name of Brenham Place, on the west side of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco Chinatown, to Walter U. Lum Place, in recognition of the Chinese American journalist, educator and civil rights activist. Another civil rights activist was acknowledged when the block of Polk Street in front of City Hall was renamed Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place in 1999 in honor the local African American publisher and physician. Similar changes have met with resistance, however.  When the Board of Supervisors changed the name of Army Street to César Chávez Street in 1995, some white residents of the street organized a citywide ballot proposition to reverse the change. Their efforts were defeated, and the street continues to be named after the famed Mexican American labor organizer.

Intersection of César Chávez Street and Mission Street. 2008 photo by Freya Gefn.

In addition to streets, the names of neighborhoods have also been the subject of proposed changes. In some cases, the proposals are perhaps only partly serious. JohnnyO, writer of the local blog Burrito Justice, has proposed the name La Lengua (Spanish for “the Tongue”) for a portion of the Mission District. In part, his writing about La Lengua helps to highlight the work of the San Francisco Association of Realtors to continually change neighborhood names in the hopes of increasing sales. Reverend Malcolm Byrd of the First A.M.E. Zion Church has addressed this issue in more earnest terms when he has decried realtors’ naming a portion of the Western Addition neighborhood “NOPA,” or “North of the Panhandle,” in an effort to erase the area’s African American history and population and make potential home sales more appealing to white buyers.

The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A.) also proposed a change of name of a San Francisco neighborhood when it lobbied Mayor Ed Lee in 2011 to change “The Tenderloin” to “The Tempeh District.” P.E.T.A. argued that the current name “echoes the violence and cruelty of the meat industry” and was inappropriate in a city with “some of the best vegan cuisine in the world.” The proposal met with some incredulity and was not pursued by either Mayor Lee or Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes the Tenderloin. As historian Peter Field notes on his walking tour, the name “Tenderloin” emerged in the nineteenth century out of the neighborhood’s role as a vice district. To change the name to “Tempeh” would risk losing a marker of that history.

Whether proposed name changes have been intended as official city policy (such as the work of the 1909 commission), or conspicuously unofficial (such as Kenji Liu’s DART map), or somewhere in between (such as the work of the San Francisco Association of Realtors), each example highlights the ways in which place names can function to highlight or obscure the site-specific history of San Francisco.


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Locating “Tales of the City”

Macondray Lane, 2010 photo by D. Huw Richardson.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is a series of eight novels set primarily in San Francisco, spanning from 1976 to the present. The stories recount the lives of a broad cross-section of the city’s denizens, and the transformative impact that the characters and the city have on each other. The first five novels were originally published as serials in The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner; the first installment appeared in the Chronicle exactly thirty-five years ago today. Beginning in 1993, the first three novels were adapted as three television miniseries starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. This year, the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco is premiering a new musical based on the first two novels. When San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein installed a time capsule under the Benjamin Franklin statue in Washington Square Park in 1979, the small collection of items intended to represent San Francisco’s most recent past included a copy of the first Tales novel.

Larry Rhodes first moved to San Francisco in 1982 – when Maupin was still publishing Tales of the City as a serial in The San Francisco Chronicle. However, it wasn’t until three years later, when Rhodes was living in Atlanta, that he began to read Maupin’s work. Rhodes became so engrossed with Maupin’s writing that he subsequently developed a website featuring Tales-related self-guided walking tours, Tours of the Tales, which launched in July 2010.

Rhodes’ initial impulse to create the tours came around 2001, when he was again living in the Bay Area and wanted to take out-of-town friends to sites mentioned in Tales of the City. At that time, Maupin’s website included a walking tour of locations mentioned in Tales, but the tour focused almost exclusively on the Russian Hill and North Beach neighborhoods. Rhodes was interested in developing something more comprehensive.

In 2003, Rhodes began in earnest to research the locations that appeared in the first six Tales novels and the first two television miniseries. Because some of the businesses mentioned in Tales had moved or closed by the time Rhodes began his investigation, he relied on telephone directories and Polk’s city directories going back to the 1970s at the San Francisco Public Library to establish their correct locations. He also sought information online, using sites such as Mister SF by journalist Hank Donat and Film in America by location scout Scott Trimble. Based on his findings, he made excursions to find and photograph the sites as they exist in San Francisco today (selected photographs can be found on a dedicated Flickr site). As Rhodes commented to me,

” I want to place the locales not only in the context of the books or movies, but in San Francisco itself. I want the people who take the walking tours to have a feel for San Francisco – somehow capture the essence of the City that captured me.”

So far, Rhodes has created four self-guided walking tours that are available as PDFs on his website. These cover Acquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, Russian Hill, North Beach, Jackson Square, Telegraph Hill, Chinatown, Nob Hill, the Tenderloin, and Union Square. He plans on extending the scope of his tours; additional areas for future tours might include the Castro, Noe Valley, Civic Center, South of Market, the Haight, and Golden Gate Park. He is also considering tours that cover sites outside San Francisco that are mentioned in Tales, including locations in Oakland, Marin County, Mendocino, Los Angeles, and Reno.

Because Rhodes provides these tours as PDFs, they can be printed out or read on e-book readers such as Kindle and Nook. Armistead Maupin’s webmaster, Rick Miller, had previously used Google Maps to develop  a map based on his own research, and Rhodes has subsequently created similar maps, links to which can be found on the PDFs of each walking tour. Rhodes plans to lead occasional free group walking tours, but the primary focus has been on developing a means by which fellow Tales enthusiasts could explore the sites mentioned in the series at their own pace and on their own schedule. Rhodes’ website also includes a guestbook, which provides an opportunity for those using the tours to respond not only to Rhodes’ work but also to connect with one another.

To learn more about Larry Rhodes’ project, and to download the tours, please visit his website, Tours of the Tales.


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