Cutting Through the Red Tape

“Several Loads of Lathe”

December 04, 2015

By Sydnee Robinson, 2016 SF City Hall Fellow. On our recent tour of Recology we stood atop the balance beam and watched the workers sort city trash below. We had just seen a video of what they do and the importance and impact they have on our environment. It was busy with people, trucks, and birds swarming the piles of trash.

Trash for many, but gold for some.

Specifically, the towering piles of trash were gold for the artists of the Recology residency program.  These artists used the trash to create new works of art from the old ones that were thrown away; recycling value and using what was discarded to promote new purpose. We were lucky enough to meet with one resident artist in her studio. She was a shy woman, living in SF since the nineties, who had cultivated a successful career before coming to Recology. Her studio reflected her quiet nature.

A pin could drop and have an echo.

In a room full of students, workers, and unbeknownst to themselves “artists,” we admired and revered the work of the recently admitted and proclaimed Recology artist. She spoke softly about her work as we all stood patiently and impatiently in the softly-lit room. Then the subtle warm light began to gently contrast the atmosphere as it facilitated a discussion of her works that shed an interesting light on the current state of displacement here in San Francisco.

“You know,” she started, barely above a whisper, “I have also noticed a lot of lathe coming into Recology over my time here.” Her hand floated to her chin as she pondered what the lathe could mean. Seeing our blank faces, she realized we might not know what “lathe” was and felt compelled to explain, “Oh, lathe is basically a substance that was used in many old houses of San Francisco to support the walls. It’s been showing up in droves at the Recology department recently.” She took her hands to shape a large, heavy circle, “Several loads of lathe!” she stated.  She paused before planting the seed of what that might mean, “I think it’s because of all of the renovations going on here. People are ripping out the lathe and putting in drywall to better hold insulation in renovations.”

I wondered about her phrase “Several loads of lathe.” Researching the method, I found that lathe was a strong reinforcement of wood and wet plaster, making thick, sturdy walls that excelled in protecting a home from cold weather and sound pollution. The method itself was arduous and difficult to complete, but the benefits were plenty.

The strange collusion of lathe and displacement then crept into my mind. Her comments prompted me to think about how with each load of lathe, a family had probably been displaced. The families who made the city what it is, giving it its heart, its culture, and its life, were being ripped out by the load and swiftly replaced with drywall.

Thoughts on Mode Shift

November 30, 2015

By Anna Garfink, 2016 SF City Hall Fellow

When I was 12, I became a bicycle commuter. I biked to and from my middle school each day, a simple two-mile, mostly flat ride that I loved to hate. It was the best option at the time to get me to school, but on most cold days I definitely longed for a nice, warm vehicle to drive me to school. Fast forward five years, and by senior year of high school I was biking everywhere – to friends’ houses and to jobs, to places inside my tiny town and to places far from it. Sure, I had a driver’s license, but I loved and cherished the freedom that I felt only a bicycle could give.

When I went to college in Los Angeles, it seemed my biking days were over. LA simply doesn’t have the biking infrastructure or culture that the Bay Area has, and my college campus was small (and hilly) enough that walking sufficed to get me around. I never bought or had regular access to a vehicle while I was in Los Angeles, but the car culture there was overwhelming to the point that I had almost entirely forgotten about my days as a bicycle enthusiast, and I found myself longing for a car.

That was until, of course, I actually drove around LA a bit and realized how horrifically crappy it is to sit in traffic for 45 minutes and only move maybe five miles. Why?? Why do people continually choose single-occupancy vehicles over public transit, over biking, over walking – when it is clear that it is actually one of the least pleasant ways to get from point A to point B?

Turns out, there are quite a few answers to this question, and these answers touch on deeply-set social equity issues that I’ll save for my next blog post. The answer I’m going to focus on here, and that has been at the forefront of my mind since being exposed to San Francisco’s Vision Zero initiative, is this: society worships cars. Like, truly, we worship them. We devote massive amounts of our public space to them (think about how much land our streets, our parking lots, and our freeways take up, when they could be used for something else). All this, despite the fact that cars kill people. People actually lose their lives because cars exist, and because many of the human beings who drive them think that driving is a fundamental right that trumps all other road users’ rights to the road.

When you think about driving with this frame of mind, as I have been lately, our car obsession seems quite odd. After all, cars have only been around since the turn of the 20th century, while people have been biking since the turn of the 19th century, and walking since the dawn of humanity. So, why in the world do cars get all this preferential treatment?

It would take a massive paradigm shift to start thinking in a different way. To let go of our dearly-held belief that cars are the best form of transportation.* But, for the rest of us, while we keep that in mind, we should start to think about whether it might be worth it to shift to a new travel mode. Kids on bikes going to school (i.e., me at age 12) shouldn’t have to be extraordinarily careful when sharing the road, and citizens crossing the street shouldn’t have to fear they’ll be hit by someone making a sly right-on-red. Cars and their very human drivers should be held accountable for street safety, and drivers should definitely start to question their driving entitlement.

Consider this pilot proposal by the SFMTA to close portions of Powell St. to vehicle traffic. That seems crazy, right? The article primarily focuses on drivers who choose driving when other modes of transportation are not only a feasible option for them, but may actually be the better option. I recognize that there are many folks in the Bay Area for whom driving is the only/best form of transportation, and for whom biking/walking places would be a luxury.

But could you imagine, a street without cars – what’s even the point?! Well, turns out that there are many purposes for a street besides as a space for cars, and I’m looking forward to seeing more streets become re-purposed for new, pedestrian/cyclist friendly uses.

Our Stories Are Valid

November 16, 2015

By Victor Phu, 2016 SF City Hall Fellow. My name is Victor Phu and I am a second generation Vietnamese American from East San Jose. I am the first in my family to graduate from University of California, Berkeley and to step into the world of politics. As a City Hall Fellow, I am placed at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) tasked to implement My Brother & Sister’s Keeper (MBSK), in which I will be enduring the challenge to ensure every African American student enrolled in SFUSD is tied to a postsecondary pathway to success. I am in a privileged position to be a City Hall Fellow and I would never have expected to be where I am today.

Growing up in East San Jose, I was always disappointed at the disproportionate allocation of resources to my community in Little Saigon as opposed to surrounding regions like Evergreen, Blossom Hill or West San Jose. I was always curious why Vietnamese students were seen as a model minority when the aftermath impacts of the Vietnam War still existed in our homes. I was always angry that my community always relied on food stamps and other forms of social safety nets, but it was never enough to address the financial needs of our families. I could not articulate what I was feeling or why I was so angry. I was not equipped with the adequate education, vocabulary or critical mindset to digest the systemic issues impacting my Southeast Asian community.

Despite all of the adversity, I was still able to come to Berkeley to pursue higher education. Berkeley is where I became aware of the historical and political factors contributing to my hardships, and where I became motivated to change these systems for future generations. My development as a community activist at UC Berkeley has shaped my perspective on how minorities are particularly affected by unseen public policies that negatively affect their everyday experiences and overall lives. I realized that the adversities that my Vietnamese immigrant family faced were due in large part to public policies that do not account for the daily struggles that members of marginalized communities face.

As a young Southeast Asian activist, I came to City Hall Fellows expecting the worst. As a person that was criticizing systems of power on the daily, it was a strange feeling to challenge the system from the inside out. I expected to deal with bureaucracy, unwelcoming work environments, and an incredibly non-diverse workforce. To be real, it all came true. As a Vietnamese American, I felt that I had to constantly share the struggles of my Southeast Asian community to my workplace because all the data on school achievements reveal “Asian” students were doing extremely well. As the only Asian American working in the Black community, it was an assumption that I was a Chinese American brought up in an affluent home. Just today, I had a community member who told me, “Your people don’t need help.”

This is a common challenge that many Southeast Asians experience coming into the public sector. Our stories become invalidated because we are constantly questioned whether we are a “Person of Color” or “White.” But, it was a necessary challenge to experience because young Southeast Asians are extremely underrepresented in government positions and positions of power. There is an increasing need to have our stories told and to disaggregate the data in all school districts and cities to paint the real picture of what is actually happening.

As I am learning and exploring my first career in the San Francisco Unified School District, it is always important to remember my journey leading up to today. My first blog post is a reminder about my identity as a Southeast Asian boy growing up in East San Jose. It is easy to get consumed in our career because we are thinking the next step. But we must always remember how our identity and journeys shape our sense of social justice and advocacy.

If you are reading, then I hope you remember to reflect on your journey as well. From what I learned from the Southeast Asian Student Coalition at University of California, Berkeley, our stories are valid and it will continue to shape our ideas and values of social justice and activism.

Public Transit as a Social Justice issue…

November 03, 2015

By Josie Ahrens, 2016 SF City Hall Fellow.

The first few months of the CHF fellowship have been a whirlwind at the very least! I’ve found having so many aspects of my life be new (new city, new apartment, new job, new schedule, new dance classes, new community, etc.) to be both exciting and exhausting. In order to center my thoughts, I’ve decided to focus my blog posts for the year on a topic I’m passionate about: public transit as a social justice issue. This year I’m getting first-hand experience with this topic by being a daily Muni rider and working in capital finance at the SFMTA (San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency).

For my first blog post, I’d like to start with an issue that grabbed my attention as soon as I arrived in the Bay Area: there are approximately 26 different transit providers for the 9 county Bay Area metro– all with different funding, staff, and schedules. This fragmentation was a big surprise to me as I just moved to San Francisco from Minneapolis, where a regional government body, the Metropolitan Council, manages and runs Metro Transit– the one transit operator for the 7 county Twin Cities metro area. There the same buses and light rail vehicles cross city and county lines so that the entire region is interconnected with the same provider and the same payment card (and where a transfer lasts throughout the whole region for 2.5 hours).

There have been (and currently are) discussions about creating a stronger form of Bay Area regional government so I’m not the only one curious about the possibilities. Right now ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) and MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) share regional responsibilities and are in the process of exploring a merger of their planning departments. The region’s various transit providers, like the SFMTA or AC Transit, also do coordinate with each other on some initiatives like expanding Clipper payment cards to work on 17 different providers and increasing bus service over the Bay Bridge when Trans-Bay Bart is shut down for repairs. Nevertheless, transit providers could and should coordinate a lot more to benefit those who rely on public transit the most: low income and working poor folks.

Low income and working poor folks on average live further away from their jobs and pay a larger percentage of their income to transit than their wealthy neighbors. They deserve a system that gets them where they need to go in a reliable, safe, affordable, and efficient way. This becomes even more urgent as low-income and working poor folks have to move further out into the edges of the region (where there are typically fewer public transportation options) due to rising rents and gentrification in city centers. For instance, someone who lives in Pittsburg, CA in the East Bay but works in San Francisco as a hotel housekeeper has to either drive (which would take 1 to 2 hours depending on traffic) or take public transit (which would take approximately 1 hour). Driving adds up with gas, insurance, and paying for parking in San Francisco. Public transit adds up with paying for each transfer between different providers (the cost for just Bart would be $6.30 one way).

While the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit isn’t necessarily the best transit system– it has its challenges (and equity concerns) too– it nevertheless is able to provide comprehensive public transit across the region. The Bay Area is a region, not a cluster of isolated cities. Bay Area residents take Bart, ferries, buses, cars, and bikes in and out of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley and other job centers every day. We need more coordination and partnership between regional providers and a more comprehensive and robust regional transportation system in order to streamline movement, access, and equity across the area.

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