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Consider the Crow

credit Takiako Nakashi

While crows in increasing numbers crowd smoky Bay Area skies, humans think of migrating to more hospitable climes. Crows, handsome and black, loud and smart, line up on electrical wires above us or linger in the middle of the street to finish a scavenged snack. Are they attracted by the spread of homeless settlements with those exposed middens so repellent to the tidily housed? 

Cities are perhaps safer now for crows than fields protected not only by scarecrows, but farmers with real guns, and enthusiastic hunters. Here the young daughter of an “NRA family” has scored her first crow kill. It seems safe to say that her parents will remain Trump voters, although Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, as well as the Republican Party, are in disarray. 

Crows, science has recently informed us, are not only crafty, but possess conscious awareness. I.e. they know what they know–which is more than can be said for many humans. Crows mate for life, although according to one source they are only “monogamish” and like a bit on the side now and then. Young crows, instead of looking to start a new family, hang around their old nest for a couple of years and help out with the chicks. Whether that is also typical of human adolescents is debatable. 

We planted some redwoods–such lovely trees– between us and the student apartments next door. “Madness,” said a friend who knew California as only a midwestern native could. “They are just giant weeds.” Years later, as redwood roots grew intimate with the neighbors’ plumbing as well as ours, the redwoods were taken over by two nests, one crows’, one squirrels’. In the spring we sometimes heard squirrely sounds of rutting, but more often it was hard to distinguish the angry scolding of a squirrel from the assertive cawing of a crow. All of them fled during the traumatic tree work, but they seem to be returning, if only to check out the new perch of the plaster seagull above the porch. 

Crows used to come uninvited to meet a few of our friends sharing distanced drinks and close-in anxieties on our pandemic terrace. Covid corvids were more likely to appear when shrimp or smoked salmon was on offer. And they seemed to be more interested in our older friends…as are we, often enough.

One summer when my mother was recovering from serious surgery, crows collected on her redwood deck in the warm Los Gatos afternoon–not, I supposed, to wish her well. I chased them away with blasts from the garden hose. Watering her garden, daily and plentifully, was an important strategy in her plan for eternal life. During a year when we were living in Italy, she took me to Venice for my birthday. On the Riva degli Schiavoni the traditional souvenirs were all arrayed: glass from Murano and China, gondolier’s hats, masks of all descriptions.

The Venetian tradition of masks is much older than Carnival, with their earliest regulation recorded in the 12th century. They were worn commonly by the prosperous and somewhat amoral citizenry, who might prefer to conceal their financial and amorous adventures. Four hundred noble families were rich and aristocratic enough to lead a life of fairly unrestrained pleasure. The families included various dissipated relatives, but not of course the enabling household servants–who sometimes benefited from hiding their own identity behind masks, as we learn from Mozart operas.

In the 1530s the master mask-makers’ guild had eleven busy members, including one Barbara Scharpetta. The decadent life of the Venetian aristocracy continued until the end of the Republic in 1797. Masks were then forbidden altogether, and Carnival itself was not resumed until 1979.

In the time of the Black Death, the curved beaks of Venetian plague doctor masks were filled with dried flowers, herbs and spices, or camphor. The mask was worn to keep away foul smells, known as miasma, that were thought to transmit the plague. 

Miasma had been regarded as the main cause of disease as far back as ancient China. A Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, Han Yu, was sent into exile. (Poets in ancient China were more politically significant than in 21st-century America.) In the unhealthy southern province, expecting to die, the poet wrote:  I know that you will come from afar. . .and lovingly gather my bones, on the banks of that plague-stricken river.

From miasma came malaria (literally “bad air”) in medieval Italian. Though miasma is mainly associated with the spread of contagious diseases, early in the 19th century the theory went rogue, suggesting, for example, that one could become obese by merely inhaling the odor of food.

Even after scientists and physicians realized that specific germs, not miasma, caused specific diseases, getting rid of odor through underground sewage systems and garbage cleanup in urban ghettos became a high priority for city governments. The observed connection between foul air, poor sanitation and disease lasted until the mid-nineteenth century and beyond. Plague doctor masks, however, are still available in any Venetian kiosk. Do we have even now a more useful term than miasma to explain the spread of our latest pandemic? Or any protection more effective than vaccine, and masks?

Five hundred years after the Black Plague, crows were still keeping bad company. In the 1830s, “Jim Crow” was a kind of dancing jester created by a popular white minstrel singer, wearing blackface. “Jim Crow” came to refer to the many forms of segregation and injustice toward African- Americans that followed Reconstruction after the American Civil War and far beyond.

In World War II, “Old Crow,” mostly known today as a cheap bourbon, was a codename for Allied military personnel carrying out fairly primitive electronic maneuvers, such as jamming enemy broadcasts. Today there is an international Association of Old Crows, boasting some 14,000 members, promoting conferences, classes, and lobbying among researchers, industry, and government in the hugely more sophisticated arena of EW, electromagnetic warfare. This seems to be a lesser known corner of the Big Picture, in which the U.S. is far and away the world’s largest arms supplier. The Old Crows are surely deep in that Washington Swamp so decried by virtuous politicians.

Enters war again:  “Eating crow” is a traced to a War of 1812 incident where a British officer forced an American soldier to consume part of a crow that the Yankee had shot over the border in British territory. Whether or not the story is true, crow meat is said to taste like the dark meat of any wild bird. Roasted slowly in red wine, it has been declared delicious. On the other hand, an Australian recipe suggests simmering the bird with a stone for three hours, then draining the liquid and eating the stone.

This morning I went across town to pick up sacks of co-op-farmed vegetables to be shared with friends. Two crows were trotting around self-importantly, pretending to be supervising the operation–a fine illustration of today’s urban-agricultural interface.

Fire, Fear and Unnaming in Berkeley, Budapest, and Parnassus Heights

As the world knows, California is ablaze once again, and there is blame enough to go around–starting with Trump, our climate science denier-in-chief and crown prince of fossil fuel protection.

Despite the repeated charring of millions of acres of the Pacific northwest, as well as the planetary pandemic and social and economic collapse, we continue to engage in the pettiest local squabbles over race and gender, history and hearsay. Along with news from the so-called Cancel Culture come daily reports of moving and removing statues and statutes, un-naming and renaming schools, streets and soup kitchens.

In a rare glimmer of light from the murky swamp of identity politics, a 1936 mural on the history of medicine in California, seems likely to survive the demolition of the building that holds it.

The History of Medicine, by Bernard Zakheim in Toland auditorium, Parnassus Heights Campus, University of California, San Francisco

The mural, a fresco in a lecture hall on the Parnassus campus of the University of California, San Francisco, shows in one of its panels a Black nurse, Bridget (Biddy) Mason, ministering to a plague-stricken citizen. In this case the plague is malaria. But the point is that she is standing elbow-to-elbow with various bearded white elders of the Gold Rush state. To the right is a laboratory table where three of the hirsute gentlemen appear to be researching a vaccine or a cure. There is no sinister imperial or racist subtext to this scene’s narrative. Biddy Mason, a former slave, having worked as a midwife and healer, became known–in whatever order–as a church founder, a real estate entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. But how, in this time of racial and feminist turbulence, can this mural not be valued, and prominently displayed in the new Parnassus campus?

In 1945, my family moved to San Francisco so that my veteran father could study for an engineering degree. Meanwhile, my mother worked on Parnassus Avenue above Golden Gate Park at the medical center. My doughty little grandmother looked after me and my brother. Sometimes she walked us over to meet my mother after work, with me on my skates circling them self-importantly.

Parnassus Heights had been the site of the University of California’s first anthropology museum before it moved across the bay to Berkeley.

Tent city in Golden Gate Park after 1906 earthquake. Many sought medical help from the hospital at the Parnassus campus, visible in distance.

 In that old museum, Ishi, the “last wild Indian in America,” brought there in 1911 by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, spent the last five years of his life. He  chipped arrowheads, sang songs, and made fire for scores of fascinated visitors to the museum. Above the museum, Ishi had a brush hut, and perhaps a cave further up the slope.

Sixty years later, my anthropologist son traced the original hideout in the mountains where Ishi had survived as last of his tribe. He describes the networks of tribal and institutional interests that emerged as he recorded the saga of the search for Ishi’s brain and the repatriation of his remains (Ishi’s Brain, Orin Starn, Norton 2004).

Fifteen years later, in a related instance of identity politics, UC-Berkeley felt obliged to establish a Building Un-naming Review Committee to accommodate our recently reawakened anti-racist ardor. Kroeber Hall and the anthropology museum’s number soon came up.

Sadly, un-naming and other symbolic changes such as renaming buildings, seldom appear to affect the substance or tenor of what happens within them. In removal of monuments and names from our shared racist past, we run the risk of confusing re-branding with reform. With repentance, perhaps, for the many thousands of California Indians killed and displaced by the time Ishi was discovered.

Whether Alfred Kroeber was truly Ishi’s friend or merely his patron has been much discussed—most recently in the charges and counter-charges in the case of the “Un-naming” of Kroeber Hall. After a hundred years the issue is still unclear. No, Kroeber was not responsible for the wholesale excavation of Indian graves and mass storage of their bones. He did write a great deal about the California Indian cultures, did testify importantly about them to the Indian Affairs Commission. But yes, he did ship off Ishi’s brain to float in a tank at the Smithsonian Institution.

Unlike un-naming, toppling or defacing a statue has at least an immediate visual effect– not to mention another alternative, which is banishment to a civic graveyard of politically superannuated statues like that in Budapest.

Imre Nagy memorial near Parliament before his recent demotion

Last year saw the disappearance of a popular statue of Hungarian Resistance leader and anti-Soviet prime minister Imre Nagy. In a rather obvious maneuver of historic revision by the government, Nagy’s statue was shunted off to a less central location.

As yet there is no monumental statue of the current Hungarian autocrat, who presently has most cordial relations with Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, if not with most leaders of western democracies.

Here Orban appears 25 years ago, eloquently denouncing the Russian occupation–at the ceremonial reburial–of none other than Imre Nagy.

But that was then and this is now.

It’s perhaps cheering to Viktor Orban’s detractors that the Budapest Memento Museum has space to accommodate any number of rejected politicians in the near or distant future.

And Kroeber Hall may be re-named after Ishi. Of course we don’t know his real name: “Ishi” was the word for “man” in his Yana language.

Hotels in Times of Trouble



Not the Majestic Hotel, but very like

Trouble at the Majestic 

The year is 1919, the scene a decaying imperial spa in County Cork, Ireland. The owner of the Majestic Hotel is an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who cares more for his dogs and piglets than for the starved villagers who raid his potato patch by night. His beloved piglets are housed in the former squash court and fed yesterday’s pastries. 

The Majestic Hotel figures in Trouble, a tragicomedy about the Irish rebellion against British rule–performed against a background of guerrilla attacks by the rebels and vicious reprisals by the British. The “Troubles” exploded again in 1970, the year that J.G.Farrell’s remarkable novel appeared.


A century after the partitioning of Ireland, amid the planetary chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, California’s vacant hotels suddenly figure in a social and economic crisis of survival. 

California governor Gavin Newsom, confronting the vulnerable and potentially infectious mass of 150,000 homeless in the state, has engineered an ingenious deal. Hotels and motels, most notably Motel Six, have made available for lease some 15,000 hotel rooms for housing the most fragile homeless–the aged and those with underlying health conditions.


Newsom announced Project Roomkey at a press conference in front of a Motel Six in Campbell,California. Campbell is an unremarkable Santa Clara Valley town where I went to high school, when prune orchards were just giving way to housing tracts, highways, and the garage startups that transformed the farmland suburbs into Silicon Valley.  


Looking west over Silicon Valley

In the early days, Campbell, California had at least one street of “affordable housing,” inhabited by poor people, then generically called “Okies”. Gilman Avenue was a few blocks of small greyish bungalows, some with junked cars as lawn furniture. Betty the Moocher lived on Gilman. She was pallid and grimy with a plaintive, small-featured face. During lunch hour she would stand nearby, gazing silently at your sandwich. Sometimes we would give her something. It never occurred to me that she could actually have been hungry, though there were no free lunch programs then. 

One of those Gilman bungalows is for sale right now as a “vintage” fixer-upper, for $1,220,000. Down half a million from its earlier listing. Most people cannot now afford any sort of home in California, but there are more free lunch programs. Just no housing.



Given the continuing pandemic lockdown, Project Roomkey hotel rooms would have been vacant anyway–a seemingly perfect solution, with FEMA ready to pay 75% of the costs. But two weeks ago only some 4,000 of the 15K available rooms were occupied. Tidy charts showed how many rooms had been leased for the project, how many were being prepared for occupancy, and the relatively few which were actually occupied.

It is not a simple process. The first challenge is the vetting of would-be occupants, by experienced social workers already overstretched by the Covid crisis. Applicants range from the responsible but roofless and medically fragile to lifelong addicts who may trash their rooms if not regularly supplied with their drugs. Medical records and background checks are needed. Staffing has to be arranged  to provide food, housecleaning, medical help–and security. 

Several counties have already signed onto Project Roomkey.  But a number of southern California townships have rejected any use of their local hotels as homeless housing, either temporary or permanent. And anecdotal reports  from some of the occupied lodgings are not good. Social distancing, along with housekeeping and private property, are unfamiliar concepts for many formerly homeless folks.

California has the fifth largest economy in the world, one of the highest costs of living in this country, and the largest number of homeless of any state. Some see this as flagrant evidence of a failed government–the inability to provide for the welfare of its least able citizens. Newsom, as governor, and earlier as mayor of San Francisco, took on homelessness as his central issue. There was the controversial Care Not Cash, which reduced cash support and increased shelter and social services. Now there is Project Roomkey.

Here in my present hometown of Berkeley, 40 homeless have moved into two Oakland hotels that are part of Project Roomkey. Each room is $186 per day, to be 75% reimbursed by FEMA. For whatever reason, Berkeley jokes aside, these are not Motel Six rooms like those claimed by other counties, which normally rent for $76 per night. Meanwhile the proposal for 16 stories of housing to be built at People’s Park brings out opponents pointing to its 50-year history as a political symbol and a refuge for the homeless.

Newsom and his allies would like to see Project Roomkey succeed and extend beyond the pandemic. This cannot happen without aligning funds from state, local, and federal sources. And so far, even money has not proven to be the answer. Homelessness was a serious problem in California long before COVID-19, and will doubtless increase afterwards, given the economic devastation of the work stoppage as well as earlier problems with local zoning and construction workers’ unions.

Bond issues for building affordable housing have been passed and then failed dismally to address the need. In California it costs $450K to construct one no-frills unit of subsidized low-cost housing. This is based on rising costs of labor and material and the expensive delays between securing funding and local approval of the project and the site. Given the cost of new construction, adapting ready-made housing seems a rational solution to the very immediate needs of California’s 150K homeless.

Some say that this apparent emergency will shrink back into perspective once our society returns to normal. Others point out that “normal” has included indifference not just to homeless encampments under our clogged freeways, but to the climate crisis, to enormous income inequality, to mass shootings, and to the continuing partitioning of our electorate that gave us Donald Trump.

Magnolia Street and the Vienna Model


This story cut a path between impeachment fatigue and the coronavirus right into the California governor’s office and the international media. Four homeless mothers moved with their children into an abandoned house on Magnolia Street in Oakland, California. They cleaned it, connected the utilities, decorated for the holidays. Before long, of course, the owner, a southern California real estate corporation, threatened to evict them. Although public support was growing, a local court ruled against the mothers. County sheriff’s deputies in riot gear promptly staged a dawn raid on the house, complete with drones, tanks, robots, and AR-15’s. The sheriff declared himself well-satisfied with the timing and efficiency of the operation.

Meanwhile, sympathy for the mothers was feeding outrage against real estate speculators profiting at the expense of local tenants and the homeless. Some 6,000 vacant houses have been tallied in the city, while homeless encampments are everywhere–under freeway overpasses, on sidewalk strips, in public parks, at busy intersections. 



Peralta homeless encampment Oakland February 2020






As homelessness spreads globally, it overlaps with the migration crisis and gross income gaps, euphemized as inequality. Today’s Germany, with its generous welfare provisions, attracts not only masses of refugees, but investors looking to take advantage of both the housing shortage and government subsidies of skyrocketing rents. The German government spends about 4 billion euros on public housing projects and subsidies each year, and covers some 15 billion more in rent for social welfare recipients. One economist noted drily that the government program could be described as an “economic stimulus package” for property-owning landlords. In Berlin protesters have succeeded in extracting a five-year rent freeze from the government. Landlords and developers say they will simply move their operations to other German cities. Meanwhile, another economist estimated that given the current rate of construction, it would take another 185 years for Germany to provide housing for those in need.  


The VIENNA Model

Just across the border in Austria, Vienna is often rated the most livable city in the world. 60% of the population live in social housing, mostly by preference. Large, well-designed housing estates are built and managed to attract and maintain tenants with a broad spectrum of income. The daughter of a former president was on a wait list for one of the most desirable projects.

When I was in Vienna as a student, three of us shared a large bedroom in the apartment of an impoverished baron and his family, just a block from the State Opera House. At the end of the Habsburg empire, not much had been left for the Austrian aristocracy. The staff of our institute included an overworked countess, and our landlord, the baron, could not have been happy to rent part of his home to a gaggle of American girls. Our room had high ceilings and tall, glass-windowed doors that rattled when the Frau came with our breakfast tray, laden with milchkaffee and precisely measured tiles of butter with just enough apricot jam for each of the fat kaiser rolls. After all, the Frau had managed to feed her family through the postwar shortages. 


Much earlier, after the First World War, having exiled the troublesome emperor, the new Austrian republic did not sell off land to private bidders, but created a series of housing estates. Under the social democratic government, from 1919 to 1934, in so-called Red Vienna, the projects and their fittings were designed by world-famous artists and architects. And after the Second World War, the Austrian government resumed building and restoration. In today’s Vienna, residents live in some 420,000 apartments in assorted social housing projects owned and managed either by the government or by selected nonprofits. 

Housing estate designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser

Karl Marx Hof, the flagship housing estate of “Red Vienna”









In America, housing projects are often poorly-maintained and crime-ridden, a form of ghettoization that people want to escape. In Vienna the projects (Gemeindegebau) are where people want to live. But this network is expensive to build and maintain, and given the influx of asylum seekers needing housing, the city’s housing blueprint may be changing. While all profits from rents are ploughed back into new construction, the system relies on heavy taxation that Americans have historically resisted.


Wedgewood’s corporate founders named it for this famous surfers’ locale, “the Wedge”


Wedgewood, Inc. was founded in 1985 in Redondo Beach, California. Its corporate headquarters inhabits some 50,000 square feet in this pleasant beach community. The company describes itself as “an integrated network of companies concentrating on real estate opportunities.”


Redondo Beach was until recently also the corporate home of Northrop Grumman, the second-largest defense contractor in the USA. Northrop’s highly diversified operations included in 2003 a $48 million contract to train the Iraqi army, and more recently, the design of the Global Hawk drone downed last year by Iran. The US has only three remaining of this $200 million aircraft, but replacement should be simple given the $718 billion budgeted for defense in 2020. This same budget apportions  $44.1 billion for Housing, which is a fairly clear illustration of national priorities.

An RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft


Northrop recently moved its headquarters to Washington D.C. to be near its main client. But Wedgewood, Inc.remains in Redondo Beach–as does a great deal of discretionary income. Real estate investments reap historically high profits. The current ROI (Return on Investment) for so-called fix and flip investments often exceed 100% of the original investment, although the current ROI (Return On Investment) clocks in at a relatively low 40%.  


Wedgewood owns around 120 other Bay Area properties besides 2628 Magnolia Street. In the agreement negotiated by Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf and Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, Wedgewood agreed to sell the Magnolia Street house to the Oakland Community Land Trust–and to offer their other properties as well to the tenants before putting them on the open market. This “right of first refusal” has been a successful principle of tenant activism in other progressive cities. This is a serious victory for the local branch of housing activists in the Alliance for Community Empowerment, and a cautionary development for real estate speculators.

Wedgewood does not own the Oakland apartment complexes where residents have been withholding rent because of poor maintenance, and even organizing to buy the building. These tenants will welcome the breaking news that the Alameda County district attorney’s office has withdrawn all charges against the Moms4Housing collective and their supporters.





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