My Mission: Jesse Drew

Jesse Drew in front of the house where he built his first pirate radio transmitter.

MyMission is a series of interviews with a diverse group of people, each with their own experience of the Mission.
It’s part of a soon-to-be-published zine, Know Your Streets, which will contain resource, memory and cultural maps.

Jesse Drew arrived in the Mission in 1971 as a teenage runaway. In the decades that followed he worked as an activist, artist, factory hand, teacher, journalist, engineer and (often) a combination of all of the above. He taught at San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Art Institute, built radio transmitters at his kitchen table, went to underground punk shows on Valencia, and was witness to the beginnings of the tech boom. He is currently the Director of Technocultural Studies at the University of California at Davis.

Tonight he returns to the Mission for the opening of Turning the Tables, a series of video and audio portraits of San Francisco waiters made by Drew and his wife, Glenda. The reception will take place at 18 Reasons gallery at Guerrero and 18th Streets from 7 to 9 p.m. A talk with both artists will be held on August 5 at 7 p.m.

Drew talked to Mission Loc@l about the Mission he experienced.

Mission Loc@l: So tell us: Why did you first come to San Francisco?

Jesse Drew: I was working industrial jobs, farm jobs, and doing some community organizing. Then I met Cesar Chavez on one of his East Coast trips. I moved to California to work for the United Farm Workers.

ML: What did you do?

JD: I organized picket lines for the grapes, lettuce and Gallo winery strikes.

ML: Where did you hang out when you weren’t organizing?

JD: We didn’t really go “out” much. There were houses where people would hang out. Boycott houses. I lived in the nunnery of St. Paul’s at 29th and Noe — that was a hub. I lived in a place on Precita at Bryant that was another one — it had a warehouse in back where food was stored that the communes out in the countryside would buy in bulk, these 100-pound bags of beans and rice. Many back-to-the-land communities couldn’t survive without the city.

I spent a lot of time at The Farm, which was a community farm project located where 101 meets Potrero. There was so much space. People would crash there, live there. There were no nearby neighbors, so lots of music was performed there. Nobody noticed.

ML: Was it hard for you to find jobs, being a runaway?

JD: I had a fake ID, which helped, because I was 15 but looked about 12. But I was eager, and a hard worker. The difficult part wasn’t finding work. The difficult part was the police. The people who had helped me run away were wanted by the police, and so they thought that if they could find me, they could find those people. Since then I’ve reconnected with my parents. Those were just different times.

There were a lot of outlaws in the Mission at that time. Not many outsiders or tourists would go there. It was solid, Chicano, working class — a genuine barrio. The city of San Francisco used to distribute official maps of the city to tourists, and the Mission wasn’t on them. They didn’t want tourists to go there.

Today you have very rich people living here, and very poor people. Back then there were no extremes. I never saw a homeless person in the Mission in my first years here. There were just so many cheap SRO hotels around.

And there were places like the old Hamm’s brewery, right across the street from the Hostess factory. When that was abandoned in the ’70s, the whole place became an art squat. It was called “The Vats” because people actually lived in the old beer-brewing vats.

ML: So you started out in community organizing. How did you become interested in technology?

JD: I had a job at a glass factory in East Oakland, and I got involved in electronics there. Most of the people who worked at the factory lived in East Oakland, by the way. They all thought I was crazy to live in a place as dangerous as the Mission.

It was the late ’70s — and it was the de-industrialization of the Bay Area. I could see that there was a lot of unemployment in East Oakland, and that Silicon Valley was booming. So I got a job at Hewlett-Packard. I went from a union job to a nonunion one that paid half that.

ML: What did you do?

JD: Unskilled labor. I began going to night school at the College of San Mateo, got a degree in electronics, and eventually worked my way up, but back then I wound transformers. Assembled lasers. I wrote an essay about my time there called A Day in the Life of Employee 85292 for a zine called Processed World.

And I was curious about organizing in Silicon Valley. I wound up organizing around workplace health. It was the early days, before the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. The electronics industry was positioning itself as the “green” alternative to the smokestacks of the East Bay. But just because you couldn’t see a smokestack didn’t mean that we weren’t working with toxic materials.

Then I got a job at Dolby Labs, just a few blocks away from my house.

ML: Why do you think Dolby Labs was located in San Francisco instead of Silicon Valley?

JD: It’s a small company — they don’t make much there. They’re mostly built from licensing. But I think the primary reason is that Ray Dolby loved San Francisco. And until 2005, that company was privately held. He could do whatever he wanted. So I could walk to work in the morning, and at lunch the roach coach would pull up, play “La Cucaracha,” and we would come outside and eat lunch with seamstresses from the garment shop next door, and the guys at the Hostess plant in their hairnets.

ML: When you come back and visit the Mission, where do you go?

JD: So many of the places that I used to go to are gone now. Modern Times Bookstore is still there. So is Puerto Allegre. It used to be that mainly Mexican families would go there, and now it’s packed with all kinds of people.

We stop by the Eagle Market at 20th and Valencia and talk with Sam, the owner. My second child was born in that building. At the time that we lived there, the building was filled with elderly men. A lot of them have died since, but many of them were industrial workers who had probably moved out here in World War II. They had job titles like “sand rat” — meaning they had dug the tunnels under San Francisco.

They were so happy to have a kid around. When he was born, they took up a collection and somehow out of their pensions and savings managed to give him thousands of dollars in savings bonds. Which he still has today.

I can’t walk through the Mission now without…there’s not a block that doesn’t trigger some memory — being a runaway, then being a dad to a teenager. It’s all stretched across time.

ML: How did becoming a father change the way you saw the Mission?

JD: I became knowledgeable about parks. As in, which had dirty syringes in them.

ML: Which did?

JD: In the ’80s? All of them, really. You just had to become extremely vigilant.

It was during the crack epidemic, and the Reagan era. Valencia was so empty — just boarded-up storefronts. You could go into one, open the trap door in the floor, and there would be a punk show going on.

For me, all these types of media were wrapped up together with activism — music, zines, radio, public access television, the Internet. I shot video for Paper Tiger Television. Tetsuo Kogawa, the father of Japanese pirate radio, came over and we built a  low-power radio transmitter over dinner on my kitchen table. And then I went over to dinners at other people’s houses, and showed them how to do it.

I remember going to interview Tom Jennings, the creator of FidoNet, in his office at 16th and Mission. As I would go up the stairs, there was an extreme sound of clattering 300-baud modems. The Internet was so exciting to anyone in alternative media, because we could see that it would allow anyone to connect to anyone without these bottlenecks.

ML: How do you feel about the way the Internet turned out?

JD: Complicated issue. It’s of course been hijacked by commercial interests. But it still has enormous potential to share information. It’s messy, of course. But democracy is a messy thing.


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