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From Issue #35 January 30, 2014

To Have and Not Hold

A hippie, an anarchist, and a start-up define freeness and sharing in a time of excess.

By Colleen Hubbard Twitter icon

Items inside the Yerdle truck. Photo by the author.

The center did not hold. Headlines heralded Ellis Act evictions of longstanding tenants, record-breaking rents, and a shrinking middle-class in San Francisco, a city known for eschewing cultural norms and embracing hippies, gays, artists, and others cast off from suburban moorings. Nonprofit workers, African Americans, and painters moved out; tech-savvy young people moved in. Regulators announced that after nearly 70 years under the banner of 415, the city required a new area code prefix to accommodate the growing population.

Since an ordinance banning interment in 1900, grief lived in the city, while death resided elsewhere; the metropolis drew always from the well of the young and enterprising, giving it a sense of electric discovery easily delinked from the aging and deterioration of previous waves of discoverers.

If three data points constitute a trend in journalism, the constellation of gentrification stories about San Francisco certainly adds up to one. Yet stories about the city’s population increase and demographic changes rarely consider the subtler fundamentals of culture shifts.

How does a group that changes so quickly define itself through basic human interactions like sharing? What does it mean if something is “free”? Why was there an anarchist-run “free market” for sharing goods in Dolores Park in the late aughts, and why is there a truck for a for-profit sharing start-up parked there today? How does an anarchist’s vision reverberate in a community after her murder, and what’s a hippie to do when Kitty Carlisle, in pearls and a pink scarf, inquires on a panel game show, “Where did you get the money to give if everything was free?”

The Yerdle truck. Photo by the author.

2014: The start-up

On a weekend afternoon in late November, shirtless men smack balls across the tennis courts that edge Dolores Park. Just outside the northern boundary fence, a man in torn jeans sleeps facedown alongside a bag of his belongings.

Below the courts, the Yerdle truck is just setting up. A young employee places fliers and a sign advertising samples of goat-milk ice cream on a foldout table. Yerdle, a year-old start-up, aims to reduce waste by encouraging its user base to share items they don’t need or want with other users of its app. Winning bidders, who pay in credits that have no cash value, pick up their wares from a converted 1980s-era ice cream truck, which alternates between two locations in San Francisco. They can also have them shipped for a low flat rate.

While Yerdle has yet to establish a profit model, their elevator pitch is simple: the company relies on the fact that there’s too much of nearly everything. From camping equipment to sneakers, Americans produce more than we can consume. Andy Ruben, CEO of Yerdle and former chief sustainability officer at Walmart, argues that Yerdle’s business model is the root of the new sustainability: not simply making products and systems more efficient, but eliminating the production of new items altogether by sharing what we already own.

“The things that really matter are the items on the shelves, not the trucks or buildings,” Ruben says of a realization that occurred to him during his tenure at Walmart. “The biggest opportunity wasn’t to make something less bad, but to make people not have to buy things, because there might be 50 pairs of tennis shoes that are not being worn at all.”

But how to get those tennis shoes to the person who needs them? Yerdle suggests that we rely on our networks. While shaping the company, Yerdle inspected the shopping habits of one young city dweller and determined that 25 percent of the items she purchased were duplicates of items owned by friends who were not using the products. The warehouse you need, Yerdle argues, isn’t Amazon’s — it’s the garages and basements of your friends and neighbors.

At the Yerdle truck, a woman in a fur-lined hooded coat steps up to claim a Brownie camera. Neither she nor the Yerdle employee know what a Brownie looks like, so together they inspect each of the vintage cameras stored in metal bins inside the truck and ultimately select one that appears to be the right candidate.

“Hopefully it works,” the Yerdle employee says. “At least it’s cool.”

A woman with a bike covered in bicycle advocacy stickers rolls up to claim her item, a clock radio. “I just like vintage things,” she confesses. She drops off a pair of jeans and the truck’s manager agrees to give her 10 credits for them.

A year after its launch on Black Friday of 2012, Yerdle is still experimenting with the basic mechanisms of sharing. After an initial launch based on a desktop platform that allowed users to share items with Facebook connections, the upgraded version is mobile-only, based on a credit-trading system that was not part of the initial release, and opens bidding to all Yerdle users, though a user may elect to share items only with friends.

The term “sharing economy” includes start-ups like Yerdle, and is often used to describe how products and services that were previously regulated can be rented out, including capital investments that once benefitted only the owner or things that seemed to have no ostensible value. The list of peer-to-peer and business-to-consumer categories that have sprung up for collaborative consumption includes private cars used as livery services (Lyft), rented apartments turned into rooms-for-hire (Airbnb), and unwanted leftovers sent to hungry diners (Leftover Swap).

With Yerdle, users acquire an item advertised on the app or in the daily newsletter by bidding with credits, some of which are given for signing up; more are earned by providing items for redistribution. Of course, the app-based system means that you can only share with those like you: young urban-dwellers who own iPads and iPhones and have a taste for photographic equipment, camping tools, and vintage housewares.

The company is a California for-profit benefit corporation that so far relies on venture funding to grease the operational wheels; Ruben and his team are still discussing ways that they might turn Yerdle into a profit-maker. “Our investors see longterm opportunity,” Ruben says. “We’re not talking about selling rainbows and unicorns. The challenge is scaling existing behavior of sharing.”

Their profit-making ideas so far include the idea of tacking on additional shipping charges for remote users; Ruben says they do not plan to charge for Yerdle credits. Credits weren’t part of the initial model, but were introduced as a medium of exchange among users who weren’t connected via Facebook. Those already connected couldn’t use them, and they demanded the ability to have a medium of social exchange, though it was valueless. The company relented and made credit trading available to all users.

“I think reciprocity is hard-wired in us,” Ruben explains. “Credits make it easier to give and get things; they make the transactions feel better.” Credits were instituted, more or less, to eliminate the discomfort of getting something for free.

1967: The hippies

“You know that uncomfortable feeling?” Judy Goldhaft asks when we meet at a Japantown teahouse and I tell her about Yerdle. “That’s why we gave [things away] at the Free Store.”

Judy Goldhaft, now in her 70s, has the thin, fine features of a porcelain teacup, though her hoodie and striped top could have been pulled from the closet of any 20-something. In the 1960s, Goldhaft arrived in the Bay Area as a young dance student. Through her involvement with the activist organization the Diggers, which itself sprang forth from the politically radical San Francisco Mime Troupe, she helped manage a series of Free Stores in the Haight-Ashbury District and beyond.

With roots in theater, the Diggers included performers, directors, and writers who later rose to prominence, such as the actor Peter Coyote, the environmentalist Peter Berg, and the writer Emmett Grogan, whose turn representing the Diggers while playing himself in the 1972 panel game show To Tell the Truth may be among the weirdest nine minutes of television ever archived. (Sample question from a panelist: “Kids don’t take LSD so much anymore; what do they take more now?” “Downers,” mumbled Grogan, who in 1978 was found dead of an overdose at the last stop of New York City’s F subway line.)

The Diggers was an anonymous horizontal organization (it had no leadership chain of command) that took its name from a group of English rebels who insisted on their right to farm common land during a food crisis in the 1600s. Through the Free Stores, the San Francisco Diggers arrived at a practical arrangement nested inside a philosophical challenge. Thousands of young people arrived in San Francisco in anticipation of 1967’s Summer of Love, and with their outreach efforts, the Diggers provided much-needed clothing, food, and health care that the city and other traditional suppliers of social services were unprepared to organize.

With its members’ background in the Mime Troupe, the Free Stores offered a dose of theater mixed with a swift kick to assumptions about consumerism and 1950s button-down ethics. At stores in San Francisco and New York, the Diggers piled up goods available for the taking: books, clothes, shoes, clocks — and “shoppers” found themselves confronted with their expectations about how things should be run.

“The Free Store was social theater,” says Morgan Fitzgibbons, who teaches a class on the Diggers at the University of San Francisco. “[A customer] might say, ‘Who’s the manager around here?’ and someone might say, ‘Well, you’re the manager.’ Sometimes people might say, ‘How much is this book?’ and they’d say, ‘How much do you think it’s worth? 50 cents? OK, who wants 50 cents?’ It was in service of breaking down the idea that in order to get things you need money, in order to meet your needs you need a job. Most of what they did was try to change people’s frame of reference around those concepts.”

“You could theatricalize any social event, any economic event, any personal event, by injecting ‘Free’ in it,” said Peter Berg, Goldhaft’s life partner, in a 1982 interview. “Because it just blew out the parameters. If you said ‘Red’ it would hardly touch it. If you said ‘Vietcong’ you wouldn’t even get near it. If you said ‘Black’ you wouldn’t get near it. ‘Free’ could be applied to any of those other things. Just put Free in front of anything and do it and it would be interesting.”

By 1967, magazines and newspapers were investigating what the Diggers were up to, from the batches of stew they cooked up in their apartments and served to the hungry in the park to the catchphrases they’d coined (such as “do your own thing”) and what, exactly, the Free Store might mean.

In “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” her essay on the scene in Haight-Ashbury, Joan Didion coolly describes the Diggers as a group “who, in official District mythology, are supposed to be a group of anonymous good guys with no thought in their collective head but to lend a helping hand.”

A 1967 “Talk of the Town” article in the New Yorker sniffs at the “negro and Puerto Rican children, old women speaking Middle European dialects, barefoot runaways with glazed eyes” and other untouchables at a Free Store on East Tenth Street. When two reporters from rival publications came to San Francisco asking to speak to the manager at a Free Store, Peter Berg told each reporter that the other reporter was a manager who preferred to remain anonymous and would deny being the manager if asked outright.

“They interviewed each other for half an hour,” Goldhaft remembers.

The Free Store made possible not only a costume change but a change of persona. Soldiers returning from the escalating war in Vietnam discarded their army gear, which was picked up by neighborhood denizens, creating an army gear trend among the counterculture. On the flip side, young people fleeing the suburbs dropped off the cookie-cutter costumes that defined the lives they had rejected. The Diggers worked with a fabric artist to turn piles of unwanted men’s undershirts into one-of-a-kind apparel using tie-dye and later taught tie-dye workshops at the Free Store, introducing a look that came to define the aesthetic of the 60s.

Today the neighborhood that was the nexus of the Digger scene is home to street kids, pizza shops, and overpriced T-shirt boutiques that target tourists. A Ben & Jerry’s holds the corner of Haight Street at Ashbury; on the Ashbury side in late December, three young men camp together, violating an ordinance prohibiting sitting or lying on sidewalks that is primarily enforced in this district, until a fight breaks out among them and one of the three jumps up and chases another away with a length of pipe.

“I’m sorry, miss,” the man holding the pipe says to me. “I’m really a nice guy.”

The Diggers never died; they dispersed. Some, like Goldhaft and Berg, pursued environmental activism; many were involved in the spread of communes across the country. Berg died in 2011; Goldhaft remains in San Francisco, pursuing sustainability concerns through the Planet Drum Foundation, which she and Berg founded.

I ask her if she’s reconsidered the ideals that guided her interests in the 1960s.

“Lots of my friends have, but I haven’t.”

Why is that the case?

She answers the question with a question.

“Why are there so many people chasing start-ups?”

Photo courtesy of John Viola.

2006: The anarchist

John Viola sips a soy latte in his office on Bartlett Street in San Francisco. Occasionally a cat appears and rubs its body against a doorframe. Behind Viola, a hulking printer begins to whirr and spin out pages of legal documents.

“This is a law office,” Viola apologizes, “so printing might take a while.”

We repair to an unheated back room, where we wear our coats as blankets in the unusually cold winter weather. Like any lawyer, Viola chooses his words carefully, at times almost clinically. He politely redirects when he’s already calculated the next topic he’d like to address, and these redirections function not so much as sneak attacks as new game pieces added to the board.

When he talks about Kirsten Brydum, his tone warms. Several times in our conversation, he refers to her, and her work, as “awesome.” For a moment, it’s easy to think that he’s talking about the cute girl he hopes to accidentally bump into at the laundromat on Sunday, not his girlfriend who has been dead for five years.

Kirsten Brydum. Photo courtesy of John Viola.

In 2004 they met in a courtroom where he was defending her after an arrest for protesting a biotech conference, and they began dating years later. In 2006, Brydum was a driving force in organizing San Francisco’s Really Really Free Market (RRFM), a monthly cash-free yard sale in Dolores Park in which items were taken or given with no compensation or bartering allowed. The Miami Free Trade of the Americas protests in 2003 sparked the first RRFM, after which locally organized RRFMs popped up across the United States.

“We’re so often told that we’re not going to have enough,” Viola says. “And I think one of the principles that I got out of [the RRFM] was a clever way to challenge that notion, a challenge that says, basically, ‘Let’s imagine that we have enough.’”

Viola doesn’t remember that we’ve met already, years ago, in the activities room of a senior center where we helped a mutual friend create a themed window display by crinkling yellow paper into balls intended to resemble sand.

He was polite and reserved; I wouldn’t have retained an impression of him years later except for something he said as we tossed “sand” into a growing pile while two women with superior dexterity twisted wire into the shape of seagulls.

“When I wake up in the morning, I think to myself that I have everything I need.”

I had just moved to a new apartment and had spent the day exchanging emails with the subject line “House Pr0n” with my new housemates; to our wish list, we added potted plants that looked like brontosaurus food and a $947 dining room table made from metal salvaged from an abandoned factory in the Midwest. No one made much money, so the list was one of dreams and not expectations. As I crinkled paper into balls, I was tabulating the list of essentials I’d need to furnish a room and contribute to our home.

“He’s Kirsten Brydum’s boyfriend,” someone in the activities room confided. “The one from the Really Really Free Market; the one who got killed.”

In 2008 Brydum traveled across the country to study how anarchist collective models were organized, and in her journey visited free markets, infoshops, bike co-ops, and urban farms, the types of projects that informed her work, which included not only the RRFM but also the Access Café, a volunteer-run restaurant providing meals to all diners regardless of their ability to pay.

On September 26 she was on the westward swing back to San Francisco and had stopped in New Orleans to visit friends. In the Ninth Ward, with a borrowed bike, she stopped at a bar to see a brass band, departed at 1:30 in the morning, and was found later by a church group who discovered her body on the sidewalk. She had been shot in the head; both her bag and bike had been taken. Her murderer was never caught, so it wasn’t possible to ask why he robbed a woman who shaped her life around the fundamentals of giving.

After her death, the San Francisco RRFM, once a fairly regular monthly occurrence, petered out and eventually stopped. Viola says that while the news of Kirsten’s life and work helped spread RRFMs across the country after her death, the lack of her energy as an organizing force meant the end of the Dolores Park meetings.

“In San Francisco, the community was devastated by what happened. So I think that was one aspect,” he says. “Off the top of my head, I would say the obvious demographic shift in San Francisco has made a huge impact.”

In the late 2000s, San Francisco changed while everyone was looking. According to the real estate Web site Trulia, the city now boasts the least affordable housing in the nation and the highest median rent. A few blocks from the unheated office where I interview Viola, a 1400-square-foot two-bedroom apartment listed at $2.3 million sold for $300,000 over its asking price.

Activists and nonprofit workers like Brydum who once found the city a bearable financial squeeze increasingly find life here impossible, and have moved to cheaper neighboring cities like Oakland or opted for cheaper areas entirely. There’s an RRFM box at a free farm stand founded by a man who was fed by the Diggers in 1967, but the farm space that provides the produce has also lost its home, and the market’s organizer has been unable to secure a replacement plot in the real estate squeeze.

As for Viola, he admits that he doesn’t have Brydum’s touch for organizing.

“I’m thinking of throwing an RRFM again in the spring,” Viola says. “I would probably do it in the East Bay, not in San Francisco. But I think that would make Kirsten unhappy.”

Colleen Hubbard lives in England, where she writes fiction and nonfiction.

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