The 21-year old “community ambassador” beams as he sweeps discarded cigarettes, bus tickets and newspapers from the gum-peppered sidewalk.

Diplomacy in his realm is particularly sticky: to keep the five blocks of Mission Street between 22nd and Cesar Chavez clean.

“I see a lot of people standing right in front of a trash can, and still throwing their trash on the ground,” says Mark Macadangdang, whose tools consist of a broom and a metal U-shaped scoop that holds his large trash bag open.

Keeping urban areas clean has long challenged city officials, no matter the country.  So, borrowing an idea from China, San Francisco’s answer since 2006 has been the Community Corridor Partnership.  It sends ambassadors to 200 of the city’s dirtiest commercial areas. The Mission has six of the young sweepers with stately titles, who take charge of their five- to seven-block corridors on Mission, 24th and Potrero.

Theirs is a Sisyphean task. During a nine-hour workday, Macadangdang, a former United Parcel Service truck loader, also finds needles, dead pigeons and a pair of old shoes that have just materialized in the 24th and Mission BART plaza. New patches of graffiti interrupt his routine, as he radios in the location for repainting.

[kml_flashembed movie=”” height=”533″ width=”595″ /]The filthiest section of Macadangdang’s beat is on Mission between 23rd and 24th Streets. “Other blocks take about 15 minutes but this one, it could take me like an hour,” he says as a shoe shiner sneaks a load of blackened rags on top of his trash bag.

Nearby, a homeless man yawns, watching from his overflowing shopping cart.

After a six-month probationary period, ambassadors can participate in a two-year job-training program with the Department of Public Works.  During this time, they move from ambassador to different duties and bureaus within the department, such as planting and maintaining trees for parks and recreation.

So far, Khaled Shehadeh, a program supervisor, says Macadangdang’s reviews have been good.

The former art student in high school, whose life dream is to draw comic books, has been sweeping for a year now. In a week, he will be rotating to work with the parks and recreation department.

“I never thought I would be sweeping streets,” Macadangdang says, “but the benefits are great.” He adds, “I’ve really gotten a view of all the little ways a city works.”

Unlike his job at UPS, where he could only work 3.5 hours a day, the ambassador program provides full-time employment and benefits. After his initial two years, Macadangdang hopes to continue with the Department of Public Works.

In a sense, the ambassadors do what local businesses should do on their own. City law requires that they keep the sidewalk in front of their stores clean.

But, Shehadeh says, “about 90 percent of merchants don’t sweep.” If they do, they simply sweep trash to the curb.

It was that reality that pushed the mayor’s office and the Board of Supervisors to take on the problem. They looked at block sweeping programs in China and the Philippines for inspiration.

Manual block-by-block cleaning allows the city to keep heavily trafficked avenues cleaner than machine sweeping, and the city can target merchants who fail to comply with regulations, such as maintaining trash cans or ashtrays in front of their businesses.

Some types of stores leave more waste than others.

“If it’s on the ground, it’s mine!” Macadangdang jokes as he sweeps an entire cantaloupe and half a cucumber that have fallen into the street from a nearby fruit stand.

For his part, Macadangdang thinks most local businesses do a good job of keeping their sidewalks clean and some of the Mission Street merchants were unaware of the program.

“The ground looks cleaner, but the more important thing is to prevent people from littering or spraying graffiti,” says Elaine Lang, owner of Sapphire Photo Inc., who is familiar with the ambassadors and maintains a tidy storefront.

Meanwhile, at Mission Pie, Nicholas Torres has never noticed the sweepers, pointing out an Arizona tea can that has been wedged between a lightpost and a newsstand for the past four days.

To Macadangdang, it’s a neverending task. “I give it like 30 minutes after I clean,” he says. By that time, it’s dirty again.

As he heads off to lunch with his supervisor, the diplomat leaves the corner of Mission and 23rd Street clean—for a minute.  Less than a block away, someone tosses a crumpled paper bag and a pile of newspapers on the curb.

Armand Emamdjomeh

Armand is a photojournalism and multimedia student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and is originally from Baton Rouge, La. His work history includes being a paper pusher in Los Angeles...

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