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A Digital Journal - San Francisco Public Works

In the Works

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October 2023

A Public Works-led project to rehabilitate a stairway on the slopes of Russian Hill has crews watching out for tombstones, caskets and even human remains – possible remnants of a buried chapter of San Francisco history.


Make No Bones About It: San Francisco History Runs Deep

When you dig in a city as old as San Francisco, there are often bound to be some surprises. 

A Monster of a Problem

To celebrate Halloween this year, we’re sharing a campaign that we created in 2019 with students from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) to address a monstrous problem in San Francisco: illegal dumping.

Answering the Call for 911 Center Upgrades 

An unassuming building on Turk Street – tucked away behind a soccer pitch, tennis courts and basketball hoops – is home to a government nerve center that never sleeps.


The West of Twin Peaks neighborhoods got a lot of love from community volunteers and Public Works crews who joined together for this month’s Love Our City: Neighborhood Beautification Day.

No Alligators in This Moat

The City’s Main Library is protected by a moat – not to keep intruders away but to protect the building against the potentially devastating shaking of an earthquake.

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SF History
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1910. Ruins in Masonic Cemetery. Woman walking past marker of Sarah Baker.

Make No Bones About It:
San Francisco History Runs Deep

When you dig in a city as old as San Francisco, there are often bound to be some surprises.

Sometimes you might come across a forgotten storage tank or a mothballed sewer pipe. Other times you may unearth artifacts from a bygone era: pieces of a 19th century industrial sewing machine or remnants of a saloon and sailor’s boarding home.

And in the case of a Public Works-led project to rehabilitate a staircase nearly a century old on a Russian Hill slope, you may have to watch out for tombstones, caskets or even human remains.

The stairway, built in 1926, connects Broadway and Florence Street.

The Planning Department informed the Public Works project team that the staircase location was in the vicinity of an old cemetery and archeological monitoring would be required. If anything was found, work would have to stop immediately.  The directive: “Don't disturb it and just notify them and then they will come out and take a look at it,” said Anastastia Haddad, a Public Works engineer who is managing the project.

In a city rich with history, the area surrounding the 70-foot stairway – located at Broadway and Florence Street – is teeming with remnants from the past.

Russian Hill, a charming, view-packed neighborhood north of Nob Hill, was named in honor of the early Russian colony and burial ground on its slopes.


Russian Hill, 1865.

A metal plaque at the end of Vallejo Street, just a few hundred feet from the stairway, states that it was named for the graves of several sailors of the “Russian-American Company.” The sailors died here in the early 1840s, according to the plaque. Placement of the plaque was initiated by the United Humanitarian Mission and supported by the government of the Russian Federation.


A plaque near the stairway tells the story of the Russian Hill gravesite. 

“During the Gold Rush, the 49ers found their graves, marked by wooden crosses, at the top of this hill and added graves of their own,” the plaque states. “The graves were removed or built over during the 1850s.”

Research from Planning Department staff shows that the Russian Hill burial ground was in use from 1823 to the 1840s and that there were at least six Russian burials – and later 20 to 40 non-Russian burials. Although historical sources indicate that the burial ground is a couple hundred feet north of the stairway project site, because the exact location is unknown, there’s still a chance human remains could be found during the rehabilitation work. 

The stairway itself was built in October 1926. Next to it stands the Atkinson House, a City landmark built in 1853 and thought to be one of the oldest standing houses in San Francisco.

Work on the stairway project began Sept. 1, and by late October – with crews digging into the hillside to make way for new concrete piers that will reinforce the stairway’s ailing retaining walls – nothing unusual had surfaced.

“I secretly hope that we find something just because that would just be so cool,” Haddad said. 

San Franciso's old cemeteries became

‘havens for pranksters, juvenile delinquents, and ghouls’

– 1950 Department of City Planning report

The Russian Hill cemetery was one of many graveyards that once dotted San Francisco. When the City’s population began to grow and more space was needed for housing, businesses, government buildings, parks and other trappings of an urban environment, San Francisco began outsourcing its burial needs to Colma – a town of about 1,500 souls, just a couple miles south of the City’s borders – in the boom years after the Gold Rush. 

In a developing city perched atop a peninsula, land simply became too valuable to cede to the dead. 


Unidentified cemetery, 1937.

“As early as 1880, the cry, “Remove the Cemeteries,” began to be heard in San Francisco, spearheaded by owners of residential property (often right across the street from cemeteries, or with back yards abutting them), and those who thought the cemeteries’ presence discouraged settlement of nearby subdivisions,” William Proctor wrote in a 1950 report for the Department of City Planning.

“Many of the cemetery lots were sold with no perpetual-care arrangements, and graves, markers, picket-fences, monuments and cemetery grounds deteriorated, became weed-filled and, despite efforts to establish adequate police and watchman guard, became havens for pranksters, juvenile delinquents, and ghouls. Some were anxious to subdivide and develop the 160 or so acres of land involved,” Proctor wrote.

And so, at the turn of the 20th century with most existing graveyards in the City nearly filled up, San Franciso banned any new burials. Eventually, only the so-called “Big Four” cemeteries in the Richmond District were left: Odd Fellows Cemetery and Masonic Cemetery (originally fraternal organizations, but their successors were nonprofits), Laurel Hill Cemetery (a nonprofit) and Calvary Cemetery (a Catholic cemetery administered as a part of the property of the Archdiocese of San Francisco).


 Top two photos: Laurel Hill Cemetery. Bottom: Calvary Cemetery cleared for redevelopment.

With City lawmakers also prohibiting the sale of cemetery lots in those four cemeteries, the Richmond graveyards continued to deteriorate – encouraging more vandalism and mischief – while the “Big Four” established alternate cemetery properties in Colma, which was initially named Lawndale.

“In the years that followed, time, weather and vandals assumed control,” a 1939 San Francisco News newspaper article states. “Weeds choked the gravel paths, over-ran the graves. Tombstones fell. Monuments, such as brooding angels, became bedraggled – wings, arms, and legs fell off.”

By the 1910s, a groundswell of opposition to the cemeteries began to form among Richmond residents who wanted them removed, viewing the graveyards as health risks, eyesores and obstacles to community progress. But cemetery associations were generally opposed to wholesale relocations.

Nonetheless, over the next few decades, amid newly passed legislation and protracted court battles, most cemeteries closed – one after the other – and coffins, skeletons and other remains were dug up and transferred to the City's own town-sized necropolis.

“Disinterring was done carefully, by hand labor, at Calvary and remains placed in redwood boxes of varying sizes, depending on whether they consisted of ‘dust,’ skeletons, or well-preserved remains,” Proctor wrote. 

The entire removal program for Calvary and Laurel Hill involved more than 90,000 bodies, mostly buried between 1860 and 1900, according to Proctor’s report. In some cases, crews found almost perfectly embalmed bodies due to groundwater filling cast-iron caskets and acting as a preservative. 

A 1937 ordinance that required the removal of Laurel Hill and Calvary cemeteries also specified that grave markers, headstones and monuments should remain for a period of 90 days after bodies were removed so that interested parties could make proper arrangements.

“Unclaimed headstones and monuments were turned over to the City and County Department of Public Works, which hauled them away in its own trucks for use in making sea-walls at Aquatic Park, and at the municipal yacht harbor,” Proctor wrote.


A tombstone uncovered by wind and erosion on Ocean Beach.

Tombstones – or parts of them – were used to build a seawall along the Great Highway, to line the gutters of Buena Vista Park or as landfill.

Reminders and remnants of San Francisco’s buried still turn up from time to time.

During the construction of the Transbay Transit Center in 2014, crews discovered human remains of an indigeneous person that date back about 7,500 years – at the time the oldest human remains ever discovered within city limits.

New developments were often stacked on top former burial sites. 

10a310a89db0f681f2_Cemetery at the Mission Francis de Asis (Dolores), San Francisco, ca.18

At the San Francisco Mission Francis de Asis, also known as Mission Dolores, thousands of Native Americans were buried. 1865.

In a recently published book, titled “San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries,” author and journalist Beth Winegarner estimates that 50,000 to 60,000 burials “were quietly built over and forgotten, only to resurface every time a new building project began.” Those dead still lie beneath some of the City's most cherished destinations, according to Winegarner, including the Legion of Honor, United Nations Plaza, the Asian Art Museum and the University of San Francisco.

The land at present-day Civic Center, for instance, used to be home to Yerba Buena Cemetery, which was abandoned in 1860, according to Proctor’s 1950 report. Bodies buried there were removed and much of the land sold off for commercial frontage on Market Street, he wrote.

Hundreds of shellmounds – human-made structures used by people native to the Bay Area as ceremonial places and burial sites – once dotted the region. And as many as 20,000 people are estimated to be buried beneath the Lincoln Park Golf Course, site of the former City Cemetery – at one point the largest burial ground for immigrants and the poor in the City. Many of the buried were Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans.


Human remains were found during a seismic retrofitting of the Legion of Honor. 1990s.

From leather shoes to rosaries,

how to spot cemetery artifacts

For Haddad and her crews working on the Florence Street Stairs project, there is a three-step process if they discover bones they may think are human:

  1. Immediately notify the City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

  2. Promptly contact the Planning Department’s Environmental Review Officer.

  3. Stop excavation work within the vicinity of the discovery until the Medical Examiner and Environmental Review Officer have evaluated the find. That usually happens the same day or within 24 hours.

Because it can be hard to recognize human remains or cemetery artifacts, some of the objects crews are being asked to look out for include tombstone fragments (usually marble or granite), wood coffins (often in rows, recognizable by dark staining in a box shape), metal coffins, coffin handles and metal decorations, curbing around graves, brick foundations of mortuary structures, leather shoes and fragments of clothing and objects with religious symbols, such as rosaries.

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Images of common cemetery artifacts.

The stairway project itself is sorely needed. The stairway’s walls facing Broadway have severe cracks, stretching from the steps to the top of the walls. A metal plate was bolted across a section of the wall that had split, representing a makeshift attempt to keep it from toppling. It’s unclear who made the jury-rigged fix. The steep hillside and a red flowering gum tree have been pushing up against the two walls for years, likely causing the fissures over time.


A metal plate was bolted across a crack in the retaining wall.

Four concrete piers, two for each wall, will help support two new walls, which will be built flush against the existing walls. The piers will have steel reinforcements inside to lend additional stability.

 The steep terrain at the project site means crews have to dig by hand.

To make way for the piers, crews have to dig 25 feet into the ground by hand, removing rocks and boulders with the help of power tools. Once they dig the rectangular holes, they use wooden panels to stabilize the openings before concrete is poured.

Public Works is overseeing design, public affairs and construction management. A contractor has been hired to handle construction. The project is expected to be completed by December.

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This gallery features all the posters from our monstrous illegal dumping campaign.

A Monster
of a Problem

To celebrate Halloween this year, we’re sharing a campaign that we created in 2019 with students from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) to address a monstrous problem in San Francisco: illegal dumping.

Every year, Public Works and Recology, the private refuse company, pick up millions of pounds of illegally dumped trash. In 2022, the City received more than 200,000 abandoned waste complaints. That’s a four-fold increase from 2012.

Despite devoting more resources to cleaning up and increasing punitive measures against dumpers, the vexing nuisance persists. 

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A Chinese translation of the poster for Boxzilla, the monster made of illegally dumped cardboard

that menaces Chinatown.

The public awareness campaign aims to draw attention to five neighborhoods where illegal dumping is most problematic: Chinatown, the Mission, the Tenderloin, the Excelsior and the Bayview. The student designers created a distinct poster for each neighborhood, featuring an illegal dumping “monster” that symbolized specific challenges in the respective areas.

For example, Chinatown’s monster, “Boxzilla,” highlights the problem that abandoned cardboard causes when dumped on sidewalks and in alleyways. The “Dumper of Doom” is a grotesque Godzilla-like manifestation of the sometimes-shocking amounts of construction waste in the Bayview, where dumpers can operate under the clandestine cover of the night in quiet, dark industrial streets with very little traffic.


The monster campaign, still relevant four years later, represents a creative and unique approach to bring attention to an intractable issue. Over a semester, more than a dozen FIDM students from the now-closed San Francisco campus worked with their instructor to create the designs as an assignment for a marketing class. The intent: Give students real-world experience collaborating with local government to address a civic challenge. 


A jaw-dropping illegal dumping mess our crews were called in to clean up.

The goal of the public awareness campaign wasn’t to scare people but to inform residents and businesses of ways to dispose of their unwanted materials properly and avoid fines of up to $1,000.

It is illegal to leave furniture, appliances, garbage bags or anything on the sidewalk at any time unless you have a scheduled pickup from a licensed hauler or donation facility or are part of a sanctioned cleanup event. 

There are quick, convenient and easy ways to get rid of your old junk and properly dispose of waste:

Recology provides residential customers two curbside Bulky Item Recycling collections per year at no additional charge, and each unit in a multi-family building is eligible to receive one free curbside collection annually. Additional collections are offered for a nominal fee. Call 415-330-1300 or visit the Recology website to schedule your appointment.

Visit SF Environment’s website to learn more about how to properly get rid of your unwanted goods. You can also report illegal dumping by contacting the City’s 311 customer service center.

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911 Call Center

Crews working on the 911 Call Center renovations had to take extra care not to disturb dispatchers working on the floor below.

Answering the Call for
911 Center Upgrades 

An unassuming building on Turk Street – tucked away behind a soccer pitch, tennis courts and basketball hoops – is home to a government nerve center that never sleeps.

An around-the-clock operation, the City’s 911 Call Center, houses dozens of dispatchers who field thousands of emergency calls each day and relay information to San Francisco’s first responders and public safety personnel.   

With more than 800,000 residents, San Francisco has long relied on its cadre of emergency call-takers to connect those in need with those there to help. But a changing world means the call center is due for upgrades.


Over the years, call volumes have gone up and technology has evolved. New initiatives to meet today’s challenges, such as the Street Crisis Response Team, have been launched, adding to the roster of City agencies – beyond police, fire and paramedics – the dispatchers interact with daily.


The 911 Call Center is located on Turk Street near the Margaret S. Hayward Playground. 

“You need a space that is flexible and that allows you to add the new technology as it comes on board,” said Rachel Emanuel, service delivery and project management office manager for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, which runs the 911 operation. For example, she said, the dispatchers need bigger consoles, or workstations, and the center needs more space to accommodate more dispatchers.

A Public Works-led, bond-funded $9 million renovation of the call center’s second floor is underway to add capacity, increasing the number of dispatcher consoles, from 50 to 55, with the ability to up that number to 58 in the future, if needed. Public Works handled the project from planning through design, bidding and construction. 

"We’re strategically finding ways to help them increase the floor space within the existing building,” said Lisa Zhuo, who manages the project for the Public Works Building Design and Construction division.

In addition to making the operations floor work and flow more efficiently, crews are upgrading the underlying IT infrastructure and constructing a new raised supervisors’ bridge in the center of the spacious room to improve sightlines between managers and dispatchers.

“This will also increase efficiencies of the call center operation,” Zhuo said.


A network of wires runs beneath the 911 Center flooring.

Dispatchers also will have a new designated locker room and improved training consoles. They’ll enjoy a brighter, cleaner workspace with high ceilings, new equipment and top-of-the-range workstations. 

The improvements will make for an all-around better work environment, said Lorrie Serna, a 911 operations project manager and former dispatcher. The hope is the upgrades and renovations will also act as a recruiting tool to hire more dispatchers.  
“We don't have remote work for our dispatchers,” Serna said. “So giving them a comfortable workstation that’s very functional and spacious for their equipment to sit at for eight to 10 to 12 hours a day – that’s what they’re gaining.”

But overhauling a 24/7 operation at 1011 Turk St. is not without its challenges, especially when it comes to logistics.


The project was designed to make the most use of the floor space within the existing building.

First, the dispatchers had to be moved from the second floor to the first floor into a much smaller space while the renovations are happening. Then crews had to figure out how to get construction materials and tools to the second floor without being able to use the building’s only elevator or the main entrance – both of which would’ve impacted dispatch operations. 

The out-of-the-box solution: Crews cut out a part of the metal railing on the second-floor balcony and used a telescoping forklift to bring equipment in and haul debris out. Later they welded the railing back into place.

And all throughout, crews had to be mindful to not impact dispatchers who are handling calls that require laser-focused attention. Sometimes that meant working odd hours to keep noise impacts to a minimum. “If it gets too loud and noisy, it affects the dispatcher’s ability to listen to calls,” Zhuo said.

When crews had to drill into the concrete floor to install anchors for steel posts, for instance, they had to do so between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. because call volumes are lower during those times. Other times Zhuo and her team had to ask the contractor to be at the job site from midnight to 7 a.m. to X-ray the floor so they could safely core through the concrete for cabling to be fed through to the first floor. (X-raying allows crews to identify existing electrical conduits and rebar in the floor.)


A crewmember works on a lighting fixture. 

“It’s always challenging to work in a building that’s operational,” said Kapone Molina, general superintendent for Buhler Commercial Construction, the contractor on the project.   

Still, crews passed the test with flying colors. By late October, Molina and his team were painting the space, finishing up drywall work and conducting fire sprinkler and electrical inspections. Work on the project started in January of this year and is expected to wrap up in January of next year.

Public Works’ Bureau of Building and Street Repair also pitched in, Zhuo said, deploying electricians and other trade workers to assist with tasks outside the contractor’s scope. “I think it’s another example of collaboration between different teams,” she said.

The project is funded via the Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response bond program, also known as ESER. Voters in 2010, 2014 and 2020 passed ESER bonds to pay for seismic improvements and upgrades to City-owned public safety facilities – from revamping aging police stations to building cisterns for the City’s emergency firefighting water network. 

The renovations at the 911 Call Center are paid for with money from ESER 2020 and are bound to improve the day-to-day work conditions for some of the City’s unsung heroes. 

“There’s some real dedicated people who are very proud of what they do,” said Serna, the 911 project operations manager. “They understand the importance of what they do every day and it’s tough work. And they’re doing it all the time.”

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Love Our City

Volunteers, working alongside a Public Works landscape gardener, spruce up Balceta Triangle.


The West of Twin Peaks neighborhoods got a lot of love from community volunteers and Public Works crews who joined together for this month’s Love Our City: Neighborhood Beautification Day, with enthusiastic teams planting trees, weeding and mulching public spaces and removing graffiti.

Supervisor Myrna Melgar helped kick off the Oct. 21 event with a brief rally at West Portal Elementary School before folks headed to their worksites in West Portal and surrounding neighborhoods.

Love Our City: Neighborhood Beautification Day is a monthly event that involves residents, merchants, community groups, schools and City staff to spruce up our wonderful neighborhoods and bolster civic pride. We focus on a different supervisorial district every month.


New trees take root at the volunteer workday.

We’ll be wrapping up the 2023 season next month on Saturday, Nov. 4, in NoPa, Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow and other District 2 neighborhoods. The day will get started at Sherman Elementary School, 1660 Green St. at 9 a.m.

We hope to see you there!


A volunteer scoops up green waste and litter along Junipero Serra Boulevard.

For more information and to register, click here or visit to learn more about our volunteer programs.

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Library Moat

Our Bureau of Building and Street Repair crew access the underground quake-absorbing moat that encircles the Main Library.

No Alligators in This Moat

The City’s Main Library is protected by a moat – not to keep intruders away but to protect the building against the potentially devastating shaking of an earthquake.

The San Francisco Public Library has been awarded a $6.3 million Building Forward grant from the California State Library. The money will help fund critical repairs and seismic upgrades to help ensure the safety and preservation of the Main Library's valuable collections and to increase the likelihood that the library can remain open and accessible after a major earthquake.

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The seismic moat runs adjacent to the Main Library.

Part of the grant funding will be used to upgrade the building’s seismic moat – a design element that allows a structure to move side to side and, as a result, protects it from the full force and jolt of an earthquake. The underground moat encircles the entire building.

The San Francisco Public Library has brought in the Public Works capital team to collaborate with the original manufacturer of the moat system to design a method for its replacement that will increase the ability to access the facility after an earthquake. 

“The Main Library stands as a treasured institution that houses an amazing trove of information and serves as a community hub,” said interim Public Works Director Carla Short. “With San Francisco’s strong and longstanding dedication to bolstering the seismic resiliency of our civic structures, this grant will help us maintain our earthquake safety standards.”

The 27-year-old Main Library is a significant landmark in San Francisco's Civic Center. Designed by James Ingo Freed of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (New York) and Cathy Simon of Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein & Morris (San Francisco), the 376,000-square-foot facility offers twice as much usable space as its predecessor, which is now home to the Asian Art Museum.  

Thanks for reading!

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