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THE LAST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
Notable Neighbors...Where Are They Now?
For a while, it seemed as if famed music journalist Ben Fong-Torres was making an almost yearly appearance in the Voice. In 1991, we interviewed him about Hickory Wind, his biography of country-rock musician Gram Parsons. In 1993, we featured him after he'd won $99,000 in cash and prizes on Wheel of Fortune. We last checked in with Fong-Torres in December 1994 when he was hosting KQED-FM's Saturday-morning arts program Fog City Radio.
Fog City Radio lasted less than a year, and Fong-Torres disappeared from the pages of the Voice. "I went into a deep, dark depression after Fog City Radio, and I'm just coming out of it now, seven years later, so I can talk to the Noe Valley Voice again," Fong-Torres deadpans.
In reality, the former Rolling Stone editor, now 56, has been anything but depressed. In fact, he's been as busy as ever.
He and his wife Dianne, a former San Francisco probation officer, still live in the mod-facade Castro Street home they purchased in 1985. Visiting the Fong-Torres household is a little like visiting the penthouse of an Ian Schrager hotel. Ring the doorbell to announce yourself, and Fong-Torres sends down a gold-walled, leopard-print carpeted elevator to take you to his third-floor residence. The view from the home is expansive, the furnishings and decor Asian influenced, and the refrigerator Door of Fame a movie fan's dream. It's loaded with snapshots of Fong-Torres posing with celebrities such as Quincy Jones, William H. Macy, Kathleen Turner, and Robin Williams.
While talking with the Voice, Fong-Torres fields a phone call from a Rolling Stone editor wanting to reprint his 1974 cover story on George Harrison in an upcoming anthology about the former Beatle. Later that afternoon, he has a radio interview to promote his book The Hits Just Keep on Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio, first published in 1998 and being released in paperback this month.
Fong-Torres is still a little tongue-tied about the numerous calls he has received from media outlets wanting a sound bite following the December death of Harrison.
"I really could have a side career being interviewed by the media when pop artists die," he jokes. "Unfortunately, there's no compensation for the job."
Although many musicians, writers, and friends of Fong-Torres and his wife have moved from San Francisco to Marin over the past couple of decades, Fong-Torres is staying put.
And he only has one complaint about Noe Valley: "Stop all the double-parking on 24th Street!" he huffs. Then he smiles.
Noe Valley Classics
Twenty-six years ago -- with two tape decks, a mixer built from a kit, two mikes, a few speakers, a synthesizer, and the remodeling skills he learned from his cabinetmaker father -- Oliver DiCicco turned a former Sanchez Street daycare center in Upper Noe Valley into a recording studio named Mobius Music.
Since Mobius' founding, musicians of all streaks -- from Jerry Garcia to Alison Krauss, Bobby McFerrin to the Dead Kennedys -- have walked through the studio's battered wooden door to record a session. Those who keep coming back, like bass player Roly Salley of Chris Isaak's band, who was there the other night, have helped give Mobius the distinction of being the oldest continually operating independent studio in the Bay Area.
DiCicco, 50, acknowledges that Mobius "is more of a dinosaur" nowadays, because he continues to rely on analog recording equipment rather than the state-of-the-art digital equipment that most studios use. Still, DiCicco's well-honed sound-engineering skills and easygoing temperament keep enough musicians coming through Mobius' doors to make ends meet.
Besides, it's never been DiCicco's goal to compete with the large recording
studios -- or to promote himself. He's even reticent to talk about the two Grammy nominations he received in the 1980s for sound engineering. "This has never been a high-profile place," he insists. "I've never pushed in that regard."
In the early 1990s, DiCicco felt the need to "do something more creative," so he began to split his focus between studio work and making his own music.
In 1991, he founded Mobius Operandi, a five-member musical ensemble that plays both improvised and composed music on 15 musical "sculptures," instruments created by DiCicco out of aluminum, wood, stainless steel, carbon fiber rods, and electronics. Mobius Operandi has performed throughout the Bay Area and recorded two CDs, What Were We Thinking and The End of the Dial.
Although DiCicco enjoyed frequenting the now-defunct 24th Street bar Finnegan's Wake in the late '70s, these days he prefers spending time in North Beach or attending an evening Pilates class at Sanchez Street Studios to hanging out at Bliss Bar or Coyote.
"I still really enjoy being in Noe Valley," he says. "There hasn't been a lot of dramatic change in my part of the neighborhood. The biggest changes have been on 24th Street. There are so many nail and coffee places that I figure there must be some sort of correlation between the two. I just haven't been able to figure it out yet."
Voices From The Past
San Francisco was still reeling from the tragic double murders of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone when in its ninth issue, the Noe Valley Voice published an interview Voice co-founder Corrie Anders con-ducted with Milk just days before his Nov. 27 death.
"Milk [who was the San Francisco supervisor representing District 5, which included Noe Valley] dwelled at length on those who found public service a financial drain -- a subject that a few days later would bring him face to face with death," Anders wrote. Both Milk and the man who killed him, Supervisor Dan White, were struggling to make ends meet on a supervisor's $9,600-a-year salary. "The shift to fulltime supervisors with fulltime pay is going to happen sooner or later," Milk told the Voice. If it didn't, he predicted, the board would belong only to those who could afford to serve, the same people who had run the city prior to district elections -- "all white, downtown business types."
"Or," he added, his face breaking into a grin, "the board would become all gay and single."
"A Last Interview with Our Supervisor," December 1978
Twenty years ago, merchants and residents already had started worrying about the gentrification of Noe Valley's 24th Street commercial corridor. Ron Kline, then owner of women's clothing store Joshua Simon, told the Voice that "we were one of the first stores accused of 'Unionizing' 24th Street [i.e., creating a second Union Street]." Meanwhile, Larry Alperstein, co-owner of Books Plus, located in the storefront now occupied by Toko Imports, was closing his store because he could no longer afford the monthly rent, which had gone from $200 to $675 since Books Plus opened in 1970. Tom Crane, then owner of Colorcrane, said there was rampant fear among his fellow shop owners that "only large corporations which can afford large rents will be able to come in and make it in Noe Valley."
"24th Street Merchants Bite the Bullet," June 1982
While some residents were feeling overwhelmed by the abundance of
civic groups in "Downtown" Noe Valley, Sue Bowie, Janice Gendreau, and Martha Mitchell, who lived in the southern part of the neighborhood, discovered there were plenty of people in their neck of the hills who wanted to form a group to deal with -- you guessed it-- demolitions and building permits, crime and vandalism, and the need for more tree plantings. So in the spring of 1988, Upper Noe Neighbors was born -- or reborn, to be exact.
Bowie told the Voice that the idea
for the group came to her after she met
octogenarian Grace Stevenson, who was a founding member of the original Upper Noe Neighbors. That group had thrived in the 1940s and '50s, but disbanded in 1978.
"Three Residents Start Up Upper Noe Neighbors Group," May 1988