Green vs. “green”

Pub date November 24, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe

Years ago, Greg Gaar was a scavenger, wandering the neighborhoods around Twin Peaks picking up bottles and other kinds of recyclable trash. He began working at the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC) Recycling Center in 1982.

During his tenure, a project designed primarily to divert waste from the landfill expanded to include a unique San Francisco native plant nursery. Located on a converted parking lot on Frederick Street near Lincoln Boulevard, the recycling center is a drop-off for recyclable materials, including used veggie oil, and a source for soil and 65 species of potted plants.

Gaar started small. “I took some seeds,” he explained, “and scattered them into a flat. They came up like fur on a dog’s back.” Over the years, he researched the natural history of the area, saved seeds, and cultivated the grounds surrounding the recycling center. HANC also converted a traffic triangle across the street into a thriving garden.

The Recreation and Parks Department, directed by Phil Ginsburg — former chief of staff to Mayor Gavin Newsom — is seriously considering a plan to evict HANC recycling center and replace it with a garden resource center.

While trading one garden center for another might not seem like a big deal, it appears to be an attack on poor people who make their living recycling cans and bottles, a group that organized to oppose Proposition L, the sit-lie ordinance that Newsom supported in this election.

Or as HANC Executive Director Ed Dunn put it: “He’s going to take it from his enemies and give it to his friends.”

The HANC recycling center has leased Rec and Park property since its inception in 1974, and it’s been at its current location for 30 years. HANC does not receive any city funding for the center, and it pays a small amount in rent for use of the parking lot. It processes roughly 160 tons of recycling per month.

Newsom has worked hard to cultivate his reputation as a green mayor and promote green-job creation, but evicting the recycling center would kill 10 green jobs. Many of the employees were formerly homeless and previously earned petty cash gathering cans to exchange at the center’s buyback station. They were hired without any help from San Francisco taxpayers and now they’re earning living wages while diverting waste from the landfill.

But some neighborhood residents are annoyed by the presence of people who arrive at the center with shopping carts filled to the brim with bottles and cans that they can exchange for cash. Buyback hours are held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., so during those times, people who haul around bundles of recyclables line up to receive modest rewards for their hours of effort.

HANC, a progressive organization, publicly and vehemently opposed Prop. L, the voter-approved ordinance that bans sitting and lying down on city sidewalks. Newsom enthusiastically endorsed Prop. L.

Dunn believes the recycling center is being targeted due to HANC’s position on that issue. “It’s all about political payback,” says Dunn. Incidentally, Haight voters rejected sit-lie and HANC sees the pending recycling-center eviction as part of the same agenda. “It’s all part of the gentrification that’s enveloping San Francisco,” said Jim Rhoads, who chairs the HANC Recycling Committee.

Once word of the plans got out, letters started pouring into to Newsom’s and Ginsburg’s offices from the Sierra Club, San Francisco Tomorrow, the Senior Action Network, and other organizations. Additionally, the center’s supporters mailed at least 400 postcards opposing the eviction.

Residents have voiced complaints about the shopping-cart recyclers, some of whom are homeless. The Inner Sunset Park Neighbors (ISPN), which is petitioning Rec and Park to evict the recycling center, has a message posted on its website linking the shopping-cart pushers with “quality-of-life issues such as aggressive panhandling, drug use/dealing, and public safety.” ISPN also charges that the recyclers swipe cans and bottles from rolling curbside bins. The neighborhood group had not responded to requests for an interview by press time.

Rhoads believes that if the recycling buyback program is removed, it would only encourage panhandling — after all, people already lacking basic resources would lose a critical source of income. “People will be very desperate,” he said. According to the results of a HANC survey, one in six recyclers regularly turning up at the center to exchange bottles for cash sleeps outside.

The Recreation and Park Commission will discuss the possible HANC eviction at its Dec. 2 meeting. And since the recycling center is on a month-to-month lease, the 36-year-old green resource could soon suffer eviction. There’s likely to be significant resistance, since the HANC Recycling Center has forged partnerships with urban-agriculture projects throughout the city.

It was a fiscal sponsor of the Garden for the Environment and donated several tons of cardboard for mulching at Hayes Valley Farm. The HANC nursery project has distributed plants to urban agriculture projects throughout the city, including school garden plots, urban habitat corridors designed to protect rare species, and the Mission Greenbelt Project, a network of sidewalk gardens in the Mission.

Details on the proposed garden resource center that would be installed in lieu of the HANC Recycling Center are sketchy. An artist’s rendering of the plan, drawn up by the city’s Department of Public Works, envisions an outdoor classroom amphitheatre, raised garden beds, a semi dwarf orchard, and a composting area. However, Guardian inquiries to Rec and Park requesting more specific details about funding and operation went unanswered by press time.