Category Archives: Journalism

San Francisco’s Incredible Expanding Budget

Toy Golden Gate Bridge(This story originally appeared in San Francisco Magazine)

San Francisco’s budget has almost doubled over the last 10 years, from $5.3 billion to nearly $9 billion. We’re nearly paying for two 2005 San Franciscos—even though the city has grown by only about 10 percent, or 75,000 people, and even though inflation over the same period has been only 21 percent. By contrast, Philadelphia—another major city-county—had its budget increase from $6 billion in 2005 to just over $8.5 billion in 2015.

Paying almost twice as much money clearly hasn’t solved San Francisco’s problems: We still have decaying infrastructure, thousands of homeless, and not enough affordable housing. So what exactly are we spending our double budget on?

Continue reading San Francisco’s Incredible Expanding Budget

Tech Companies Drop the Disrupt-Speak As Soon As They Start Lobbying

(This story originally appeared in San Francisco Magazine)

Travis Kalanick angel artUber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick is on the world’s most awkward rehabilitation tour, and he’s bringing us all along for the ride. Just two years ago, Kalanick was described in media accounts as “so combative that he is at risk of seeming like a parody of today’s tech entrepreneur”; a man who wore the label of douche as a “badge of honor.” Not anymore.

At September’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, Kalanick 2.0 channeled a cross between a cuddly futurist and a Republican presidential hopeful—talking, literally, about hugs and social justice. “We like to say that we give riders high fives and give drivers hugs,” he said, going on to describe his concern over the economic well-being of cabbies.

Appearing on CBS’s Late Show, a notably soft-spoken Kalanick was pressed by host Stephen Colbert to explain how automating Uber’s cars, a stated goal of the company, would help the drivers about whom he is so concerned. The CEO’s response was essentially an adult version of a time-honored whine: All the other kids are doing it. “Look,” he said, “Google’s doing the driverless thing; Tesla’s doing the driverless thing; Apple’s doing the driverless thing.”

Wait—what happened to out-innovating the competition? What happened to disrupting industries? Isn’t a man in a suit who’s extolling the virtues of conformity the exact opposite of the Silicon Valley ethos? This aw-shucks tour is an attempt to rehabilitate not just Kalanick but the tech industry itself—and a sign that the world has disrupted Silicon Valley. The dude in a hoodie fulminating that his innovation will bury you is out; the high-powered lobbyist in a gray flannel suit is in.

Continue reading Tech Companies Drop the Disrupt-Speak As Soon As They Start Lobbying

‘Peak Inspirations’: See the artwork of a climber who died on K2

Denali Schmidt on Mount Ranier(This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle)

The top of a mountain offers the best view in the world, but it might be the loneliest place on Earth. Denali Schmidt and his father died trying to reach the summit of the Ketu/Kechu mountain (K2) and take in that view.

Schmidt was only 25 years old, but he knew the risks. His father, Marty, 53, was an internationally renowned mountain climber who had tried to reach the K2 peak three times before. An estimated 1 in 4 climbers dies on its cliffs. Worse, a close friend had recently died in a hang-gliding accident. Friends and family say the loss of a friend he idolized had shocked Denali Schmidt, making him re-examine his life. His girlfriend, Larisa Minerva, called it a “shaping moment.”

So why did he go?

Clues may be found in “Peak Inspirations,” a show of Schmidt’s artwork now open at the White Walls Gallery. Schmidt had graduated in the top of his class at the California College of the Arts shortly before he left for Pakistan, and his professors say he had an extraordinary eye for the new and innovative that holds up now, two years after his death.

Continue reading ‘Peak Inspirations’: See the artwork of a climber who died on K2

Oakland thwarts wave of outlaw dancing in the streets

(Originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronical)

DDP Oakland (by Scott Strazzante)When an invading army of 60 dancers descended on the Lake Merritt Gazebo on Sunday afternoon, Mario Benton was entranced — even though it meant that the photo shoot the Oakland fashion guru was working on halted for five solid minutes.

His photographers and models stared at the colorful crowd, dancing to the music they were carrying with them on their own portable radio station. They took pictures. They even danced along.

“This is amazing,” Benton said. “It’s really free-spirited. Seeing a diverse group of people come and just dance together is wonderful.”

The only person who wasn’t getting into it at the gazebo was a political canvasser trying to get signatures for a local ballot measure. “Can I talk to you about Oakland’s future?” he asked, and nobody answered.

Ten minutes later, the dance party was gone. To know where, you had to go with it — or have a police scanner. That Sunday, as a good number of the 50,000 people in the Bay to Breakers got naked and drunk in the streets of San Francisco, the Oakland police were working to shut down a sober dance party in a public park. Continue reading Oakland thwarts wave of outlaw dancing in the streets

San Francisco just released another report about San Francisco: proving the city really needs a writing coach

(This article first appeared in the SF Weekly)

paperworkSan Francisco produces so many “studies” about itself that it must surely be the most looked-at place on earth. Feasibility studies, development reports, slavery disclosure evaluations, new special use district plans … given the chance to stare at itself in a mirror, San Francisco would rather do it on paper.

These studies cover a dizzying array of subjects and concerns, but they tend to have one thing in common: most of them appear to be written by college sophomores. They make classic English 101 term paper mistakes – and so are fit for little more than sitting on a shelf in a nice glossy binder.

Here’s three recent examples:


Continue reading San Francisco just released another report about San Francisco: proving the city really needs a writing coach

My collaborations with Joe Eskenazi

Let it Bleed coverSome of the most fruitful long form journalism I’ve done has been in partnership with Joe.  We started out together as freelancers for the SF Weekly, and while he went on to become a staff writer and I went on to take a marketing job that actually paid my rent, the Weekly so valued our collaborations that they kept paying extra to have us work together on a periodic basis.  I was lead reporter on exactly half of our major collaborations, he was lead reporter on exactly the other half – and either way the results speak for themselves.

Our first big piece was “The Worst Run City Big City in the U.S.,” and you have no idea what a big deal that was at the time.  It was like the whole city breathed a sigh of relief because *someone* had finally said it.  Okay, not the Guardian – they argued against it to the point that they made it sound like inefficiency is a progressive value – but we were astonished by just how strong a positive response we got.

Our second was probably the least popular of our collaborations, but one of the ones we are most proud of:  “Let it Bleed,” an in-depth examination of the city’s pension fund crisis.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to describe a pension fund crisis in an entertaining way?  Go ahead, try it.

Well, we did it.  We had to invent a character named “Galaxor,” but we did it. Continue reading My collaborations with Joe Eskenazi

A little Long form Journalism

journalist hat and typewriterThe short, snappy, essay-with-a-punch is a thing of beauty, especially when it’s insightful enough to hurt someone’s feelings.  But a well written piece of long form journalism is far harder to come by, and far more valuable.

I like to think I’ve written a few of those.

Two of my best pieces are alas not available in a good format online, so I can’t really recommend looking at them, but I’m very proud of them:  an examination of how to prevent youth violence called “Healling Begins at Home”(PDF), and an analysis of New York State’s standardized testing regimen – that I am deeply proud of – called “Putting the Test to the Test.”  (PDF).  Man do I wish those were online in a nicer format.  They were beautiful in print – and both, I’m pleased to say, made a difference.

The testing piece also lead to one of the strangest experiences of my life.  After the piece came out, I went to cover an anti-testing rally in Albany, and when I got there hundreds of people were holding signs with my words, from my article, printed on them.  Every time they got in an argument with a public official, they quoted me.  I’d had no idea it was going to happen, and I wondered if this was what Chairman Mao felt like.  At least a little …

For long form journalism that is easier on the eyes, check out my collaborations with Joe Eskenazi.


Progressively Worse: The Tumultuous Rise and Fall of San Francisco’s Left

(This article first appeared in the SF Weekly)

Even last year, people were talking about the city’s “progressive machine.” The welcome mat to City Hall was crafted locally, out of hemp. Progressive supervisors held a legislative majority and controlled the agenda. At last, crowed the Bay Guardian, progressives could install a mayor espousing “San Francisco values,” now that Gavin Newsom was off to become Lieutenant Governor and look busy.

Nobody talks like that anymore.

Between lost elections and internal defections, the progressive bloc has been reduced from a reliable six-to-eight supervisors (a majority and occasional supermajority) to a solid three or four — John Avalos, David Campos, soon-departing Ross Mirkarimi, and Eric Mar. They lost control of legislative committees. Board President David Chiu is a progressive apostate who despises them only slightly less than they despise him. In this month’s mayoral election, progressives were beaten by Lee, the man they helped put into power, but they are thrilled — thrilled — to have placed a distant second. Losing by less than you thought you would is the new winning, for progressives.

Daly was right. But the progressive fall from power was more than just a fumble. The whole playbook was flawed.

Ten years is a long time to hold a coalition together. Progressives’ decade dominating the board was a hell of a run. While it’s easy to focus on their foibles, progressives pushed through major changes that altered many aspects of city life. Even their opponents concede they could be effective legislators with big ideas.

But as the city changed, progressives didn’t. Astoundingly, the city’s dominant political coalition never developed an effective fundraising apparatus, never engaged in outreach beyond catering to the supporters it already had, and never created the kind of organization needed to run an effective citywide race. For a movement stocked with community organizers, they did remarkably little organizing. Avalos is just the latest progressive mayoral hopeful who “rallied the base” — and lost. But it’s not Avalos’ fault his predecessors didn’t build a citywide organization on the way up, which would have made his run so much easier. Now, they’re all on the way down.

So, yes, progressives fumbled. But their real problem was running only their favorite plays, in front of their own cheerleaders, not realizing they wouldn’t win without moving the ball across the entire field.

Continue reading Progressively Worse: The Tumultuous Rise and Fall of San Francisco’s Left