Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Rejuvenation of 130 Bush Street


San Francisco is a land of comings and goings, of transients and commuters. Businesses ebb and flow, their signs glowing and going dark from storefronts on a whim. One day a great deli will be shuttered, and in its place a Subway will appear. This ephemeral nature of things is nothing out of the ordinary in any big city, and we could bemoan the passing of landmarks almost on a daily basis if we cared, or knew, that they were forever going to be lost. Still, I always find it superbly satisfying when a former august building that has fallen into a state of desuetude is resurrected and given a fresh jolt of life, a newfound energy that makes an old building become something it hasn’t been in decades: a place where people do interesting things.
It seems there’s a revival of the building at 130 Bush Street going on. It’s this really tall slender building that’s squashed between two much broader and much taller buildings. It was built on a lot that was only 20 feet wide and eighty feet deep. Originally it was a necktie, belt, and suspender factory. Built in 1910, its ten stories made it the tallest building around at the time. It’s got a gothic fa├žade and is faced with glazed terra cotta tiles, and each story has hammered copper tiles outside and bowed windows with prisms that direct the sunlight into the narrow interior. The Grant and the Shell buildings smash the thing in from both sides, seeming to squash its narrow frame and cause the bowed windows to bend. It’s a great optical illusion of a sort. Sometimes I stand across the street and stare at it, wishing that inside one of the windows were a gumshoe’s office, or a writer pounding away at his typewriter, taking nips from a bottle of whisky and chain smoking.
Unfortunately the days of Sam Spade and Herb Caen are long gone, but over the past few months their ghosts might be frequenting this wonderful piece of architecture just off Market Street. Despite a decline over the years in tenants, business is coming back, and not just those lunch-hour crowd of diners bolting sushi at its street-level restaurant--which has closed up shop for the time being--but the inspired joie de vivre of artists looking for studios in the midst of downtown’s ruckus and clangor: a place where they can breathe in the atmosphere of city life, bathe in some historical waters, and hunker down to ply their whimsical trade. I went down there to scope things out tonight, and to talk with a few of the newer residents, hoping to find what was behind this propitious trend.
On the top floor lives and works Che Livingston, a floppy, gawky, blond-haired “spelunker of the unknown” who rented out the space in May so he could have a place to, “act like Billy The Kid and spend some quality time alone but still feel a part of the larger cachinnations and barbarous ado of the crowds.” Livingston is a visual artists. He specializes in creating diorama-like installations, which often feature scenes from famous movies and novels, and which he uses all types of assorted material to construct: from toothpicks to flypaper to fishing line, even making tables out of business cards and pamphlets he comes across in his peregrinations along the downtown streets.
“Business men, Starbucks employees, even homeless people have interesting stuff they’re willing to trade for some spare change,” he spurts out between gaping bites of his BLT. Mr. Livingston is one of those who dislike the modern practice of wearing shoes, and goes barefoot whenever he can, like now, while he’s sitting cross-legged on his mildew-soured and flattened futon, which resides among the dust of the hardwood floor. “There’s nothing here that I don’t absolutely need.” This seems to be the case, as his sparse quarters contain little more “furniture” than the futon, a small desk, and a hot plate, which he uses mostly for Top Ramen and spaghetti making. “I’ve got this Chemex for making coffee. It’s really easy to use, and it’s simple and makes great coffee,” he blurts in his ecstatic way, while gesticulating and spitting out crumbs of sourdough, attempting to show me the wonders of the Chemex. The device is not much more than a large glass beaker, the top part fitted for a special bonded filter which holds the coffee grounds. Hot water is poured over them and the drips of hot black liquid gather below to create quite a good batch of steaming coffee. “See? This is what I mean. We don’t really need so much stuff, really.” He seems excited by this, but then again, he is quite excited about most things. I must admit, such enthusiasm over everyday “miracles” is fairly rare in my experience, and I enjoy it immensely. His affection for certain things is contagious.
Other occupants of this building include a tax prep company, a painter who specializes in cardboard art, and a massage parlor, which I was rather timorous, if not bashful, about entering into, so I will just have to go on record as saying the lady who answered the door was rather brusque, and unforthcoming about my queries into her affairs, though pleasant enough in generally dismissing me. There is also a psychic who rents out a small room with a view of the street on the 2nd story. She was congenial, and not bashful at all about her perspicacious skills. In fact this rather bovine-looking lady offered to give me a discounted tarot card and palm reading. I declined this service. It’s not that I am one to distrust the auguries of those in the know about the land beyond; it’s just that I’d rather not know certain things before they happen, as I’m afraid I might misinterpret them and, like the soldier at the oracle of Delphi, run head first into my own demise because of a misplaced comma. I wished her the best (though she knew better than I what was coming) and made my way down the hall.
A slight marmoreal shimmer gleams from the hall floors, which produce a rather eerie echo of one’s footsteps off the verdigris peeling-paint of the narrow halls. This is especially apparent on a night like this, when the moon’s all full and big and shining a wild yellow light through the windows, and the sky’s tossing a few battered clouds around, and the working masses have fled the downtown streets, and about all you can hear between the building's thin walls is the lonely buzz of a few halogen lights, and, on this night, a strange scraping sound, almost like somebody sanding down a rough surface. This sound, I soon came to realize, was coming from the studio of one K.C. Wittengreen.
Mr. Wittengreen is a corpulent, swarthy, hirsute beast of a man, and his flabby, rotund frame seems to take up most of the room in his small studio, where he spends most nights scratching away at the surface of, and then repainting and/or polishing, a varied assortment of old and rusted metal objects. He confided in me he does take in the occasional plastic artifact, but these are rare occasions. His milieu is metal, and he tries to stick to it. At this time he’s concentrating on resurrecting the rusted parts of a swing set he found at the city dump. “There are like mostly these things people just leave, and they’re no good anymore, right? But you’ve got to see them for what they’re not…for everything that they’re not. Well…that’s just what I do. It passes the time.” He scratches his balding head and squints a bit into the dusty light. “I have a lot of time here. I have more time here than anywhere else I’ve lived. I can’t explain it. This place…well, it just works for me. I work better here.” He tells me over a few warm Hamm's that he’s been living there since February, making him one of the elder statesmen of the artist movement at 130 Bush. Mr. Wittengreen doesn’t consider himself an artist though. He claims to be a guy who, “just wants to do what makes me feel more alive, that keeps humming on the inside, that makes life seem worthwhile. Does that make me an artist? Shit. I don’t know. I guess. But, who cares?” I watch him work for a bit, and wander around.
His studio is littered with rust and metal debris. There’s a small makeshift kitchen, which he’s built out of, “the re-sculptured remains of the shit people’ve thrashed and left to rot.” A table made out of abandoned musical instruments; an oven with an old car door cut and refit onto the front and grills made out of the spokes of bike tires; a bowling-ball coffee pot; a rug of old coats; and a few chairs scrapped together out of oven pans and metal poles.
In a corner over a work bench he’s scratching off all the caked-on rust that’s coiling around the swing set’s ladder’s rungs like barnacles. Sweat has drenched his tank top, and he seems to be wheezing a bit. I ask him about the affordability of living his life in this way at 130 Bush. “It’s rough,” he admits through a gathering grunt. “I mean you come here and you expect certain things, and you want to sell your shit, you know? But, well, I guess I got in at a good time. It’s not too bad, the rent they’re charging. The guy who owns this place, well, he’s got a soft spot for those of us who don’t conform.” He wipes some sweat from his forehead. “The city comes to life at night, just like I do. We both…light up.” He laughs at himself, sighs, and then goes back to his scraping. His face did seem to be quite resplendent. I don’t think he noticed when I got up to leave. His powers of concentration were quite stunning.
After I plopped back out onto the street, I went over by the Crown-Zellerbach Building across the way, and gazed back at that wonderfully slim building I’d just been ambulating my way through. The streetlights were orange embers of fuzzy mystery, almost like flying saucers hanging motionless over the sidewalk, though held in place by the swan-neck curves of their poles. And up above those lights were the mostly darkened windows of 130 Bush, where long ago men had worked making belts, neckties, and suspenders, and had looked out onto the city from what at the time was a very high place. Now it seemed puny and ill conceived, strangled between two much wider and taller beasts, not even enough room to slide a hand between its brick and their sides. It looked quite splendid though, like an overlooked beauty hiding in the murk, waiting patiently to be discovered. And maybe now, with a few more windows still left flickering with bulb light each night, it will come back to life at last, thriving with the souls of a new breed of misfit urban artists who still appreciate the small, good things we have in this life, if only we’d take the time to notice them.