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NOWTOPIA: going for a ride & making some change

June 3, 2009

VBU logo tsmLast Friday evening, I went on a bike ride in downtown San Francisco.  I parked near City Hall and Van Ness, yanked Toni’s Burner bike out of the back of our Honda CRV, grabbed my ID, a $20 bill, some flyers, and rode off toward a gathering of fellow riders including Chris Carlsson at an unmarked gallery on 7th.

In a city, riding a bike, especially one that’s not yours and which is a knobby tired mountain bike several sizes too small, is an exhilerating experience (exhilerating, by the way, is my word for the week). Even though many other riders commute around, I saw no bike lanes and cars seemed surprised to find  me there beside them, attempting to share their lanes, trying to navigate and negotiate the streets.

At the gallery, Chris Carlsson, (author of Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant Lot Garedners Are Inventing the Future Today! for more info scroll down) gives me a hug, mixes me a gin and tonic, and introduces me around. I’m proudly wearing my navy Ventura bike union t-shirt, with the red logo drawn, designed and hand stenciled by Winston Braun.  Russell Howe immediately asks if he can take my picture–or more accurately, take a picture of the t-shirt for his stencil archive he explains, handing me his card. I barely have a chance to glance at the art before we’re on our bikes and riding up 7th to Market.CMSFM09sm

At the bottom of Market, where it ends at the Bay, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cyclists are gathered, as are a significant number of police officers. Someone with a megaphone says a few words, closes with have fun, and people ride up Market, many with music blasting. Chris has cowbells on his bike and he plays a rhythmic festive tune. Children on the sidewalks smile and we wave to each other. We are about in the middle of the Mass and bikes stretch as far as I can see in front and behind me, and they reach the sidewalks on both sides of the streets. There must be well over 2,000 people on the ride.CMSFmay09CCarlssonsm

At one point, as the crowd slowed to navigate car and pedestrian  traffic, a hill and a turn near Union Square, a woman asks:

“What are you riding for?”

I glance around and realize there are no signs, no markers that this is “the” Crtical Mass or much of anything to designate what we are riding for. “It’s Critical Mass!” I say with a big smile.

I’m not sure whether she hears me or whether my answer is nonsensical when she repeats her question: “What are you riding for?”

“To ride the streets!” I answer with a broad grin.

“To ride in the streets?” she asks.

“Yes, to ride the streets!”

“Is that all?” she looks incredulous.

“That’s all!” I say with another smile. I hear Chris playing his cowbells and ride off with the rest of the crowd, her words ringing in my ears.

“Is that all?” I pondered her question the rest fo the ride, and in the days following.

“Is that all?” Obviously, she’s never tried to ride the roads, never been squeezed by a bus, forced into a game of chicken with a car. Riding the roads in San Francisco that night was a turning point I now know, I can see, even though it was only a few days ago.

Because “is that all?” is enough, is a lot. Because riding the roads IS a big deal. Taking back the streets, making it safe for various forms of transportation, to walk, to ride–that’s a huge change in priorities from making roads all about getting people from point A to B–from home to work and home to work–it is a huge change.

As a significant contributor to the change, I credit Critical Mass, the ride I participated in,  a 17 year institution in San Francisco.

The idea behind Critical Mass is that if you have a critical mass of something, something will givve, something will change. According to wikipedia’s entry Critical Mass:

Critical Mass-like bike tours with hundreds of participants took place in Stockholm, Sweden in the early 1970s [13]. But the first ride within the present wave took place on Friday, September 25, 1992 at 6 p.m. in San Francisco. At that time, the event was known as Commute Clot and was composed of a couple of dozen cyclists who had received flyers on Market Street.[2]

Shortly after this, some participants in that ride went to a local bicycle shop for a screening of Ted White’s documentary Return of the Scorcher, about bike culture overseas. In that film, American human powered vehicle and pedicabs designer George Bliss noted that, in China, both motorists and bicyclists had an understood method of negotiating intersections without signals. Traffic would “bunch up” at these intersections until the backlog reached a “critical mass”, at which point that mass would move through the intersection. That term from the movie was applied to the ride,[14] and the name cau ght on, replacing “Commute Clot” by the time of the second event.[2]

By the time of the fourth ride, the number of cyclists had increased to around 100 and participation continued to grow dramatically, reaching about 1,000 riders, on average.[2]

The name was soon adopted as a generic label by participants in similar but independent mass rides that were either initiated in various locations around the world at around the same time, or had already existed before 1992 under other names. It is estimated that there are Critical Mass-type rides in more than 325 cities to date. The term “masser” is sometimes applied to frequent participants.[15]

Or many somethridebikesTstencilsmings will change.

That night, I changed from my bike duds to my party clothes at a Burner Moms, sharing the couch with her clean laundry including the bike shirt pictured here by Kent Klaudt which Tara generously offered to me. I wonder if it’s in Russell’s collection yet!

Join us! We ride in town most Friday nights! First Friday we meet at 5:30pm at the Artists Union Gallery, last Fridays meet at 530pm at the canon in Plaza Park, and Fridays in-between  meet at Ventura High School near the bronze statue at 6pm.Santacon2(3)sm

This Friday is the Santacon and we will celebrate with an afterparty with music, food, and beer donated from Anacapa brewery.

Join us! Make a donation to the VBU (Ventura Bicyclists Union) and get your own shirt! We’re working on First Friday ArtRide stickers too.

(What’s  Nowtopia? The book, from AK Press, discusses how

outlaw bicycling, urban permaculture, biofuels, free software, and even the Burning Man festival are windows into a scarcely visible social transformation that is redefining politics as we know it. As capitalism continues to corral every square inch of the globe into its logic of money and markets, new practices are emerging through which people are taking back their time and technological know-how. In small, under-the-radar ways, they are making life better right now, simultaneously building the foundation—technically and socially—for a genuine movement of liberation from market life.

Nowtopia uncovers the resistance of a slowly recomposing working class in America. Rarely defining themselves by what they do for a living, people from all walks of life are doing incredible amounts of labor in their “non-work” time, creating immediate practical improvements in daily life. The social networks they create, and the practical experience of cooperating outside of economic regulation, become a breeding ground for new strategies to confront the commodification to which capitalism reduces us all.

The practices outlined in Nowtopia embody a deep challenge to the basic underpinnings of modern life, as a new ecologically-driven politics emerges from below, reshaping our assumptions about science, technology, and human potential.

With historical grounding, a toolbox drawing from multiple schools of anti-capitalist thought and theory, and a refreshingly pragmatic approach, Carlsson opens our eyes to the revolutions of everyday life.

Chris Carlsson, executive director of the multimedia history project “Shaping San Francisco,” is a writer, publisher, editor, and community organizer. He has edited four collections of political and historical essays. He helped launch the monthly bike-ins known as Critical Mass, and was long-time editor of Processed World magazine.

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