Drawings by Rubén Ortiz-Torres are on view at Double Break (1821 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill) through Feb. 12.
Activism 101:SDSU students politely protest The Gap in Hillcrest
Just after 4 p.m. last Friday a clean cut bunch of San Diego State University students gathered at the intersection of Fifth and University avenues in downtown Hillcrest. Approximately a dozen in number, they exchanged hand-made signs, distributed a stack of half-page flyers amongst themselves and dispersed equally to the intersection's four corners. Their raison d'etre for the next of couple hours lay at the southwest corner of that intersection, one of the few corporate entities doing business in Hillcrest's trendy shopping district.
“We want to let people know how their clothes are made,” said Lea Dennis, glancing to her left at the floor-to-ceiling glass doors of the Gap. Dennis, a member of SDSU's Students Against Sweatshops organization carried a sign that read “Don't pay for slavery.” The protest, she explained, was part of a week-long, nationwide campaign aimed at generating awareness about documented worker abuse in Gap factories overseas. The campaign coincided with the larger IMF/World Bank protests held in Washington D.C. last week where anti-Gap demonstrators stripped down to their skivvies to decry the clothing maker's disregard for human rights.
In Hillcrest, however, there was no chanting, no sidewalk blocking, no stripping-nothing to suggest things would, in any way, get out of hand.
Regardless, a member of the San Diego police department approached the group.
“Who's in charge?” he asked the students.
“No one,” a couple of the protestors offered, a response that momentarily seemed a bit precious, given their anti-corporate sentiments.
“Well, somebody will have to take charge,” said the officer.
Saeed Khan stepped forward as the group's point person for a requisite briefing on what the group could and couldn't do.
“I don't think the people here are very happy with what you're doing,” said the officer, who identified himself as Don Wendt. Though the protestors didn't seek to deter shoppers, the Gap greeters that usually man the front of the store had backed away.
“How many people are you expecting?” Wendt asked. No more than what was already there, Khan replied. “We're just here to hand out fliers,” he explained.
“Keep your people moving,” Wendt said, “people need to have the right to pass by. Be respectful of that.”
“That's our goal,” Khan explained to Wendt, “peaceful education. We wouldn't be here if we didn't have good reason to be here.”
“Ah, they got the police here,” taunted a passer-by who brushed off a proffered flyer.
Wendt pulled Khan aside and after a few more minutes of talk, the officer departed.
“He was really nice,” said Khan, a graduate student in education at SDSU who sported a Students Against Sweatshops t-shirt on which the group had appropriated the blue and white Gap logo. “It was basically, ‘Don't break things. Don't block the entrance.'”
Khan said that the group had been in front of this Gap twice before to stage the same sort of protest.
“Mostly people just don't know,” he explained, “It's pretty much the norm with retailers to use sweatshop labor.” Large corporations like the Gap, Khan said, are allowed to monitor their own labor practices. “Not very objective monitoring,” he scoffed. Groups like Students Against Sweatshops advocate for independent monitoring. Khan cited a Gap factory in Saipan where workers pay a recruitment fee to gain employment, expecting lucrative work in return. Once hired, the workers are forced to sign a contract that forbids them to join a union. “There's also clauses in the contract that say workers can't marry and can't fall in love,” explained Khan.
The latter point generated a response of disbelief that Khan anticipated. “You don't believe me, do you?” he challenged. “It's true.”
Anti-corporate heroine and author Naomi Klein (her book No Logo explores major clothing manufacturers' exploitation of cheap labor) has said that grassroots student activism is the only real opposing force to corporate globalization. So, then, what sort of sway do progressive groups like SAS have at a campus like SDSU? “It's pretty sporadic,” said Khan of the group's activity, noting that it depends on what's going on nationally and locally.
“There's that Socialist Worker group starting up [on campus],” offered Greg Sevik who stood nearby handing out fliers.
“Really?” asked Khan.
“Yeah,” said Sevik. “It's the guy always wearing the Dead Kennedy's t-shirt.”
Sevik was down to the last three in his initial stack of fliers, his success attributable to the polite, engaging smile he offered passers-by and the ease with which his fliers ended up in the hands of individuals with Gap shopping bags.
“Some people don't want to look at you,” he explained, “some take the fliers so you'll leave them alone and some people seem pleasantly surprised.”
Dennis came over to check on Sevik's supply of fliers. “A half-hour out and we've gone through 350 fliers,” she said, incredulous. She had just dispatched someone to Kinkos to create more. “We can just go back every hour and make more copies,” she told Sevik. “I didn't think it would be this good.”
And with that she returned to her post, cattycorner from Sevik, hoisting her sign a little higher as she made her way across the street.
Dept. of PR Centre City Development Corporation shows its stuff
Twice each Saturday the Centre City Development Corporation offers what is perhaps the best tourist deal in town. For no cost, CCDC volunteers well-versed in San Diego redevelopment matters will take anyone interested on a one-hour swing around the city's eight downtown neighborhoods in an open-top double-decker bus, complete with perky tour guide. All that's asked in return is a little appreciation for what CCDC's done over the past quarter century: yanked downtown San Diego out of a blighted state and sent it well on the way to becoming one of the gosh darn cutest cities in the nation.
Kicking off the tour is a brief introductory talk followed by a video (boldly titled “Downtown San Diego: Paradise in Progress,” and featuring corny one-liners such as, “Smiles come easier in the town Sports Illustrated calls ‘Sportstown U.S.A.'”) at CCDC's Downtown Information Center. The point of the talk and video is to give tour-goers a basic overview of the what, why and how of redevelopment. In other words, if “tax increment financing” was not in your sphere of knowledge pre-tour, it most certainly will be after.
Formed in 1975 at the behest of then-mayor Pete Wilson (“a strong person with a great deal of charisma and influence” says volunteer tour guide Robin), CCDC is charged with overseeing downtown redevelopment. In 1992, it introduced the ambitious Centre City Community Plan, which set in motion a frenetic, albeit systematic, Monopoly game of sorts for downtown developers-buy here, build there. As of last December, more than 3,865 condos, 4,404 apartments, 3,680 hotel rooms, 404,000 square feet of retail space and 1,360,000 square feet of office space were somewhere in the building or planning process.
Given that CCDC has, in essence, turned San Diego into a financial jackpot for real estate developers, the freebie tour is, no doubt, a smart public relations move to allay the skepticism that inevitably accompanies any large-scale out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new re-building. After all, everything looks good from atop a double-decker bus.
The swanky new dwellings popping up at every turn are the star attractions of the tour, and Robin was well-informed on what was available where and when. One young couple sat, map in hand, circling promising locales. “Welcome to housing city, U.S.A.,” Robin said as the bus made its way through Horton Plaza and over towards the Marina District.
See the Children's Museum on the left? Soon to become condos. And that parking lot over there? More condos. “Surface parking lots are San Diego's most endangered species,” Robin pointed out. Most of them, it seems, are slated to be replaced by condos. To its credit, however, CCDC has encouraged developers to include a fair share of affordable housing-more than required by law, though less than proponents of affordable housing would like to see.
From the Marina District, the bus heads into East Village-“the final frontier” in the city's redevelopment process, says Robyn, thanks to the new ballpark that's turned all fallow land surrounding it into gold and subsequently raised the bar for architectural aesthetics. “East Village has a lot of vintage structures that are being revised,” Robyn notes, pointing out a building that's in the process of being converted into high-end condo lofts. In the redevelopment process, she explains, for existing structures there's two options: rehab 'em or raze 'em. And whenever possible, it's better to rehabilitate a structure rather than to raze it. That way, the area can maintain its sense of history.
Further up the street, however, a series of run-down single-family cottages won't be so lucky. “And here we have some examples of why East Village is the most blighted area,” Robyn says, pointing out the cottages. “Those,” she notes, “have no historical or architectural significance. They will not be staying.”
Dwelling on the causalities of progress is certainly not in the scope of the tour, and Robyn's as much a cheerleader as she is a tour guide. “Isn't it great that this old, sad area is getting fantastic new life?” she prods her audience as the bus cruises past a homeless services center where several people have lined up for a free meal. One man directs an inaudible tirade in the direction of the tour bus.
“One of the really exciting things about redevelopment,” Robyn continues, “is that people of entrepreneurial spirit are really starting to have fun down here.”