At BART’s 16th Street plaza, odor of un­kept prom­ises

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - BAYAREA - HEATHER KNIGHT

It’s hard to be­lieve San Fran­cisco was once known as the City That Knows How, a nick­name be­stowed by Pres­i­dent William Howard Taft in 1911. Just five years af­ter weath­er­ing a dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake and fire, San Fran­cisco agreed to host a World’s Fair in 1915. And it did so with aplomb.

All of that know-how seems to have van­ished. Our Mil­len­nium Tower is sink­ing, lean­ing and spon­ta­neously crack­ing — one win­dow, at least. Our new $2.2 bil­lion Trans­bay Tran­sit Cen­ter has been open only a month, and the walk­way around its rooftop park is al­ready crum­bling. Muni’s ef­fort to re­pair the Twin Peaks Tun­nel re­sulted in a city­wide bus melt­down and the death of a worker.

San Fran­cisco has so lit­tle know-how these days, it can’t even do the most mun­dane tasks well, like keeping a BART sta­tion plaza clean.

You may re­call that Su­per­vi­sor Hil­lary Ro­nen and Be­van Dufty, a mem­ber of the BART board, spent ev­ery Wed­nes­day morn­ing for months clean­ing the plazas at the 16th Street Mis­sion Sta­tion be­cause nobody else seemed to bother. They pulled on plas­tic gloves and wielded brooms to deal with the heaps of trash and hu­man waste — and even a dead pi­geon. They called them­selves, fit­tingly, “part­ners in grime.”

Fi­nally, BART pledged to sched­ule two full-time jan­i­tors at the sta­tion and power-wash it ev­ery night. Ro­nen and Dufty stopped clean­ing in March, fig­ur­ing they’d made their case.

Re­cently, they started hear­ing the same old com­plaints about the plaza, and on Mon­day morn­ing they ven­tured to the sta­tion to check it out. Ro­nen called me, livid.

“It looks worse than when Be­van and I started. I feel like I was lied to,” she said. “This, to me, is pure in­com­pe­tence . ... I’m afraid some­body is go­ing to get a dis­ease from touching any­thing. We’re both just los­ing our minds.”

She de­scribed an un­bear­able stench, slum­like con­di­tions with peo­ple sleep­ing on card­board, heaps of trash, pud­dles of urine, pi­geon poop caked on the ground and “brown yuck­i­ness blobbed over the el­e­va­tor.”

She sent me photos, which thank­fully weren’t scratch-and­sniff, and fired off an an­gry let­ter to BART Gen­eral Man­ager Grace Cruni­can.

I went out there the next morn­ing, and while it had clearly been im­proved a bit af­ter Ro­nen’s let­ter, it was still pretty dire.

The ground was lit­tered with empty liquor bot­tles, bro­ken glass, nee­dle caps, cig­a­rette butts and a Flamin’ Hot Chee­tos bag. The brown yuck­i­ness had been wiped from the el­e­va­tor, but a stain re­mained. The ar­eas around both es­ca­la­tors were filled with trash, in­clud­ing a sin­gle black shoe, and smelled like urine. At the bot­tom of the es­ca­la­tors sat more trash, in­clud­ing an empty cup that held in­stant noo­dles rolling around right next to garbage cans.

You know the worst part of this sor­did tale? This, ap­par­ently, meets BART’s stan­dards.

“BART is do­ing ex­actly what was agreed upon ear­lier this year,” Ali­cia Trost, spokes­woman for the agency, wrote in an email.

She said that, as promised, two work­ers clean the sta­tion ev­ery week­day — one from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and one from 2 to 10 p.m. She said that on week­ends, one worker is split be­tween the 16th Street Sta­tion and the 24th Street Sta­tion.

She said a con­trac­tor power-washes the 16th Street Sta­tion ev­ery night for one hour and that a new con­tract will raise that to four hours in Oc­to­ber. In ad­di­tion, BART is in­stalling a new sur­face in the plazas that will re­pel liq­uids and be eas­ier to clean.

Nei­ther Ro­nen nor I saw any jan­i­tors at the sta­tion when we vis­ited, though sup­pos­edly one had been work­ing for a few hours by the time we got there. Some­thing seems amiss.

At least San Fran­cisco isn’t putting on a World’s Fair any­time soon. Surely, its build­ings would lean, its walk­ways would crum­ble, it would be lit­tered with nee­dles and trash, and the whole thing would smell like a gas sta­tion re­stroom.

Un­der­stand­ing home­less­ness: Thank­fully, there are still some folks in San Fran­cisco who are ca­pa­ble and cut­ting edge — they just don’t work in gov­ern­ment.

Loyal read­ers know I’m a big fan of Lava Mae, the non­profit that turns de­com­mis­sioned Muni buses and trail­ers into mo­bile re­strooms and shower stalls for home­less peo­ple. Lava Mae has also branched out into art ex­hi­bi­tions in­tended to make view­ers un­der­stand the lives of home­less peo­ple.

If you’re free Sun­day, check out the fi­nal day of the group’s ex­hi­bi­tion “Com­ing Home” at Proxy, the two-block out­door space at 432 Oc­tavia Blvd. Cre­ated by artist John Craig Freeman and sound artists Ta­nia Keten­jian and Philip Wood, “Com­ing Home” uses iPads to over­lay aug­mented re­al­ity scenes of home­less peo­ple and their recorded voices telling their sto­ries.

From 4 to 8 p.m., they’ll have spe­cial events along­side the ex­hi­bi­tion, in­clud­ing a sta­tion for mak­ing hy­giene kits for home­less peo­ple, a sock and un­der­wear drive, and Lava Mae bus tours.

Amy Schoen­ing, Lava Mae’s cu­ra­tor of arts pro­gram­ming, said the ex­hi­bi­tion is are in­tended to bridge the some­times big gap in un­der­stand­ing be­tween peo­ple who have homes and peo­ple who don’t.

“Can we get peo­ple to sim­ply see each other?” she asked. “To not have that level of in­vis­i­bil­ity?”

Hap­pily trapped: De­spite all the se­ri­ous and gut-wrench­ing is­sues in San Fran­cisco, there are still lots of goofy ways to have fun in the peren­ni­ally wacky city. And now that sum­mer­time tourists have left, along with Karl the Fog, it’s a good time to take ad­van­tage of them.

I’m team­ing with Peter Hart­laub, The Chron­i­cle’s pop cul­ture critic and my part­ner in #To­talMuni2018, to come up with a list of the best tourist traps in San Fran­cisco that are fun for lo­cals, too.

We started the con­ver­sa­tion with food editor Paolo Luc­ch­esi on an episode of Hart­laub’s pod­cast, “The Big Event.” Luc­ch­esi copped to en­joy­ing a cock­tail at the Cliff House bar. I am not em­bar­rassed to say I love rid­ing the (over­priced) ca­ble cars and walk­ing across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Hart­laub started a ver­i­ta­ble firestorm by sug­gest­ing the Hard Rock Cafe at Pier 39 should be on the list, an as­ser­tion with which Luc­ch­esi and I not-so-po­litely dis­agreed.

We ven­tured there for lunch the other day to see for our­selves and had the good for­tune of meet­ing Diana Smith, who’s been a wait­ress at one Hard Rock or an­other for 34 years. She’s met Joe Mon­tana, Mel Gib­son, Phil Collins, Cyndi Lau­per and more un­der­dressed and freez­ing tourists than she can count.

“We get peo­ple from all over the world,” she said. “It’s up­beat and fun.”

Ser­vice? Top-notch. Food? OK, but over­priced. Among the best tourist traps in San Fran­cisco? No. Sorry, Peter.

What are your fa­vorite tourist traps, the ones you’re not afraid to ad­mit you love? Af­ter we come up with our fi­nal list, Hart­laub and I will spend a day visit­ing some of them — sans the white ten­nis shoes, shorts and “I Es­caped From Al­ca­traz” T-shirts, of course.

We’re aim­ing for Sept. 26. We’re think­ing the day will in­clude Ir­ish cof­fees at the Buena Vista. We’re think­ing you should join us. Stay tuned!

Photos by Jes­sica Chris­tian / The Chron­i­cle

A BART jan­i­tor sweeps around the plaza of the 16th Street Mis­sion Sta­tion. BART’s 16th Street Mis­sion plaza is clean in the morn­ing af­ter be­ing swept, but by the end of the day it’s messy again.

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