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By Richard Hildreth
New College of California, the Valencia Street-based emblem of counterculture education, has been on an acquisition and growth bender of the type usually undertaken by corporations like Google or AT&T. During the past year and a half, the school has taken over the Roxie Cinema, formed a partnership with Modern Times Bookstore, and acquired a Fillmore District hotel which it plans to renovate as a "green" dormitory.
This rapid expansion has nothing to do with the "vertical integration" favored by Wall Street firms intent on consolidating new sources of revenue. Instead, these developments represent an extension of New College's traditional purpose of "creating progressive culture and hope," says Peter Gabel, a member of the school's board of trustees and a New College law professor for more than 30 years.
"[We are] building cultural spaces and experiences that help manifest a world we can believe in," says Gabel.
The school is also practicing what Gabel calls "horizontal activism," a form of direct action he cultivated on his home turf in Noe Valley.
Gabel, who's lived on Elizabeth Street off and on for 18 years, is known in the neighborhood for his leadership during a turbulent year. In 2003, he and a group of residents and merchants launched a campaign to save Cover to Cover Booksellers, rallied community support for the workers when the Real Food Company closed, and founded the Noe Valley Farmers' Market on 24th Street. Instead of accepting the supposed inevitability of market forces to squash an independent bookstore, they banded together to ensure it remained open. Rather than wait for politicians and business leaders to negotiate a solution to the Real Food store closure, they found it more effective to create their own farmers' market.
Gabel says the success of these very local efforts helped to inspire the recent changes at New College of California.
A private university founded in 1971 at 777 Valencia Street, New College has maintained its idealism throughout its history. In addition to bachelor's and master's degrees in law, psychology, and the humanities, the school offers specialties in activism and ecology, and even a "socially conscious" master's degree in business administration.
When Gabel learned in mid-2005 that the 93-year-old Roxie Cinema at 3117 16th Street, one of the few remaining independent movie houses in San Francisco, was in danger of closing due to a $200,000 debt, he saw an opportunity to save the theater by bringing it inside the New College community.
Gabel and other members of New College's leadership group, including Martin Hamilton, the school's current president, developed a plan that would satisfy the Roxie's creditors and plan for the theater's future. An anonymous donor was persuaded to provide the funds to retire the Roxie's debts, in exchange for the theater becoming part of New College.
Under the New College umbrella, the theater continues to show independent features and documentaries, and it is also used for classes in New College's Media Studies Department, such as a course in Latin American cinema. The school also hosts special events at the theater, such as the December talk about politics with consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
The collectively-run Modern Times Bookstore, at 888 Valencia Street, has been a popular fixture since it opened in 1971. Gabel calls it "the City Lights of our neighborhoods," comparing it to the iconic North Beach store founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. However, by the start of 2006, sales at Modern Times were declining and the bookstore was facing a $25,000 debt.
Aware of the campaign to save Cover to Cover, Michael Rosenthal, the store's co-owner, asked Gabel for help. Gabel turned to New College, which offered to help with the store's debt load, in exchange for Modern Times' providing textbooks to students. A classroom is being constructed in the back of the store as well. Unlike the Roxie, Modern Times will remain independent of New College, Gabel says.
New College has always had a hard time finding housing for its out-of-state students, says Gabel. In September 2006, the owner of a residential hotel at the corner of Fillmore and Fell streets agreed to donate part of the accrued equity on the building to New College, enabling the school to purchase the site.
Renamed Casa Loma, the building will be renovated with environmentally-friendly materials and become a laboratory for developing sustainable methods of living in an urban environment, not simply a dormitory. The school must raise another $5 million, Gabel says, but he is confident the project will be successful, "even if we have to do it on bubblegum and string."
Each of these efforts is intended to integrate New College further into the San Francisco community.
"The cool thing is that they create a web of different ways to affect our culture," says Gabel, through books, film, housing, and technology.
In the view of this diehard activist, the innovations at New College, like the ones in Noe Valley, remind us that we can often find fertile soil in our own back yard.
"It's important to give people hope," says Gabel. "If they would think more about what they can create right where they are, as opposed to feeling hopeless and waiting for help from above, they'd be amazed at what they can accomplish."
For information about programs at New College of California, visit www.newcollege.edu or phone 415-437-0105.