October 13, 2010
So it would seem that even a completely gentrified San Francisco offers writers a rich vein of noir opportunity. Yet the lone novelist today determinedly probing the dark side of San Francisco’s endless battle to clean up the streets is Peter Plate. Plate’s latest novel, Elegy Written on a Crowded Street (Seven Stories Press, 176 pages, $13.95), is his ninth noir novel in a hardboiled writing career that spans the era of out-of-control gentrification in the city.
With little fanfare or support, against the real life backdrop of police sweeps of the homeless and the start of the dot-com boom, Plate has produced a shelf of books that represent a lonely, yet noble and deeply radical literary effort to write noir crime fiction in which the criminals, not the cops, are the protagonists. Taken as a whole, they offer a compelling and defiant portrait of the psychic toll the disappearance of loved people, places, and opportunity from the city has taken on those left behind.
Plate’s novels are full of great hooks. They reliably begin with some of the best premises in noir fiction today. Fogtown (2004) opens as a crowd of Market Street homeless and down-and-outers witness the crash of an armored Brinks truck at dawn that temporarily fills the desolate street with crisp, new $100 bills. In Police and Thieves (1999), Doojie, a small-time Capp Street weed dealer, accidentally witnesses the murder of a homeless man by a police officer and spends the rest of the book on the run from the murderous cop.
Plate’s characters are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, unwilling spectators as the city changes around them. The free money in Fogtown offers the Market Street dwellers a tantalizing glimpse of the kind of new carefree life being lived all around them by the rich who have newly arrived to the city. Yet like the upscale new eateries and clubs popping up everywhere, the money is off-limits to them, and those who take the money instantly become, like Doojie, hunted by police. Plate’s strength is conveying the hopelessness and despair of lone characters pitted in a Dostoyevskyan battle with greater societal forces. As they are slowly ground down by this struggle, we feel their terror, incomprehension, and paranoia. As the drug dealer and SRO hotel manager Jeeter says in Fogtown, “Rights? You don’t have any rights. You have choices. That’s all you have. And you made the wrong one.”
In this context, noir fiction for Plate is protest fiction. A longtime street activist, Plate writes with the gut instincts of a protester, taking his novels right to the barricades where different visions of San Francisco violently clash. One Foot Off the Gutter (1995) is a mordant postcard from a Mission District just about to enter its gentrification era, in which a homeless cop, a Latino gang member, and a yuppie doctor all covet the same Victorian houses at 21st and Folsom streets. Soon The Rest Will Fall (2006) is set in the Trinity Plaza Apartments on Market Street at the height of housing activists’ struggle to save the site from demolition.
Since Plate finished his Mission Quartet, at the close of the dot-com era, he has turned his attention to San Francisco’s Main Street: Market Street. Recently, in its inaugural issue, the incipient local newspaper San Francisco Public Press reported that one real estate speculator owns 64 percent of the real estate in the mid-Market area and that he is willfully leaving those properties vacant until he can make the money he thinks he deserves off the property. Those uselessly abandoned and boarded up buildings at the very heart of the city are the recurring backdrop for much of Elegy Written On a Crowded Street, perhaps Plate’s darkest and most emotional work to date.
For the rest of the article, including a detailed discussion of Elegy Written on a Crowded Street, please visit the San Francisco Bay Guardian — and if all of this makes you curious, please pick up a copy of the book directly from Seven Stories!