EXAMINER: Participants using video remarks for critical documentary

Monthly chance to vent problems puts mayor on spot, and on tape

Participants using video remarks for critical documentary

Sunday Nov 05, 2000

By Pia Sarkar

Greg Asay and Jeff Taylor walked into San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's office, politely gave their names, and then hit the record button on Taylor's video camera.

The two had come by City Hall Saturday morning for Brown's monthly gab sessions with the public. The first 25 people who signed up to meet with the mayor got 15 prized minutes of his time to vent whatever was on their minds.

For some, it was complaints about Muni. For others, it was concern about San Francisco's schools or drug problems in their neighborhood.

Some asked for the mayor's support for their causes, whether it was monetarily for the Sacred Heart Church's food pantry or verbally for striking workers at See's Candy.

Two people independently of each other suggested to Brown that a tunnel be built under San Francisco so travelers passing through need not cut through traffic.

For Asay and Taylor, the issue was housing.

The conversation began cordially, with Asay asking Brown for his thoughts on the upcoming election while Taylor taped the interview. Brown responded by describing San Francisco's voting districts and how oddly the neighborhoods have been lumped together.

Asay then shifted the discussion to the changing face of the Mission district and the exodus of Latinos from the neighborhood, replaced by dot-commers.

Brown spoke passionately, saying that dot-commers are the new scapegoat of San Francisco, much like blacks and Chinese had been years ago.

"Everything bad that happens is blamed on the dot-coms," Brown said. "It's really unfortunate that dot-commers are being vilified."

He added that before Latinos occupied the Mission District, it had been the Irish, and that changing demographics are simply "a natural order of business" in San Francisco.

Asay and Taylor listened attentively and kept the camera rolling.

Generously exceeding his 15-minute allotment with them, the mayor continued on a lengthy discourse about affordable housing in San Francisco, the conversion of living space into loft units, and renters leaving town to buy homes in the suburbs.

In the end, Asay and Taylor smiled pleasantly, thanked Brown for his time, and left disgusted by what they had just heard.

"They're consistently breaking the planning code for big developers, and I think the mayor's behind it," Asay said afterward.

The pair later revealed that they plan to use the video footage in a documentary Taylor is making about San Francisco's housing crisis.

Although Brown did not know it, Taylor works for Whispered Media, a nonprofit video production company based in the Mission District, where he has gotten a first-hand look at how the neighborhood has become gentrified.

Saturday's meeting gave Taylor a first-hand look at where Brown stands on the matter.

"I wanted to get on tape the mayor waxing on about how great the dot-coms are," he said.

Taylor said he planned to juxtapose Brown's comments with interviews with people who have lost their housing to dot-commers.

Asay, who received his master's degree in housing and urban development and is active in the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, said he was disheartened by the mayor's comments on housing.

"I personally wanted to hear from him directly," Asay said. "I wanted to hear his explanation for why poor people can't live in The City anymore."

Brown aide Bevan Dufty, who had not known Asay and Taylor planned to use the mayor in a documentary, said most people who come to Brown's open houses use their 15 minutes simply to voice their concerns.

But every once in a while, someone will try to trap the mayor into making an incriminating comment and later use it against him.

Dufty pointed to one occasion within the last two years in which a man claiming that there was no such thing as HIV came storming into the mayor's office with his comrades and a video camera hoping to corner Brown on the topic.

"People have come in and videotaped things and it's their right," Dufty said.

On or off camera, Dufty said, the mayor has remained forthright.

"It's kind of refreshing in this day and age," Dufty said.