Leslie Carol Roberts was recently interviewed for a French television program, Avec L’Auteur…she will soon post the interview on YouTube.
Why did you want to write a book about the Presidio?
After I moved in here, I was added to some sort of email and mailing list for residents. I started receiving slick newsletters about doings in and around the park. It was a time of tremendous and accelerating change in those days, and so the newsletter had an air of ‘dialogue’ around it, as in, come join us as we make decisions about the park. So I took their invitation quite literally — and I grabbed a pen and some paper and began to write little commentaries on this “redesign.” Then the obsessive research started. The Presidio is a story — it is a story about the pursuit of beauty.
Did you see yourself as a stakeholder?
At first, yes. And this was quite exciting. I imagined documenting the transition and redesign of this open space to reflect current user expectations. But then…
But then I had this sinking feeling that it wasn’t an actual dialogue. And I began to see that the Presidio had a set of rules about how it had to be managed, many of which were based on the fact the park needs to be “self supporting.” So there was a capitalist agenda as the base line for this grand invitation to come and pull out invasive species and “join in.” But this ultimately became interesting to me. I mean, this is a national park, which means, as Woody Guthrie noted, This land is your land. I just think we’ve all gotten rather conditioned into these money-making arguments. Everything has to be monetized. If you buy the idea that national parks should be profit centers, then the rest makes sense. What I hope this book gets going is a discussion of why it was set up like this in the first place — cafes serving $3 lattes, an inn charging $325 a night, housing with rents as high as $15,000 a month. And all of these services are run by private contractors, hired by the government. It’s the same thing in Yosemite and other national parks. I jus think that in the Presidio it is all much more amplified. And I worry that this will be a test case model for other federal lands. Does $10,000 to rent a three-bedroom house seem excessive to you? Who even sets that absurd rate? You and me as stakeholders? All the book invites is thinking these issues through. Beyond the money talk.
I’m not saying there’s evil afoot. It’s about how the place is set up, in terms of land use and revenues. They cannot charge an admission fee they will tell you. They have to make money somehow. I guess it would be interesting to argue this piece of it: Who set these goals for land that is part of the public domain?
They argue because there are no entry fees like in most national parks, they need to find other ways to monetize the space — so that they can afford to maintain it.
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. I am not here to act the fiscal naive nor to suggest a better way nor to be a stakeholder as involved people like to call themselves these days. I’m here as an artist, trying to tell the story of a place in transition. The political aspects need to be mentioned but in the end, the management hierarchies and revenue streams are deathly dull to me.
I’d rather write and read about banana slugs. Now there’s a species I can get behind — giant, shell-less mollusks whose best defense is slime.
I guess the slugs, as native residents, are more stakeholders than you and me. Do you know where the term originated?
Well, some say it comes from the Western United States, from the days when men and women would make a land claim and then stake out the territory. Some think it is related to betting as in “stakes.” Either way, it’s a term that has been in vogue for some time — used by politicians like former Prime Minister Tony Blair rather liberally, and now here, in the Presidio.
But you are not a stakeholder?
Not in the traditional sense. The true stakeholders are those who control the land and its use. All the rest of us are simply transients. The stakeholders monitor the rest of us — there’s a stakeholder who watches my community garden and sends me emails when I don’t harvest my cabbage on time. There’s a stakeholder who enforces parking rules. They seem to increase in number each passing year, these stakeholders…
What sort of relationship does this create between you and the Presidio?
May I use a metaphor? I feel like the dresser for some aging starlet. I feel like the person who knows that person best, even though I am not an expert in any accepted way and remain unknown in my intimacy. I feel like the character Anthony Hopkins played in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Walking here, looking around all the time, getting to know all the small indentations, branch lines, clogged roadside drains, owl nests, short cuts. Then one day I’ll walk away. And my presence here will be unlauded and unmarked and no street will be named for me. But that’s, in my opinion, how we should behave in a place. Try to leave no trace of us there. Which is actually the hard part, isn’t it?
What do you mean?
I mean, it’s easier to plan big monuments with Frank Gehry and get all the stakeholders to buy in and then build it then it is to leave things as they are.