Monday, February 8, 2010

The Best Of Times

If you could choose to live in the San Francisco of any decade, which would you choose? Would you leave behind everything intrinsic to the present, things we probably take for granted, in favor of an earlier time? What aspects of the past would be powerful enough to make you want to go back?

Is it pointless to think about this? I'm going to stake an opinion and say that it isn't pointless at all. I think we owe it to the future to understand how and why the amazing things that happened in history were able to happen. If we look further than the obvious things, civil rights, or man on the moon, if we look at the beauty of an old iron gate, or an album cover, what can we take away?

If you really look at it, the divide between what was unquestionably possible in the past and what is considered possible now is pretty astounding. We have trite phrases like "those were the good old days", and "they don't make 'em like that anymore." What's so different now? Is it technical know-how that's been lost, or something else? What did people in the past have that we lack?

Fox Theater Interior, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library

This is the inside of the Fox Theater, a movie palace that opened on Market Street near 10th Street in 1929. A collection of photos show how unbelievably ornate this place was. By 1963, it was dust, demolished and replaced by the current Archstone Fox Plaza apartment high rise.

The reasons why the Fox Theater was built had a lot to do with Hollywood politics, and the design was just one of many by prolific architect Thomas W. Lamb. But the almost unfathomable level of craftsmanship, pride, and attention to detail needed to produce something like this were part of that era's ethos.

We're sensitive enough now that we usually support protection and restoration of beloved landmarks that have managed to survive this far, but the will to produce something like the Fox Theater is not with us. Why was it so important to them to make a movie theater look like this? Why didn't they just quickly build a functional theater, pocket the money saved, and move on?

The 1896 Sutro Cliff House

When Adolph Sutro had the 1896 "Gingerbread Palace" Cliff House built, it could have been considered the public amenity gift of a lifetime. But he was just getting started. The indoor swimming pool complex which became the Sutro Baths were in development that same year, and he had opened the grounds of his own home as a place for the public to come and see the sights. This was property that he personally owned. Why didn't he put up fences and enjoy the scenic vistas in peace?

Playland-at-the-Beach, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library

George Whitney made enough money running concessions on Ocean Beach to buy up the three blocks of property they operated on, plus the Cliff House and Sutro Baths. Why didn't he retire with his fortune? Why did he keep running Playland-at-the-Beach right up until his death? Those who remember it look back and say it was "never the same" after his death - to that extent he infused the place with his spirit. Why was it so important to him?

Woodward's Gardens, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library

Robert B. Woodward was already running a successful hotel when he began to develop a combination zoo, aquarium, garden, greenhouse, museum, art gallery, and circus on his Mission area property. He ended up relocating his family to Napa, and installing every conceivable kind of amusement in what became known as Woodward's Gardens. Like Playland-at-the-Beach, the place died not long after its proprietor.

I'll stop before I get to the Egyptian pyramids and make the point. Those who became the forces behind San Francisco's landmarks and legends may have been kind souls, or they may have been strutting peacocks at heart. Whether it was altruism or vanity, it's clear that they cared about the opinions and experiences of other people. Adolph Sutro wanted people to see the Pacific Ocean from the romantic vantage point he imagined. George Whitney wanted that ice cream to taste good.

Old home on South Van Ness Avenue

We marvel at the exquisite charm infusing San Francisco's treasured Victorian houses. The builders wanted us to marvel at them. They thought about the lives of the people who would live in them, and the people who would pass them by on the street. They had something to say to everyone.

New homes under construction on Valencia and 18th Street

What are we saying?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haight and Love

Many spots in San Francisco are the domain of either locals or visitors, and people flow like oil and water into their comfort zones. Somehow, the Haight manages to get them to mix. The enduring 1960s mythology, the front-door proximity to Golden Gate Park, and the blend of hippie, gothic, punk, new age, and vintage styles are powerful tourist pheromones. Hipsters aren't likely to enter the t-shirt shop at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, but the high caliber bars and racks of early 20th century clothes and shoes are cool enough. If nothing else, the Haight is an unparalleled place for watching people, who would never otherwise meet, try to share the same sidewalk.

Sometimes the sharing doesn't go very well. Back in May 2007, the LA Times published an article on the culture clash in the Haight. They talked to residents who were tired of stepping over gangs and enduring abuse, and counterpointed it with accounts like that of a young woman who arrived in 1999 and found that "the only people who were kind to each other were other homeless people."

Some of the groups hanging out on the sidewalk have recently managed to make locals mad enough to initiate serious discussion of a sit/lie ordinance. SFGate, SFAppeal, and the weeklies have all weighed in on the issue.

The Bay Guardian's Tim Redmond has stated his favor of foot patrols - 2 SFPD walking back and forth on Haight Street all day. Chief of Police George Gascón has estimated the cost of this at "close to $1 million a year". So the SFPD won't effectively patrol a trouble-ridden street (which happens to be famous, and a tourist magnet and major revenue generator) unless we cough up an extra $1 million? And the $442 million that the department already has budgeted for fiscal year 2009-2010 isn't enough to include this because... why?

Gascón is pushing for the ordinance, which would give SFPD the power to issue citations and/or boot people into the criminal justice system for reclining or being seated on the sidewalk. Apparently, officers are unable to do anything unless a complaint is filed, and some residents are reluctant to complain for fear of retaliation. Chronicle's C.W. Nevius speculates that Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi's cautious position on the ordinance, even in the face of a rabid neighborhood contingent, is to preserve his liberal credentials.

Mirkarimi is quoted as saying that "the devil is in the detail and no one seems to agree on the legal details."

That actually sounds like a good reason for calling a timeout before throwing the pen at the ordinance paper. Gascón offers a simple answer to the question of whether a sit/lie law might lead to abuse: his assurance that it won't. According to Redmond at the Guardian, Gascón sees this as a way for the perpetrators to "get access to services that could help them change their behavior."

As much as SF residents enjoy paying to send folks on merry-go-round trips through police stations and courts, and despite the city's stellar track record in the rehabilitation business, I'd have to say this still sounds like a shady promotion. I've seen SFPD hassle clearly benign street musicians. If a sit/lie ordinance makes it illegal to sit cross-legged on the sidewalk and strum a guitar, will it then be the SFPD's discretion alone that determines who needs to be cited or picked up? How would the ordinance affect peaceful protests?

For anyone who has encountered the "thugs" ("bullies", "street kids", "punks") in the bullseye of this thing, it's easy to see why some residents want them out as soon as possible, by whatever means necessary. They're not the downtrodden looking to get back on their feet, they're not typical panhandlers, and they're not just passing through. They have no love for the community they've infiltrated, and they're relentless in their efforts to squeeze as much money from passing tourists as possible.

This is how they survive, and it's the reason why they're in the upper Haight, and not in the Mission or lower Haight. Locals are generally disgusted by them, and rarely give them acknowledgment, let alone money. It's the year-round foot parade of visitors and new arrivals, naive to the situation, who are their bread and butter. Or more accurately, their Marlboro and McDonald's. (This lends high comedy to the their outside-of-society lifestyle stance, since their faithful patronage of the tobacco, fast food, and alcohol industries makes them bigger contributors to corporate dominance and status quo than most SF residents.)

So if free money is what keeps them parked there (that, and proximity to the Golden Gate Park campgrounds), why not reach out to the source of the money? If visitors knew that they were hurting the community and enabling these people to stay on a road to nowhere, would they still hand over that dollar? Some would, but maybe enough would reconsider that it would make an effective intervention.

How about a giant bold-letter notice with the appeal, "Please Do Not Give Money To The People On The Sidewalk", and a subtext explaining the difference between abusive individuals and the Haight's traditional street musicians and hangers-on? If every single business from Stanyan to Central put that up in their window in plain view, it would at least send a message to passersby and constitute a peaceful but firm statement of solidarity from the community. And targeted retribution would be impossible.

Knowledge and awareness just seem like better tools for peace than expensive headbusting, or forced enrollment in the city's "industry of homeless" circus.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Muni: Breaks in the Clouds

On Monday, January 18, 2010, I emailed a version of the Muni Petition to all 11 San Francisco District Supervisors. So, what happens when you email a list of politically dangerous and admittedly drastic suggestions on a wildly contentious topic to City Hall?

District 4 Supervisor Carmen Chu responded, suggesting that I contact the MTA Board of Directors, since they are responsible for specific items related to Muni budget and policy. Supervisor Chu pointed out that what District Supervisors are able to do is to vote down a budget in its entirety, forcing the MTA Board (and Muni management) to revisit their decisions. She added the she appreciated the thoughtful suggestions and would take a look at the ideas.

I appreciate her response. I think it was realistic, helpful, and non-patronizing.

District 9 Supervisor David Campos also responded, and said that Muni is a top priority for him and that "we are considering a number of measures to make our municipal transit system something of which we can all be proud." He added that they are asking for a "targeted management audit of Muni" and considering a charter amendment.

The words "audit", "Muni", and "management" together in a sentence definitely sound like music. And while I'd love more detail about what measures are under consideration to turn what we presently have into a source of collective pride, I also appreciate this sympathetic response.

Thank you, Supervisors Carmen Chu and David Campos.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty was sitting in front of me during the second half of the MTA Board Meeting on Tuesday (January 19, 2010) and I wanted to talk to him and hand him a printed copy of the petition, but he left during the session and I didn't get the chance.

From that meeting, I saw firsthand how many Muni employees feel just as betrayed and bewildered as the riding public. Among those taking their two minutes at the microphone were a station agent, a bus cleaner, a mechanic, and a parking control officer, all of whom were apparently being laid off.

I also learned that in addition to the proposed across-the-board service cuts and selected fare increases (including F-line), they were continuing to reduce staff at stations and were planning to shut down Muni pass sales at Montgomery.

Shutting down sale locations for Muni passes. Not a typo.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Muni: A Petition

This petition is available for signatures here:

To be sent to all San Francisco District Supervisors:

I am stunned and furious over the state of San Francisco's Municipal Transit Agency. I am appealing to you to help make this the turning point at which we stop destroying the transit system and start to heal it. Any comment, help, advice, or assistance from your office would be received with the utmost appreciation.

Publicly available information and news reports indicate that the following are major factors in the current financial crisis:

1) Depletion of Muni funds by the city for purposes not related to the transit system. This includes work orders from other departments.

2) Compensatory payments and settlements for collisions and injuries caused by failure of Muni management to enforce safety protocols.

3) Bloated salaries and lack of responsibility in the top tier of Muni.

4) Decrease in fare revenue due to deficient fare collection processes, and failure to prevent widespread fare evasion.

5) Unrealistic demands from the transit union, including salary guarantees, pension and retirement payouts, and protections for employees with poor safety records or job performance.

Accordingly, it is suggested that the city undertake the following:

1) An audit and public review of all payments and allocations from Muni funds, including funding of special programs, and invoices for services from other city agencies or departments.

2) Elimination of salaries paid from Muni funds to city employees who are not part of the operational staff of Muni.

3) Review of all management positions and salaries within Muni, from the top down, by an independent panel, to determine actual services rendered and whether compensation is merited. Findings to be made public and agency held accountable to restructure and eliminate or consolidate positions, per the best interests of the city.

4) No further layoffs or schedule cutbacks for front-line workers with good service records, including operators, parking control officers, station agents, mechanics, and bus cleaners.

5) Immediate termination of Muni operators who have caused accidents or otherwise jeopardized public safety and/or caused the agency to be liable for judgments or settlements by disregarding traffic laws or safety protocols.

6) Cancellation of union contracts, due to failure of the union to provide services commensurate with salaries and compensation, and disregard for the solvency of the city. New contracts drawn up with realistic terms for the city.

7) Focus on mitigating fare evasion on the lines where it occurs most frequently, including Mission, Geary, and Stockton bus lines. Have fare inspectors also enforce the no food/drink rules and cite violators.

8) Ensure that fare collection mechanisms are in working order, and that fare boxes are emptied before becoming full. Install fare boxes at crowded bus stops and above-ground train stops.

9) Continue to offer passes for sale at Muni stations, and increase staffing for pass sales during peak month-end days. Do not close the facility at Montgomery Station.

10) Real solutions for specific ongoing mechanical and functional issues which impact Muni performance daily. These include repair of open and close mechanisms on all train doors to reduce stalls and blockages, and overhaul of train dispatch systems to increase frequency of in-demand trains at peak times and reduce wasteful train groupings.

11) Freeze on fare increases and cancellation of plans to pursue any further service reductions or route eliminations. A poll of residents and riders to determine routes and regions most needing increased or restored service. Incremental expansion and restoration of services and routes.

Muni: All Things Considered

Many articles have been published recently on the subject of San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni), and the problems associated with it. This is an attempt to gather salient points from several sources, and lay them out in a single summary. Together, they paint a dark picture.

If you have depended on Muni, you may have found yourself stuck in a tunnel for unknown reasons, waited for a bus that never came, been unable to board a vehicle due to overcrowding, witnessed confrontations between drivers and passengers, watched fare cheats board unchecked, or wondered about cleaning protocols. These have been common grievances for a number of years, and almost accepted as part of the Muni experience.

Bigger issues have recently begun to impact riders further.

Pay More and Get Less

On December 5, 2009, Muni implemented a roster of changes which included service reductions to 32 routes and the elimination of 6 routes.

The notice posted on the Muni website included a letter to the public from Tom Nolan (Chairman, SFMTA Board of Directors) and Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. (Executive Director/CEO) in which it was explained that the actions taken were "due to the global recession" and "inescapable economic realities". It was also noted, without irony, that the changes would "(continue) to define our unique, Transit First City".

SFAppeal has published an article projecting further service cutbacks in the near future.

In January 2010, the price of monthly Muni/BART passes was raised from $55 to $70, and an alternate non-BART pass offered at $60. This represented an unprecedented doubling of the cost for passes (in addition to an increase from $1.50 to $2 for individual fares) since 2008.

On Tuesday, January 19, 2010, the MTA Board will consider proposals seeking to cut service further by decreasing frequency of buses and trains across the board, and raising fares for some lines including the F-line streetcars.

Still Not Enough Money

Following the service reductions and fare increases, Muni announced that it still had $47.1 million less than what it needed just to continue operating through June, 2010. In response to the problem, they laid off 250 workers, including 24 parking control officers (who directly generate revenue for the agency by issuing citations) and bus cleaners.

Nathaniel Ford was quoted as saying "I feel like we've done our due diligence on this matter."

In light of the continual crisis, it would seem pertinent to ask: Who decides how much money is enough? (The current annual budget is $816.7 million.) And who decides how to most effectively spend the money? Where does it actually go?

The Six Figure Club

There does not seem to be any data available for 2008 or 2009, but the Chronicle published a database of $100,000+ salaries paid by the city of San Francisco in 2007. The search returns 135 results in the Municipal Transportation Agency category alone. Of these, the top ten include:

Nathaniel Ford, General Manager: $325,452
Carter Rohan, Deputy Director II: $199,209
Sonali Bose, Deputy Director II: $197,753
Kenneth Jew, Principal Engineer: $173,799
John Funghi, Assoc Engineer: $173,000
Chun-Ming-Wen, Sr Engineer: $171,143
James Albert, IS Manager: $169,368
Vicki Rambo, Deputy Dir II: $168,843
William Neilson II, Principal Engineer: $168,609
Ashish Patel, Manager VIII: $160,925

The list is ordered with the highest salaries first, so you see the figure gradually fall as you page through. The most common titles are Engineer (52), and Manager (38), rounded out by variations on Analyst, Inspector, Planner, and miscellanies like Senior Fare Collections Receiver ($119,238), plus a few unknown or missing titles.

From this data, it looks like Muni paid something in the range $17 million in 2007 on salaries for just the top 2.7% of its workforce (based on the 5,000 employee figure in Muni's December 2009 public letter).

SFGate has reported as of January 18, 2010, that Nathaniel Ford's salary will be reduced to $308,837 (not including incentive-based bonuses) "in recognition of the economic crisis", but that the MTA Board is poised to extend his contract for four more years. Ford is also guaranteed a severance of one year's salary when he does leave (down from two years' salary).

Questions about Muni compensation are typically addressed by Irwin Lum, spokesman for the Transport Workers Union. When Muni operators were awarded a bonus capped at $3,000 at the end of 2009, Lum justified it (in a disagreement over the matter with City Supervisor Sean Elsbernd) by stating that drivers do not have the same dependent health coverage that other city workers have, and therefore deserve the extra compensation.

Empty Seats and Broken Trains

As reported by, a December 2009 public meeting to review the agency's performance for the year included the revelation that "unscheduled absenteeism among MTA operators reached 14.4 percent in the middle of 2009". (SF Examiner reported the rate as 15.2 percent.) Muni CEO Nathaniel Ford was apparently absent from the meeting.

Union spokesman Irwin Lum blamed the absences on two factors: back injuries and other ailments resulting from poor vehicle maintenance, and fear of riders angry about the "big changes happening to Muni".

The same report also noted that mechanical breakdowns affecting the agency's light rail vehicles are on the increase, and that average on-time performance system-wide was down to 73 percent.

Regular riders can list a number of issues that seem to perpetually go without being addressed: Train doors that won't close (especially on an incline), dispatch systems that send out fewer in-demand trains and gluts of unneeded trains, frozen traffic screens in stations, broken fare boxes on buses.

And yet, Muni paid six-figure salaries to no less than 52 engineers (in 2007). Are those engineers still on the payroll?

No Repercussions

In 2008, ABC News ran a series on Muni which included segments titled "What does it take to get fired from Muni?" and "Muni driver with most complaints exposed". These include surveillance video from buses, showing incidents of abuse, and reports of discriminatory treatment and potentially dangerous actions by drivers. ABC states that it had to sue to get access to the materials.

These reports have a sensationalist ring to them, and anyone who has ridden Muni frequently can testify that there are many conscientious, courteous drivers in the fleet. But an important question is raised: If these few egregiously bad public-facing Muni employees are not fired, despite a litany of public complaints and documented misconduct, how likely is it that merely incompetent or ineffective employees are ever removed from the payroll?

On January 2, 2010, a Muni bus driver ran a stop sign and collided with a pickup truck (which also failed to stop), sending five bus passengers (plus the truck driver) to the hospital.

Muni spokesman Judson True subsequently told the Chronicle that drivers involved in accidents "can face disciplinary action, including termination". No specifics were given about what would actually happen to the driver in this case, and True referred to it as a "confidential personnel matter".

In the wake of the July 18, 2009 West Portal train collision (which injured 48 persons), SF Weekly published an article that included speculation by attorneys with apparent experience suing transportation agencies on the kinds of payouts that San Francisco could be liable for as a result of injury-related accidents. They postulated a vague "many millions".

This is less than a precise analysis of the real and potential financial toll of compensatory payouts. But it's clear that sums of money which should be spent on keeping Muni running often end up in the hands of those who are successfully able to claim injury from at-fault incidents.

Please Pass the Checkbook

In January 2008, the Chronicle (SFGate) reported that Muni funds had been used to pay salaries for staffers in Mayor Gavin Newsom's office, including aides, an event coordinator, and a web developer to build a site for Newsom's re-election campaign.

By way of explanation, Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard stated "I know it's not pretty, but it is an efficient way of getting city business done."

In April 2009 both, SFGate and SFAppeal reported that other city departments commonly sent work orders (or invoices) to Muni for services rendered, and that these totaled $67 million for the fiscal year ending in June, 2009.

In other words, when the SFPD rode a Muni bus for the purpose of patrolling the route, or directed traffic around a stalled vehicle, it would send Muni an invoice for the time (apparently often at overtime rates). The SFPD racked up $11 million in charges in a single fiscal year. The city attorney's office came up with $13 million. The general services administration, $7 million. The public utilities commission, $6 million. The department of telecommunications and IS, $7 million. (Thanks to SFAppeal for making the actual documents available from their article.)

The city's non-emergency 311 call-in help and info center apparently managed to get in on the game as well. Every a time someone calls to find out when the next bus is coming, it costs $1.96. At the end of the year, Muni is asked to pay for all the calls, to the helpful tune of $4.5 million.

We Can Do Better

This amazing city of San Francisco - a city that managed to create a 1,017-acre garden out of sand, a city that rose from the ashes of devastation in 1906, a city that built both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in a single four year period - surely can manage to run a first-rate transportation system.

For the sake of people who want to work, who want to shop, who want to explore the city, who want to get out of their cars and roam the neighborhoods and hills of San Francisco, we have to get this right. We owe it to the community, to the environment, to our economy, and to our legacy, to provide a way to get around town.

Is Muni an agency starved by economic circumstances, or one that has been gutted from the inside out by corruption, waste, and negligence? All things considered, it looks like some of the former and a whole lot of the latter. To those responsible - get out of the way, because your day is over.

From the Ashes

When the survivors of the 1906 earthquake looked at San Francisco in the days after the fires finally burned out, they could clearly imagine what needed to happen to heal the city. There were different ideas about how rebuilding should proceed, but they shared a common viewpoint about the cause of the disaster and the remedy. And enough people were willing to cooperate to quickly bring the dream of restoration to reality.

It may seem hyperbole to draw a comparison with the present state of San Francisco, but I'm going to do it anyway. If anything, we now have more people here without a sense of hope for their future. More people are angry, disillusioned, sick at heart, and see no choice but to leave the city. Residents of 1906 walked down the street and saw rubble and scorched skeletons where homes and businesses used to be. Residents of 2010 see vacant storefronts, blood on the sidewalk, and homes they're either struggling to stay in or can no longer afford.

It's easy to attribute this to the winds of change and say the tough times will turn, as they always do. But the 1906 residents didn't just wait for someone else to pick up the first brick. And if we had that willingness, and maybe half the pride and craftsmanship, respect for community and future generations, and fierce intolerance of fraud and thievery that people a hundred years ago had, times would turn a lot faster.

In making, I wanted to provide a simple guide to the city, helping folks get out and enjoy the neighborhoods and parks, in their kaleidoscopic splendor. I wanted it to be positive, illuminating, and non-critical. I wanted to be neutral and leave politics and civic issues alone.

But I just can't. It's too big and too intrusive and too immediate. I want to do whatever it takes to reverse what's happening and help make this city the fantastic, amazing, overwhelming place that it can be. I want to see fellowship and tolerance and creativity, and mind-bending street art. I want to see thriving restaurants that don't exist anywhere else. I want to see skilled people able to work and live here, and innovative businesses able to survive. I want to see an end to gunshots in Potrero Hill and gangs in the Mission. I want functional, affordable public transportation.

Typing about pie in the sky wishes on a blog may just be one small step above silence and complacency, but consensus depends on communication. And we've got a problem that 1906 residents didn't have: a dizzying number of different opinions on the scope, nature, and potential remedies for the city's ills. If we can get enough people agreeing about what's wrong and what we need to do, then we can start the work of fixing it.

I want flowers to grow here again, and I'm willing to dig to get it started.