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Inspecting Our Foundation

A Reexamination of Public Works' History Through a Racial Equity Lens

For more than 120 years, San Francisco Public Works has played a crucial role in the growth, maintenance and regulation of the City’s streets, public buildings and built environment. While its jurisdiction and policy mandate have changed over the years, the importance of its role as a steward of the public right of way has only grown.


Public Works designs and manages construction of public buildings, playgrounds, plazas and infrastructure projects, manages the urban forest and works to ensure the cleanliness and safety of the City’s streets and sidewalks.

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.


Historically, Public Works’ projects and policies have had a 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 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 Public Works history that have disproportionately impacted and at times harmed the City’s communities of color.

1901 - 1934                   Water for San Francisco, Destruction for the Miwok

1933 - 1939                   The New Deal's Influence on San Francisco's Workforce Diversity

1944 - 1960                   The Removal of Public Transport without Public Consent

1949                               Urban Renewal Means Community Removal

1960s - 1970s                Public Works Plays Pivotal Role in Struggle Over International Hotel

1981 - today                  Interaction with the Unhoused

1984 - today                  The Long Struggle for Equity in City Contracting

1840s - 1990s                Overturning a History of Neglect in Chinatown

2020                               City Investigation Brings Decades of Discrimination to Light

2021                               Displays of Protest and Political Speech in the Public Right of Way

Today                             Growing San Francisco's Urban Forest for Everyone



1901 - 1934

Water for San Francisco, Destruction for the Miwok

The California Gold Rush brought a population boom to San Francisco and a need to build an infrastructure that could accomodate it. In the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, that need became an economic and political priority for San Francisco's leaders – including securing a reliable water source for the rapidly growing city. 

The City considered many potential reservoir locations throughout Northern California, with Public Works providing surveying and engineering consultation. 


After decades of intense debate and power struggles, the Hetch Hetchy Valley, located about 200 miles from San Francisco and part of Yosemite National Park, was chosen as the ideal source of the City’s water.


Once the site was chosen, Public Works oversaw the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam and a system of aqueducts that connected it to San Francisco. 

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Photos: San Francisco Public Library

Photos: San Francisco Public Library

While the project was successful in providing water to the residents of San Francisco, it had a devastating impact on the lives of the Ahwahnechee and Tuolumne peoples of the Sierra Miwok tribes, inhabitants of this land for thousands of years. Once the heart of their cultural, ancestral and communal life, the valley was flooded to create the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.


Photo: Sierra College


Miwok Tribe members Callipene and Lena Brown in 1901

Photo: National Park Service

1933 - 1939


The New Deal's Influence
on San Francisco's Workforce Diversity

The Great Depression, which began in 1929 with a stock market crash, shattered the global economy and left tens of millions of people unemployed. In response to this unprecedented crisis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a series of economic reforms called the New Deal.


The unemployed line up for a meal on Ritch and Clara streets.

Photo: Open History SF

A key piece of New Deal legislation was the National Recovery Act of 1933, which established the Public Works Administration (PWA). The PWA provided money for public construction and infrastructure projects to be carried out in the open market by private firms. 


Over the next decade, Public Works awarded and administered contracts for dozens of PWA-funded projects throughout San Francisco, including sewer improvement projects, updates to the auxiliary water supply system, boulevard construction and street repaving.


Construction of the University Mound Reservoir, which was part of a $12,000,000 improvement program for the PWA-funded expansion of the Hetch Hetchy system.


Photo: Western Construction News August 1937

What made the PWA’s system truly innovative, however, was its programmatic focus on promoting racial equity.

From its onset, the PWA implemented hiring quotas for all projects it funded to ensure that minority (especially Black) workers had access to work opportunities. This action became a model for subsequent equal opportunity efforts, including many that the City of San Francisco currently has in place such as minority and women-owned contracting quotas and local hiring ordinances.  


1944 - 1960


Municipal Railway Streetcar Removal 

Between 1944 and 1960, the San Francisco Municipal Railway (the precursor to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) undertook a major restructuring of the City's transportation system. The transit agency enlisted the help of Public Works to manage the removal of a vast majority of the City's streetcar rails so the streets could be paved over to prioritize buses and private vehicles.

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Traxcavator Removing Streetcar Track at 9th Street with L Taraval Streetcar Passing on Market Street | April 12, 1948


Photo: Marshall Moxom, Municipal Railway Photographer | SFMTA Photo Archive

This initiative prioritized the desires of those who could afford to own cars at the expense of those who could not. Those who could not afford cars were also more likely to be people of color, as evidenced by the overall wealth and income disparities that existed then and persist today. By 1960, Public Works, at the direction of Muni, had dismantled 116 miles of streetcar rails across the City, many of them located in the Fillmore and Western Addition redevelopment areas. 

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Removal of outer streetcar tracks on Market Street near 3rd Street | May 5, 1949


Photo: Marshall Moxom, Municipal Railway Photographer | SFMTA Photo Archive



Urban Renewal Means Community Removal

In 1949, the Federal Housing Act was enacted, which aimed to empower and provide funding for cities to redevelop areas considered to be “blighted” or “slums.” This set off a process known as “redevelopment” or “urban renewal,” which would fundamentally alter the character and demographics of many of the nation’s urban communities of color. 


Fillmore and Western Addition neighborhoods

A map drawn more than 80 years ago indicates the San Francisco residential zones that are "best" in green, "still desirable" in blue, "definitely declining" in yellow, and "hazardous" in red. 

From the Home Owners' Loan Corporation guide (1937):

"Green areas are 'hot spots'; they are not yet fully built up. They are homogeneous; in demand as residential locations in 'good time' or 'bad'; hence 'on the upgrade.'

"Blue areas, as a rule, are completely developed. They are like a 1935 automobile still good, but not what the people are buying today who can afford a new one."

"Yellow areas are characterized by age, obsolescence, and change of style; expiring restrictions or lack of them; infiltration of a lower grade population; the presence of influences which increase sales resistance such as inadequate transportation, insufficient utilities, perhaps heavy tax burdens, poor maintenance of homes, etc. 'Jerry' built areas are included, as well as neighborhoods lacking homogeneity."

"Red areas represent those neighborhoods in which the things that are now taking place in the Yellow neighborhoods have already happened. They are characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or infiltration of it. Unstable incomes of the people and difficult collections are usually prevalent."


In San Francisco, redevelopment projects occurred in many neighborhoods, but were most impactful in the Fillmore and Western Addition, which at that time had the City’s largest Black and Japanese populations. 


Redevelopment site in the Western Addition

Photo: San Francisco Public Library

Through its Urban Renewal Division, Public Works conducted thousands of building inspections on behalf of the Redevelopment Agency in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but with unequal distribution.

The first step of the redevelopment process was to inspect the building quality and living conditions in target areas. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency was the first municipal department to conduct these inspections, but they soon solicited the services of the Public Works Bureau of Building Inspection to expedite and ramp up the process.

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Redevelopment site iat Geary and Fillmore.

Photo: San Francisco Public Library

While neighborhoods with large Black, Latinx and Asian-American Pacific Islander populations like the Western Addition and the Fillmore were subject to widespread building condemnation and demolition, the City’s efforts in whiter, more affluent areas focused on building conservation.    

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Redevelopment site in the Western Addition, 1970.

Photo: San Francisco Public Library

1960s - 1970s


Public Works Plays Pivotal Role
in Struggle Over International Hotel

Located along ten blocks of Kearny Street, San Francisco’s Manliatown neighborhood was home to some 30,000 Filipinos and served as the cultural and economic hub for the City’s Filipino community. At the geographic and spiritual heart of Manliatown stood the International Hotel, a residential hotel that housed roughly 200 working-class, predominantly elderly Filipinos. 


By the late 1960s, the owner of the hotel had begun pursuing plans to demolish and replace it with a parking structure, which would inevitably destroy a beloved community gathering space while displacing its residents and leaving them without adequate replacement housing. 

Public Works, which at the time oversaw building permits, allowed the demolition to proceed through the administrative process. Despite strong community opposition, the International Hotel eventually was razed in 1979. 


Officers, fully dressed in riot gear and armed with clubs and sledgehammers face off against protestors defending the International Hotel. 

1981 - today


Interaction with the Unhoused

For the last half-century, homelessness has been San Francisco’s most intractable problem, vexing generations of policymakers, activists and voters.


Jan. 28, 1986 Mayor Dianne Feinstein and members of her administration, above, walk through a encampment slated for dismantling near Seventh and Berry streets. 


Photo: Steve Ringman, The Chronicle

In addition to being a public health, safety, law enforcement and civil rights issue, San Francisco’s homelessness problem also has a racial justice element, as Black and Latinx San Franciscans make up a disproportionate segment of the City’s homeless population. 

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San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey Comprehensive Report 2019

Since 1981, San Francisco has passed more regulations governing homeless people’s actions in public spaces than any other city in California - the most controversial of these being the confiscation, storage or disposal of belongings that accumulate and obstruct the public right of way or pose a public health risk.


As stewards of the City’s public right of way, Public Works regularly interacts with San Francisco’s unhoused population in a variety of ways. 

The City’s encampment clearance protocols, which are a joint effort involving the multi-agency Healthy Streets Operations Center, Public Works and the Police Department, remain a constant source of controversy and disagreement between the unhoused community, advocates and City officials.

​Typically, the cycle adheres to the following format: The Healthy Streets Operations Center team conducts outreach, offering a combination of shelter options and health and social services before an encampment can be cleared. At that time, people living at the encampments have the option of taking their belongings with them or having them “bagged and tagged,” which means the items are logged and stored by Public Works for later retrieval. Abandoned items, food and items that are soiled or moldy are thrown away.Public Works posts notices at the site in English, Spanish and Chinese with information on the retrieval process.  People also have a legal right to file a legal claim against the City if they feel their items were discarded in violation of the bag and tag policy. Once the Healthy Streets Operations Center conducts an encampment resolution at a specific location, the City may take steps to keep people from setting up camp there again. In addition to encampment cleanups, Public Works has been involved in several other proactive initiatives involving San Francisco’s unhoused population.

The Navigation Center program is a reimagining of the traditional homeless shelter model. Public Works plays a central role in this program, as it provides an array of construction and project management services while also overseeing landscape and architectural design, permitting, site remediation and post-construction site cleaning around the exterior of the facilities.

Unlike most traditional shelters, Navigation Centers allow residents to bring their belongings, stay with significant others and pets and receive a much wider array of on-site services. They also can come and go as they please. Despite these differences, there still are some unhoused people who do not want to stay in shelters no matter what, concerned about such things as safety, cleanliness and rules.

The Pit Stops are available for anyone to use, but they are located in areas with large populations of unhoused people who don’t have consistent access to toilets. Aside from providing much-needed public restrooms, the Pit Stop program also functions as a workforce development program for people who face barriers to employment, such as the formerly incarcerated, and high school dropouts – two populations in San Francisco that are also disproportionally Black and Latinx. The Pit Stops program is just one of several workforce development initiatives that Public Works runs. Since its inception in 2014, the Pit Stops program has grown dramatically and has inspired cities around the world to implement similar programs.  

1984 - today


The Long Struggle for Equity in City Contracting

In April 1984, The Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance 139-84, stating its intent to address identified discriminatory practices in the City's contracting practices which result in the exclusion of minority and woman-owned businesses as contractors, as well as to address the economic disadvantages faced by local businesses. Subsequent studies commissioned by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission throughout the mid-1980s investigated the City's contracting processes, confirming the Board of Supervisors' suspicions of a dramatic under-representation of minority, women-owned, and locally owned businesses to be mostly accurate.

This investigation paved the way led to further legislative action. In the late 1980s, the City instituted a series of bid preferences for these marginalized businesses in hopes of increasing their involvement in publicly funded work. Over the ensuing decades, we’ve seen improvements with the contracting rates of locally owned businesses, but stagnation in minority and women-owned business contracting still exists both citywide and with Public Works. 

1840s - 1990s


Overturning a History of Neglect in Chinatown

A staggering 41 alleyways crisscross San Francisco’s Chinatown, a neighborhood defined by both its extreme density and its deep cultural heritage. Chinatown’s lack of open, outdoor space has made these alleyways especially important spaces that in effect serve as a collective front yard where children play and adults socialize. 


A woman stands in a doorway located in Wentworth Alley, 1890. Photo: Open History SF

Until the late 1990s however, these alleyways were deprived of many City services including garbage collection and street cleaning. 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. 

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Clockwise from top:

Unknown alley in Chinatown, 1880. Photo: San Francisco Public Library

Ross Alley, 1898. Photo: foundsf.org

Unknown alley in Chinatown, 1880. Photo: San Francisco Public Library

This perspective remained largely unexamined and unchallenged until the early 1990s when Jasmine Kaw, a landscape architect with Public Works who concurrently was doing volunteer research for the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), made a crucial discovery.

While searching through Public Works’ Bureau of Street Mapping’s “Street Book” – a legal document that serves as the official 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 entitling them to City services. Upon making this troubling discovery, Kaw and her colleagues at CCDC brought this to the City’s attention, and Public Works began facilitating regular garbage collection and street cleaning services in Chinatown’s alleyways shortly thereafter. 


A Public Works street cleaner in Chinatown’s Jack Kerouac Alley, 2021



 Displays of Protest and Political Speech
in the Public Right of Way

During the popular uprising in support of racial justice in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, 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 installed across San Francisco. 


The words "Black Lives Matter", painted in bright yellow block lettering, now stretch out over three city blocks on Fulton Street, between Webster and Octavia. 


Since many of these public art pieces were along public rights of way, they came under Public Works’ jurisdiction. Some San Franciscans who lived in the vicinity of these murals complained about their presence, claiming that they contained controversial, anti-police messages. Despite these complaints, Public Works kept most of these murals and banners up, a decision that was rooted in the Department’s policy to only remove hate speech or profanity, or if the street murals pose a traffic or safety hazard.

‘Bernal Rock’ boulder in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights. (CBS)

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, while protecting the fair application of First Amendment-protected speech. 



Growing San Francisco's Urban Forest for Everyone

Caring for the City's street trees is one of the many ways Public Works looks after San Francisco's public rights of way. Living in a location with a robust tree canopy has various environmental advantages, including improved air quality, better storm water retention, carbon dioxide sequestration and lowering air temperature. Street trees also boost mental health and enhance the pedestrian experience. 

Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods continue to have more street tree canopy coverage than those with larger Black, Latinx and Asian-American Pacific Islander populations. 

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Mayor Christopher and others during a tree planting ceremony on Geary Boulevard in 1959.

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Source: EarthDefine
Chart shows data on census tracts with at least 1,000 residents.

The City’s Urban Forest Plan, which was devised with Public Work’s input and released in 2015, has the primary goal of minimizing these disparities while continuing to grow San Francisco's street tree canopy.  



In our current time of looming 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 a more equitable and just 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’ bureaus interact with and impact the public. Public Works’ wide range of responsibilities, which include contracting, permitting, construction management, street cleaning and infrastructure design and maintenance, impact San Francisco’s diverse constituencies in many ways, necessitate a thorough and thoughtful analysis. It is our hope that this report has fulfilled that goal or, at the very least, serves at a catalyst to get people thinking about government actions and consequences. 

There are, of course, many 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 later). Among these events are the redevelopment projects that took place in neighborhoods other than the Fillmore and Western Addition – such places as 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 also in these neighborhoods. This report’s most glaring omission, and the one that deserves the most future research, is its relative 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 over the past 100-plus years 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 impacted them. 

The core dilemma that this report hopes to bring to light is how Public Works can be more proactive in promoting racial equity in its policies and programs despite its limited policymaking powers. In addition, the report invites discussion on how Public Works, both as in its entirety and its individual employees, can resist racially inequitable policies that the Department is charged with enforcing. To address these twin dilemmas, we must first determine Public Works’ level of autonomy in shaping, cooperating with or mitigating actions that the Department is directed or obligated to perform. Though Public Works employees does not have total control over the policies that they are obligated to perform on paper – this is largely the territory of the Mayor, Board of Supervisors and voters – they should be willing to speak up if they believe that proposed or already-enacted policies cause harm. 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.