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Indybay Feature
Remembering Michael Canright
by Michael Steinberg (blackrainpress [at]
Saturday Jan 11th, 2020 2:55 PM
Michael Canright was a native San Franciscan, founder of the San Francisco Tenants Union, Zen student, union carpenter. father and grandfather.
Remembering Michael Canright

Michael Steinberg, Black Rain Press

At the end of 2019 I learned from his daughter Jessie that Michael Canright had died the previous February at his home in Colorado Springs, CO.

Michael was born and raised in the Bay Area. He was a founding member of the San Francisco Tenants Union and an original inductee in the TU's Tenant Hall of Fame. He was also a writer, union carpenter, Zen Buddhist devotee, father and grandfather.

I first met Michael after I moved to San Francisco in 1978. I'd been living in San Diego, and became involved in a failed effort to bring in rent control there. So once in SF I naturally got involved in the SFTU. At that time their office was in the Haight Ashbury, just above the community switchboard on Haight. We were constantly deluged with calls by tenants in crisis, threatened by outrageous rent increases, scurrilous evictions, slumlord refusals to keep peoples homes safe and livable, and all kinds of landlord harassment and intimidation. We would give free advice for those problems and offer options for taking action to remedy them, again at no charge.

At this time there was no rent control and little in the way of eviction protection either. Everyone was a volunteer, and we met together regularly. I observed that Canright was one of the most active, outspoken and passionate at these meetings.

We soon became fast friends and remained so from then on.

The TU's working practice was to organize a federation of tenant building unions that would works together to gain citywide renters rights. During our phone shifts we would always be looking for buildings that seemed to have potential for organizing. In my training for this I went out with Michael to some of these places and he showed me how to go about it. You neverk new where one of those buildings might be, but I learned that people in the Haight, Mission and especially the Tenderloin were most willing to take action, up to and including going on rent strike (withholding rent until a problem was resolved). It was also a good way to learn about different neighborhoods and make new friends.

As my involvement in the TU grew so did my relationship with Michael. We both had an interest in writing, which led us to a collaborating creation of the TU's newsletter, which we dubbed Feudal Times in Serf City. He showed me collections of his prose and poems he had self published in slim volumes of what would today be called zines.

Canright told me about growing up in SF in the 60s during the countercultural heyday. "Haight Street was always teeming with freaks, Janis Joplin would come out on her balcony and sing for us." He also told me about taking part in the student strike at SF State in '68, after which, disillusioned that the Revolution didn't triumph, he left the country for a while.

One of his early stories described why he began his role in the tenants right movement. He'd been a happy high hippie hanging out in the Haight, had a bunch of friends in a communal space where the rent was cheap but serious safety problems were neglected by the landlord. One night a fire broke out and killed one of his close friends. That became the impetus for the formation of the Tenants Action Group and its successor, The SF Tenants Union.

Not that long after I joined the TU, growing anger at landlord greed and exploitation presented an opportunity to bring rent control to San Francisco, as well as eviction protection. But the proposed legislation provided "vacancy decontrol," meaning once a tenant moved out a place, the landlord could raise the rent with no limit. We were told we'd have to compromise on this or the rent control measure wouldn't pass.

Canright and I were part of a dissenting TU faction that called for a citywide rent strike to protest this crucial flow, and we held a big rally in Dolores Park. But once again most tenants weren't ready for The Revolution (because by going on rent strike they

would be risking eviction). Subsequently our worst fears were realized and SF became the place with the highest rents in the US.

As previously mentioned, Canright became a devoted Zen student. When we met he was also active at the Zen Center on Page near Laguna, and lived right across the street in a building where the Center became the new owner and the Zen "Master" the new landlord. In his story The Zen of Private Property he tells of the battle that ensues when the "enlightened" landlord drops by to drop the bomb on his tenants. "It was a matter of fact and all decided (for him). First of all, rents would be raised by a third. Repairs would only be made on an "as needed" basis. The Center was poor, two poor to bring the building up to code. Finally one apartment (specifically Ann and her son Joshua, the only non Zen Center members) would have to move out within a month."

Little did I know that I would be moving into Michael's apartment sometime after he and the other tenants fought off the Zen Master's attack and he was sacked after his gross corruption was exposed.

A while after Canright and I had met, circumstances conspired to put me st risk of becoming homeless. Other friends and TU comrades weren't there for me, but when I mentioned it to Michael he invited me to move in with him and his daughter, no questions asked. We got to be closer friends then, despite some of my (to him) weird habits, like an affinity for veggie burgers.

But that wasn't the only time Canright saved my ass. In 1983 I traveled to Ireland to support the freedom struggle there. When I got back to SF, nearly broke, I stayed with my brother David at first, who was living further down Page.

Unfortunately he and his housemates were about to be evicted. Soon I was the only one left in the flat. I talked to Canright and once again he helped me. He gave me a key to his basement, which had a separate entrance. So every day before I made my way off to my temp job downtown, I stashed my meager possessions at his place, and then retrieved them when I got back. Until one day when I got back the lock had been changed at my "squat," as I'd anticipated. When I told Michael this he invited me to stay with him, which I did, and with other friends until I got back on my feet.

By the way, Michael also let other homeless folks stay in his basement periodically.

Migrations and More Evictions

Before all of the above, while living in Baltimore I became part of an activist community, helped start Uncle Sam's Belly food co-op and worked at Bread and Roses Coffee House across the street. That's how I met Ellen, and a few years later we moved together to San Diego, then San Francisco. We were part of a migration of Balti-Morons to the Bay Area. Once in SF one of our Balmer imigrantees helped us find a place on Laguna and Haight. We rented it with two other former Bohemian beer lovers.

Ellen and I became active in the SFTU and both made friends with Canright. Our landlord was supposedly a retired music teacher from LA, who lived in an illegal unit in the basement right below us. Eventually the rest of our housemates became people we befriended at the TU. Michael's place on Page was only a few blocks away, so he was a regular visitor.

All was relatively well until our upstairs neighbors told us that our building had been condemned because of numerous code violations that had been uncorrected for years. For so long in fact that the Permit of Occupancy had been revoked, meaning it was illegal to collect rent. We'd been so busy helping other tenants that we'd neglected to see what was going on right before our very eyes.

We talked among ourselves, deciding that we would ask the landlord for a rent reduction. We invited him to a meeting at our flat. He showed up with a woman friend.

After we presented our evidence and requested he reduce our rent, he refused that, so we told him we had a legal right to pay no rent, and were going on rent strike. His friend then handed us a 3 day eviction notice to pay rent or get out. We told him to get out of our home.

We were well versed in eviction defense, but what ensued became a bitter battle that went on for many months, with the landlord literally below us in his bunker. Our upstairs allies had poster sized images of old time New York Giants baseball players, which I posted in our front windows with captions like STRIKE, SO &SO IS A BUSH LEAGUE LANDLORD and such. Said landlord responded with a sign in his small sidewalk level window reading Terrible Troublesome Tenants Will Soon Pay Their Penance. I wasn't about to let that go, so I made up a flyer with a monster movie motif reading, You See It, But You Don't Believe It! The Incredible Crumbling House Of So& So! I posted the flyers around the neighborhood, much to the amusement of folks.

Meanwhile Canright was enjoying this spectacle as well. Then he saw the landlord tearing the flyers down, and blew a fuse. He got in the evictor's face and started physically assaulting him. Some of his friend's from the Zen Center happened to witness this, and intervened to stop the fight. "What are you doing Michael?" he told me they said, "He's just an old man!"

Eventually we agreed to move out, after reaching a court agreement and getting some months of free rent. We found a place in the Western Addition, then a working class African American community, that was owned by two young white couples. After we moved in we compiled a list of needed repairs and talked to the landlords about it. They said they'd take care of them, but didn't. So we put our request in writing, as was our legal right.

After a month had passed with no response, we hired Canright, who was a union carpenter, to do the work. We also knew we had a month's rent to play with, so we paid him union scale. Then we invited the landlords over, explained the legal situation, including that we didn't owe any rent next month because of their negligence, and watched them leave with their tails between their legs, well schooled.

Michael's carpentry skills came in handy in another tenants rights battle. His father had taught him them, advising, "With these you'll always be able to find work wherever you go. At other times he wasn't so supportive. "One time he beat me up and broke my nose," Michael told me.

At the beginning of the '80s I was sent to the front lines of the SF tenant, struggle the Tenderloin, to join in to fight stop residential hotels from being converted to tourist hotels. The unscrupulous developers involved in this scam found it was much easier to do this if they kicked all the tenants out first. But due to growing adverse publicity, he city passed a law to at least slow down the conversions. But it had no enforcement powers in it, so the mass evictions went on.

My job was to work with a group named Tenants Against Conversion or TAC. It was a play on words of a group of hardcore cops who later would become the SWAT Team. I and other tenant organizers worked with these self organized tenants to do whatever we could to put a stop to the landlords' threatening and sometimes violent tactics. There were so many res hotels facing evictions at the same time that the Tenderloin was literally a war zone.

In one case, an Eddy Street SRO was thrown into pandemonium after "security" guards with a club and a gun went through the building one day, smashing doors down doors and throwing peoplesn belongings and beds and such into the hallways, then forcing the tenants out on the streets. When we got wind of this we went to the building to witness this outrage. We found a list at the front desk of room numbers, many of the with HHTA

scrawled beside them. That stood for Heartbreak Hotel Tenants Association, as the residents had decided to call themselves.

We called the media and some of them actually showed up. After that the landlord literally abandoned the place. So we took it over. First we set up our own security group, as word spread fast around the TL that the place was wide open and all kinds of folks were showing up to do whatever. Then we started to fix up the building ourselves. A sympathetic landlord across the street rented a dumpster in front of his building, and we filled it up many times. He absorbed the cost of emptying it.

At some point I asked Canright to see what was going on. He was shocked and excited. A few days later he showed up again with some of his radical carpenter union comrades and they went to work on the place after having already put in a hard day's work. Several other such sessions followed.

All this and more is recorded in my book I Work the Tenderloin.

Comings and Goings

All that ended when Reagan came to power and my job working the Tenderloin was purged. I went back to San Diego, met Helen and moved to North Carolina with her. After some time, I got involved with Becky and went to San Francisco again. We moved into the Purple Rose Collective on Fulton Street. I resumed my friendship with Canright.

My arrival back in SF coincided with the creation of Homes Not Jails, an organized squatters group of homeless people and housing activists. Someone had checked the 1990 Census and found that there were about 10,000 vacant housing units in the city, not for sale or for rent. The estimated SF homeless population was pretty much the same. Why not match them up? There were enough of us crazy enough to start doing this.

One slight problem:squatting was totally illegal, and the cops, who associated squats with crack houses, were only too eager to crack heads and throw out the bums at the earliest opportunity. So we had to keep our housing occupation activities secret. But every once in a while we would do what we called a public action. We would go into a notoriously long term empty building the night before the action. Sometimes barricades would be built. The next day there would be a rally and then a march to the site. When we got there windows would fly open, cries of 'Homes Not Jails" would go up, the media would show, then the cops, and the spectacle would circulate around the city. Using these tactics hundreds if not thousands of houseless folks had homes, if temporary, over HNJ's early years.

Canright was supportive of our actions, but not directly involved. He had a daughter to care for, and other good reasons not to risk arrest, which was always a possibility. The mood of the city in general was intense police hostility towards the homeless and their supporters.

With me back in town, he did became a regular visitor at the Purple Rose. During this time we were considering putting on a new roof, but weren't sure if we needed one yet. So I asked Michael to take a look. He climbed up there, me gingerly behind him. After he took a careful look around he told me, "Your roof's shot." The collective decided to get it fixed.

As a new millennium approached, both Michael and I scattered across the land. For him it was to the Southwest, Pittsburgh and back to Colorado. For me it was home to Connecticut, back to the Tarheel state, some time in the Bay, then New Orleans and CT again.

That second time in Connecticut was to aid my elderly parents. Unfortunately, my plan to do so was accelerated after my father died suddenly due to negligence in the hospital that hastened his demise. The next thing I knew I was living with my mother as her primary care giver, a role I wasn't really that well suited for. But I did my best.

Through all these changes Canright and I kept in communication. So in 2002 I'd let him know I was back home with mom and why. But I was a little more than surprised when my mother knocked on my door (formerly my father's room) one Saturday morning and announced, "Your friend Michael Canright's here."

Of course I rolled out of bed, threw on some duds and went out to see Michael sitting on the living room couch. As the cobwebs were bursting away, I vaguely remembered something about a road trip and maybe a visit. As I looked out the living room window, I recognized his trusty old truck in the parking lot.

Michael had already lost both his parents, so it actually one of the best times to see me, as I was still mourning and my life otherwise was very hectic and stressed out. After breakfast I showed him around the place, carefully. Technically I was still an illegal tenant, and the manager's office was right across the lot.

After the grand tour we drove to beautiful downtown Niantic, all three blocks of it.

Then I showed him the Atlantic Ocean, local beaches and the monstrous nuke plant looming across the Niantic Bay.

Being that it was a Saturday, there was a matinee show at the Niantic Cinema, so we took it in. It happened to be Michael Moore's great antiwar flick Fahrenheit 911. Not easy to watch for anyone, and during one violent scene Michael wept.

Nevertheless it was a great day for both of us and I was sad when he drove of to continue his journey later. Of course I had no way of knowing then that would be the last time I ever saw him in the flesh.

Flash forward to 2014. After my mother's death I had once more returned to SF, and again was living at the Purple Rose. Michael had been living in Colorado Springs, CO, in a place his family has settled in on their trek west. We continued to keep in touch in various ways. We talked of visiting but didn't get around to it.

That summer I was out of town until the fall, and in October heard from my brother that Ted Gullicksen had died suddenly, at age 61. Both Michael and I were close with him. Ted was radically involved in the Tenants Union and also one of the founders of Homes Not Jails.

Michael also knew Ted from the TU and told me that during a period of hard times he helped take care of and nurse him back to health.

When I got back to SF I called Canright and we discussed Ted's sudden demise. It was reported that he died in his sleep one night in mid October. The timing of Ted's death seemed suspect. There was a city ballot measure in the upcoming November election that would fight evictions, which were still rampant across the city. Ted was a leading proponent in the campaign for Prop G, which folks said stood for Gullicken.

During out talk Michael asked me if Ted deemed feeble before his death. I told him that mutual friends I asked about this said Ted seemed healthy, riding his bike everywhere as usual, including the day of his death. Ted did express concern in the media about the obscene amount of money the landlords were putting into the No on G campaign, whose lead in the polls was then slipping.

Then Canright asked me, "Could it have been a hit? Take a good look. I believe the landlords wanted him dead, and certainly he cost them a lot of money."

I respected Michael's wishes and began an investigation.

Ted's death was on October 14. Prop G went down to defeat in November.

I first called the SF Medical Examiners office, which is located at 850 Bryant Street, the city's top cop shop, on 12-15-14. Ted had been arrested and locked up there many times for civil disobedience during Homes Not Jails actions. When I said I was inquiring about the cause of Ted's death, I eventually was told the determination of the cause was still pending. By this time Ted had been dead for two months. After numerous more calls to

that office and identifying myself as an investigative journalist, I finally got someone to say that Ted's cause of death was Hypertensive Artherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease.

This was on February 18 20115, more than four weeks after Ted's death.

I pondered this a day and then called the Medical Examiner's office once again. What did this mean in plain English? After another lengthy delay someone came on the line. So Mr. Gullicksen had high blood pressure and clogged arteries?" I proposed. "Yes," was the reply. "So he had a heart attack." "No." "A stroke?" No." His heart just stopped in his sleep one night?"?" "Yes."

So I had some answers, but more questions. Why had this taken so long? Was there more to the story?

So my next stop was the Health Department on Grove Street, where I requested a copy of Ted's death certificate. First I was asked who the hell I was. "Friend and associate," I averred. Why do you want it? I'm an investigative journalist. For who?

Independent. And why do you want it? It's a public document, isn't it? I insisted

Uh, yeah...OK this will take awhile. I wasn't getting used to it.

After a good while and paying $21 I got the two page document. It didn't reveal much new, but I noted the exact chain of events that led to Ted's death wasn't revealed. I wrote up my investigation and posted it on the Bay Area Independent Media Center, and sent it to Canright and other interested parties. In my report I said I still found the cause of Ted Guillicksen's death suspect. I believed the timing of his death and the defeat of Prop G to be no mere coincidence. Whether or not there was a "smoking gun," there was no doubt that the chronic contamination of the democratic process by the corrupting influence of landlord big bucks would continue the misery of mass evictions in SF and elsewhere. up to and including tenant deaths.

Today the housing crisis is regularly big news in the Bay Area. But so is resistance. The Midtown Tenants Association in the Fillmore has been carrying out the city's longest rent strike, thwarting City Halls attempt to boot them out and knock down their buildings. In Oakland two homeless mothers moved into a long vacant place owned by speculators in Socal. So the spirit of what Michael Canright and Ted Gullicksen and so many others (Miguel Wooding, for one) lives on.

Michael is survived by his daughter Jessie and three grandsons. I'll close this with a poem he wrote for her once upon a time.

this is my little jesso jump
the girlo whirlo
this my little babo
my only babo kid
go to sleep now
girlo whirlo
give your dad
big kiss and hug
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