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City Scale

22 August 2014

For the last week or so I’ve been in the San Francisco Bay Area conducting a bit of final research for my book, San Francisco and the Long 60s. I’ve had a few loose ends to tie up at the library of the University of California, Berkeley, and some catching-up on recent developments at the Grateful Dead Archive of the University of California, Santa Cruz, before my 2015 publishing deadline. As I type this on my hotel balcony, I can look up and see a whale breaching in the Pacific. There are certainly worse places to spend a research leave.

One of the plans I had for this trip was to trace the path of a ‘happening’ that took place in March 1963 across the Russian Hill and North Beach areas of San Francisco: a piece called City Scale, by Ramon Sender (composer), Ken Dewey (playwright), and Anthony Martin (visual artist), in affiliation with the San Francisco Tape Music Center. So I gathered my indentured research assistants, bribed them with promises of pizza and chocolate, and headed over to the foggy hills of the city, armed with a ‘score’ of the work – basically a handwritten sketch outlining the main points in the six-hour event, with no absolute coordinates, street names, directions, tempo or timing.

The only sure piece of information I had was that the piece began at the location of the Tape Music Center, 1537 Jones Street, and that the audience was walked up a hill overlooking North Beach, where they could witness a choreographed ‘car ballet’ in the streets below. At the same time there was a trombonist stationed in a tunnel nearby, playing into the traffic. When the audience walked back to the Tape Music Center there was a woman in a dressing-gown, standing in the window of a nearby piano tuner’s shop, singing Debussy. Another part of the happening involved a ‘book-returning ceremony’ at City Lights Bookstore, followed by a light show projected against the blank wall of a Wells Fargo bank. There was more to it, but those were the main tangible events.

Put together, these clues summon any number of mental images: a crisp spring night, planned events set against the backdrop of an unsuspecting city, audience blending with citizenry, citizenry becoming performers in a city-wide performance piece. It must have been an incredible night. When I met Ramon Sender a few years ago I suggested that he run City Scale again; as much as he would like to, he said that health and safety restrictions would never allow that kind of thing to happen today. So now it’s just a semi-documented, un-mapped performance event that took place one night over 50 years ago. What could I possible glean from stumbling around San Francisco trying to re-trace it?

Well, first of all, it’s important for me to understand how much the city has changed over these last fifty years. So much of the backdrop for City Scale just doesn’t exist in the same way now. I already knew this, of course – I have many childhood memories of extensive building works around the Embarcadero in San Francisco, only one small piece in the evolving urban puzzle – so was prepared to spend part of the day second-guessing, back-tracking, and ignoring physical proof of radical change.

Jones Street
Jones Street

One such change is that the Tape Music Center left its Jones Street location shortly after City Scale for a much bigger space on Divisadero, very close to the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury community, where they remained until relocating to Mills College in Oakland in 1969. So although we began retracing City Scale at 1537 Jones Street, we did so by looking at a non-descript apartment building, no doubt full of people wondering what I was doing standing in the middle of the street taking pictures of their front door.  I can confirm that no residual music was discernible in the middle of the street, nor was any emanating from the windows.

2 piano tunerOn the corner of Jones and Pacific is a series of shops, any one of which might have been home to the piano tuner and the bathrobe-besuited soprano. My hunch was that it was the shop with the three windows, but my research assistants and I failed to reach a consensus on that. What was certain was that the liquor store sign across the street has probably been hanging there since at least 1963.


3 liquor store

We trudged up the hill to where we imagined the audience was taken to hear the tunnelled trombonist and to watch the car ballet. The most obvious marker here is Russian Hill, a stunning little piece of real estate with some of the more breathtaking views in a city full of breathtaking views.

4 big hill

5 not thereAlthough there were plenty of old mansions standing proudly where they’ve probably stood for a century, there were also some unfortunate reminders of the tendency, even in San Francisco, to build unlovely structures that then blight the landscape for decades. In at least one instance these structures block out the one bit of view that City Scale was designed to exploit.


Sometimes our view was blocked by foliage, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did give us an interesting investigative problem.

7 coit

One anecdotal memory of City Scale was the sight of Coit Tower lit by a full moon, with the car ballet taking place on the streets below it. A roughly contemporary 1960s view toward Coit Tower from Russian Hill suggests how effective this might have been. The vantage from last week was rather less clear, though the relatively light redevelopment of North Beach allowed me to zoom in on a couple of residential blocks that might have served as backdrop to the car ballet.


8 car ballet


Among the more surprising developments in the Russian Hill area since the 1963 performance of City Scale is the arrival of wild parrots in San Francisco. We encountered some of them as we walked down Russian Hill toward North Beach, and I wondered what they might have contributed to City Scale, had they (a) been there at the time, and (b) not been too shy to chatter to the audience.

9 parrot

Our descent into North Beach concluded with a trip to City Lights, where audience members in City Scale had been given books to ‘return’ to the front desk. 10 city lightsThat was a lovely bit of theatre, but it was also a powerful symbolic gesture: City Lights is a vital, living icon of the Beat generation, which was decidedly on the wane in 1963. What City Scale represented was a motion toward progressive artistic production, and certainly the interactions between key players in the Tape Music Center and agents in the nascent counterculture from that point onward affected the ‘next wave’ of artistic production in the city, which is the focus of my book. So we paid due respect to North Beach history by browsing the shelves at City Lights, taking a picture of Jack Kerouac Alley and going on our way.

11 kerouac alley

My task now is to make sense of all of this, keeping Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks’ crucial Theatre/Archaeology (Routledge, 2001) close at hand. This extended excavation was merely intended to feed into a very brief section of my book, but sometimes the longest tangents provide the most interesting insights.


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