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A Reexamination of Public Works History Through a Racial Equity Lens

Inspecting Our Foundation



Since its establishment by Mayor James D. Phelan in 1900, San Francisco Public Works has played a crucial role in the growth, maintenance and regulation of San Francisco’s streets, public buildings and built environment in general. While its jurisdiction and policy mandate have been subject to periodic changes over the last 120 years, the importance of its role as a steward of the public right of way has only grown. As of the writing of this report, Public Works administers tens of millions of dollars in public contracts annually, issues a variety of building and street use permits to the public, designs and manages construction of a variety of public buildings and infrastructure projects, manages the urban forest and works to ensure the cleanliness and safety of the City’s streets and sidewalks. This scope of work is due to change, however, as the passage of Proposition B in November 2020 mandates that Public Works be split into two separate departments. Public Works operations bureaus will soon form the newly-established Department of Streets and Sanitation, while the Bureaus of Building and Infrastructure Design and Construction will remain under the Public Works moniker. The City Administrator appoints the Public Works Director and the Mayor appoints the City Administrator, with the approval of the Board of Supervisors. This chain of command looms large in the composition of Public Works’ policy mandate and programmatic decision-making. Rather than a legislative or policymaking body, Public Works is an administrative body, existing primarily to carry out policies and programs that were either approved by voters, designed by the Board of Supervisors, or mandated by the Mayor. 

With this wide range of responsibility comes the capacity to drastically impact the lives and livelihoods of the nearly 900,000 people who call San Francisco home in 2021, as well as the millions living in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. Historically, Public Works’ projects and policies have had a somewhat mixed impact on the people of San Francisco. On one level, they have been a major driver of progress and innovation – buildings and roads are safer, sidewalks are more accessible and the City has a more robust urban forest. These benefits, however, have not traditionally been apportioned evenly between San Francisco’s various neighborhoods and demographic groups, and at times the pursuit of these ends have actively hurt and marginalized the City’s communities of color. What may seem like progress to some can mean dispossession and displacement for others.  

This report will discuss a handful of major moments in San Francisco Public Works’ history that have disproportionally impacted, and at times actively harmed, the City’s communities of color. What follows is a recounting and discussion of events that are roughly in chronological order with a few small exceptions. 

We begin with Public Works’ role in designing and managing the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Valley Water System and O’Shaughnessy Dam, a project that provided San Francisco with a plentiful and pure water source but displaced thousands of Miwok Native Americans from ancestral lands in the process. Then, we discuss two major policy programs that span the middle of the 20th century – the New Deal and Redevelopment. Specifically, we’ll recount the role that the Public Works Administration, a federal New Deal agency that provided local governments with federal money for public works projects, played in bringing about increased diversity in the City’s workforce and financed the construction of much of San Francisco’s public housing. Next, we discuss the Redevelopment era, which was another joint federal and local program aimed at “renewing” urban areas considered blighted, many of which were neighborhoods with large Black, Asian and Latinx populations. Public Works participated in San Francisco’s various Redevelopment projects through its building inspection, permitting and project management services. 

Shifting to the latter half of the 20th century, we cover Public Works’ role in the controversy surrounding the International Hotel. Once a cornerstone of the City’s Filipinx Community, this residential hotel which housed hundreds of low-income Filipino elders faced imminent demolition and mass displacement at the hands of property owners empowered by permits secured through Public Works. Jumping back in time a bit, we then briefly analyze the dismantling of much of San Francisco’s public railway system between the 1940s and 60s. Although this was a voter-approved initiative spearheaded by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Public Works was responsible for administering the work of removing rail tracks and repaving roads for bus and private auto travel. Then, turning our focus toward Public Works’ power to issue and administer public construction contracts, we examine the City’s ongoing struggle to make its contracting processes more racially equitable. Commentary on Public Works’ responsibility to maintain the City’s 125,000 street trees, an often overlooked but major aspect of the Department’s work, follows our discussion on contracting practices.  

The final portion of this report focuses on arguably the most significant human rights and racial equity issue presently facing the department: homelessness and the related street conditions. We begin by recounting the last three decades of the City’s homelessness policy and how it intersects with Public Works’ mandate to keep San Francisco’s streets and sidewalks clean and safe. Specific points of controversy are when Public Works staff take and store personal belongings of unhoused people and enforce anti-camping laws without providing adequate options for officially sanctioned shelter. We then point to newer programs that Public Works has spearheaded, in an attempt to engage with the City’s unhoused population in a more constructive and humane manner, including a reimagining of the traditional shelter model and a program to increase access to public restrooms. We end with a brief discussion of the Department’s data-driven approach to apportioning its resources and attention using the City’s 311 system. 

The examples used in this report were chosen not only for their overall impact on San Francisco’s communities of color, but to highlight and assess the many ways that Public Works interacts with them in its day-to-day operations. As a part of Public Works’ Racial Equity Action Plan, this report both aims to honestly reckon with the department’s past, while pointing to how it might be improved and made more racially equitable in the future. This is not intended to prescribe new policies or changes to existing policies, but to highlight areas of concern and pose questions regarding how the department can improve going forward. 

Public Works’ Early Years
and the Hetch Hetchy Water System 

San Francisco Public Works was established at a critical turning point in the history of San Francisco. What started out as a freewheeling boomtown had, through the latter half of the 1800’s, rapidly blossomed into a major center of finance, commerce and technology through its role as the hub of many fabulously lucrative western mining interests. But in many other respects, like its infrastructure and civic institutions, San Francisco remained relatively underdeveloped and lagged far behind its status as a major economic hub.  

During this period, many of San Francisco’s civic leaders and economic elites attempted to make up for this discrepancy by modernizing the City’s built environment, professionalizing its municipal government and developing its civic institutions. These improvements were intended to combat many of the problematic features of urban life in the 19th century – crowded and unsanitary living conditions, a lack of industrial regulation and rampant political corruption. Most pressing among San Francisco’s issues at the time, however, was its lack of a naturally occurring water source.


As was the case with other cities in the American West, San Francisco’s continued growth was inhibited by its dry, arid climate and lack of usable water. The immediacy of this need was made clear in April 1906 when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the City, causing widespread fires that ultimately destroyed about 28,000 buildings and rendered almost two thirds of the City’s population homeless (“Chronology of the Golden Gate Bridge”). In the wake of this disaster, securing an adequate, reliable water supply became the top priority across all of San Francisco’s society, including its newly-established municipal Department of Public Works. 

This effort was two-fold, and Public Works was intimately involved in nearly every aspect. In the years immediately following the earthquake, Public Works oversaw the construction of San Francisco’s Auxiliary Water Supply System. Developed in response to the widespread destruction the 1906 earthquake and fire wrought upon the City, the Auxiliary Water Supply System featured a variety of fire and emergency preparedness elements. Included in this system were two new fire boats, 70 reinforced underground cisterns and 1,200 fire hydrants (“1909-1910 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). Since the City’s population was heavily concentrated in its eastern half, virtually all of the cisterns installed at this time were located there, leaving the neighborhoods that would eventually emerge in the western half of the City vulnerable. As time passed and San Francisco’s population spread westward into the Sunset and Richmond districts, this discrepancy has not been adequately addressed, as only about 10 percent of the City’s 170 cisterns are located in these neighborhoods (Kildall). Though the system’s first iteration adequately covered the neighborhoods that existed the City at that time, it would take almost a century for it to cover the City’s newer western neighborhoods. This sheds light on the need for local governments to constantly reevaluate the policy and programmatic decisions they carry out as cities continue to develop, grow and change. 

While these features improved San Francisco’s emergency preparedness and resilience, they did not fulfill its growing need for water for everyday use. The search for a suitable permanent water source pre-dated even the 1906 earthquake and was a long-standing point of debate amongst the City’s preeminent businesspeople, politicians and engineers. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a wide variety of opinions on where San Francisco’s water should come from, as a number of private interests as well as the City itself vied for control of these sites and the rights to build infrastructure on them. 

After years of heated debate, city leaders decided on Hetch Hetchy, a u-shaped glacial valley roughly 40 miles northwest of Yosemite Valley, as the optimal site for a reservoir to fulfill San Francisco’s water needs. In 1910, San Francisco voters authorized a $45 million bond measure to fund the Hetch Hetchy project (Brechin 110). Three years later, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act into law, granting San Francisco control of the valley, which had previously been part of Yosemite National Park (Brechin 110). These authorizations set into motion what would become San Francisco Public Works’ largest and most consequential project in its short history. Public Works’ involvement in this decades-long, state-spanning project was multifaceted, and included site surveying, mapping, engineering consulting and construction management on both the O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct. A project of this magnitude necessitated dozens of separate contracts awarded to a number of private contractors, making Public Works’ contract administration services a key aspect of the project as well. 

 The O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923, allowing the City to flood the lush valley and turn it into a reservoir. A decade later, the Hetch Hetchy Water System began delivering plentiful, pure water to San Francisco. But what was prosperous for urban dwellers and property owners signaled destruction for Indigenous populations that had lived in and tended the Hetch Hetchy Valley for generations.  

Two bands of Sierra Miwok Native Americans – the Ahwahnechee and Tuolumne – were the traditional inhabitants of the area surrounding the Hetch Hetchy Valley and had used the valley itself in a dazzling variety of ways. According to Sierra College anthropology professor Bruce Pierini, when the valley was flooded, the Ahwahnechee and Tuolumne “lost access to important plant and animal resources. These included nutritious grasses, the much-favored black oak acorns Quercus kelloggii, basketry materials, deer and other wild game, an historic village site, burials, petroglyph and sacred sites” (Pierini 2015). The loss of a site with such profound spiritual and material significance undoubtedly caused significant hardship for the Ahwahnachee and Tuolumne, as it forced them to rapidly alter many of their cultural and agricultural practices. Unfortunately, Hetch Hetchy was just one of many large-scale water projects intended to serve California’s growing coastal population that ultimately came at the expense of Native American populations in the state’s interior (Akins and Bauer 242). 

The Hetch Hetchy Project, in many ways, describes early 20th century progressivism to a tee. Policy decisions were considered only through the lenses of efficiency, capital accumulation and service optimization for specific, privileged groups of people, while little to no consideration was paid to the impacts that these policies and projects may have on disenfranchised communities and the places they live. This process was likely aided by the unchecked control of information about these projects that department heads and other high-ranking City officials enjoyed in this era. Public Works’ annual reports from this time period, for example, include only short descriptions of this expansive, decades-long project and provide almost no context other than updates on contract progress and financial information. What these reports include, and crucially what they omit, gives us insight into the level of public access to these projects that Department leaders and elected officials of the time deemed necessary. Despite this lack of information from official City sources, a great deal of context about these projects can be gleaned from the informal statements and personally held positions of top policymakers and department heads. 

In the early 20th Century, no voice was as loud or prominent in San Francisco as that of the banker, real estate scion and politician James D. Phelan. Phelan, who served as San Francisco’s Mayor from 1897 to 1902 and represented California in the United States Senate in the late 1910’s, was the leading advocate for municipal ownership of water and power infrastructure. More controversially, he championed the Hetch Hetchy Valley as the ideal source for San Francisco’s water supply despite that it was within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park and therefore under the control of the Federal Government since 1890. Neither the long, contentious process of securing the rights to the valley for the City of San Francisco nor the valley’s striking beauty dissuaded Phelan in the slightest. During and immediately after his mayoral term, Phelan made repeated efforts to secure the rights to Hetch Hetchy for San Francisco’s use, backing congressional legislation allowing utility rights-of-way through California’s National Parks in 1901 and lobbying the Department of the Interior to shrink Yosemite National Park to exclude Hetch Hetchy in 1905 (Brechin 101). 

Despite Phelan’s considerable influence over local policymaking and public opinion, expert opinion on his plan was split. For example, the renowned civil engineer William Hammond Hall, designer of Golden Gate Park and California’s first State Engineer, was vocal about Phelan’s ulterior motives and his plan’s deficiencies. Hall thought that a reservoir at Hetch Hetchy made little economic sense due to its almost 200-mile distance from San Francisco and the years of lobbying and bargaining it took to even secure the rights to the land in the first place. He felt that Phelan was using his political and economic clout to gloss over his plan’s deficiencies, noting that “Phelan’s obsession had ‘hypnotized’ both city engineers and the public into choosing the wrong design” (Brechin 110). According to Hall and others, Phelan's vast land holdings throughout the West Coast, which included a large portion of San Jose, urban property in San Francisco, a series of farms throughout the Central Valley and over one million acres in Oregon, were the primary reason behind his “obsession” with Hetch Hetchy (Brechin PAGE). These holdings, the primary source of their staggering power and influence, stood to yield even more value if San Francisco could attain assured supplies of water and power. 

On the other hand, after embarking on a number of reconnaissance trips to the Sierra Nevadas in the early 1900s, Public Works Director Marsden Manson became a vocal supporter of Phelan’s plan. Speaking before the Technical Society of the Pacific Coast in January 1907, Manson warned against private water supply ownership and pointed to the “absolute purity” of the water that would come from the Hetch Hetchy Valley due to its “uninhabitable” character (“Manson for Hetch Hetchy”).  The issue with Manson’s description of Hetch Hetchy, as Damon B. Atkins and William J. Bauer Jr. explain in their book “We are the Land: A History of Native California,” is that Hetch Hetchy was in no way a “natural” environment since the Miwok had been expertly tending the land for centuries (Akins and Bauer 242). It is unclear whether Manson was aware of Hetch Hetchy’s history, whether this knowledge would have swayed his opinion on the project, or whether he was inclined to defy Phelan, who was once his boss, on the matter generally. 

Similar uncertainties surround Manson and other high-ranking Public Works employees’ endorsement of the Hetch Hetchy Project specifically. Given their collective engineering expertise and the department’s deep involvement with the project, they must have been acutely aware of the debates around Hetch Hetchy’s fitness as a reservoir site. Ultimately, Hall’s skepticism toward Hetch Hetchy’s fitness as a reservoir site was vindicated. In total, the project cost San Franciscans $102 million across seven bond measures and took twenty-four years to complete (Brechin 114). During the same period, Los Angeles had built a reservoir and aqueduct system 100 miles longer than Hetch Hetchy in five years’ time and at approximately one-fifth of the cost (Brechin 114). Regardless of the exact motivations of key actors like Manson and Phelan, what seems clear is the complete lack of regard for California’s Indigenous peoples and exclusion of all but San Francisco’s wealthiest, most influential citizens from the policymaking process. Phelan, whose desire to make San Francisco an aesthetically beautiful city was only matched by his open hatred toward all races besides his own, is the perfect avatar for this style of policymaking (Cherny). 

Hetch Hetchy

Public Works in the New Deal Era 

New Deal Era

Just as the Hetch Hetchy Water System was nearing completion and San Franciscans were about to get their first taste of abundant, pure water from the Sierra Nevadas, an unprecedented tragedy struck. The Great Depression, sparked by a crash in the U.S. stock market in 1929, cratered the global economy and left tens of millions of people without income. To mitigate the widespread suffering, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed a slate of economic policies and programs commonly known as the New Deal. Key to Roosevelt’s response was the National Recovery Act of 1933, which set off a wave of unprecedented government involvement in the nation’s economy and served as an inflection point in the history of San Francisco Public Works. 

A relatively small and often overlooked part of the National Recovery Act was the establishment of the Public Works Administration (PWA), which provided money for contracts to be carried out in the open market by private construction firms, oftentimes through municipal agencies like San Francisco Public Works. The PWA’s two primary goals were to increase the nation’s housing stock and create jobs in construction, and in doing so it made an indelible mark on infrastructure and municipal governments’ contracting practices (Rothstein 24). 

In San Francisco, the PWA played a key role in funding more than 50 crucial infrastructure projects that were administered through the San Francisco Public Works Bureau of Engineering (“Living New Deal”). These projects included a series of improvements to San Francisco’s sewer and auxiliary water supply systems as well as building many of the City’s major thoroughfares including Bayshore, Sloat and Alemany boulevards.  

Although these projects received partial funding through the PWA, San Francisco taxpayers still footed most of the bill. In 1933, San Franciscans approved a bond measure to fund these projects so long as the Federal Government supplied at least 30 percent of the funds necessary for their completion (“1933-1934 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). What makes these projects notable, however, is not that they received federal funding, but the conditions that the PWA tied to these funds.  

The PWA mandated hiring quotas for many of the projects that it funded to ensure that minority and especially Black workers had access to jobs it created. This innovative feature was the brainchild of PWA Director Harold Ickes, who was also Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior and formerly served as the head of the Chicago NAACP. Ickes, a white man of Scottish and German extraction, had a reputation for being relatively liberal on issues of race in comparison to his fellow high-ranking colleagues in the Roosevelt Administration (Kruman 39). Almost immediately after the PWA’s establishment, Ickes issued an order prohibiting discrimination on all PWA-funded projects and drafted a non-discrimination clause that would eventually become part of every PWA construction contract (Kruman 40). When these non-discrimination clauses became insufficient in the face of willful misinterpretation by PWA contractors, Ickes instituted a new, more pointed requirement that Black workers must receive a minimum percentage of the project contractor's payroll (Kruman 40). 

Economic conditions at the time empowered Ickes and the PWA to dictate the hiring practices of private construction firms.  As it had done with most sectors of the economy, the Depression upended the U.S. construction industry in a matter of months. Private investment fell sharply in the early 1930’s, causing the rate of new construction to plummet. As competition for increasingly scarce construction jobs intensified, Black workers were often the first displaced from the industry and saw their situation worsen even more dramatically than their white counterparts (Kruman 39). Labor unions and private contractors, which were already largely racially segregated, closed their ranks even more tightly, categorically excluding workers of color as the industry ground to a halt. A silver lining to these fraught times, however, was that the industry became increasingly reliant on public funding, giving public agencies like the PWA newfound power to influence the hiring practices of contractors (Kruman 39). 

Somewhat surprisingly, no record or even mention of these quotas or Public Works’ efforts to comply with them is included in the department’s New Deal-era annual reports, although PWA-funded projects themselves were featured prominently. As was the case in prior decades, Public Works’ annual reports during the 1930’s were short, sparse documents that included little more than progress updates on current contracts and basic financial information. This omission is likely because of the ensuring compliance with these quotas was handled by the PWA itself, not the local agencies it partnered with. To this end, the PWA dedicated significant resources and attention to the project. Each PWA-funded project was assigned a Resident Engineer Inspector who acted as the first line of contract compliance and oversight (Peterson and Leighninger). If the Resident Engineer Inspector found evidence of foul play or contract non-compliance, they would notify the PWA’s Investigations Division, which would send out another operative to further inspect the project in question (Peterson and Leighninger). In addition, each project was audited by PWA staff at least three times throughout the construction process to ensure quotas were met. In the rare case that these measures did not effectively thwart attempts at foul play, the PWA would threaten to withhold future grant payments to the project, which in the economic climate of the day was a surefire way to ensure compliance (Peterson and Leighninger).   

Gradually, Ickes increased the percentage of payroll required for workers of color on PWA-funded jobs, a move that drew criticism from many labor unions. Hamstrung by their own discrimination, unions struggled to meet the PWA’s demands. To gain access to PWA-funded projects, they needed to either desegregate their unions or allow non-union Black workers to work alongside their white union workers, neither of which they were inclined to do under their own volition. Though contentious and imperfect, policies like the PWA’s hiring quota set the groundwork for increasing racial integration of labor unions and the labor market in general while popularizing equity-minded government contracting processes.  There are clear parallels between the PWA hiring quotas and many contracting policies currently in place in the City and County of San Francisco including bid preferences for minority and locally owned businesses, local hire and first source requirements for city contractors.  

As was the case with most New Deal agencies, the PWA has a mixed legacy in terms of benefitting San Francisco and its Black residents. On the one hand, its funding of crucial infrastructure projects, creation of contracting opportunities for local businesses and racially equitable job creation were lifelines to San Francisco’s economy in otherwise desperate times. During the same period, however, the PWA also funded the construction of racially segregated public housing in San Francisco in accordance with Ickes’ “neighborhood composition rule” for building housing (Rothstein 24). This rule, which stated that “public housing projects should reflect the previous racial composition of their neighborhoods,” further entrenched San Francisco’s residential segregation (Rothstein 24). San Francisco Public Works’ annual reports from this period, however, show no record of the Department’s involvement in the construction of these PWA-funded housing projects, which included Holly Courts in Bernal Heights and Sunnydale in Visitacion Valley. 

The issues faced by the PWA in its efforts to empower and employ Black workers are a microcosm of the factors that inhibited progress in San Francisco’s race relations in the first half of the 20th century. As the City grew and its economy matured, its working class became more organized and divided along racial lines. In his book Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco, historian Douglas Henry Daniels notes how San Francisco’s European-born workers’ strong pro-union tendencies and white urbanites’ sympathies for these men served to immiserate and exclude the City’s workers of color (Daniels 27). The stronger the City’s racially segregated labor unions became, the more completely they captured lucrative industries and sought-after jobs, leaving Black and Asian San Franciscans with only the most menial and low paying jobs. Conditions for Black workers became so dire that in a 1913 article in the NAACP publication Crisis, W.E.B. DuBois remarked that white unions had “held the Negro out and down” in San Francisco and “the opportunity of the San Francisco Negro to earn a living is very difficult (Daniels 34). 

Though Black workers’ prospects were uniquely dim in San Francisco, they reflected the reality faced by workers of color throughout the U.S. Even the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, a sweeping piece of labor legislation that granted collective bargaining rights to many kinds of workers, reflected this exclusionary attitude. Seen as another key reform of the New Deal Era, the Wagner Act did not include prohibitions against union race discrimination and did not grant bargaining rights to industries with high concentrations of workers of color (Cassedy).  

This lack of opportunity for Black workers likely contributed to San Francisco’s consistently low Black population in the early 20th century, when many Western and Northern cities saw their Black populations grow exponentially. This trend reversed quickly, however, in the 1940s, as World War II reinvigorated the Bay Area’s shipbuilding industry and President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which barred racial discrimination in federal agencies and as labor unions engaged in war-related work (“Executive Order 8820”). Finally, access to abundant high paying jobs sparked an uptick in the City’s Black population. In the 1940s alone, San Francisco’s Black population grew nearly 800 percent, from just under 5,000 to about 43,000 (Daniels 165). 

Before the outbreak of World War II, Blacks were excluded from almost all major municipal jobs in San Francisco, from transit operators to police officers (Daniels 166). Although there are no records of City employee demographics from this time, former San Francisco Sun Reporter editor-in-chief Thomas Fleming noted that only two Black people worked for the City in the 1930’s (Carlsson and Fleming). The wartime demographic shift had a variety of implications for San Francisco’s Black residents. Although highly skilled workers made up a sizeable majority of San Francisco’s Black population at this time, they did not see their employment prospects improve at a level commensurate with their skills and capabilities (Johnson 166-167). 

The growth in Black population resulted in a backlash that “exacerbated all of the latent racist and discrimination problems in the community: housing, employment, participation in community affairs, and government” according to Matt Crawford, a local labor leader and Assistant Director of the Congress of Industrial Organization’s Minorities Committee (Daniels 165-166). This discrimination and exclusion, which Crawford and other prominent Black San Franciscans claimed to have intensified in City government during this period, spurred a sense of community activism and labor militancy amongst the City’s Black population, and the working class as a whole, that would come to define the coming decades (Daniels 166). 

Job discrimination may have persisted in San Francisco, but nowhere was the growing racial divide more evident and contentious than the City’s housing market. A confluence of factors forced the City’s rapidly growing Black population into two areas: the Bayview and the Fillmore/Western Addition Districts (Rothstein 28). It was set off by the Federal Government’s decision to build almost exclusively racially segregated public housing in previously integrated neighborhoods. The racially discriminatory mortgage lending practices of the time, allowed and even promoted by the Federal Housing Administration, prohibited non-white San Franciscans from accessing the means to purchase or renovate property. Finally, restrictive covenants, or contractual agreements between private property owners to only rent or sell their properties to whites, were in place in many neighborhoods around the City, exacerbating segregation in the private housing market (Daniels 169).  

This deliberate program of marginalization – limiting the parts of the City accessible to Black tenants and homeowners while withholding mortgages and other forms of capital necessary for improving their living conditions – caused the housing stock in the City’s Black neighborhoods to deteriorate over time, ultimately setting the stage for one of the most racially fraught chapters in San Francisco Public Works’ history. 

The Redevelopment Era 


As the 1940s ended, President Harry Truman signed the Housing Act of 1949 into law to revitalize the nation’s urban centers by improving their housing stock. The act authorized $1 billion in loans to empower local governments to purchase and redevelop urban property in areas they deemed “blighted” or “slums” (Von Hoffman 310). The first step of this process was to inspect the building quality and living conditions in various neighborhoods that the City designated as in need of redevelopment. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, established by Mayor Elmer Robinson in 1948, was the first municipal department to conduct neighborhood inspections, but by the mid-1950s it had enlisted Public Works to assist in these efforts. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors had endowed Public Works with this power in 1948 when they approved an updated building code in tandem with the establishment of the SFRA (Brahinsky 145). 

Over the next few decades, SFRA and Public Works’ efforts would impact almost a dozen neighborhoods throughout the City, including Visitacion Valley, Hunters Point, Mission Bay and Treasure Island. However, it was the Fillmore and Western Addition districts, which had become the hub of city’s Black and Japanese populations, that were the SFRA’s primary targets and would ultimately undergo the most extreme transformations. SFRA’s projects in the Fillmore and Western Addition neighborhoods amounted to one of the largest redevelopment efforts on the West Coast, ultimately impacting more than 20,000 San Franciscans (Brahinsky 145). SFRA officials justified this level of intervention by pointing to these neighborhoods’ poor building conditions and overcrowding, but without recognizing the prior policy decisions and unchecked racial discrimination in the private housing market that created these conditions. That these neighborhood demographics and building conditions had been shaped by decades of exclusionary government policies and racist housing and employment practices were of little concern to the SFRA and its partner agencies, which included San Francisco Public Works. Their stated goal was to improve the safety and livability of these neighborhoods while making them more inviting to commerce and private investment. Their ultimate impact, however, was to displace and dispossess what previously was the City’s highest concentration of Black and Japanese Americans (Brahinsky 146). 

In February 1954, Public Works established its Department Condemnation Program, which was created to “restore unsafe buildings to meet requirements of the codes, or in causing the demolition of them” (“1954-1955 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). Initially, the Department Condemnation Program was empowered to inspect all buildings in SFRA-designated areas except “occupied hotels and apartment houses” which were to be inspected “only where structural or safety conditions were concerned” (“1954-1955 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). 

The Department Condemnation Program was extremely active. By the end of the 1956-57 fiscal year, its inspectors had investigated 1,100 cases throughout the City’s redevelopment areas, resulting in the demolition of 400 buildings and the restoration of an additional 300 buildings (“1956-1957 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). Public Works’ reports from the time do not include information on how many of these investigations, demolitions and restoration occurred in each redevelopment area. It can be safely assumed, however, that a significant portion of them took place in the Fillmore and Western Addition, given the displacement data from these neighborhoods noted previously as well as the outsized attention the SFRA paid them throughout the entire redevelopment period. Nationally, federally-funded redevelopment efforts were found to displace Black and Latinx residents at a rate of more than 500 percent greater than their share of the population, lending further credence to the notion that San Francisco’s redevelopment efforts followed this trend (Reed). 

As the 1950s progressed, Public Works became increasingly involved with the City’s redevelopment efforts. This was largely at the request of Mayor George Christopher, who in 1957 called for an increase in the “speed and effectiveness” of SFRA and Public Works’ Building Inspection and Condemnation Program (“1956-1957 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). It is clear what is meant by ”speed,“ but, what exactly Christopher meant by an “effective” building inspection and condemnation program remains unclear. Was Christopher’s view of an effective program one that condemned as many buildings for demolition as possible, thus clearing the way for neighborhood-scale change and mass displacement? Or was it one that prioritized building repair and restoration with the goal of keeping existing residents in their homes? Over the ensuing decade, Christopher and his successors’ true intentions for the program would come into focus as the City’s Redevelopment areas faced a variety of different fates. 

To address this perceived issue, Christopher appointed Lester Bush, previously the head of Public Works’ Bureau of Building Inspection, to direct the City’s Urban Renewal Program and successfully lobbied the Board of Supervisors to adopt an updated housing code that would aid redevelopment efforts (“1957-1958 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). Perhaps most importantly, he included funding in his 1958 budget for 11 personnel to be used in the soon-to-be-created Urban Renewal Division of Public Works’ Bureau of Building Inspection (“1957-1958 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). According to Public Works’ 1958-59 Annual Report,

these positions would be under the title of “Urban Renewal Analyst” and would perform the following functions: 

“...assists in the planning, organization and direction of environmental surveys needed to satisfy federal requirements for regulating and controlling Urban Renewal; directs planned area inspections for compliance with the San Francisco Housing Code and other codes pertaining to Urban Renewal; collects and evaluates data for statistical material which serves as a basis for administrative decisions and policies; maintains liaison with various city groups; develops records and forms; prepares reports; and performs related duties as required.” 


This job description exemplifies the wide range of services that Public Works’ Division of Urban Renewal, which was established in 1959, performed in service of the City’s redevelopment efforts. Although SFRA provided strategic direction and ultimately led redevelopment, Public Works’ role was central to its implementation. The Division of Urban Renewal did not focus solely on building condemnation and demolition, however. From the onset, the division’s analysts and investigators conducted “feasibility of rehabilitation” studies throughout the City. The first of these studies was conducted in 1959 by two Public Works investigators and one consulting architect, who inspected 385 residential buildings in four neighborhoods, interviewed the residents of some of these buildings, compiled data on these neighborhoods’ housing needs and ultimately attempted to “determine the costs involved in improving buildings (“1959 – 1960 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report 98”). 

By the mid-1960s, Public Works had formalized this practice of conservation-focused building inspection by establishing a Conservation Section within its Division of Urban Renewal. The Conservation Section focused its efforts on neighborhoods that “have good housing and good neighborhoods but are showing evidence of deterioration and the purpose of the conservation program is to stop this deterioration and prevent the development and spread of blight” (“1963-1964 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). These neighborhoods, which were chosen by the SFRA, included Pacific Heights, Visitacion Valley, Glen Park, West Nob Hill and the Great Highway (“1963-1964 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). The stark contrast between how SFRA and Public Works approached these neighborhoods and their approach toward the Fillmore and Western Addition warrant additional scrutiny.  

The most glaring difference between these two groups of neighborhoods is the demographics of their residents. The Fillmore and Western Addition, which had the highest concentrations of Black and Japanese residents in the City, was subjected to widespread demolition and displacement, while the neighborhoods assessed by Public Works’ Conservation Section were much whiter and wealthier by comparison. Visitacion Valley is the lone exception to this, as it had a sizeable Black population and was generally demographically diverse. Did the Fillmore and Western Addition receive different treatment and additional scrutiny from SFRA and Public Works because of their predominantly Black and POC populations, or was the housing stock in these neighborhoods truly unsalvageable?  

Along with the condition of an area’s housing, Public Works’ 1964 Annual Report notes that to be eligible for conservation, an area needed to have “good neighborhoods,” although it does not explicitly state what differentiates a “good” neighborhood from a “bad” one. The differentiation between housing conditions and neighborhood conditions would lead one to believe that SFRA and Public Works were taking these areas’ residents, their lifestyles and living conditions into account when deciding where to conserve and where to demolish. What SFRA and Public Works deemed an overcrowded, unsanitary “slum” in the Fillmore and Western Addition was, by many other accounts, a vibrant and close-knit working-class community with world renowned nightlife and a plethora of thriving minority-owned businesses. To the extent that conditions in these neighborhoods truly were unsatisfactory, they were largely due to decades of economic exclusion and segregation at the hands of a white-dominated society that their residents had endured, a factor that was either lost on or deliberately ignored by SFRA and Public Works leadership. 

Aside from the alarming differential in their approach to white and POC majority neighborhoods, the SFRA and Public Works’ redevelopment efforts suffered from another fatal flaw. By and large, residents in areas slated for demolition were not provided comparable replacement housing options close to their previous homes, and many were forced out of San Francisco completely. Though many were promised comparable replacement housing and state law required redevelopment agencies to “replace affordable housing that they destroyed on a one-for-one basis,” reports from as early as 1961 outlined the difficulties many Black residents were experiencing finding replacement housing (“San Francisco’s Unique Replacement Housing Obligation”;“250 Acre Area of City in New Slum Clearance”). In a January 1961 San Francisco Chronicle article, NAACP lawyer, community activist and future San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown expressed his opposition to the displacement of Black residents from the Fillmore and Western Addition, citing persisting discrimination in the private housing market and inadequate relocation efforts by the City, as the drivers of this concern (“250 Acre Area of City in New Slum Clearance”). As of 1977 the SFRA had, with Public Works’ assistance, demolished 14,207 units of housing and had only rebuilt 7,498, resulting in a net loss of 6,709 units across the City “San Francisco’s Unique Replacement Housing Obligation”). In the Western Addition alone, redevelopment efforts displaced over 8,000 residents by 1973, highlighting the area’s centrality to SFRA’s overall efforts (Lai 158). The area’s Japanese residents, who had already faced displacement once before during the racist panic that gripped the nation following the Pearl Harbor Attacks in December 1941, feared another mass and “final” evacuation from the City by redevelopment (Oda). Unfortunately, these suspicions were ultimately validated, as redevelopment had a similarly destructive impact on the City’s Japanese population, which declined from 12,000 to a mere 2,000 by 1970 (Oda). 

In tandem with the widespread displacement of the area’s Black and Japanese populations was the closure of many of its established, community-serving businesses and cultural institutions. Before Redevelopment, the Western Addition was a rich tapestry of both Black and Japanese-owned businesses with deep neighborhood ties close to one another. In a recent article explaining the history of housing policy and discrimination in Japantown, author Meredith Oda depicts the neighborhood’s dynamism beautifully, noting that:  


“The Black Emmanuel Church of God in Christ was on the same block as the Japanese Presbyterian Church. The famed jazz club Jimbo’s Bop City and the legendary Black promoter Charles Sullivan’s music shop were steps from the Nippon Pool Room and Five Star Fountain. Old institutions also regrew in this new environment: language schools, social clubs, Azumaya Tofu, Suzuki Apartments, Gosha-do Bookstore and more.” 


By and large, these sorts of community-serving and locally-owned businesses were either forced by the SFRA to leave the area or went out of business due to the mass displacement of their customers. In their place, the City ushered in a collection of more corporatized and universally palatable commercial and cultural spaces. Most notable among these spaces were the Japanese Center, which is “a complex for Japanese goods and services conceived around connections with the booming Japanese economy,” and the adjacent Nihonmachi project, which “housed stable businesses, professional practices and market-rate housing” (Oda). What made these new institutions different from the ones they replaced, according to some, was that they were more geared toward serving tourists and white San Franciscans rather than the working class, local Japanese Americans who had traditionally inhabited the neighborhood (Oda). This transition from a community of small, community serving businesses to a more outward-focused, tourism-based economy was met with considerable opposition from longtime residents, shop owners and activists, who saw these large-scale developments as a fundamental threat to the way of life they had become accustomed to and prospered within.  

The redevelopment of the Fillmore and Western Addition was carried out in two phases. The first, focused on a 44-block area that SFRA deemed A-1, which included a small section of lower Fillmore Street and surrounding areas (Brahinsky 143). This is where Public Works’ Urban Renewal Analysts likely performed much of their early building and neighborhood inspection work. Included in the A-1 phase was a plan to widen Geary Boulevard between Fillmore and Masonic streets and turn it into a six-lane expressway with the stated goal of improving east-west traffic flow across the City (“1961-1962 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report” 7). Public Works was intimately involved with this aspect of redevelopment as well, performing construction management services on the project. In addition, Public Works issued two construction contracts for the project - one in 1959 for the underpass between Webster and Steiner and the other in 1960 for the remaining, flat portions of the newly-widened road (“1961-1962 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report” 7). 

The finished product, however, had only a marginally positive impact on east-west traffic flow across the City. Public Works studies from the time show that the project had increased car volume and average car speeds by 5 percent, a negligible improvement for such a large, costly and disruptive project (“1961-1962 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report” 25). What was a small victory for the City’s commuters ultimately came at the expense of Fillmore and Western Addition locals, however. The widened expressway - and high-speed traffic that it invited - effectively cut what was once a cohesive, walkable neighborhood in two. The expressway was designed to expedite the commutes of an increasingly white-collar workforce into the City’s downtown, which was undergoing its own transformation at the time, with little discernable regard for those living in the neighborhood the roadway passed through. This clear prioritization of automobile traffic over pedestrian safety and neighborhood livability reflects the City’s priorities and the car-centric urban planning orthodoxy at the time.  

Aside from its function of expediting commuter traffic, a widened Geary Boulevard has, over time, come to be viewed by some as the border between two increasingly different neighborhoods. In the decades since this project, the area immediately north of Geary has slowly but surely become whiter and wealthier, increasingly adopting the demographics of the adjacent Pacific Heights neighborhood. The stretch of Fillmore south of Geary, commonly known as the Lower Fillmore, retained more of its Black population and remained largely working class after the expressway’s construction (Brahinsky 143). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, neighborhoods directly north of Geary at Fillmore have an average Black population of 6 percent, while those directly south of Geary are 23 percent Black (“Census Profile”). Similarly, median household incomes of those living on either side of the Geary expressway vary dramatically, with neighborhoods to the north averaging $111,669 and those to the south averaging $64,622 (“Census Profile”). Although this shift cannot be directly attributed to the Geary widening project specifically and was not a stated impact of the project at the time, the vastly different trajectories of the neighborhoods to Geary‘s north and south remain notable. Intentional or not, the newly widened Geary Boulevard can be characterized as an enlarged buffer zone between two otherwise contiguous neighborhoods, or even an unnatural border creating two neighborhoods where there had previously been one. 

High-ranking SFRA and Public Works officials saw the Geary widening project as a catalyst to the redevelopment of its surrounding area. This sentiment was expressed in Public Works’ 1959 annual report, as well as a statement by SFRA executive director Justin Herman to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter the following year (“1958-1959 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report” 7; “Slum Clearing Work Ahead of Schedule”). In fact, Herman even blamed the project’s construction for the overall sluggishness of redevelopment in the Fillmore and Western Addition. During an agency meeting in 1960, Herman stated that he couldn’t "turn the redevelopment land over to the people who have bought it to rebuild on...because they want a clear title. But that can’t be given until the City’s street work is complete” (“Slum Clearing Work Ahead of Schedule”). While City administrators like Herman and Mayor Christopher decried what they saw as a slow and inefficient process of selling, demolishing and rebuilding the Fillmore and Western Addition’s housing stock, it was the residents of these communities that suffered the consequences of this painstaking process. 

But they did not accept this fate silently. In the late 1950s through the 1960s, opposition to this campaign of demolition and displacement was mounting amongst Fillmore and Western Addition locals, businesspeople, community groups, tenants' rights organizations and a variety of other sympathetic actors. These groups took issue with SFRA and Public Works’ approach in the A-1 zone for two primary reasons. The first, which was outlined previously, was the lack of adequate, comparable replacement housing options for residents displaced by redevelopment. The other major point of contention about this process was the utter lack of community input and involvement in each portion of this process – from design characteristics of new construction to the decision to demolish rather than refurbish buildings in the first place. This lack of community involvement not only prevented the Western Addition and Fillmore from being remade in a manner that their residents desired (or not to be remade at all) but also cleared the way for a small cohort of the City’s most well-connected and wealthy businesspeople to impose their will on this era-defining project. 

More than a loose coalition of like-minded capitalists and landowners, this powerful and influential interest group, known as the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee, produced reports and lobbied local officials with impressive coordination and effectiveness throughout the late 1950s and early 60’s. Led by the investment banker Charles Blyth and former U.S. Ambassador to Italy David Zellerbach with involvement from luminaries like Walter Haas Sr and George Sullivan, the committee was originally formed in 1955 to ramp up a city-led redevelopment effort that they regarded as insufficient, unambitious and slow (Stein et al.). In a 1999 interview with KQED’s Peter Stein, Mayor Christopher spoke of the commission as key allies in the City’s redevelopment efforts, recalling that ”their motive was to make a better City out of San Francisco, clean the slums out, bring in developers who actually would get the job done. And they put up their own money” (Stein et al.). These things all may be true in some respect, but the underlying fact that the members of this committee would likely stand to benefit financially from a robust, comprehensive redevelopment effort and a "cleaning out” of the City’s “slums” cannot be ignored.  

That a group of the City’s most prominent and wealthy men sought to influence local land use and development policy is not especially surprising or unique. What is more notable is the ease with which the policies and programs they proposed were considered and ultimately adopted by local government officials. In 1961, the committee funded a report outlining its policy and development goals for San Francisco. Almost immediately upon its publication and dissemination, Public Works and the SFRA began studying and considering the report and its myriad policy recommendations. Public Works paid so much attention to this report that, according to its 1961-62 annual report, it amounted to “one of the major administrative activities” of that fiscal year (“1961-1962 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). Even more striking than the fact that a privately funded study warranted so much of the Department’s attention and time (and therefore taxpayer dollars) was the fact that Public Works actually advocated for and adopted many of its recommendations.  “Of the twenty recommendations regarding the Bureau of Engineering,” the Department’s 1961-62 annual report claimed ”four were to be adopted and budget requests for implementation were requested for 1962-63" (“1961-1962 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). The rest were either out of the Department’s jurisdiction, dependent on future bond issues, or deemed unacceptable ”after considerable detailed study” (“1961-1962 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). 

This extreme degree of access to the policymaking process and influence over land use decision-making that the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee enjoyed is a far cry from how the average citizen interacts with their local government. The committee members’ considerable personal wealth both allowed them to commission professionally made studies and reports to communicate their vision for the City and gave them the motivation to do so.  Whatever their true motives may have been, perhaps personal enrichment and legacy building were among them. However, their motives are remembered in the popular imagination as primarily altruistic and in service of the public good. Mayor Christopher, who collaborated closely with the committee, remembered its members fondly, stating that they “were men of the highest integrity, the highest principle, principles, the highest civic affection, and when they got together to do this job, they did it for the good of the City” (Stein et al.). 

The contrast between the measure of respect, deference and access granted to the Blyth-Zellerbach committee and those who lived and worked in redevelopment areas is extreme and should be considered within the context of the racial and class differences between the two groups. The exclusion of those living in redevelopment areas like the Fillmore and Western Addition, who were predominantly working-class Black and Japanese Americans, from the process of deciding the future of their neighborhood while Public Works and SFRA officials prioritized the desires of a small cadre of wealthy, well-connected white men, is a prime example of the undemocratic, top-down style of policymaking that marked the early stages of the redevelopment era. It also allowed for policies that benefit the privileged few at the expense of the City’s marginalized communities of color to gain a foothold. This power imbalance was not only allowed but created by the likes of Public Works, Mayor Christopher and the SFRA during the A-1 phase of redevelopment in the Fillmore and Western Addition. 

Unsurprisingly, this approach to policymaking proved to be widely unpopular and controversial with those living and working in the communities that were subjected to redevelopment. Even with scarce community input and oversight, however, the A-1 phase of redevelopment in the Fillmore and Western Addition proved shockingly slow and inefficient. Residents that had been exposed to just how slow, traumatic and damaging A-1 had been to their community fought against the continuation of this subjugation in the next phase of redevelopment. The resounding unpopularity and lingering issues of this initial phase prompted SFRA and Public Works to reconsider and rework their approach to the second phase of redevelopment in the Western Addition, which was designated A-2. The A-2 redevelopment zone expanded on the area of A-1 by 60 blocks, spanning from Van Ness Ave to the east to St. Joseph’s St to the west, with Bush and Grove streets as its northern and southernmost points (Brahinsky 145). In an effort to avoid widespread community resistance, multitude of delays and the persistent legal battles that characterized the A-1 phase, SFRA took a variety of measures to foster community engagement and buy-in while making its plans for the A-2 zone. This effort was started in earnest in 1962 when SFRA established a field office that would serve as the hub of the City’s community outreach in the neighborhood (“Status of the Program of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency” 3). From this location, representatives from SFRA and other city agencies conducted a multi-pronged outreach effort that included sending representatives to conduct in-person visits to people’s homes, distributing informational brochures, holding community meetings and maintaining regular contact with community groups like churches and parent-teacher associations (“Status of the Program of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency” 4).

As was the case during A-1, Public Works’ involvement in the A-2 phase of redevelopment in the Western Addition was primarily through its building inspection and construction management services. Throughout the latter half of the 1960s SFRA and Public Works held “rehabilitation block meetings” where “oral presentations are made stressing the benefits of rehabilitation and explaining the free services which are available to property owners. At the same time prepared kits of informational materials are distributed and appointments are made for rehabilitation property inspections” (“Status of the Program of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency” 6). Starting in 1967, Public Works had four property instructors working in collaboration with the SFRA in A-2. Two of these inspectors were charged with performing inspections related to the rehabilitation of buildings, while the others were environmental health inspectors who assisted SFRA’s Central Family Relocation Service (“1968-1969 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). In the 1968-69 Fiscal Year alone, Public Works conducted over 2,300 inspections in assistance to SFRA’s various building and neighborhood inspection efforts across the City’s redevelopment zones (“1968-1969 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). Public Works reports from this time do not disclose how many inspections occurred in each redevelopment zone, so it is difficult to tell exactly how much of this work took place in the Fillmore and Western Addition. Given the scope of the A-1 and A-2 redevelopment projects, however, it can reasonably be assumed that a significant portion of these inspections took place in these two neighborhoods. 

These initiatives represent an enhanced effort by both the SFRA and Public Works to refurbish, rather than demolish and rebuild, the Western Addition and Fillmore’s housing stock. This, coupled with the greater measure of community involvement and outreach efforts, would ostensibly indicate that the A-2 phase of redevelopment was less damaging to the Western Addition’s communities of color than A-1. Data on displacement and building destruction indicate that this was not necessarily the case. The A-2 phase resulted in the displacement of 13,500 Western Addition residents, compared to the 8,000 displaced during A-1 (Lai 160). This is discrepancy is likely at least partially because  A-2 covered an area more than twice as large as A-1 (Brahinsky 145). Despite A-2’s higher human impact, SFRA and Public Works’ enhanced building rehabilitation efforts did seem slightly more effective at preserving the Western Addition’s low-rent housing stock. More than 11,000 low-rent units were demolished between the two phases, but despite its considerably larger scope, only 5,000 of these demolitions occurred during the A-2 phase (Lai 158-160). Although it is notable, this marginal improvement in affordable housing retention was wholly insufficient in the face of the widespread dispossession, economic damage and dissolution of community bonds that redevelopment wrought on the Fillmore and Western Addition. 

Of all these impacts, the loss of community and forced severance of long-held bonds between neighbors is the most difficult to quantify and, even more importantly, restore. Black and Japanese American people may have initially moved to these neighborhoods out of necessity, due to economic exclusion, housing segregation and deep-seated racism that undergirded them both, but what was built from this exclusion was a community with remarkably strong bonds and systems of inter-dependence, a world-renowned hub of arts and culture, and, crucially, a place where Black and Japanese American San Franciscans could live their lives with relative autonomy. The fact that a majority of Black San Franciscans had migrated to the City no more than two decades prior, coupled with the high instance of extended family members living together, were also contributing factors to the uniquely cohesive nature of this community. Their widespread displacement from the Fillmore and Western Addition worked to erode ties between former neighbors, as well as the ties between those displaced and the City they once called home. There remains strong, albeit smaller, Black and Japanese American communities in the Fillmore and Western Addition in 2021, but many fear that the unique character of the pre-redevelopment era will be nearly impossible to recover. 

The widespread dislocation and cultural dissolution that redevelopment wrought on the Fillmore and Western Addition put other working-class communities of color throughout San Francisco on notice. Nowhere was this tension felt more distinctly than the Mission District, which was widely considered “an ideal candidate for renewal” due to its aging, somewhat deteriorating housing stock and features that the SFRA considered to indicate blight (Summers Sandoval Jr. 49). In 1966, in the midst of the A-2 phase of Western Addition redevelopment, the SFRA secured funding to study the “Mission Street Corridor,” its building stock and its fitness for redevelopment (Summers Sandoval Jr. 49). This study’s area of focus was the same portion of Mission Street, between 16th Street and 24th Street, where BART lines were being placed, an area that is widely considered to be the heart of the entire district. Given its extensive involvement in the study and inspection of other redevelopment areas, it is highly likely that Public Works was involved in the preliminary study of the Mission Street Corridor as well.  

When the Mission District’s property and business owner associations learned of the City’s plans for their neighborhood, they immediately began organizing in opposition, fearing prolonged and debilitating disruptions to their livelihood. At this same time, however, the Mission’s racial demographics were experiencing a period of drastic change and diversification. What had historically been a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood with high rates of homeownership had, in the two decades after World War II, became decidedly more racially and economically diverse. Specifically, during this period, the Mission became the epicenter of the City’s Mexican and Central American populations, precipitated by large waves of immigration from these regions. This newly emerging majority constituency was initially ambivalent about the prospects of redevelopment in their new home. On the one hand, there was the promise of new jobs in construction and the subsequent local businesses that redevelopment promised to produce (Summers Sandoval Jr. 50). These employment opportunities, which were mostly theoretical, paled in comparison to the much more immediate and destabilizing threat of displacement that redevelopment would bring. By the SFRA’s own calculations, redevelopment of the Mission Street Corridor would displace a staggering 1,900 families as well as 1,300 single people from the neighborhood, a shift that would almost immediately dismantle what at the time was a burgeoning Latin American community (Summers Sandoval Jr. 50). 

The threat of displacement, coupled with the physical proof of redevelopment’s negative impact just two miles away in the Western Addition and Fillmore, sufficiently mobilized and united Mission District residents, business owners and community members new and old. Once it became apparent that redevelopment neither served the interests of the older, predominantly white longtime business and property owners or the neighborhood’s blossoming, largely Latin American working class, groups from across the political, economic and racial spectrums banded together to form the Mission Council on Redevelopment, or MCOR (Summers Sandoval Jr. 51). The MCOR included a comprehensive cross-section of the Mission District that “left few recognizable constituencies unrepresented,” a crucial feature that lent the newly-formed coalition an air of popular legitimacy (Summers Sandoval Jr. 51). Though this somewhat unique political formation experienced internal tensions caused by differing objectives and advocacy styles, it was united by its goal to ”create an authentic representational body whose voice City Hall could not ignore. Only in that way could residents control their neighborhood’s future” (Summers Sandoval Jr. 51). 

Using the key organizing tactic of centering the needs, desires and lived experiences of all who live and work in the Mission throughout the advocacy process, the MCOR was able to achieve its goal. In 1966, the Board of Supervisors rejected the SFRA’s plans to redevelop the Mission Street Corridor in the face of overwhelming community opposition, primarily led by the MCOR (Summers Sandoval Jr. 51). Had these organizing and advocacy efforts been unsuccessful, the SFRA would likely have enlisted Public Works to perform the same building inspection, preservation and condemnation work in the Mission as they did previously in the Western Addition and Fillmore.  

While large swaths of the Fillmore and Western Addition were being condemned, rebuilt, or demolished and the Mission District narrowly avoiding a similar fate, Public Works’ building inspection and code compliance stood at the center of another controversy with major civil rights implications for San Francisco’s communities of color. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court found San Francisco’s housing and health codes, which were written and enforced by Public Works and the Department of Public Health, to be unconstitutional in the case Camara v. Municipal Court of City and County of San Francisco (“Housing Code Delayed by Rights Issue”). This case hinged on the right of a public agent, like a building or health inspector, to enter a private residence without the resident’s consent or a warrant, which San Francisco’s building and health codes had previously allowed. The Supreme Court ultimately found this provision to be a violation of residents‘ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and that “some good cause“ was required “before a court would issue a warrant for an inspector when the resident refuses" (“Camara v. Municipal Court of the City and County of San Francisco”). This ruling prompted Public Works’ Bureau of Building Inspection to revisit and rewrite portions of its housing code. When building inspection superintendent Alfred Goldberg presented an updated housing code to the Board of Supervisors in 1969, however, a number of Supervisors questioned whether the new language regarding warrantless entrance into private residences for inspection purposes adequately complied with the Camara ruling (“Housing Code Delayed by Rights Issue”). 

Although Goldberg refuted the Supervisors’ allegations, claiming that his new code did comply with Camara, this portion of the housing code was re-written to be clearer and left less room for interpretation by inspectors and department officials. It is possible that Goldberg and his team believed that their new code complied with Camara, but the timing of this controversy, amid redevelopment and the rapid growth of the City’s downtown financial district, invites additional scrutiny. Minimizing the legal burden required to inspect private property ostensibly serves to expedite the types of large-scale reclamation, demolition and redevelopment projects that the SFRA, Public Works and private property developers were keen on undertaking at the time. This exact intent, however, cannot be prescribed to Goldberg and his fellow officials in Public Works’ Bureau of Building Inspection. It should be noted that, since the passage of Proposition G in 1994, building inspection is no longer under Public Works jurisdiction and is instead a standalone city department (“About Us”). What this does illustrate is the importance of crafting municipal codes and legislation that are clear in their parameters and intent, to limit uncertainty in their enforcement that can lead to inter-departmental conflict, legal challenges and most importantly unequal and unfair treatment of the public. 

Mid-Century Changes to San Francisco’s Public Transit System 

Public Transit

During this era of immense change and increased conflict over San Francisco’s built environment, housing was only one of many aspects of the City’s infrastructure that Public Works played a major role in altering. San Francisco established the nation’s first publicly run transit system in 1909, when voters approved a ballot measure establishing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, or SFMTA (Arvin). For more than three decades, the SFMTA operated in concert with the privately-owned Market Street Railway Company, established in 1860 (“Our History”). Together, these two organizations operated a comprehensive transit system with rail lines on most of the City’s major streets. In 1944, San Franciscans voted to allow the SFMTA to buy out the Market Street Railway Company and its infrastructure, consolidating the City’s railways under public ownership (Arvin). But instead of preserving or expanding upon this expansive railway system, the City began a program to dismantle it almost immediately after acquiring and consolidating it. Between the late 1940s and through 1960s, Public Works helped facilitate a sea change in the City’s mass transit system from streetcars to buses and private automobile infrastructure. 

This drastic change in transportation policy was couched within a larger societal shift that was taking place. In the years immediately following World War II, private automobile ownership amongst Americans skyrocketed. Between 1944, when the City bought out the Market Street Railway Company, and 1960, the average number of cars owned per household in the U.S. almost doubled (Tang). During the same 16-year period, Public Works was contracted by the SFMTA to remove and pave over 112 miles of rail tracks across San Francisco (1959-1960 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report”). At the end of this process, only five of San Francisco’s rail lines remained: the J Church, K Ingleside, L Taraval, M Ocean View and N Judah (Arvin).  

This shift from rail to bus transit in no way constituted a complete abandonment of public mass transit by city officials, but it did precipitate a significant downgrade in terms of transit efficiency and equitability. Although buses are a far more efficient and cost-effective means of urban transportation than private automobiles, their ability to transport large numbers of people across a dense urban environment pales in comparison to rail transit. According to a 2009 study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas, buses can transport between 3,800 and 7,200 people per hour in an urban setting, while light rail transit can transport between 12,200 and 26,900 and municipal “heavy” rail can transport between 67,200 and 72,000 (Kille 2009). These massive efficiency benefits are tempered by the considerably higher cost of building rail transit as opposed to purchasing a fleet of buses. 

Although replacing rail transit with buses and personal autos seemed like a forward-looking decision and was popular at the time, it ultimately prioritized the tastes and desires of those who could afford to own cars over those who could not. Unsurprisingly, these two groups have traditionally been divided along racial as well as financial lines. Those who could not afford cars were more likely to be people of color, as evidenced by the overall wealth and income disparities between races that existed in that day and persist to this day (Long and Van Dam). According to a 2017 study by the American Public Transportation Association, “the single largest group of public transit riders consists of White riders (40 percent). However, when combined, communities of color make up a majority of riders (60 percent), with Black/African American riders comprising the single largest group (24 percent) within communities of color” (Clark 20). The class characteristic of this disparity is even more pronounced in San Francisco, which is the sixth most expensive city in the U.S. to own a car (“10 most and least expensive cities”). This, coupled with its relative density, are factors that contribute to San Francisco having the fifth lowest rate of car ownership amongst major U.S. cities (Schwartz). These factors point to the importance of San Francisco having a robust and equitable public transit system, which the shift from rail to bus transit was unfortunately not conducive to accomplishing. 

Here we see a familiar dynamic emerging between Public Works, other municipal departments and marginalized groups within San Francisco’s population. The decision to systematically remove the majority of San Francisco’s rail infrastructure was not made by anyone at Public Works, but Public Works was the department enlisted to facilitate the physical work of removing tracks and repaving streets. This degree of separation from the policymaking process obscures the actual level of influence that Public Works did, or theoretically could, exert over this massive, city-altering program. To be sure, at the time it was not the role of administrative departments like Public Works to forecast the long-term impacts of policies and programs. Today, racial equity is a key consideration of policymaking alongside  efficiency and cost. How might Public Works leverage its unique role as a steward of the public right of way and managers of city-run construction projects to ensure that its work does not disproportionally impact San Franciscans of color?  

The Battle over the International Hotel 

International Hotel

As the 1960s ended, the legal and social issues that can arise when departments disagree about the City’s role in deciding a dispute between property owners and tenants became increasingly clear. A prime example of this was the conflict brewing in the heart of the City’s Manilatown neighborhood, a compact community of some 30,000 working class Filipinos that stretched about ten blocks along Kearny Street. Much like the Fillmore, Chinatown and the Mission District, Manilatown was a safe, inviting space where one of the City's most marginalized groups formed tight community bonds and built a thriving space for cultural production, commerce and congregation. At the cultural and physical core of this bustling neighborhood was the International Hotel, a single-room-occupancy residential hotel that housed about 200 working-class Filipinos, most of whom were transient workers and elderly men with few other housing options in what was still a very racially segregated San Francisco (“Rights Unit Jumps Into 2 Fights”). 

But what tenants and neighbors saw as a vital community hub, the building’s owners saw as an under-utilized asset. On New Year’s Day 1969, the International Hotel’s owner, the Milton Meyer Company, planned to demolish the hotel and eventually build a parking garage at the site, a plan which Public Works had the power to issue permits for (“Rights Unit Jumps Into 2 Fights”). When word of the hotel’s impending demolition spread around the City, significant opposition to Milton Meyer’s plan rapidly emerged. Much of this opposition came from Manilatown residents, the wider Filipino community, tenants’ rights activists and community-based organizations from across the City, but in an unexpected turn of events, entities within City government spoke out against the demolition as well.  


The San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which had been established only four years prior by Mayor John Shelley, called upon Public Works to deny a permit ”pending further study” on the impacts that demolition would have on the Hotel’s residents and the surrounding community (“Rights Unit Jumps Into 2 Fights”). According to Chapter 12A of the San Francisco Administrative Code, the Human Rights Commission is empowered to ”investigate complaints of discrimination brought by citizens involving agencies, boards or officers operating under State law within the City and County of San Francisco, and, where appropriate, to make written recommendations to said agencies or to represent citizens before said agencies“ (“San Francisco Administrative Code Section 12A.5”). The Human Rights Commission’s suggestion stemmed from two primary concerns, which it shared with anti-demolition activists in the community. The first and most immediate concern was that displaced residents would not be able to find suitable nearby housing at rents similar to the hotel, pushing them into homelessness and destitution (“Rights Unit Jumps Into 2 Fights”). The Commission also feared that the demolition would start a wave of displacement both cultural and physical that would disintegrate the wider Manilatown community (“Rights Unit Jumps into 2 Fights”). The fact that the hotel was to be replaced by a parking garage further incensed the community and Human Rights Commissioners. Commissioner Ross Hidy, who also served as the pastor of St. Mark’s Church, articulated the sense of injustice when he characterized the issue as ”not even the old conflict about property rights versus human rights – but, even worse, human rights versus parking rights” (“Rights Unit Jumps Into 2 Fights”).  

This initial wave of opposition led to a postponement in Milton Meyer’s plan, and the hotel was not demolished on New Year’s Day 1969. However, a tragic fire that ravaged the building just two months after the proposed demolition date prompted Public Works to immediately revisit and re-assess the issues surrounding the hotel's fate. One day after the fire, which killed three hotel residents, District Supervisor Jack Morrison requested that Public Works launch an investigation into the incident and produce “full and complete reports on the causes of the fire and the failures of the hotel, if any, to meet safety regulations” (“Morrison Asks for Check of Hotel Fire”). Interestingly, Morrison claimed to have been conducting research of his own on the state of the hotel during the same hearing that he urged Public Works to investigate the fire, despite the fact that the fire had only occurred about 24 hours prior (“Morrison Asks for Check of Hotel Fire”). During his research process, Morrison claimed to have found proof that the hotel‘s owners had been under orders for about six weeks prior to the fire to demolish the building or install fire protection (“Morrison Asks for Check of Hotel Fire”). 


Supervisor Morrison’s suspicions and research into the state of the International Hotel yielded quick results, as they prompted Public Works Director Myron S. Tatarian to issue a complaint against the hotel’s owners alleging violation of 11 city building codes (“Filipino Tenants Plan to Sue City”). To discuss this complaint, Tatarian held a hearing on the matter ten days after the fire. At this hearing, Tatarian sought to discuss the hotel’s fitness for continued occupancy in order to determine whether Milton Meyer would be compelled to make the necessary safety renovations or demolish the building (“Filipino Tenants Plan to Sue City”). After 90 minutes of heated testimony, Tatarian ruled that Milton Meyer had to file for another permit, this time for bringing the hotel into accordance with the City’s building code, within ten days. At some point before the fire, however, Public Works had issued a demolition permit for the property, calling the hearing’s utility into question, since Milton Meyer’s intentions for the property had already been made clear (“Filipino Tenants Plan to Sue City”).  

Immediately after the hearing, Milton Meyer’s President Walter Shorenstein stated that his firm would not pick up this new permit, citing the validity of his demolition permit and his desire to demolish the hotel (“Filipino Hotel Tenants Set to Fight”). A group of more than 100 tenants and community activists who attended the hearing also made their position on the matter clear, telling Tatarian that they would not leave the hotel if ordered to do so and if the hotel was to be demolished, it’d be done ”over their bodies” (“Filipino Hotel Tenants Set to Fight”). By demanding Milton Meyer pick up two contradictory permits, Public Works had put itself in an extremely tenuous position. It was now caught between enforcing the property rights of a private corporation and tenants’ right to safe and secure housing.  

Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the hotel was a lawsuit filed against the City by the Legal Assistance Foundation on behalf of some of the hotel’s residents. The foundation’s suit alleged that “the dislocation of hotel tenants without the City providing housing for them constitutes a government effort to destroy the Filipino Community and drive it from its jobs,” which amounted to a violation of the tenants’ due process rights and the equal protections clause of the U.S. Constitution (“Shorenstein Accused in International Hotel Suit”). Public Works’ role in this alleged malfeasance was outlined during Director Tatarian‘s hearing by the foundation’s chief lawyer, Sidney Wolinsky, who spoke out against what he considered an overly vigorous and technical building code inspection process that was biased toward condemning the hotel for demolition (“Filipino Tenants Plan to Sue City”). ”There is no reason for the hotel to be condemned,” Wolinsky stated at the hearing. ”Except as a device to help real estate developers get rid of the Filipino Community [sic] to assemble a piece of property” (“Filipino Tenants Plan to Sue City”). In response to these allegations, Director Tatarian emphasized Public Works’ limited jurisdiction and autonomy in such cases, stating that he was ”sympathetic to the plight of the hotel’s residents, but his position forced him to limit his interest in the matter only to possible violations of city codes” (Filipino Tenants Plan to Sue City”). 


In the wake of the March 1969 fire and the vigorous debate over the hotel’s fate that ensued immediately afterward, there was a period of prolonged silence from both the news media and Public Works regarding the hotel. In 1973, the Milton Meyer company sold the hotel to the Four Seas Investment Corporation, which successfully applied for its own demolition permit two years later (Jupiter). This sparked renewed public interest in the issue, reinvigorating those who had been fighting to protect the building and its vulnerable tenants (“Permit to Raze Hotel Here Refused”). Four Seas’ attempts at using its demolition permit were repeatedly stymied and delayed by legal challenges from tenants and their representatives, causing the permit to expire at the end of 1975 (“Permit to Raze Hotel Here Refused”). Three months after this permit’s expiration, however, Public Works officials ruled that the permit was still valid since it had expired due to lawsuits rather than deliberate negligence or lagging on the part of the property owner (“Permit to Raze Hotel Here Refused”). Upon hearing this news, the International Hotel Tenants Association went to the City’s Board of Permit Appeals to challenge Public Works’ decision. Ultimately, the Board of Permit Appeals ruled in the tenants’ favor and invalidated the permit (“Permit to Raze Hotel Here Refused”). 


Such a quick reversal may have been a shock to Four Seas and its attorneys, but this sort of disconnect between Public Works’ Bureau of Building Inspection and Board of Permit Appeals had been growing for years by the time this ruling was announced. In fact, the two entities had been actively undermining one another’s permitting rulings so frequently that Public Works’ 1968-69 Annual Report made mention of this friction. In it, Public Works claimed that the Board’s continual overriding of city codes was actively endangering San Franciscans by allowing them to live in sub-standard housing (“1968-1969 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report 135”). To combat this, Public Works’ Bureau of Building Inspection adopted a policy to ”refuse to approve permits that the Board ordered to be issued where there is no equivalent furnished for the code requirement.” (“1968-1969 San Francisco Public Works Annual Report 135”). 

This intra-governmental conflict came to a head once again in the fall of 1976, this time over the rights of tenant activists to hang banners from the International Hotel and across Kearny Street. Public Works crews had taken down the banner, which read “Long Live the International Hotel,” three times between September and November 1976, claiming that it was in violation of the Police Code since it crossed over the public right of way (“International Hotel Banner Can Stay Up”). In an interesting turn of events on November 10, the Board of Permit Appeals overruled Public Works, allowing the banner to remain over Kearny Street until the end of the month, when an eviction order for 75 of the hotel’s roughly 200 residents was to be executed (“International Hotel Banner Can Stay Up”). On the day that this mass eviction was to take place, however, the sheriffs who were charged with executing this order were forced to stand down in the face of overwhelming resistance from tenants, activists and fellow community members (“Judge to Rule on Hongisto Mistrial”). 


After another few years of continued resistance and valiance from the Manilatown community and its allies, the International Hotel was ultimately demolished in 1979, over a decade since its working-class Filipino residents were first threatened with displacement (“History”). This entire saga brings to light some of the fundamental tensions of operating an administrative body like San Francisco Public Works, which does not create city policy so much as enforce City laws and codes that are decided by legislative bodies. This is not to say, however, that Public Works has no power in these circumstances. The controversy over the 1969 Housing Code can provide some insight into just how much influence Public Works truly wields. Though the code needed approval from the Board of Supervisors to be enacted into law, it was initially drafted by members of Public Works’ Bureau of Building Inspection. But where, exactly, does the Department’s autonomy begin and end?  

What Milton Meyer and Four Seas were trying to accomplish with the International Hotel was legal, since they went through every legal and governmental channel necessary to demolish a building on a piece of property that they were in sole ownership of. But the crux of the issue was not necessarily the demolition of the building itself, but rather the displacement of hundreds of elderly, low-income Filipinos with few other housing options in the area and the degradation of what had become a major cultural center for the City’s Filipino community. This issue is compounded by the fact that there is a significant power imbalance between the two sides – large landowners and real estate development corporations on one hand, poor and marginalized communities of color on the other. As both the International Hotel and redevelopment sagas have shown, when these two groups and their respective interests clash, the result often ends up enriching those with the most power and influence at the expense of working-class communities of color, a phenomenon which City agencies have traditionally facilitated or at least allowed to occur. This dynamic was summed up perfectly by Estella Habal, one of the main tenants’ rights activists involved in the International Hotel struggle, who said “We were the expendable ones. So it’s the broader context of not just class, but also race. You can’t really separate it. It’s like, who gets targeted, which ones are ‘blighted communities’ — when for us, generally for the minority communities, that was a bustling area” (Yu).

City Contracting

Pursuing Racial Equity in City Contracting 

One area in which Public Works’ autonomy and responsibility to pursue racially equitable policies is rather clearly defined is in its role as issuer and steward of large-scale infrastructure and building construction contracts to private companies. The municipal contracting process, highly politicized and controversial for generations, began receiving additional scrutiny in the early 1980s. This began in earnest in 1984, when the Board of Supervisors adopted Ordinance 139-84, to address discriminatory practices inherent in the City's procurement process which resulted in the exclusion of minority and women-owned businesses as contractors on city contracts and to offset economic disadvantages faced by local businesses that are not shared by nonlocal businesses (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 2”). The ordinance set off years-long inquiry into the nature all of the City contracting practices led by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which is empowered to ”cooperate with and make written recommendations to City and County agencies...towards the development and implementation of programs and practices“ that advance the commission‘s goal of identifying and eliminating discrimination (“San Francisco Administrative Code Section12A.5 Subsection e”). This inquiry began with a comprehensive analysis of contract data performed by the City’s Budget Analyst and BPA Economics, a private analytics firm. Human Rights Commission then assessed the findings of these analyses and supplemented them with surveys, interviews and testimony from hundreds of local minority and women business owners to determine whether the objectives of Ordinance 139-84 had been met in within that time frame (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 2”). 

The findings from this study of city contracting practices in the mid-1980s ultimately proved the Board of Supervisors’ suspicions of dramatic under-representation of minority-owned, women-owned and locally owned businesses to be largely correct. Between the 1984-85 and 1986-87 fiscal years, white-owned businesses were awarded 73.6 percent of all City contract dollars, while Black-owned businesses received 4.2 percent, Latino-owned businesses received 7.6 percent and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI)-owned businesses received 7.9 percent, amounting to a total of 19.7 percent (San Francisco Human Rights Commission). Women-owned businesses were similarly under-represented, as they received only 2.7 percent of City contract dollars during this period. These figures all fall far beneath what would qualify as adequate or equitable representation of these groups, as data from the 1980 U.S. Census show San Francisco’s population as 12.7 percent Black and 22 percent AAPI in 1980 (“San Francisco City and County”). Unfortunately, since the U.S. Census did not include a separate categorization for Latinxs until 2000, the extent to which Latinxs were under-represented in city contracting can’t be determined. To be sure, business ownership rates amongst each of these minority groups, rather than their representation in San Francisco’s population in general, would be the ideal metric to measure contracting practices against, since a larger population of a certain race in a city does not necessarily imply an equal increase in business ownership within that population.  

What this initial study did not include, however, was a department-by-department breakdown of contracting practices. All data included in the report was for the City as a whole, with no mention of which department(s) were the primary culprits perpetuating this discrimination. Although they contain general information about current contracts and projects, Public Works’ own annual reports from this time period do not address this issue either. Therefore, it is difficult to determine the exact extent to which Public Works’ contracting practices were racially biased during the mid-1980s. Given the sheer volume of contracts and contract dollars that Public Works awards each year, it can be assumed that a breakdown of Public Works’ contracting dollars during this period would generally reflect the Citywide figures noted above. 

However, the Human Rights Commission did report general findings to the Board of Supervisors regarding Public Works and construction contracts in the years immediately following the initial study, the fiscal years 1987 and 1992, but did not report specific figures or percentages (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 9”). These subsequent reports repeatedly found that ”MBEs (Minority-Owned Business Entities) and WBEs (Women-Owned Business Entities) continue to be awarded contract dollars in amounts that are disproportionately lower than the available number of MBE and WBE prime public works/construction contractors willing and able to perform City construction work” (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 9”). Such extensive analysis, the Commission claimed, meant that the results of these studies could not be attributed to chance, but rather in part to discriminatory procurement practices and in part to discrimination in the local construction industry against MBEs and WBEs that is manifested in and perpetuated and exacerbated by the City's procurement practices” (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 9”).  

The Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into the City’s contracting practices both solidified contracting inequity as an issue in city government and paved the way for legislative action. In addition to helping win the hearts and minds of policymakers, the data helped ensure the constitutionality of any formal legislation aimed at fixing race-based disparities in government contracting. Only two months after the report was released, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co, which involved the legality of local governments adopting policies explicitly aimed at awarding contracts to minority-owned businesses (Alphran 888). In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that state or local governments that set aside a portion of public contract dollars for minority-owned companies must be able to meet a strict scrutiny standard of review proving that discrimination was indeed occurring (Alphran 888). Specifically, it established that discrimination in contracting was proved ”where there is a significant statistical disparity between the number of qualified minority contractors willing and able to perform a particular service and the number of such contractors actually engaged by the locality or the locality’s prime contractors” (Alphran 901).  

San Francisco‘s municipal government fulfilled these criteria with the Human Rights Commission’s years-long study published just months prior to the Croson ruling. This timely report allowed the Board of Supervisors to pass legislation explicitly pursuing racial equity in City contracting practices. In fact, the piece of legislation passed by the Board in May 1989 established that the extent of under-representation would be determined using the same metric, the difference between the number of minority contractors able to fulfill a contract and the number of such contractors receiving City contracts, as what was established by Croson (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 3”). The portion of this legislation aimed at rectifying these inequities was an introduction of 5 percent bid preferences for joint ventures with adequate minority-owned business or woman-owned business involvement. This policy was intended to increase women and minority-owned businesses’ involvement in city work by incentivizing “majority owned” (white male-owned) businesses to enter into joint ventures with MBE/WBEs when bidding on City contracts (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 2”). By 1992, however, little progress had been made in terms of increasing minority and women-owned business involvement in city contracting, prompting the Board of Supervisors to increase the bid preference from 5 percent to 7.5 percent for joint ventures in which the minority or woman-owned business involved in the agreement receives between 40 percent and 50.9 percent of contract dollars (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 2”). After a series of reports released by the Human Rights Commission throughout the mid-1990s, the City decided on a tiered bid preference structure, with 5percent preference for bids from joint ventures with between 35 percent and 40 percent minority or woman-owned business participation, 7.5 percent preference for those with 40 percent to 51 percent participation, and 10 percent preference for those with above 51 percent participation (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 8”). 

This series of reports did more than inform and bring about the expansion of the City’s bid preference structure. They were necessary to ensure the City’s continued compliance with the Croson ruling and, most importantly, track the City’s progress in combatting the under-representation of minority and women-owned businesses in contracting. Almost 15 years after the Human Rights Commission’s first inquiry into the issue, however, a report from Mason Tillman Associates showed just how little progress had truly been made despite the City’s efforts. Submitted to the Board of Supervisors in August 1997, the study was a statistical analysis of contracting progress reports for fiscal years between 1992 and 1995 that suggested “continuing patterns of underutilization of certified MBE and WBE contractors” (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 2-2”). 

The results of this expanded bid preference framework, which has been in place since the mid-1990s, have been mixed. There has been considerable progress in terms of locally-owned business involvement in city contracting, while the portion of city contracts going to minority and women-owned businesses remain disproportionally low (City and County of San Francisco Contract Monitoring Division 2013). Little improvement has come from increased rates of minority and woman-owned businesses subcontracting, rather than acting as the primary contractor. In conjunction with this somewhat discouraging lack of progress city-wide, reports on Public Works’ contracting practices over the past decade have also been troubling.  

According to data compiled by the San Francisco Contract Monitoring Division, Public Works awarded 61 percent of its prime contracts to locally owned businesses in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which is the earliest year that reports containing this data are publicly available (City and County of San Francisco Contract Monitoring Division 2013). Locally owned businesses were also awarded subcontracting opportunities on an additional 28 percent of the Public Works’ projects in that fiscal year (City and County of San Francisco Contract Monitoring Division 2013). Surprisingly, as you can see in the charts below labeled “Figure 5” and “Figure 6,” this report does not include data on the percentage of minority and woman-owned businesses that received primary contracts in that fiscal year, only the percentage of subcontracting opportunities that these businesses received. When this report was written, it seems like the Contract Monitoring Division grouped minority and woman-owned businesses within the locally owned business category, making it impossible to tell what percent of prime contracts minority and women-owned businesses received in 2012-2013. However, this report does show that minority-owned businesses received 41 percent of all subcontracts awarded to locally owned businesses, while women owned businesses received 23 percent (City and County of San Francisco Contract Monitoring Division 2013). This means that of the 28 percent of contracts that had locally owned businesses as subcontractors in 2012-13, 41 percent went to minority owned businesses and 23 percent went to woman-owned businesses (City and County of San Francisco Contract Monitoring Division 2013). As a percentage of all contracts, not just those with locally owned businesses as subcontractors, this equals 11.5 percent participation by minority-owned businesses and 6.5 percent by woman-owned businesses, amounting to only a slight increase from participation rates in the mid-1980s


Over the ensuing eight years, data from the Contract Monitoring Division’s annual reports on minority and woman-owned business participation has remained frustratingly inconsistent. The data for the 2012-2013 fiscal year measures participation by percentage of contract dollars, while reports for all subsequent fiscal years measure participation by percentage of contracts. Between 2013 and 2016, each city department’s prime and subcontracting rates for minority and women owned businesses were included in their annual reports. Annual reports from both the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 fiscal years are not available on the Contract Monitoring Division’s website, so data for those years is unavailable. From 2018 onward, annual reports only include prime contracting rates for minority and women owned businesses, leaving out subcontracting rates. These gaps in the data notwithstanding, Public Works’ contracting rates have largely remained stagnant during this period. A detailed rundown of the percent of all Public Works contracts awarded to minority and women owned businesses between 2013 and 2020 is below. 

Perhaps the most significant gap in this data, however, is that the mid-1980s data compiled by the Human Rights Commission does not break down data by contracting department like the more recent Contract Monitoring Division reports do. This makes comparison with newer Contract Monitoring Division data less precise. Despite these analytical limitations, the contracting trends that these data sets depict do not indicate much progress toward racial equity. Since these figures were first tracked in 1984, participation by minority-owned businesses has slightly declined from 20.9 percent to 16.7 percent, with the rate continuing to fall through the first three quarters of the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Woman-owned businesses, on the other hand, have seen a slight increase in contracting rates over this period, jumping from 2.67 percent to 5.6 percent, with Public Works’ 19 percent participation rate in the first three quarters of the 2020-2021 fiscal year indicating even more growth on the horizon (City and County of San Francisco Contract Monitoring Division 2022). Why, despite decades of attention from policymakers and department officials, has progress in contracting equity been so elusive? One mitigating factor that must be considered is the disparity in business ownership rates between different demographic groups, especially within the construction industry, which makes up the bulk of Public Works’ contracting. Data compiled by the employment database Zippia show that only 9.9 percent of construction companies nationwide are owned by women (“General Contractor Demographics”). Similarly under-represented are Black and Latinx construction company owners, who make up 3.8 percent and 13.8 percent of the nationwide total respectively (“General Contractor Demographics”). This is not to say, however, that these limitations excuse San Francisco’s minimal progress over the last few decades, or that Public Works and its fellow City departments are doing everything they can to create equity in their contracting practices. 

The Human Rights Commission’s initial report on contracting equity found that some city departments, ”continue to operate under the ‘old boy network’ when awarding contracts. The City's “old boy network” constitutes a closed business system created and implemented by the City for all contracts, including those subject to the competitive bid process” (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 2”). This closed environment has proven advantageous to older, larger companies with close ties to city officials and a long history of winning city contracts, while placing minority and woman-owned businesses at a comparative disadvantage (“San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 12D Section 2”). Clearly, the City’s contracting protocols could benefit from an overhaul allowing more meaningful participation by a wider array of private companies, whether it be by placing additional oversight over the contract awarding process, increasing bid preferences, or other democratizing measures. 

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Labor Unions’ Role in Public Works’ History 

Labor Unions

In addition to these steps to improve equity in public contracting, Public Works has seen major changes to its internal workforce over the past five decades. Chief among these changes is the mass unionization of the department’s employees, which was precipitated by the passage of the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act. This piece of legislation, signed into California State Law in 1968, granted public sector workers at the county and municipal levels the right to collectively bargain and form public sector-specific bargaining units (Yeung 2011). Prior to the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act’s passage, county and municipal workers in California were allowed to join labor unions, but unions or bargaining units made exclusively of these workers were prohibited. This development, and the fact that it allowed public sector workers to organize and advocate for themselves based upon the unique realities of their work, set off a period of drastic growth in California’s public sector unionization rate. 

What makes this period even more noteworthy, however, is that it was the period when many of the City’s lower-wage public sector workers in professions like bus drivers, street cleaners and garbage workers joined unions like American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) en masse (Drew 264). Prior to the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act’s passage, the labor movement in San Francisco consisted primarily of specialized craft workers such as plumbers, operating engineers and steamfitters operating in small, often racially exclusive units (Drew 264). By the end of the 1980s, 59.9 percent of all state and local government employees in California belonged to a union, compared to only 14.9 percent of the state’s private sector workforce (Woolfe and Schmitt Figure 1).  

In recent years, California’s public sector unionization rate has grown even higher than it was in the 1980s, reaching a staggering 61.2 percent by 2017 (Woolfe and Schmitt Figure 1). Over this same time, the state’s private sector unionization rate fell from 14.9 percent down to 9.2 percent (Woolfe and Schmitt Figure 1). The split between public and private sector unionization rate in San Francisco closely mirrors state figures, with 59.2 percent of the City’s public sector workers belonging to a union compared to only 9.7 percent of their private sector counterparts (Adler et al. figure 7). Today, San Francisco Public Works’ workforce primarily belongs to one of three unions: the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 261 and SEIU Local 1021. Just over 42 percent of Public Works employees belong to IFPTE Local 21, while another 27 percent belong to LIUNA Local 261 and 11 percent belong to SEIU Local 1021.  

The benefits of union membership, especially for workers of color who have traditionally been marginalized and undervalued in the private sector, are numerous. Through their collective bargaining rights, union jobs have traditionally tended to pay higher wages and afford more extensive employment benefits than non-union jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2020 Union Membership News Release, full time salary and wage earners in union jobs had median usual weekly earnings of $1,144 in 2020, while those in non-union jobs received only $958, a difference of 16percent (“Union Membership (Annual) News Release”). In San Francisco, union membership has a significant upward impact on the earnings of those in lower wage fields in which workers of color have traditionally been over-represented. As of 2015, 24.1 percent of San Francisco’s non-union workforce earned $15 per hour or lower, while only 12.5 percent the City’s unionized workers had wages that low (Adler et al. Figure 4). These figures become more relevant in discussions of racial equity when the fact that 23.1 percent of Black workers in San Francisco belong to unions, notably higher than the City’s other major demographic groups (Adler et al. Figure 12). However, San Francisco’s other two largest populations of color, Latinos and Asian Americans, are less likely to belong to unions than white workers (Adler et al. Figure 12). 

When compared to other City departments as well as private sector employers in the region, Public Works’ current workforce is exceedingly racially diverse. As of 2020, the Department’s workforce was 29.2 percent Asian American, 24 percent White, 20.8 percent Black, 17.3 percent Latinx and 7.3 percent Filipinx. This level of diversity, coupled with high levels of unionization, seems to indicate that Public Works’ employees of color receive more than adequate rates of pay, benefits and treatment on the job. Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case. Although wages across all City departments remain competitive, according to a report by the San Francisco Department of Human Resources (DHR), large discrepancies in average pay rate exist between different races within City Government. At $63.41 per hour, the City’s white male employees make the most of any demographic group on average, making roughly $5 more per hour than white women employees, the next highest paid demographic group (“Citywide Workforce Demographics”). The only other demographic group receiving more than $50 per hour on average are Filipino men, who make $51.05, about $4 more than their women counterparts (“Citywide Workforce Demographics”). The other highly-represented racial demographics within City Government have much smaller discrepancies between men and women employees than the City’s white and Filipinx employees (“Citywide Workforce Demographics”). The City‘s Asian American employees of all genders make roughly $48 per hour, while Latinx employees make about $47, and Black employees make $43 (“Citywide Workforce Demographics”). This vast difference between pay rates of white Public Works employees and their Asian American, Black, Latinx and Filipinx counterparts is partially due to white workers’ drastic overrepresentation amongst the department’s upper management positions, which typically have the highest pay rate. A staggering 52percent of all Public Works employees in the 09XX manager position series are white, more than double their representation in the department overall. Meanwhile, only 20 percent of managers are Asian American, 16 percent are Black, 6 percent are Filipinx and 6 percent are Latinx.  

These drastic inequities in pay between races prompted Black City workers to file a class-action lawsuit against the City in late 2020. The three initial plaintiffs sought to receive restitution for these pay discrepancies and for a multitude of racially insensitive and degrading treatment on the job including being passed over for promotional opportunities and facing heightened rates of disciplinary action (Hom and Eskenazi). As striking as race-based pay discrepancies is the fact that Black City workers are almost twice as likely to receive ”corrective” or disciplinary actions than White employees (Hom and Eskenazi). In fact, Public Works was named one of the three City departments with the highest difference between Black and White employee disciplinary rates (Hom and Eskenazi). In addition to citing these various mistreatments, the plaintiffs sought to have a role in developing and overseeing new anti-discrimination policies for the City (Hom and Eskenazi). This lawsuit was in part inspired by DHR‘s own data, which was referenced above, as well as a scandal in which DHR had promised a Black SFMTA worker a roughly $500,000 settlement that was repeatedly delayed and ultimately never awarded (Hom and Eskenazi).  

Though the suit was initially filed by three City employees – one from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, another from the Department of Public Health and the third from SFMTA – it was filed on behalf of “all union and non-union Black employees” working for City departments, including Public Works (Hom and Eskenazi). The plaintiffs’ counsel indicated that they expect as many as 4,000 Black employees from across City government to join the lawsuit, implying the widespread nature of this discrimination and the multitude of workers it has impacted over the years (Hom and Eskenazi).  

Tracking and being transparent about these inequities are crucial first steps toward meaningful reform in the way that the City hires, pays, promotes and nurtures its employees. If DHR had not published its findings on these race-based discrepancies, many City employees would only be vaguely aware of the inequities within their ranks, and the general public would likely be completely unaware. Now that this information is out in the open and acknowledged by the City itself, it is incumbent upon departments like Public Works, the Public Utilities Commission, DHR and Public Health to take actionable steps toward making the City a fairer and more just employer.  

Growing and Nourishing
San Francisco’s Urban Forest

Urban Forest

One of the many ways that Public Works cares for San Francisco’s public right of way is by growing and maintaining the City’s street trees, known within the department as the urban forest. The environmental benefits of living in a healthy urban forest are numerous, and include improved air quality, enhanced storm water retention, sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and cooling air temperatures. Street trees have also been shown to improve the mental health of those living in the vicinity, improving pedestrian experience by providing shade and calming traffic and can even extend the lifespan of surrounding pavement. San Francisco, which has a naturally arid and windy climate and thin, sandy soil, is not naturally conducive to abundant tree growth. This, combined with the fact that the City was initially built before street trees’ myriad benefits were fully understood and city policy reflected a preference for paved and developed spaces over natural ones, makes Public Works’ responsibility to plant and care for the City’s urban forest especially important. 

According to the street tree census, which was carried out by Public Works’ Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF) in 2017, San Francisco is home to about 124,900 street trees (“EveryTreeSF Street Tree Census”). This may sound like a lot, but San Francisco has one of the lowest canopy coverage percentages of any major U.S. city, at about 13 percent (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 33). Since the department first took over street tree planting and maintenance duties in 1955, planting new street trees and expanding San Francisco’s canopy coverage Public Works’ Bureau of Urban Forestry’s primary goal. However, Public Works’ jurisdiction over street trees goes far beyond planting, and includes the planning, maintenance and removal of trees as well as maintaining any landscape material in street medians, center strips or other landscaped portions of the public right of way (“San Francisco Public Works Code Article 16 Section 804”). The department is also charged with caring for the City’s landmark and historically significant trees (“San Francisco Public Works Code Article 16 Section 804”). Although Public Works maintains ultimate jurisdiction over all street trees in San Francisco, it is only responsible for maintaining roughly 40 percent of these trees, while the remaining 60 percent are the responsibility of owners of adjacent private property (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 34). 

This delegation of responsibility for street trees between Public Works and private property owners has been in flux over the last 65 years. Much of this back-and-forth has been the result of fluctuations in the City’s budget and voters’ willingness to pass bond measures funding street tree planting and maintenance. It started in 1955, when, in an expansion of its Municipal Tree Program, the City established Public Works’ Tree Planting Division (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan 27”). As a result of this expansion, its related funding increase and significant volunteer participation, Public Works was able to plant an estimated 100,000 trees in the years immediately following the Tree Planting Division’s establishment (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 27). By 1981, however, the municipal budget had constrained to the point where city-sponsored tree planting was suspended, and Public Works’ Street Tree Program shifted its focus from planting to maintenance (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 27). In response to these constraints, a group of community-minded San Franciscans formed Friends of the Urban Forest, a nonprofit group with the goal of growing and nurturing the City’s urban forest. Friends of the Urban Forest remains a close community partner with Public Works to this day. Despite this encouraging response from concerned members of the public, the City’s ability to fund street tree planting and maintenance continued to dwindle into the 1990s. During this decade, Public Works crews’ responsibility shrunk to maintenance of trees along major streets only, leaving planting and upkeep on side streets to private property owners (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 27). Further cuts in the wake of the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis led to Public Works instituting a tree maintenance transfer program, in which the City handed off upkeep responsibilities to private property owners after planting and caring for them for an agreed upon time (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 27). The passage of Proposition E in 2016 shifted the arrangement again. In addition to allocating an additional $19 million annually for street tree maintenance, Proposition E placed all street trees planted by the City within the City’s responsibility for their entire life cycle (“San Francisco, California, City Responsibility for Street Trees”). Street trees planted by property owners, on the other hand, became their own responsibility for the first three years of the tree’s life cycle, after which they become the City’s responsibility (“San Francisco, California, City Responsibility for Street Trees”).  


Public Works’ efforts to increase San Francisco’s urban forest canopy over the last 65 years have, despite the periodic funding issues and frequent realignment of jurisdiction, been successful in many regards. San Francisco is a decidedly greener and more ecologically diverse place than it was in the early 20th century. This growth has not, however, been distributed equally throughout the City. The neighborhoods in San Francisco that have the highest amount of street tree canopy coverage also tend to be wealthier and whiter than those with the fewest street trees. The City’s Urban Forest Plan, which was a joint effort between Public Works, San Francisco Planning, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Department of the Environment and Friends of the Urban Forest, attributes this considerable shortcoming to several factors. The report points to “socio-economic conditions, cultural preferences and the ratio of renters to homeowners” as some of factors that can influence the number of trees in a neighborhood (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 32). It also cites the City’s variety of microclimates as another driver of this disparity, as it “can make tree survival more challenging in some parts of the City” (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan 32”).  

These factors, many of which are man-made and influenced by public policy, have led to stark differences in canopy coverage between the City’s whitest neighborhoods and those with the most residents of color. The most glaring example of this is in the Bayview, one of the least wealthy areas of the City and has a population that is 79.7 percent non-white (Padmanabhan). Despite the Bayview’s large size and relative lack of density, only 6.7 percent of the district is covered by a street tree canopy, a figure less than half of the City average (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 33). The Mission District, which has the highest percentage of Latinx residents in San Francisco, has only 7.5 percent canopy coverage (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 33). Two of the districts with the largest AAPI populations in the City, the Outer Richmond and Outer Sunset, have similarly abysmal canopy coverages of 5.8 percent and 5 percent respectively (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 33). Somewhat less striking but still noteworthy are extremely dense and racially diverse neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, South of Market, Civic Center and Chinatown, which each have a canopy coverage of about 5 percent (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 33). These neighborhoods‘ lack of canopy coverage may be more influenced by their density than their demographics, however. Nob Hill, which sits directly to the Tenderloin’s north, is one of the whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods in the City, yet has 5 percent canopy coverage as well (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 33).  

Nob Hill, it seems, is the sole exception to this trend connecting wealth and whiteness to street tree canopy coverage. The Seacliff neighborhood, which is characterized by its opulent cliffside mansions and gated communities, has 29.7 percent canopy coverage, more than double the City average (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 33). Noe Valley boasts a canopy coverage of 15.5 percent, more than double the rate of the Mission District, which sits directly to its east (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 33). Pacific Heights, a neighborhood that has become synonymous with wealth and privilege in San Francisco, has 13.9 percent canopy coverage despite its hilly topography, placing it just above the City average (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 33). 

Aside from growing San Francisco’s street tree canopy in general, the Urban Forest Plan’s primary goal is to equalize, or at least mitigate the differences in canopy coverage between the City’s various neighborhoods. This is also one of the stated goals and founding principles of Public Works’ Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF), which was a major contributor to the City’s Urban Forest Plan and Street Tree Census. The census, which was conducted in 2017, was a crucial first step to assess the number, distribution, variety and conditions of the City’s street trees. This assessment is the baseline for which the Urban Forest Plan’s goals, which include growing San Francisco’s urban forest by 50,000 trees in the next 20 years, are based upon (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 17). To fulfill this goal, the plan forecasts that an average of 2,500 trees need to be planted each year between 2014 and 2034, an ambitious target that has proven difficult to attain in recent years (“San Francisco Urban Forest Plan” 17). According to the Urban Forestry Council’s 2020 annual report, 7,174 street trees were planted throughout the City between the 2017-2018 and 2019-2020 fiscal years, while 8,952 have been removed, creating a net loss of almost 1,800 trees (“2020 Annual Urban Forest Report” 8). This is largely because a significant portion of the City’s existing street trees, which were planted during Public Works’ initial push to grow the City’s urban forest in the late 1950s, are nearing the end of their life cycle and will begin to pose a threat to public safety if they are not removed and replaced.  

Some of the factors inhibiting progress in this area are not fully within the Department’s control, especially considering budgetary limitations and the natural life cycle of various tree species. Nonetheless, all San Franciscans deserve the numerous physical, psychological and financial benefits associated with a robust urban forest. In approving Proposition E, or the StreetTreeSF initiative, in 2016, San Francisco’s voters reaffirmed their desire to live in a greener city. The additional $19 million per year that StreetTreeSF allocates for street tree maintenance is a positive development, but similar arrangements for street tree planting must be made if the Urban Forest Plan’s ultimate goals of growing and equalizing San Francisco’s urban forest are to be realized. 

Stewardship of Chinatown’s Alleyways:
A Complicated History 

Chinatown Alleyways

San Francisco’s street tree canopy is but one visible example of the City government’s uneven and often racially biased stewardship of the City’s public lands. A far less obvious but equally important example of this inequity is Public Works’ treatment of Chinatown’s alleyways. In most of San Francisco, alleyways are an afterthought – hardly more than a place for dumpsters, garage access and occasionally a few parking spots. This is far from the case in Chinatown, which is by far the densest neighborhood in San Francisco and one of the densest in the nation outside of Manhattan (“Chinatown Alleyways Renovation Program”). This density – over 20,000 people live within its roughly 24 square block perimeter – and the coinciding lack of open space have prompted generations of Chinatown residents to consider the neighborhood’s alleyways, of which there are a staggering 41, as a sort of collective front yard where children play, adults socialize, and many aspects of daily life are carried out (“Chinatown Alleyways Renovation Program”). These spaces are so vital to the Chinatown community that Aaron Peskin, the neighborhood’s longtime District Supervisor, has called them “the lifeblood of the neighborhood” (“Sacred Spaces: The Alleyways of Chinatown”). 

Disappointingly, Public Works has historically not cared for these spaces in a way that reflects their importance to the Chinatown community. In 1903, the City passed a bond measure that extended sewer and waste disposal services to Chinatown, which until that point had been completely ignored by municipal service providers (Shah 152). Three decades later, the City passed Ordinance 17.083, which codified some 97 garbage collection routes across the City, including a handful servicing Chinatown. What both measures ignored, however, were the dozens of alleyways that crisscross this dense and bustling neighborhood. While most of the neighborhood’s surface streets were regularly cleaned and cared for, both in service of its residents and the growing number of tourists taking interest in the neighborhood, its alleyways remained dark, dirty and dangerous. This responsibility largely rested with Public Works, which is responsible for coordinating garbage collection services, cleaning the public right of way, and creating public spaces that are generally safe, welcoming and aesthetically pleasing. For decades, Chinatown’s alleyways were deprived of garbage collection, street cleaning services, streetlights and municipally provided pedestrian scale lighting, creating an environment that was not only unpleasant, but actively hazardous to public health and safety as well. Conditions in Chinatown’s alleyways became so dire that groups of local youth began organizing cleaning groups in efforts to fill the void left by the City’s neglect (“An Inside Look at San Francisco’s Chinatown”). 

For decades, the City’s prevailing justification against providing services to these alleyways was that they were private rather than public streets and therefore not within the City’s jurisdiction (“An Inside Look at San Francisco’s Chinatown”). This perspective remained largely unexamined and unchallenged until the early 1990’s. Jasmine Kaw, who is a landscape architect with Public Works, was conducting research for the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) on the City’s longstanding neglect of Chinatown’s Alleyways when she made a crucial discovery. While searching through Public Works’ Bureau of Street Use and Mapping’s “Street Book,” which is a legal record for which of San Francisco’s streets are public and which are private, Kaw found that a majority of Chinatown’s alleyways are legally classified as public streets, therefore requiring the City to provide services to these areas. Upon making this troubling discovery, Kaw and CCDC brought this to the City’s attention, and Public Works began facilitating regular garbage collection and street cleaning services in Chinatown’s alleyways.  

Securing these services from the City was just the first step in what would become a decades-long effort to comprehensively reimagine Chinatown’s alleyways. Throughout the early 1990’s, Kaw joined forces with CCDC’s team of expert community organizers to mount an in-depth public outreach effort aimed at the Chinatown community. Through a series of public meetings, surveys, and design consultations, Kaw and her team compiled information on what Chinatown residents wanted their local alleyways to become, what existing features they wanted maintained and which alleyways they felt needed the most immediate care. The result of these intensive and community-driven efforts was the Chinatown Alleyway Master Plan, which CCDC released in 1994. Four years after its release, the City adopted the plan with Public Works as the overseeing agency, kicking off this large, concerted effort in earnest (“Public Works and Community Celebrate the Renovation of Alleyways”).  

The goal of this program is to “provide attractive and safe streets for tourists and visitors, enhance economic vitality for Chinatown, and improve the overall quality of life for residents” by featuring a variety of improvements including pedestrian scale lighting, roadway and sidewalk restoration to achieve ADA compliance, landscaping elements and seating features to create a renewed sense of open space (“Public Works and Community Celebrate the Renovation of Alleyways”). Throughout this process, the designers, community outreach workers and construction managers on the project team  balanced new features and design concepts with the restoration of historical elements and generally incorporating the neighborhood’s cultural history into each project. Utilizing CCDC’s intimate knowledge of Chinatown and Public Works’ organizational capacity, improvements have been made to 12 alleyways in the ensuing two decades. They include Jack Kerouac, two blocks of Waverly Place, John, Commercial, Ross, Cordelia Hang Ah, Pagoda, Beckett, Wentworth and Cooper alleys (“Public Works and Community Celebrate the Renovation of Alleyways”). 

This ongoing project to breathe new life into Chinatown’s alleyways is one element of Public Works’ much larger effort to renovate and revitalize culturally significant public spaces throughout the City. Though each of these cultural spaces hold significance for different groups of people – from the Peace Plaza in Japantown to Eagle Plaza in SOMA – they all serve as beloved gathering spaces and representations of the rich, complicated and at times contentious history of San Francisco’s diverse neighborhoods. 

Public Works and San Francisco’s
Unhoused Population 


The manner in which Public Works interacts with San Francisco’s unhoused population is arguably the most controversial aspect of the Department’s current operations. For the last half century, homelessness has been San Francisco’s most intractable problem, vexing generations of policymakers, activists and voters alike. In fact, since 1981, San Francisco has passed more regulations governing homeless people’s actions in public spaces than any other city in California (“Punishing the Poorest” 5). With this wide variety of laws and regulations, nearly every City department interacts with unhoused San Franciscans in some way. 

The treatment of homeless people and their personal belongings by local authorities, as well as homeless people’s access to sleeping and setting up tents on sidewalks have long been hotly contested civil rights issues, but they take on a racial justice element in San Francisco as well. This is because, in comparison to the City’s overall demographics, Black and Latinx people are over-represented in San Francisco’s homeless population. Latinxs make up 18 percent of the City’s homeless population, and only 15 percent of the overall population (“San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey” 16). Black San Franciscans face a much more extreme extent of over-representation, as they make up 6 percent of the City’s overall population but a staggering 37 percent of its homeless (“San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey” 16). Multiracial people face similar experiences, as they make up 22 percent of the City’s homeless population and only 5 percent overall. There are numerous factors that play into these groups’ over-representation in San Francisco’s homeless population, but the racist banking policies, exclusionary zoning and workplace discrimination that Black and Brown San Franciscans have faced and continue to face have played a role. Contrast this with white San Franciscans, who are 47 percent of the City’s population yet only amount to 29 percent of its homeless, and the racial element of this issue becomes readily apparent.  

As the steward of San Francisco’s public right of way, Public Works is empowered to keep the City’s streets, sidewalks, alleyways and medians clean and clear of obstruction at all times. The department’s Bureau of Street Environmental Services sends crews of dedicated workers to perform deep cleanings on the City’s busiest commercial corridors on a rotating basis, while its street sweepers scour the City every day, collecting upwards of 25 million pounds of trash per year. Public Works comes into close and regular contact with San Francisco’s homeless population. This increased emphasis has come at the behest of elected officials, the San Francisco Police Department and even San Francisco voters, who in recent decades have designed and passed scores of policies prohibiting many types of street behavior including panhandling, obstructing sidewalks, sitting or lying down in public and living in vehicles. Enforcement of these policies was significantly ramped up in the early 1990s during the mayorship of Frank Jordan. Mayor Jordan’s flagship policy regarding homelessness was called the Matrix Program, which began in 1993. The Matrix Program emphasized enforcing existing laws governing the actions of homeless San Franciscans. In this regard, it was an immediate success. More citations for sleeping and camping in the parks, drinking in public, obstructing the sidewalk and sleeping in doorways were issued in the first month of the program’s existence than in the five previous years combined (“Punishing the Poorest” 12). 

From its outset, the Matrix Program’s aggressive enforcement of laws dictating the actions of San Francisco’s homeless invited controversy, much of it involving Public Works. In the fall of 1993, Mayor Jordan suggested that confiscating the shopping carts that homeless people had taken from grocery stores, along with their contents, and replacing them with duffle bags, would reduce impediments to the public right of way (Lynch and Johnson). These confiscations, a majority of which occurred in the Civic Center and Mission District, were carried out in a joint effort by the SFPD and Public Works. Police officers would spot homeless people with shopping carts and call Public Works crews to the scene to confiscate the carts while disposing of their contents (Lynch and Johnson). This policy faced immediate backlash from the public, who saw it as unnecessarily cruel and counterproductive, and Jordan ultimately walked back this suggestion within a month (Lynch and Johnson). A select number of SFPD officers did not heed the mayor’s words, however, and continued confiscating carts and summoning Public Works for help (Lynch and Johnson). When asked, at the time, about the Department’s role in this process, a Public Works street cleaning supervisor said “The carts are an ongoing thing...We are trying to be as gentle as possible, but the public wants the streets cleaned up and we are getting hammered by the public for debris on the streets” (Lynch and Johnson). Ironically, Public Works’ ”street sweeping czar” at the time claimed that most grocery stores the department contacted regarding missing shopping carts that had been recovered did not even want their missing shopping carts back (Lynch and Johnson). This was not only an inconvenience for the department, which now had dozens of shopping carts in its possession, but an additional insult to the people who had relied upon these seized carts. 

The SFPD had a somewhat different and less sympathetic response to questions regarding the confiscations, claiming that they considered the carts to be “abandoned” and thus legal for them to discard (Johnson and Lynch). Neither department’s justification for this punitive tactic addressed the fact that, according to both state and local law, such confiscated materials must be kept by the seizing agency and stored for at least 120 days before it is discarded, allowing the owner the opportunity to retrieve their belongings (Johnson and Lynch). The controversy surrounding shopping cart confiscation cast additional scrutiny, both public and legal, on the Matrix Program in its entirety. Just three months into the program’s existence, the National Law Center published a study calling Matrix a prime example of the “inhumane and counterproductive” trend of policies criminalizing homelessness (Sandalow). Matrix was categorized as little more than a “political quick fix” that, instead of working to solve the City’s homelessness problems, focused too heavily on removing homeless people from public view (Sandalow). Instead of focusing on such punitive and short-sighted measures like property confiscation, the report suggested San Francisco reallocate money currently used for the Matrix Program toward constructive, long-term programs like job training and affordable housing (Sandalow). More recent research on this approach, which has found that over 90 percent of all citations issued to homeless San Franciscans go unpaid, lead to warrants for arrest and can ultimately ”trap people in a cycle of homelessness,” would seem to reinforce this report’s diagnosis of the Matrix Program (Boyle and Kim).  

Even some of San Francisco’s highest ranking public officials have spoken out in agreement with this sentiment, albeit with important caveats. The head of the City’s Healthy Streets Operation Center and director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing went on the record in 2017 and “agreed that arresting homeless people and ‘just moving them around’ was not a ‘common sense’ solution” (Boyle and Kim). However, he has also said the same of allowing people to build shelters on the sidewalks, highlighting the tenuous spot that the City is in when it comes to homelessness response and encampment clearance policy (Boyle and Kim). While continuously making homeless people move from one encampment site to another is ineffective and can be unnecessarily cruel, simply letting encampments grow and develop unchecked is similarly irresponsible, as encampments can pose significant public health and safety concerns for both those living in them and the wider community. 

Around the same time, a coalition including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the Matrix Program violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because it punishes the status of homelessness (Burress). In addition, it alleged that the program deprives the homeless of equal protection of the law and amounts to selective enforcement of the law (Burress). After nearly two years, U.S. District Judge D. Lowell Jensen granted the City’s petition to dismiss the suit without a hearing, ruling that the City “has submitted uncontradicted evidence that homeless encampments can lead to drug sales, vandalism, public elimination of body wastes and other unhealthful conditions, as well as facilitation of a host of other crimes by and against homeless individuals” (Burress). 

Despite its survival in the courts, the Matrix Program was ultimately disavowed by its architect, ex-police chief and mayor Frank Jordan, in 1999 (Matier and Ross). In a statement made while campaigning for another mayoral term against Willie Brown, Jordan characterized confiscating homeless peoples’ shopping carts as ineffective and poorly designed policy (Matier and Ross). However, the end of Matrix and the realization of its inefficacy by its architects did little to alter the City’s approach toward its homeless population. In late 2001, the Department of Public Health and Public Works began conducting weekly sweeps of a large encampment that had materialized in a vacant lot underneath a stretch of Highway 101 near Cesar Chavez Street, claiming that it posed a serious public health hazard (Lelchuk). City officials claimed that the lot, which on any given night was home to upwards of 100 people, was riddled with garbage, used syringes, human feces and rats, creating a dangerous environment not only for the encampment’s residents but nearby housed San Franciscans and pedestrians passing by the lot (Lelchuk). Public Works crews carried out sweeps on a weekly basis for months to little effect, since people would return to the lot and settle back in mere hours after being expelled. In a 2017 report, the Coalition on Homelessness alleged that, during these sweeps, Public Works crews again threw away homeless people’s belongings, mirroring the cruel and dubiously legal practices of the Matrix Program (“Punishing the Poorest” 73). Sensing the futility of this policy and likely trying to avoid further controversy, CalTrans, which owns the land, decided in December 2001 to fence its perimeter to keep people out for good (Lelchuk). 

While its attention never strayed too far from areas like the Tenderloin, Civic Center, SOMA and the Mission District, the City mounted a campaign to clear San Francisco’s parks of homeless encampments in the mid-2000s. During his mayorship, which spanned from 2004 to 2011, Gavin Newsom ramped up efforts to clear homeless encampments in Golden Gate Park, which his administration considered a public health crisis (Buchanan). These efforts began in earnest in Summer 2007, when, after a particularly contentious town hall meeting on the state of the City’s parks, Newsom directed teams of homelessness outreach workers, police officers and crews from the Recreation and Park Department and Public Works to clear out encampments and disperse the people inhabiting them (Buchanan). Much like the confiscation of shopping carts during the Matrix Program, however, allegations that city crews unlawfully destroyed, confiscated and discarded encampment residents’ belongings arose. In a July 2007 SF Chronicle piece on the encampment sweeps, former Golden Gate Park resident Joe Horton alleged that City crews had taken his personal belongings three times in the span of a single week, even claiming that crew members stole valuable belongings while throwing away what they considered garbage (Buchanan).  

These examples are not isolated incidents. Rather, they represent an ongoing cycle that, adheres to the following format: an encampment is cleared by the city, its inhabitants are dispersed and inevitably find another location to live, some personal items are confiscated, there are conflicting reports regarding whether or not encampment residents are offered services and whether or not their confiscated items are held for the legally-required 120 days. This system, which is by no means unique to San Francisco, has come under repeated legal scrutiny, and recent rulings have cast doubt on its legality. In addition to the local and state laws that mandate seized property to be held for 120 days before it is discarded, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued two rulings in the past decade that cut against San Francisco’s typical homelessness policy.  

In 2012, the court ruled that homeless people’s property only could be seized by authorities if it was “hazardous or appeared to have been abandoned,” but authorities must “leave notice of where it was taken and give the owner up to 90 days to retrieve it” (Egelko). Whether or not Public Works has traditionally adhered to this standard is a point of contention between department officials and homeless advocacy groups. For as long as homelessness has been a prominent issue in San Francisco, divergent narratives surrounding the City’s treatment of homeless people and their belongings have circulated. Even when confiscated items are correctly stored for the legally mandated time period, however, very few homeless people come back to reclaim them. This is partially due to the relative inaccessibility of Public Works’ operations yard, which is far from areas with high concentrations of homelessness such as the Tenderloin and SOMA. The fact that all confiscated belongings are stored at a single location, which is not likely to be within walking distance for most homeless people, acts as an additional burden on those with limited mobility or who lack access to transportation. This unfortunate reality is not necessarily completely within Public Works’ control, or borne of the department’s desire to withhold these items, since it is the only department-owned property with enough space to store items.  

Similarly unclear is the City’s track record of offering shelter to those living in encampments that are being cleared. In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities could not enforce anti-camping laws if they do not have adequate housing or shelter resources for the City’s entire homeless population (Smith). Despite this ruling, and the fact that anti-camping laws continue to be enforced, there continues to exist a severe mismatch between the number of available housing and shelter options and the number of unsheltered homeless people in San Francisco. According to the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s (HSH) 2019 Point-In-Time Homeless Count, there are 8,035 homeless people living in San Francisco, 5,180 of whom remain unsheltered (“San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey” 10).  

The story of the clearance of a large encampment along Willow Street in 2019 illustrates the prominence and recurring nature of these two key issues - the consistent divergence between homeless people’s and City officials’ recounting of the encampment clearance and service connection process and the lack of housing options currently available to homeless San Franciscans. City officials claimed that outreach workers had spent six weeks leading up to the encampment’s clearance “visiting Willow Street and tried connecting as many people as possible to services” (Thadani). Vexingly, homeless advocates and encampment residents had a decidedly different recollection of the outreach process, claiming that they ”were offered scant warning, and little-to-no resources - like a Navigation Center bed - before they were told to move” (Thadani). The issue that underlies this contentious, confusing process is the mismatch between the City’s desire to clear encampments and its lack of viable housing options for its homeless population. In the same article referenced above, the constant shortage of resources for those in need is exemplified when the author notes that “shelter waiting lists often top 1,000 people, and the City's Navigation Centers are filled every night” (Thadani). 

Recognizing this shortcoming, Mayor London Breed announced in 2021 her administration’s plan to provide 6,000 placements into housing and shelters for the City’s homeless by July 2022 (“Homelessness Recovery Plan”). To achieve this, the City plans to purchase 1,500 units of permanent supportive housing, place 3,000 families or individuals into existing units and add 2,100 beds to its shelters (“Homelessness Recovery Plan”). If any of these newly purchased buildings need renovating, or if the City ends up building new permanent supportive housing on publicly owned lands, it is highly likely that Public Works will be involved with the design and construction management elements of these projects. 

This discrepancy may not be solely caused by a lack of housing and shelter options, however. Traditional shelters have a reputation of being overly restrictive, unsafe and generally uninviting spaces, which exacerbate this trend. Since 2015, the City has worked to reverse this stigma and revamp the shelter options it offers San Francisco’s homeless residents through its Navigation Center program. Navigation Centers represent a reimagining of the traditional shelter model and an attempt to create a more dignified, resource-rich and stable atmosphere for their inhabitants. More specifically, San Francisco’s 11 navigation centers offer a number of features and programs unavailable in traditional shelters, including the ability for inhabitants to bring their pets, partners and possessions as well as a robust selection of social and health services provided by case managers who connect them to income, public benefits, health services and housing opportunities. 

Public Works plays a crucial role in the Navigation Center program, providing an array of construction and project management services while also overseeing landscape and architectural design, permitting, site remediation and post-construction site cleaning (“In the Works – A Digital Journal” January). It is through these various services that Public Works has helped implement the building features and amenities aimed at enhancing residents’ privacy and comfort while reversing the stigma surrounding traditional shelters. Despite Public Works and HSH’s efforts to provide a more comfortable and sustainable resident experience, studies show that the Navigation Center model does not solve the most pressing issues with shelter living. According to a September 2020 survey of homeless San Franciscans who have not spent time in a shelter in the last five years that attempted to gauge the reasons people refuse shelter, only 12 percent of respondents cited the inability to store belongings, bring their significant other, or bring their pets as the main barrier preventing them from pursuing a shelter spot (“Stop the Revolving Door” 32). Far more common reasons for shelter reluctance, which are largely outside of Public Works’ purview, include the shelter system’s bad reputation (40 percent), bad experience (30 percent), confusing process to access (22 percent) and the shelter’s congregate setting (22 percent) “Stop the Revolving Door” 32). In a complementary survey of homeless San Franciscans who have spent time in a shelter in the last five years, the overwhelming majority pointed to the lack of beds (64 percent) and long wait times (34 percent) as their primary barriers to shelter access (“Stop the Revolving Door” 31). The results of these two studies, which tabulated responses from 425 people, point to a confluence of factors that inhibit the City’s response to homelessness. Both the insufficient number of shelter and navigation center beds throughout the City as well as the negative reputation existing shelters have are issues that can be addressed in tandem.  

There are a variety of other shortcomings to the Navigation Center model, including limits on the length of time people are allowed to live in a Navigation Center and difficulties with securing permanent housing for outgoing residents. However, many of these persistent issues fall outside Public Works’ jurisdiction and the scope of its involvement in the Navigation Center program, and therefore should not be heavily factored into an assessment of Public Works’ track record of promoting or inhibiting racial equity. Despite its shortcomings, the Navigation Center program in San Francisco represents a step toward a system of homelessness policy based upon dignity rather than degradation and individualized care rather than one-size-fits-all solutions. The fact that such a disproportionally high number of San Francisco’s homeless population is Black and Latinx makes improving these systems not only a human rights and public health issue, but a racial justice one. 

As the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic upended all aspects of daily life virtually overnight, the City was forced to rapidly alter many of its normal programs, policies and workflows. Its homelessness policy was no exception, as COVID rendered the traditional model of congregate indoor homeless shelters an active public health hazard. This devastating public health emergency placed additional strain on a shelter system that was already facing a shortage of beds and shelters, as it forced all indoor shelters and navigation centers to significantly reduce their capacity, if not temporarily close altoghether. This unfortunate necessity caused a large uptick in the number of people living on San Francisco’s streets at a time of unchecked, rapid COVID transmission. 

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID amongst the unsheltered homeless population and improve the health and safety conditions of San Francisco’s streets, the City decided to construct outdoor, socially distanced “Safe Sleeping Sites” for those living in encampments. This emergency initiative was a collaborative effort between many city agencies, including the Human Services Agency, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the San Francisco Fire Department and the Healthy Streets Operation Center team, as well as nonprofit service providers and community members. Public Works handled much of the initial build-out of these safe sleeping sites. Public Works painters installed markings for designated tent sites to allow for social distancing (“In the Works – A Digital Journal” June). At the larger safe sleeping site locations, the department’s plumbers installed water spigots and its electricians hooked up charging stations for residents’ electronic devices (“In the Works – A Digital Journal” June). In addition, each site was furnished with ample restroom and hand-washing facilities. The Safe Sleeping Sites Program, alongside the Shelter-In-Place Hotel Program were major assets in the City’s fight against this deadly virus, especially in terms of minimizing its spread amongst its homeless population.  

About a year before the Navigation Center program launched, Public Works began another initiative aimed at addressing another issue facing San Francisco’s homeless population: the City’s severe lack of public restrooms. Public Works’ initiative to combat this problem, named the Pit Stop Program, “provides clean and safe public toilets, as well as used-needle receptacles and dog waste stations, in San Francisco's most impacted neighborhoods” (“San Francisco Pit Stop”). The program began in the Tenderloin in 2014 at three sites, sparked by a plea from neighborhood middle schoolers who were fed up with having to carefully navigate around human waste on their walk to school. Today, the Pit Stop operates at 48 sites in 13 neighborhoods. Just under half of these Pit Stop locations are JCDecaux stationary self-cleaning models, while 28 locations are mobile units that are custom built atop trailer chassis (“San Francisco Pit Stop”). Since its inception some seven years ago, there have been more than 1.5 million recorded uses across these 48 sites. This innovative and multifaceted program has received widespread acclaim and has been emulated by cities across the world. 

Public Works has jurisdiction over virtually all aspects of this program – from determining where each pit stop should be to working with partner organizations to fulfill staffing needs. Aside from providing San Franciscans with much-needed public restrooms, the Pit Stop program also entails a workforce development element, as each pit stop facility is staffed by paid attendants. Most of these attendants, whose job is to ensure that bathrooms are well maintained and used for their intended purpose, are people who are transitioning out of homelessness or incarceration (“San Francisco Pit Stop”). To fulfill these staffing needs, Public Works has partnered with four local community-based organizations - Civic, Urban Alchemy, Mission Neighborhood Centers and Hunters Point Families – which primarily focus their efforts on the City’s Black, Latinx and Pacific Islander populations (“San Francisco Pit Stop”). To date, the Pit Stop Program has coordinated well-paid, societally impactful employment for hundreds of people re-entering the workforce. The flip side of this high level of service, however, is that Pit Stop attendant positions are temporary, typically lasting no more than 18 months.  

Though the attendant position was designed to help facilitate a transition the full-time, permanent gainful employment, many attendants nearing the end of their 18 months have reportedly faced difficulties finding their next job and have expressed desire to continue working at a Pit Stop long term. Providing formerly homeless and formerly incarcerated people of color with transitional employment is commendable on its own, but it could be made all the more impactful if Public Works, its community partners and other city agencies like the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, put additional emphasis on finding long-term, gainful employment for these people. It seems as though the Pit Stop Program shares this critical shortcoming with the Navigation Center Program - the program is designed to serve a large number of people, but doing so forces the City to limit the extent of services it provides for each individual person participating in the program. 

Toward a more inclusive future: data-driven and community-based decision making 


When deciding how and where to apportion department resources and focus services like Pit Stops, Public Works tends to heavily rely on data collected through the City’s 311 system. The 311 system essentially acts as a way for members of the public to report non-emergency incidents like graffiti, impediments to the public right of way and illegal dumping, that require municipal attention from departments other than SFPD. San Francisco adopted this system in 2008, and since this time Public Works has used data from 311 reporting to determine which areas of the City need the most attention from our street cleaning, graffiti abatement and road repair crews. Taking such a data-driven approach to apportioning our services would, on its face, seem to eliminate or at least mitigate the service level discrepancies that have traditionally existed between areas with different economic and racial demographics. Since 311 is a public submission-based service, however, the cumulative data that it produces can take on the characteristic values and biases of those who use the service.

The potential for biases in 311 data, be they racial or economic in nature, has been widely studied by social scientists and academics over the past decade. Judging by a sampling of relevant studies, there seems to be little agreement on the extent to which data collected through 311 systems is biased along socioeconomic lines. To be sure, these studies focus on different cities and time periods, track different types of 311 calls and employ different methodologies, so they can only be used to approximate biases in San Francisco’s system. One study, which uses 311 data from San Francisco between 2011 and 2015, found that “no systematic biases exist in participation rates across a range of socio-economic indicators” (Clark and Brudney). Its authors also claimed that the existence of a 311 system, and cities’ proper use of such a system, creates a positive feedback loop wherein a wider and more diverse array of people will be inclined to use this service to address their needs (Clark and Brudney). A second study, focusing Kansas City, Missouri, had essentially the opposite findings. Its authors claimed that individual demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, civic engagement and political participation have a non-trivial effect on reporting behavior” (Kontokosta and Hong). A third, New York City-based study, largely corroborated the Kansas City study, its authors finding that ”under-reporting neighborhoods have a higher proportion of male residents, of unmarried population, and minority population; a higher unemployment rate; and more limited English speakers,” while over-reporting neighborhoods have ”higher rents and incomes and a higher proportion of female, elderly, and non-Hispanic White and Asian residents, with higher educational attainment” (Korsberg et al.). 

In an interview for this report, former acting Public Works director Alaric Degrafinried explained how Public Works utilizes 311 data. In its day-to-day operations, Degrafinried explained, the department responds to 311 calls as they come in, regardless of the neighborhood of the incident or demographics of the person reporting it. For longer-term policy and programmatic decisions, the Department’s various operations bureaus analyze the aggregate 311 data they receive, taking note of statistically significant trends that emerge in reporting demographics and factoring these trends into programmatic decision-making.  

There is, however, no substitute for deep, substantive communication and engagement with the communities we are empowered to serve. A prime example of this is the Community Clean Team program, one of Public Works’ longest-running and most popular initiatives. Community Clean Team, a monthly series of volunteer-driven neighborhood cleanup and beautification events, launched in 2001 and ran until February 2020, when it was temporarily put on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though staff from Public Works’ Community Programs Team, Bureaus of Urban Forestry and Bureau of Street Environmental Services plan coordinate and provide equipment for each Clean Team event, the program is truly a collaborative effort that has remained successful through its thorough and meaningful community involvement. 

Each year, Community Clean Team visits each of San Francisco’s 11 supervisorial districts and focuses its efforts on a variety of cleaning, greening and beautification tasks throughout that district’s public buildings, parks and the public rights of way. The specific work that will be performed in a given month – whether it be abating graffiti, planting trees, picking up trash or landscaping – is always decided through close collaboration between Public Works’ community engagement team and representatives from a variety of neighborhood groups, schools, religious groups and individual neighbors. This collaborative structure not only ensures that the work performed during the cleanup event will have a notable positive impact on the district, but gives neighbors a sense of ownership and control over the initiative as well, which in turn incentivizes more people to volunteer. The group of volunteers that Community Clean Team attracts reflects the City’s diversity. Each month, groups of volunteers from a variety of institutions including religious organizations, local schools, community-based organizations, private sector businesses contribute to the cause, along with families and individual volunteers. In its 20-year existence, Community Clean Team attracted tens of thousands volunteers who dedicated over 200,000 hours of their free time to help make their corner of San Francisco a bit cleaner, greener and safer. Though the program’s 20th anniversary was cut short due to COVID-19, Public Works continued to provide resources and equipment for smaller-scale, socially distanced community volunteer efforts throughout 2020 and 2021. Public Works anticipates re-launching Community Clean Team and other larger-scale community events sometime in early 2022. 

To complement recurring, citywide initiatives like Community Clean Team, Public Works also takes part in site and neighborhood-specific projects like the Glen Park Greenway, Ridge Lane and Esmeralda Slide Park that are spearheaded by members of the public. The story of Sisterhood Gardens in the OMI neighborhood serves as a prime example of this sort of partnership between City agencies and neighborhood groups.  This effort started in 2013, when community activists reached out to Public Works and their district supervisor to inquire about converting a then-vacant lot - that was owned by Public Works - along Brotherhood Way into a community garden (“Ingleside Excelsior Light”). Public Works, the Rec and Parks Department and then-District 11 Supervisor John Avalos along with nonprofits like the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the Chinese Progressive Association, joined together to engage a diverse group of community members in developing this lot for public use (“About - History”). Though each organization had an important role in the planning, design, funding and construction aspects of this project, Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) had a uniquely important responsibility. As the primary convener, CPA spearheaded outreach to the diverse residents of this historically Black neighborhood that is now also home to young white families, largely mono-lingual Chinese American elders and others.  

Between 2014 and 2016, representatives from Public Works and community organizers from CPA hosted a series of multi-lingual community meetings to develop the garden design and discuss possible uses. Public Works landscape architects took these suggestions and created a series of design proposals, which they then took back to the community for feedback. 

After a few rounds of design review, OMI neighbors landed on a community garden design that included individual plots as well as community open area to be used for skill sharing and workshops. Most importantly, Sisterhood Gardens was created as a community gathering space. Throughout the planning process, many OMI residents lamented their neighborhood’s lack of public space where people could congregate, socialize and build community bonds. Once the design was finalized and construction began, the collaboration between Public Works, CPA and the OMI community carried on. A crew from the department’s cement shop constructed a concrete pathway that allowed easy travel between planter boxes, as well as a stairway connecting Brotherhood Way to Ramsell Street (“Ingleside Excelsior Light”). The construction of these planter boxes themselves, which were all ADA compliant, was led by community members with some assistance from city workers (“Ingleside Excelsior Light”). After just about two years of construction, Sisterhood Gardens was officially completed and opened to the community on April 21, 2018 (“In the Works – A Digital Journal” April). In the years since, it has become a hub of activity, education and camaraderie for neighbors of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. It remains a decidedly active space, with frequent volunteer building and garden maintenance events that sustain the community’s engagement with and ownership of this special space.  

The story of Sisterhood Gardens exemplifies what can be accomplished when all community members are equally empowered and meaningfully included in the design, construction and stewardship of local public spaces. Had this process been carried out in the traditional top-down fashion, the vacant lot along Brotherhood Way could have been repurposed into something of little use or interest to its neighbors. It would also be unlikely that neighbors would be as active and consistent in their involvement with the space’s maintenance and ongoing growth post-construction. This project, despite its relatively small scope, signals how far Public Works has come in terms of meaningfully including everyday San Franciscans in the project design and public space use decision-making processes since the days of Hetch Hetchy and Redevelopment. It is through this process that Public Works can help craft San Francisco’s public spaces in the vision of all its residents, no matter their race, age or gender. 

One of Public Works’ most recent incidents related to racial equity occurred over the summer of 2020, in the shadow of the racial justice uprising that occurred across the U.S. in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. . During this tumultuous period, a handful of murals, banners and pieces of street art supporting police reform, justice for the victims of police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement were erected across San Francisco. Since many of these public art pieces were along public rights of way, they came under Public Works’ jurisdiction, putting the Department in a position reminiscent of the 1976 International Hotel banner controversy. In this case, however, it was neighbors, rather than a single property owner, that issued complaints about these public art pieces and graffiti, claiming that they contained controversial, anti-police messages. Despite these complaints, Public Works kept most of these murals and banners up, a decision that Degrafinried, who was Public Works’ director at the time, explained as being rooted in the Department’s policy to only remove hate speech or profanity. Going forward, the department hopes to formally establish standards for public mural regulation, integrating community input into the process while preserving the right to free speech and sticking with the department’s current rules against hate speech. As Public Works continues its path to become a more racially equitable department in both its internal and external operations, it must remain responsive to a San Francisco populace that is similarly prioritizing racial equity. 



As San Francisco, and indeed the entire world, faces an uncertain future marked by metastasizing climate crises, widening economic inequality and an ongoing fight for racial justice, it is more important than ever for municipal agencies like Public Works to reckon with their past in hopes of preparing for the future. This report, and the Department’s Racial Equity Action Plan as a whole, is intended to begin that process by recounting a series of pivotal moments in the Department’s history – both negative and positive. To this end, we present these specific historical examples for two primary reasons: they are some of the most momentous policy programs in San Francisco’s history, and they exemplify the variety of ways that Public Works’ different bureaus, with their various functions, interact with and impact the public. Public Works’ wide range of responsibilities, which include contracting, permitting, construction management, infrastructure design and maintenance and street cleaning, impact the public in myriad ways, a reality that necessitates a thorough and thoughtful analysis. It is our hope that this report has fulfilled that goal. 

There are, of course, dozens of other policies, events and time periods that warrant exploration and analysis through a racial equity lens (but due to time and resource limitations must be revisited at a later date). Among these events is the Redevelopment projects that took place in neighborhoods other than the Fillmore and Western Addition – places like Yerba Buena, South of Market, Visitacion Valley and the Golden Gateway. Programs and policies outlined earlier in this report did not only transform the built environment and cause the displacement of thousands of people of color in the Western Addition, but in these neighborhoods as well. Further, it would be instructive to take a deeper look at the role that private developers and real estate financiers played in these city-altering transformations. The Blythe Zellerbach Committee is but one example of the all-too-common practice of wealthy private interests exerting outsized influence over San Francisco’s city planning and land use decision- making. The fact that these are indeed private entities, however, makes researching their plans, motivations and histories considerably more difficult than performing similar research on public entities like the PWA or SFRA. 

The San Francisco Police Department has quietly played a significant role in the history of Public Works, and in this report on racial equity as well. From removing the banner hung outside the International Hotel to clearing out homeless encampments, the SFPD frequently call upon Public Works to perform a variety of functions that lay outside police jurisdiction. This relationship is likely much deeper and the departments more intertwined than was discussed in this report, and a more thorough analysis of it would benefit Public Works’ racial equity efforts. Understanding the nuances of this relationship, especially where Public Works’ autonomy lies in complying with or defying actions the SFPD asks Public Works crews to perform, is an important step in this process.  

This report’s most glaring omission, and the one that deserves the most future research, is the lack of discussion about how Public Works’ policies and programs have impacted San Francisco’s Latinx, Chinese and Japanese populations. These groups make up a large portion of San Francisco’s population since its beginning and remain a vital part of the City’s cultural fabric. To maintain these communities’ vitality and avoid mass displacement, it is important to revisit their histories and examine how Public Works’ policies and programs have traditionally impacted them. 

In the decades outlined in this report, Public Works and the City Government more generally have gradually adopted a more transparent and community-based approach to programmatic decision making. An early example of this shift was the extensive community outreach and education programs conducted during the A-2 phase of redevelopment in the Western Addition. While this approach, with its utilization of public meetings, surveys, workshops and hearings, is undoubtedly an improvement over the overtly hierarchical and undemocratic decision-making processes that characterized the first half of the 20th century, it is not without its own flaws. We must remain aware of the limitations many San Franciscans face in terms of their ability to attend public meetings or get involved with local politics. Many people, especially those with family responsibilities, multiple jobs, limited mobility, or unreliable internet access, may be excluded from these discussions. What’s more, those who tend to be most closely involved in local politics’ minutiae also tend to be older, whiter and wealthier, and do not necessarily represent the views and desires of all members of a given community. The Department’s current, data-driven approach to apportioning its resources and deciding where to focus its programs also holds some promise for improving racial equity. But, as was previously discussed, there remains the possibility of racial bias even within these systems, especially complaint-driven ones like 311. For these processes and systems to fulfill their potential, Public Works must continue to not take their data at face value, and consistently subject it to thorough analysis and discussion to mitigate bias and ensure equal treatment across neighborhood and demographic lines. 

The dominant theme of this report, and the question it ultimately hopes to pose to city leadership, is how can Public Works be more proactive in promoting racial equity in its policies and programs? Conversely, how can Public Works resist racially inequitable policies that it is charged with enforcing? We first need to ask ourselves and determine where Public Works’ autonomy lies in defying actions that the Department, or individual members within it, consider racially inequitable, but are nonetheless directed or obligated to perform. As this report has discussed, Public Works’ historic role in the City hierarchy beneath both the Mayor and City Administrator has led to its compliance with and performance of policies in the past that have routinely been found to negatively impact the City’s (and sometime the state’s) communities of color. Prominent examples of this dynamic discussed in this report include the planning and construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam over ancestral Miwok lands, enforcing racially biased building codes that led to the widespread dispossession of Black-owned land in the Western Addition and contributing to the City’s criminalization of homelessness by confiscating personal property from a population that is largely Black and Latinx. Navigating this dynamic will be a difficult process, but a necessary one if Public Works is to become a department that thoroughly and consistently prioritizes racial equity in all its policies and programs. 


To strive for a more racially equitable Public Works, what we as an entire department must do – from the Director on down to rank-and-file roles like public information officers, arborists and street sweeper operators - is constantly think critically and reflect upon how the work we perform impacts all San Franciscans, especially those who are largely voiceless. Even more importantly, we must not be afraid to speak out and advocate for change when things seem racially biased or particularly damaging to a subset of the San Francisco community. We may not have total control over the policies that we are obligated to perform on paper - that is largely the territory of the Mayor, City Administrator and Board of Supervisors. What is within our control, however, is the ability to be vocal and honest about what we see and experience while we are on the job enacting these policies. Oftentimes, repressive and inequitable status quos are overlooked or purposely obfuscated, and overturning them begins with bringing their injustices to light. 


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