Last week, activists from the hippest street in San Francisco's uber-hip Mission neighborhood—where skinny pants and a shrunken American Apparel sweatshirt are like Polos and Dockers in Nantucket—successfully defeated American Apparel's application to open a store there. The backlash has been swift. Not less than three San Francisco Chronicle columnists weighed in, noting that American Apparel would have filled one of Valencia Street's 27 vacant storefronts with 15 employees earning $12 to $14 and hour plus healthcare—and during a recession! "American Apparel is lucky," sneered columnist Caille Millner. "What a burden it would be to have a store in a magical place with such nasty elves."
The elf in question is Chicken John Rinaldi, a performance artist, boat-maker, and 2007 San Francisco mayoral candidate (he got 2,500 votes) whose recent blog post inspired some 200 people to flood a planning commission meeting and buzz-saw the store's permit application like high school disciplinarians tackling an overgrown handlebar mustache. I spoke with Chicken John this morning as he was driving home from his art studio in Winters, California, (he can no longer afford to work in San Francisco) with his equally vocal best friend, Dammit the Amazing Wonder Dog.
Mother Jones:What happened?
Chicken John: We explained to American Apparel in no uncertian terms [that the store would never get approved], and I called their guy on the phone, and the guy was like this indignant fucker, like, "Yeah, we'll see. What you got?" And I was like, "Are you fucking kidding me? I eat guys like you for breakfast." [See American Apparel's response at bottom]
MJ: Clearly, a lot of people in the Mission oppose American Apparel coming in.
CJ: Let's not use the term "American Apparel" anymore. Let's use "Formula Retail." There's a lot of people in the Mission who oppose formula retail on Valencia Street. No one's saying that we oppose formula retail in the Mission. We just oppose it on eight blocks on Valencia Street. You want to put America Apparel [one block over] on Mission Street? I think that's a great idea.
MJ: What's wrong with Valencia Street in particular?
CJ: You want to put a chain store on the only eight blocks in America that don't have a chain store? If you can't see why that's wrong and bathed in vileness, then we're just going to have to agree to disagree. Like if you can't see that it's the last place that doesn't have a fucking Starbucks on it. Have you been to the rest of the country? It's out of control. There is no coffeeshop anymore. There is no diner.
MJ: There are other places in the city that don't have any chains.
CJ: Name one.
MJ: Hayes Valley has a rule against chains as well. But if you look at Hayes Valley, it's also full of stores selling $10,000 coats. Isn't that the issue, as opposed to whether the hipsters in the Mission, who already shop at American Apparel, are gonna have an America Apparel next to them or not?
CJ: I can't control a $10,000 coat. I can't control someone who would sell a $10,000 coat. I can't control someone who would buy a $10,000 coat. I don't understand someone who would buy a $10,000 coat, and I don't really fucking care. If someone wants to open a store and sell a fucking $10,000 coat, that's fine with me because I don't have a ruler with which to measure what kind of a business sells a $10,000 coat. I would call that a high-end boutique. But high-end boutiques aren't putting small staple stores out of business. What's putting small staple stores out of business is formula retail. But you're doing the free-market argument?
MJ: A little bit.
CJ: You can't be squishy. You've got to come up with something and then I'm going to retort. You can't give me Berkeley. Because Berkeley doesn't work. We've all been to Berkeley. We all hate Berkeley. No one wants Berkeley. Berkeley is like, "Well, sort of like this, and kind of like that, and whatever, I don't know, whatever you're into I'm against it and whatever," and it's impossible to do business. Everything is amorphous and squishy and a giant blob of bureaucracy that just takes over.
MJ: OK, here's a more concise argument: The Mission is full of people who shop at American Apparel, you agree with that, right?
CJ: I'm wearing an American Apparel shirt right now.&
MJ: Do you agree that NIMBYism is wrong?
CJ: I do not agree that NIMBYism is wrong morally. I believe that NIMBYism is wrong ethically. It's a personal choice. I respect your right to worship Satan, or to worship a tea kettle, or to be a NIMBY, or to be an asshole. There's no law against being an asshole, and that's what this conversation is really about.
MJ: I'm having a hard time applying this idea to the American Apparel issue.&
CJ: My critics are saying, "You buy the shirt, you just don't want the store in your neighborhood." That's not true. We just don't want the store on eight blocks of Valencia Street because we don't want any formula retail on eight blocks of Valencia Street. The fact of the matter is it's the last bastion of fucking a strip without chain stores on it that isn't Hayes Valley, and the Hayes Valley strip is like two blocks long; it's not a strip, it's just like a corner really. And it's a different thing. It's a different neighborhood. It's not crummy and dirty. And I don't go there. Why would I? There's nothing for me there. They're selling $10,000 sweaters.
MJ: I used to live in Hayes Valley before I got priced out. But when I lived there, there was a big debate over whether chains should be allowed. And Starbucks wanted to move in, and I went to the meeting and I was one of the people who opposed Starbucks coming in. But in my mind that's sort of different from American Apparel. I will buy a cup of Starbucks if there is no other coffee maker around that makes better coffee, but in the case of American Apparel, I will buy American Apparel usually because it's better than most other things I can get for that price.
CJ: Are you against Starbucks because they're a successful business? Or are you against Starbucks for their business practices? Or are you against Starbucks for an amorphous amount of reasons hand-picked from different arguments? In order for you to answer that question honestly, you'd probably have to think about it for a long, long time. I respect them as a business. They saw an opportunity for something, and they worked it; they brought coffee to America. And Starbucks opened the door for places like Ritual [a hipster favorite on Valencia] that are doing a more artisan coffee. I think Starbucks has an opportunity to do great things in the world. Starbucks is seen as the evil empire, and I think that's fucking funny. However, I don't want a chain store in my fucking face. For me it narrows the parameters. For every moment that you spend in one of these stores, it truncates your sense of possibility. Whearas you go into a store where someone can do whatever they want and they can build it out however they want—even a counter, or even like when they draw the menu and make artistic little flairs—that inspires you to do your own thing. And I think that chain stores in general are really super depressing and I think it really sucks the life out of a city such as San Francisco. I can't stop that Wal-Mart went in on Route 80 in the middle of Utah. But in the fight on Valencia Street, I'm pretty powerful. I can stop somebody from opening a chain store. And that's a fucking great feeling. If San Francisco is indeed a city of leaders, then I think we should lead, and if we don't want a chain store, then we should say so loudly.
MJ: Back to the NIMBY thing: If you don't want an American Apparel on eight blocks on Valencia Street, doesn't it mean you just shouldn't buy from American Apparel at all?
CJ: No. Well, it depends on whose liberty you are defending. Are you defending the liberty of American Apparel to open a store wherever they want? Or are you defending the liberty of the people who live on the block? Or are you defending the people who shop at the store? Or are you going to defend the liberty of the people who own the other stores whose rents are without question going to quadruple?
MJ: That's a valid point.
CJ: If somebody wanted to open a slaughterhouse on Valencia Street, and you lived right next door, would you oppose it?
CJ: And would that be NIMBY behavior? Yes or no?
MJ: It's not a yes or no question, really.
CJ: It is!
MJ: There are different kinds of NIMBY behavior.
CJ: See, it's getting all squishy. I can't argue squishy. I can only argue yes or no. The answer is yes. That's NIMBY behavior. You eat the burger but you don't want the slaughterhouse next door to where you live.
MJ: I see your point, which is maybe there's a place for an American Apparel among other chain stores in a sort of chain store sector where we just don't worry about homogenization because that's our Fisherman's Wharf kind of place [the chain-covered tourist district in San Francisco]. I could see that.
CJ: All we want to do is keep that particular stretch of Valencia Street free from chain stores, for many, many reasons. But the one reason for all the neighbors is that chain stores breed mediocrity and breed an uncommunicative, yucky neighborhood that is not fun and not conducive to the reason why we all moved to San Francisco: to live in the city of art and innovation. It's not artistic. It's not innovative. It's a fucking chain store.
MJ: If I live in the Mission and I go shop at American Apparel among all the chain stores in the Haight, shouldn't I kind of feel a little bit guilty about that?
CJ: Why would you feel guilty about that?
MJ: For the same reasons that you're bringing up right now about why it shouldn't go into those eight blocks in the Mission.
CJ: Let me put it to you this way: Let those who are without sin amongst us throw the first rock through the American Apparel plate glass window. You're not gonna get out of here clean. You are not actually going to be politically correct, and neither is anybody else. We all have to pick our battles. You've got to draw a line in the sand and stand firm. And it's this squishiness that's really the enemy here, like, "Well, I don't know, it's kind of OK but I kind of feel guilty, and I kind of want a bran muffin, I don't know, and I'm wearing a vest; it's crocheted." Shut up. Just pick your battle and just stand there, and whatever you are going to do, own it. To me that's the biggest problem that we have here. People aren't owning their ideology. American Apparel did a really great job of just owning what they were. They were like, "We're movin' in, fuck you." And I was like, "You're not movin' in, fuck you." And then whoever's "fuck you" was bigger won. And this time my "fuck you" was bigger.
MJ: What about those who say the bigger issue is this: The Mission is already becoming homogenous; it's a bunch of people in skinny pants with their keys on caribiners on their belt loops wearing flannel shirts and working at Google, and they all look the same, and they've driven out the people who used to live there?
CJ: You understand that there is a path to enlightenment, right?
MJ: Yes, the Noble Eightfold Path.
CJ: Yeah, right. There's the Four Noble Truths and then there's the Eightfold Path. So if you believe in the Four Noble Truths, you walk the Eightfold Path, holding this belief in your arms. The idea is that there is a path to enlightenment. So if you seek enlightenment, and you believe the Four Noble Truths, and you walk the Eightfold Path, will you be enlightened?
MJ: You might.
CJ: No! How the fuck can you be enlightened desiring enlightenment?
MJ: Isn't that part of the whole thing, you have to rid yourself of desire?
CJ: Kind of confusing, isn't it. That you kind of got into this whole thing because you desired enlightenment, but in order to be enlightened, you have to let go of your desire.
MJ: There is a little bit of an irony there.
CJ: So all of the people who are interested in enlightenment, they are beating their heads against the wall: In order to be better you have to not want to be better. So the lesson that that teaches is, we learn about "the glamor." There's a glamor of self-importance, there's a glamor of philanthropy, a glamor of generosity—you see what I'm saying. There's all these glamors. There's these good things you can do, like helping someone who's down on their luck—you know, a woman who's bleeding from the eyes with a small child in her arms and you give her a dollar. That's a good thing, right?
CJ: Not necessarily. It actually depends on what your intention is. And basically intention is judgment. So it depends on if you are giving her money from a judgment point of view or giving her money from a generosity place. Maybe not giving her money is the best thing you can do for her because she's a junkie and helping junkies doesn't help them. It's complicated. So what you just told me about the homogenous skinny pants people and isn't it already all fucked—isn't it just fucked and aren't you just one of the people that's fucking the fucked and fucking, fuck, fuck, fuck. No man, I don't think like that. That's judgment. I don't pass judgment on other people, especially people I don't know. People I don't know their story. I don't know what they're doing. I don't know why they're wearing skinny pants and caribiners. I mean, these are kids man, they're 20 years old. They don't know what the fuck they're doing. I'm certainly not going to judge them. These people are going to grow up and cure cancer and fix the Internet and fucking they're going to have kids and they're going to be good parents. That's how I think about it. I don't think about them coming in and being the gentrifiers who kicked out the Latinos and all that shit. I mean, eventually Starbucks is going to be on the corner of 24th and Valencia. It's going to happen someday. But I'm going to try to push it off into the future as far as I can. And I think for me personally, my personal opinion, is that the only thing that's going to stop bombs from falling out of the sky to brown people for oil is when we all get together and make art. And that might be naive, and that might be stupid, and I might be an idiot and a moron, blah, blah, blah, but I mean if I can stop American Apparel from going into 24th and Valencia, and I can make a boat out of garbage and inspire people to do stuff like that, then that's what I'm going to do, because that's what's going to affect culture in the larger world. But I'm not going to be like a bitter, jaded, ironic blogger and be like, "Oh, it's fucked, whatever."
MJ: You've gotta stand for what you believe in.
CJ: More importantly, you've got to stand for something.
UPDATE: American Apparel Responds:
Date: Wed, 11 Feb 2009 00:34:49 -0800
Subject: Letters to the Editors
For Josh Harkinson:
For the record, I handle the incoming calls about press and public issues for American Apparel and more specifically, I was the representative who spoke at the meeting about Valencia St. Chicken John never spoke to anyone at the company. We would have remembered. Trust me. I know it is an interview, but it does use the words "indignant fucker" and talk about conversation that didn't happen.
I think the notice we posted today might show that we probably wouldn't have treated someone like that on the phone.