Robert Eshelman-Håkansson (1973–2020)

Hailing from a working-class Pennsylvania background, Robert Eshelman-Håkansson led the life of a bohemian intellectual before rising to become chief aide to the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He leaves behind friends and admirers throughout the US and in half a dozen countries around the world.

Photo courtesy of Marcie Smith

Robert Eshelman-Håkansson was a journalist who worked for Vice Media and the Nation, and taught at Columbia University in New York City. He began his career in journalism reporting from the Middle East. More recently, his writing has covered science and the environment. He also served in the San Francisco city government as deputy to the president of the Board of Supervisors.

The only child of two factory workers, during his teenage years Eshelman fell in love with the dissonant sounds and iconoclastic aesthetics of punk rock. Through punk rock’s outlaw and DIY sensibility, Eshelman became intensely politicized. First as an anarchist, then as a Marxist, he maintained a life-long commitment to serving the interests of working people and opposing oppression by corporations, the rich, and corrupt governments.

In 1991, at age seventeen, Eshelman graduated from high school in Telford, Bucks County, and with his meager savings from a dishwashing job, departed for Philadelphia. There he lived in a squat in West Philly that had been taken over and rehabbed by young renegades; he worked as a bike messenger and at a political bookstore called Wooden Shoe Books. A compulsive reader, Eshelman would eventually earn two Ivy League degrees, but he did not even start college for another dozen years.

In 1992, he moved to the then-newly-reunified Germany. Again living in a squat — this time in Berlin’s famously bohemian Kreuzberg neighborhood — Eshelman became heavily involved in anti-fascist activism and fought Nazi skinheads and police in violent street battles. Eshelman later went to the Czech Republic where he was arrested and jailed for his political activity.

Returning to the United States, he moved to San Francisco and was employed as a tenant organizer, mobilizing renters against illegal evictions and the Clinton-era demolitions of public housing. He then campaigned for the insurgent political candidate Matt Gonzalez who was running for city supervisor. Upon victory in 2001, Gonzalez became president of the Board of Supervisors and Eshelman his chief legislative aide.

This high-pressure, high-stakes position typically required a law degree, or at least a master’s degree; most of the other city hall staff had studied at Stanford, Berkeley, or other Ivy League schools. Eshelman excelled at the job even though he had not attended college.

Known for his erudition, style, and laid-back demeanor, Eshelman decorated his city hall office with abstract paintings, old lamps, Persian carpets, and a record player. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary jazz and punk rock; read literature, poetry, and history voraciously; and was part of an extreme mountain biking club called TKY (Team Kill Yuppie). Composed of men who were all sons of the working class, TKY’s tongue-in-cheek motto was “bringing class struggle to the trails.” All of this made Eshelman something of a legend in San Francisco, inspiring intense devotion among his friends and grudging admiration from his political adversaries.

In 2003, Eshelman left city government and went to the Middle East to begin a career in journalism. He lived in East Jerusalem, studied Arabic, and worked in the West Bank covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In late 2003, he traveled by land from Jordan to Iraq. He spent several months living in Baghdad witnessing car bombings and firefights, risking being kidnapped, and chronicling the plight of regular Iraqis. Throughout 2004 he filed stories from Fallujah, Ramadi, and Samarra for the Brooklyn Rail and other publications. Returning to San Francisco he began attending City College at age thirty.

In 2006, he moved to New York City, studied Arabic and History at Columbia University, earning a Bachelor of Arts. Later he earned a master’s from the Columbia School of Journalism. His writing focused on working-class politics, environmental issues, and science reporting. He worked for the Nation, and then Vice Media where he was the environment editor, writing, editing, commissioning stories, and occasionally doing on-camera work — and leading a successful unionization drive. Several months after the unionization, Vice eliminated Eshelman’s position and claimed it had nothing to do with his organizing efforts. He also published his work in Mother Jones, and in 2012, was an associate producer on Years of Living Dangerously, an Emmy Award-winning documentary series about climate change.

After that, he was an editor at the science publications Seeker and GlacierHub. Managing and editing the work of about a dozen journalists, Eshelman focused on topics including energy, space exploration, technology, medicine, and the intersection of science and politics. During the decade and a half that he lived in New York City, Eshelman traveled to Morocco, Bolivia, Indonesia, and throughout Europe. He studied political economy at the City University of New York with David Harvey and was involved in several writing groups.

In 2018, Robert met the Swedish journalist Nana Håkansson. Within days he was telling friends he would marry her. And very quickly he did. The Eshelman-Håkanssons then split their time between Gothenburg, Sweden, and New York City.

Intensely proud of his working-class Pennsylvania roots, Robert could also be critical of his hometown and places like it throughout America. But woe unto the condescending liberal who might carelessly criticize “Reagan Democrats” and “Trump voters” in “flyover country.” Eshelman would respond with cold, methodical and fact-laden verbal thrashings.

In recent years, Robert started spending more time in Bucks County, taking the train from New York City to New Jersey and then riding his bike to New Hope for weekend stays at a bed and breakfast. He was increasingly interested in his eighteenth-century German forbearers, some of whom arrived in America as Schwenkfelders, an ascetic and dissident Protestant sect similar to the Amish or Mennonites. He was known to wryly tell his wife, “I’m kind of Amish.” Increasingly disenchanted by life in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, Eshelman was seriously considering a relocation to New Hope, Pennsylvania.

bon vivant and raconteur with an expansive international network of friends, Eshelman hosted large and sumptuous dinner parties. In 2018, after bouts of chest pain he was diagnosed with heart problems and gave up eating red meat, a food he otherwise loved, and he began a rigorous regimen of daily swimming. Not wanting to worry his mother, Robert kept news of his heart problems from her.

Alas, like his father and grandfather before him, Robert Eshelman died of a heart attack. He passed in Brooklyn, New York on July 15, the day after his forty-seventh birthday. He is survived by his mother, Nancy L. Eshelman of Telford, Pennsylvania and his widow, Nana Eshelman-Håkansson, of Gothenburg, Sweden. Robert’s death is mourned by scores of old friends in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Mexico City; Medellín, Colombia; Dublin, Ireland; Berlin, Germany; and Marrakesh, Morocco.

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Christian Parenti is associate professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York. His most recent book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011). His forthcoming book is Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons from a Misunderstood Founder (Verso, Summer 2020).

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