Chris Carlsson Talks Creating And Saving FoundSF, Fighting For His Home

Chris Carlsson is not your typical historian. He’s the cofounder of the community history project Shaping San Francisco. It runs FoundSF, a popular wiki-like archive housing more than 1,800 original news and community articles about the city and the Bay.

As he tells us in the interview below, it has gone through 20 years of technological transitions and some hard times. In a demonstration of how highly its works is valued today, Carlsson says the nonprofit has recently raised enough money from the public, mostly small donors, to keep going. His personal future in the city, though, is more uncertain – he could face eviction.

Shaping SF

The site topics range far and wide, from early city history to modern topics, and whether or not Carlsson’s name is listed, he’s the writer and photographer for many of them, and even a participant in a couple. He helped create Critical Mass, for example, but the FoundSF entry about the controversial bicycle direct-action ride only lists him as a photographer.

Carlsson on a Shaping SF bike tour. Photo by by velobry/Flickr.

This underlines his approach to history, which he and his colleague explore through the perspective of collective social movements, rather than the “great man” figures featured in more traditional versions of events. The archives are particularly thorough on neighborhood news topics, and on social and political organizing since the 1950s and 60s. And there’s something for everyone – like this gem about today’s Bay to Breakers footrace, from FoundSF’s article on the matter:

[T]he course for the first event coincided with the route earthquake and fire refugees had trekked as they walked up Hayes Street to Alamo Square (just before the race’s 3-mile marker) to the central first-aid station and on to what was the location of the tent cities in Golden Gate Park. That’s still the route of today’s race.

Shaping SF also provides ways for people to interact beyond the FoundSF site. Carlsson and other members provide public talks as well as bicycle and walking tours. The organization also partners with university classes, like this one at UC Berkeley, and other community organizations, like its collaboration with the Internet Archive and other local groups to create the Neighborhood Newspapers of San Francisco digitization project.

Carlsson giving the talk this past week at SHARP. Photo by Caitlin Harrington/Hoodline. 

As one of his speaking engagements, he had been invited by the Inner Sunset Culture Club, which meets at the Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People’s headquarters, to talk last Tuesday about his work on the archives. So we also sat down with him to learn more details

The Community Mission

If the idea of a history archive brings to mind dusty library stacks, rote memorization, and old dead men, Carlsson will probably upend your thinking. He wants it that way. “Our vision is that there should be multiple points of view about any given topic, and preferably controversially in contrast to each other,” he said. Readers should be able to decide which point of view makes sense to them, and be open to changing their minds when new information comes along. “Our motto,” he said, “is that history is a creative act in the present.”

On their website, Shaping SF describes their departure from traditional schools of thought: “Our roots lie in the ‘new social history’ which emerged in the [French] Annales School in the 1930s and was further developed in the 1960s as a way to go beyond the traditional history of ‘great men’ which many of us were spoon-fed in public school.’” As Carlsson explained, “We’re really interested in social history, and the history of struggles that created the world we’re in today. How did it get to be like this? Why are housing laws the way they are? Why is transportation shaped the way it is? It’s because of these sharp class conflicts that happened over and over again.”

The White Night spontaneous march. Photo by Daniel Nicoletta/FoundSF

Carlsson’s idea for Shaping SF emerged from a background in political and social activism that took off when he moved to San Francisco in 1978. He canvassed for an environmental group before enrolling in and eventually dropping out of San Francisco State University (“I always thought college was a waste of time, and I had better things to do”), and later joined up with a group called the Union of Concerned Commies. The group was vocal in the anti-nuclear movement and participated in the 1979 White Night Riot over the lenient sentencing of Dan White for the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

To earn money, Carlsson did temp work in the Financial District before starting his own typesetting company. He came across many workers like him who worked in offices to earn money while pursuing creative endeavors outside of work. Carlsson once heard someone say, “What you see me doing is not what I do” which he thought perfectly captured this bifurcation. In 1980 he came up with the idea for Processed World, a magazine “about the underside of the information age as told by the alienated wage slaves of the modern office and beyond.”

Information Age Publishing

Processed World published 32 issues from 1981 to 1994 (you can find them in PDF form here). During the magazine’s heyday, Carlsson and his fellow writers and editors would sell magazines in the Financial District, dressing up in papier-mâché costumes and masks with slogans like “IBM: Intensely Boring Machines,” and “GM: General Monotony.” This drew a mix of reactions, from workers relieved to find they weren’t alone in their dissatisfaction to others who told him it had been and would always be this way. Carlsson disputed this notion. “This is a very specific moment in history,” he said. “Things were really different 20 years ago, and they’re going to be really different in 20 years.”

The first issue of the Processed World. Via the Internet Archive.

The magazine ended its initial run in 1994, which coincided with a decline in the typesetting industry where Carlsson made his living. Responding to what they saw as a widespread amnesia about the forces behind the culture Processed World criticized, Carlsson and some of the magazine’s co-creators, Jim Swanson and Greg Williamson, thought, “We need to address this problem, this amnesiac culture, and so that’s kind of what gave rise to the idea of doing a history project.”

Initially they planned to create a game. It would have featured a bicycle messenger who got knocked into the past by an earthquake and had to make it back by solving history-related riddles. “That seemed like a great idea at first, and then it turned out be a terrible idea,” Carlsson said. “History’s quite complicated already. To tell history in a nonlinear form is an interesting challenge.” They wanted an alternative to the narrative found in most history books, with “multiple points of view and multiple threads that overlap and intersect and cross-link.” People take that concept for granted today with the Internet, he said, but in those days it was new.

Shaping SF originally launched in 1998 on CD-ROM. “The buzz around here in those days was ‘Interactive Multimedia,’” Carlsson said. They placed public kiosks around the city – in libraries and community centers, outside Rainbow Grocery and City Lights bookstore – hoping to expand the idea of interactivity. “Interactivity is this, where two people talk to each other, and you don’t know what the other person’s going to say, and it could go in any weird direction at any moment,” he said. “And what we were interested in was provoking that kind of interactivity by putting these things in public places.”

Distribution of the print edition. Via FoundSF.

They spent a lot of time in libraries sorting through newspaper microfiche for material and included several Processed World essays. A book of essays about the city’s contrarian spirit, Reclaiming San Francisco, accompanied the launch, part of which went into the archive. They got permission from the author of Dr. Weirde’s Weird Tours: A Guide to Mysterious San Francisco, to publish sections of his book about oddball San Francisco history. The material was quirky, often “goofy,” but was divided conveniently into neighborhoods, which helped them start populating these sections.

Additionally, several volunteers helped expand the archive. One man excerpted and analyzed the 1855 Annals of San Francisco. “We have a really good account of the first decade of San Francisco because of the work this one guy did,” Carlsson said. Others started working on women’s and Jewish history. The goal, he said, was to “just get something started. It doesn’t have to be the last word or the only word. It just needs to get started.”

Moving The Community Online

Then in 2006, someone proposed the idea of doing a wiki. “Well, yeah, duh, come to think of it,” Carlsson said, “A wiki is the perfect thing. That meets the vision we had all along, which is this project that could grow, that’s open ended, that anyone could participate in, and it’s an open platform.” They found a programmer to transfer the archive and a designer to work on the interface, and in 2009 Found SF opened in its current form.

A collection of some of Carlsson's books. Photo by Caitlin Harrington/Hoodline. 

Since then the collection has continued expanding, and Found SF now collaborates with Bay Area universities like Stanford, UC Berkeley, USF, and CIIS, where Carlsson is an adjunct professor. Students have written abstracts for some of their longer articles. They released a free iPhone app in 2011, where users can geotag photos. Additionally, Shaping SF has compiled a collection of oral histories. One titled “Ecology Emerges,” was sponsored by a California Humanities grant and explores the topic of ecological activism, one of Carlsson’s personal interests.

He imagines a broad range of uses for the site. “You can go in there and have a very grazing, lighthearted engagement with it and just look at pretty pictures and not really go any deeper. But if you want to go deep, there are a lot of places where you can really go down the rabbit hole and not come out for a while. It just depends on your level of interest. We like that,” Carlsson said.

About nine years ago Carlsson’s co-director, LisaRuth Elliot, joined the project, partly to solidify the business side. One of their goals in recent years has been to raise more money. They briefly partnered with the Museum and Historical Society, which contributed funding, but their relationship dissolved after two years.

Building The Nonprofit

“Then last year we were really sinking,” Carlsson said. “It was really going badly, and we didn’t even know if we could keep paying ourselves.” So they devised a fundraising campaign called the 3% solution, based on the idea that if just 3% of their 35,000 monthly users gave $10 a month, they could sustain the site. “We got nowhere close to that, but we did raise $25,000. So that helped a lot.” Some donors agreed to become monthly sustainers, bringing in $1,100 a month. “That gives us some breathing room we never had before,” he said. They receive a few larger, often unexpected, grants each year, but the majority of their funding comes from small donors.

A Shaping SF talk in progress. Via FoundSF.

As community history organizations go, they’re better funded than most in the city, which isn’t saying much. “Most of history work going on in this town is 100% volunteer,” Carlsson said. “Very few people are getting paid even what we’re getting paid, and we’re [hardly] getting paid anything.” “The fantasy” is for the city to take more responsibility for funding history work, Carlsson said. He proposed an idea to expand the city’s Hotel Tax Fund, which provides millions of dollars in annual arts funding. “Let’s add another per cent or two and call it the history tax.”

The money, he said, could go to a history commission that would dole out grants to the groups already doing the work for free. “[History] is a public utility,” he said. “Just like electricity, or water. You need history. You can’t live without it.”

Several of the community history groups have formed a consortium and have begun meeting regularly over the past couple years, and Carlsson said they plan to start promoting this idea more systematically. The group, which includes Accion Latina, Bernal History Project, Potrero Hill Archives, Visitacion Valley History Project, Western Neighborhoods Project, Noe Valley Voice, and Shaping SF, decided to collaborate on a project as a first step. “We said, what could we do that would consolidate our relationships and benefit all of us in some equal way?”

A collection of digitized neighborhood newspapers from the collection. Via FoundSF.

The outcome was Neighborhood Newspapers of San Francisco, a digital scanning project in partnership with the Internet Archive to make entire collections of neighborhood newspapers available online. So far they’ve scanned over 1,200 newspapers. “We’re pretty proud of that because that’s actually a great contribution to history. You can go and look up the whole Tenderloin Times from 1977-1995, when it went under. That’s an incredible time in the history of that neighborhood, and you just wouldn’t even know how to find that stuff without that.”

History With An Opinion

“Is the information on FoundSF neutral and balanced?” is the rhetorical question asked on FoundSF’s About page. “No,” is its answer:

Unlike Wikipedia, FoundSF does not have a mission to present a ‘neutral point of view.’ Instead, we are focused on presenting real artifacts of history, and some of the best of these are highly biased and provocative. For example, Mark Twain's searing satire of General Funston is a unique, provocative, and highly opinionated piece of history.

Carlsson made this clear during his talk on Tuesday. He gave a tour through Ten Years that Shook the City, an essay collection he and Elliot edited about the tumultuous decade between 1968 and 1978, when several social movements occurred that indelibly shaped the city.

Geary Street before redevelopment. Photo from the San Francisco Public Library via FoundSF.

Among these were ecological movements with roots in earlier decades’ environmentalism. He described the grassroots movement to prevent nuclear power plant construction on a Sonoma County fault line, the Save the Bay movement to preserve the Bay from landfill, and the freeway revolt, which killed a plan to build a highway through the city joining the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. These led to the Save San Bruno Mountain movement in the ‘70s, which prevented the top third of the mountain from being lopped off, but also led to a developer-friendly amendment to the federal Endangered Species Act.

Carlsson said the high quality food the Bay Area enjoys is also due to the overall increase in social and environmental awareness – including the 1960s farm workers’ strikes and several radical food movements, like The Diggers in Haight Ashbury to the People’s Food System, of which Rainbow Grocery was a part.

He also described a redevelopment storyline beginning with the longshoremen’s strike of 1934, which he calls an important, if little known about, piece of city history because it helped foster more unions and a sense of activism that would continue in later decades.

Food distribution outside of a home. Photo via Chuck Gould/FoundSF.

So, while city redevelopment efforts targeted several neighborhoods in the 1950s – including the Fillmore, Geary Blvd, the Fillmore, Western Addition, and SoMa, the Mission was able to organize and stop the plans. He noted that redevelopment efforts successfully uprooted many communities, specifically Italian produce workers, African-Americans, and Japanese, and changed the city’s racial and demographic makeup. But he described movements to make redevelopment work for existing residents, including a lawsuit resulting in a federal law requiring one-to-one housing replacement, and the creation of permanent senior housing around what is now Moscone Center.

Unfinished History

Carlsson has been consistently outspoken over the decades in his criticism of capitalism, wage labor, and private property. He’s spoken and written extensively about these subjects, including in two books he authored, Nowtopia, about the small ways people are taking their time and know-how out of the market, and After the Deluge, a utopian novel about a post-economic San Francisco. He’s also penned several essays, including a recent one for Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, a book about a political and social movement that advocates economic downscaling.

An anti-SoMa development cartoon. Via FoundSF.

He sees these economic, political forces at the root of the city’s current housing crisis and wave of gentrification. “The process that we’re living through today is the culmination and essentially the quintessential intensification of a process that was started a long time ago by policy, and its denouement is just a disaster,” he said.

In a personal twist, Carlsson’s own home is now under threat from the forces he’s organized against for so long. His building, which the tenants affectionately call the “Pigeon Palace” after their landlady’s admiration for the hearty birds, was put up for sale after she was moved to assisted living and her assets were put into conservatorship. The tenants are fighting an uphill battle to transform the building into a community land trust and convert it into permanently affordable housing, in accordance with what they say are their landlady’s wishes. If they fail, they could face eviction.

“For somebody like me, who is now facing this personally, I have a very hard time imagining that I’m going to stay in the Bay Area,” he said. “I feel like that’s what’s happening. It’s going to be this complete removal from this place that’s my home and the place I spent my whole life getting to know and becoming sort of an ‘expert’ on. And it’s a very ironic feeling to feel like, Oh, I’m going to be one of the ones who’s sent into some weird San Francisco diaspora.”

The Mission house where Carlsson and others face eviction. Photo by Caitlin Harrington/Hoodline

Carlsson views the current system of housing as part of a coercive process that keeps people tied to often unsatisfying, useless work. “So this system of coercion is also based on willful amnesia,” he said. “That’s why I’m very interested in history. Because I think it unpacks that and helps people understand, how did it get like this? And if it got like this through all those moments of contestation and conflict and outcome of confusing dialectics, maybe it could go a different direction going down the road.”

This idea has fueled his diverse, prolific career. “Let’s change how we think here has been a main goal of everything I’ve been involved in for my whole life.”

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Chris carlsson talks creating saving foundsf fighting for his home