More than clean

Pub date February 13, 2007


Cleaner streets, crack-free sidewalks, an urban landscape unmarred by graffiti and made greener by leafy trees: that was the improved "quality of life" espoused by Mayor Gavin Newsom in his State of the City speech Oct. 26, 2006. And he’s put resources into delivering that pretty picture, with increases to the Department of Public Works (DPW) budget and funds allocated for sidewalk revitalization and the citywide Clean Corridors campaign.

But the city’s top-down approach to realizing the mayor’s goals — and the apparent lack of consideration for the implications of those priorities among ordinary people — has created a backlash from affluent District 7 (where Sup. Sean Elsbernd is upset over the fines being doled out to property owners for cracked sidewalks) to the working-class Mission District (where an aggressive new street cleaning regime has been proposed).

"This is something that just dropped out of the blue, and I think it’s unacceptable," Mission resident Peter Turner said at a Jan. 31 public hearing on the proposal to clean many streets in his neighborhood every weekday. "The city has shown a vast amount of disrespect to the Mission."

Others think there are more pressing problems.

"What is quality of life?" asked Vicki Rega, who lives at 21st and Bryant streets and spoke to the Guardian on her way out of the hearing. "Some trash on your street or a dead kid on your sidewalk?"

The signs started appearing a few weeks ago, posted on trees and lamp poles in the Mission. The type is a tiny 10-point font, often difficult to read through the plastic wrap that holds the paper to the pole. Even if you can make out the words, it’s still pretty unclear that they announce a proposal to ramp up mechanical street cleaning — from as little as one day a week to as many as five.

"The signs were very, very confusing," said Eric Noble, a Shotwell Street resident who was further insulted that postings weren’t made in Spanish and Chinese. "That’s really unconscionable in the Mission."

Beyond warning residents of the radical change to their daily lives, the signs invited them to two public hearings to discuss the issue, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 5. The first hearing drew about 150 residents and frustration that the only sign of officialdom present was DPW representative Chris McDaniels, who was sitting alone behind a vast empty desk, taking notes.

"Who is deciding this issue, and why aren’t they here to hear us?" Judith Berkowitz asked.

Attendees expressed anger at the process and annoyance that car-owning residents on dozens of city blocks east of Valencia Street and north of Cesar Chavez Street will face steep fines and be forced to scramble for new parking spots on a daily basis.

At the beginning of the meeting, the reasons for the change were introduced: illegal dumping in the area had doubled in one year, calls to the city’s trash hotline 28-CLEAN had increased 18 percent from 2005 to 2006, and the sweeper truck in the Mission had been collecting huge amounts of trash.

"It’s the sidewalks, not the streets," several speakers said. They pointed out that the trucks are more successful blowing trash around than sucking it up. Many offered numerous suggestions for how to better clean the streets: have more trash cans and volunteers, employ the homeless, coordinate with other city services, educate the merchants, bring back people with brooms and dustpans — but don’t just run trucks through the streets.

One Alabama Street resident said she’s committed to using public transportation to get to her job in Richmond, but like many others at the meeting, she pointed out that if cars need to be moved five days a week for street cleaning, why not move them all the way to work?

"It’s a disincentive for people to use public transit," she said.

And if they don’t get moved, does the city really mind?

"Is it really trash, or is it revenue?" Shotwell Street resident Eric Noble asked, citing the added opportunities for writing parking tickets. "If revenue enhancement is behind this project, you’re going to see it all over the city."

DPW spokesperson Christine Falvey denied money was the motive and said parking fine revenue goes to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has recently revealed an $11 million budget shortfall. Falvey also said changes in street cleaning schedules are usually prompted by complaints from residents, but in this case the proposal was sparked by recommendations from city staff who work in the area.

Street cleaning trucks have been in use since 1976 and currently clean about 90 percent of city streets, but according to Falvey, the DPW has never done an analysis of their efficiency and effectiveness. A consultant was recently hired to make that determination.

"Every time some city agency comes up with an improvement, it does more to inconvenience," David Jayne, a Potrero Avenue resident, told us. "I’m really worried this is another one-size-fits-all cure."

But Newsom has made clean streets a top priority for his reelection year.

"How do we dare to dream big — while not forgetting to fill potholes, clean our streets and parks, and address the small problems of urban life that make such a big difference to our quality of life?" Newsom asked in his State of the City speech.

And how do we do it without pissing off the neighbors?

"You’re not going to find anyone who says, ‘Yeah, I think the neighborhood should be dirtier,’ " Florida Street resident Scott Adams told us. "Things should be done to improve the hygiene of the streets."

But he and others who live on these streets and have watched them for years said they were prepared to push brooms and pick up trash if the city were willing to work on other qualities of life such as rising violence, slipping public schools, and the truly ill transportation system.

The DPW’s stated mission is "improving the quality of life in San Francisco." And that’s been a popular pastime of recent mayors. Frank Jordan had One Neat City Week and the Litter Strike Force. Willie Brown promoted his Spring Cleanings and Great Sweeps. Gavin Newsom touts a goal to make this the "cleanest and greenest city in the country."

So his proposed 2006–7 budget for the DPW’s Street Environmental Services hovers around $33 million, an 11 percent boost over last year. That’s more than the 7 percent increase the patrol unit of the San Francisco Police Department received, the 4 percent Muni Services and Operations received, the 1 percent that went to Child Support Services, and almost two times more than the rise for the housing and homeless budget line in the Human Services Agency.

Street Environmental Services is a fancy-pants term for picking up trash, spraying off pee, and painting over graffiti. The mayor’s most recent plan to achieve this is called Clean Corridors and was unveiled in November 2006 with a $1.67 million allocation from Newsom for targeting the filthy faces of 100 specific blocks throughout the city. (Although this project focuses on the same areas in the Mission, the increased street cleaning is a separate proposal.)

The essence of Clean Corridors is to get residents and business owners to feel more responsible for their property, using both education and fines for things such as cracked sidewalks and dirty facades.

The program also pays for 20 neighborhood ambassadors who each patrol designated areas, picking up trash, reporting graffiti and areas needing repair, issuing litter citations, and educating the public. They’re essentially litter cops.

"He wanted specific people responsible for areas," Falvey said of the mayor’s ambassador program. "He wants that person to own their block."

Yet some residents bristle at Newsom placing such a high priority on litter as the murder rate is spiking, Muni is failing, housing is becoming less affordable, and city hall is mired in dysfunction.

"The war in Iraq. The violence in the streets — that’s probably my number one concern. Public schools. Transportation," Noble said when we asked about his quality-of-life concerns.

"Quality of life means being able to meet the basic necessities of your life," Myrna Lim said. The Excelsior resident is so frustrated with the parking situation in her neighborhood she organized a protest Feb. 24 against any new fine increases. "If you’re on a very tight budget, $40 for a ticket is a lot. When people talk about San Francisco being a very expensive city, that’s part of it. It makes day-to-day living very difficult. Over what? Parking?"

Yet the Mission parking proposal has prompted some community organizing. E-mail sign-up lists were passed around the hearing room, and a healthy chat about the issue now exists at a Yahoo! group. Several residents who aren’t currently members of neighborhood organizations told us they’re thinking about joining or starting one.

"I was quite amazed to see all the people," Noble said of the first hearing and the conversation it sparked. "Maybe one thing that will come out of this is more neighborhood discussions."

The DPW has also been chastened and scheduled an evening meeting in March. "We’ve heard overwhelming support that something needs to be done but overwhelming response that it’s not mechanical street cleaning," Falvey said.

"The city should really be a conduit for people to organize themselves," she added. "For any kind of long-term, sustained effort, it’s got to come from the neighbors." *