Capp Street between 16th and 17th, dark street with people and streetlamp
Capp Street at night. Photo by Greta Mart.

During the day, Capp Street between 16th and 24th streets is chock-a-block with tidy and not-so-well-kept triple-deckers, aging apartment buildings, a few churches, community centers and commercial buildings.

Most residents are off to work in the mornings, lending the street a relatively tranquil and sleepy air. But three or four hours after the sun goes down, Capp Street transforms. Pimps, prostitutes and the Johns cruising for them move in. In the morning, homeowners and pedestrians dodge used condoms, dirty needles and shattered car window glass.

Working street lights, residents have said for years, would illuminate the street to make it safer for residents and more difficult for hustlers.

“The lights are our main concern,” said Molly Messenger, a Capp Street resident who helped form a neighborhood watch group in March to focus on finding solutions to the streetlight problem. “They would go out for weeks at a time.”

Eight streetlights were out on the main eight blocks of Capp on Sept. 9, and the burned-out lights between 22nd and 23rd had been out since March. On the evening of Sept. 30 and again on October 6, all of the lights worked, but residents say it is an ever-changing situation. Moreover, once a light goes out, months go by without it being fixed.

“They go on and off all the time. Just because they are all on now, doesn’t mean that tomorrow they won’t be out again,” Messenger wrote in an email Tuesday.

Keeping the streetlights on continuously has not been easy for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E.) The company’s own data shows that the number of reported burnouts has increased dramatically over the past five years — by 442 percent between 2008 and 2011 alone — and last year it took the company an average of 78 days to fix a broken light.

That, says the city attorney’s office, is exactly why the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) should not permit PG & E a rate increase in January without getting a major boost in operational transparency and service levels. San Francisco currently pays the private utility $1.6 million a year for operating 19,505 of the city’s streetlights and PG&E is asking for an annual increase of $600,000. That money, it argues, is needed to upgrade infrastructure. The utilities commission will hold a hearing on PG&E’s rate increase on Oct. 14, and is slated to release its proposed decision on Nov. 19.

Over the past year, San Francisco’s 3-1-1 service center has logged 95 requests to fix broken PG&E streetlights along Capp Street between 16th and 24th, according to 3-1-1 management analyst Mathias Gibson.

Each of the 3-1-1 requests was passed along to PG&E, but response has been slow and at a meeting in early September, neighborhood watch members complained that PG&E was “stonewalling” their service requests.

PG&E spokesperson Jason King said the company received just 15 requests for streetlight service on Capp Street between 16th and 24th over the past year. When asked about the difference between PG&E and 3-1-1 numbers, King responded, “The data I have available to me considers unique outages, not the total number of calls about each individual unique outage.”

He said the company is in the second year of a five-year plan to replace equipment dating back to the mid-50s that features streetlights connected to each other on a circuit. Like a string of Christmas lights, if one goes out, the neighboring streetlights will also often go dark, he said.

“We are committed to improving service,” King said, explaining that he expects Capp Street’s s circuits to be replaced in the first quarter of next year.

“We don’t want to go through another dark winter,” Messenger said.

For its part, the City Attorney’s office has made it clear that the delays Capp Street and other residents experience are unacceptable. In a 31-page legal brief filed last November, City Attorney Dennis Herrera urged California’s Public Utility Commission to deny PG&E’s current bid to increase rates as of January 2014 because the utility has done an “inadequate and unreasonable” job when it comes to maintaining streetlights for years.

The performance is so poor, Herrera argued, that the PUC should approve PG&E’s rate increase only if the company makes sweeping improvements and agrees to pay penalty charges to customers if it “fails to meet the performance standards for two consecutive months.”

“Despite its recognition of the importance of effective and reliable streetlights, PG&E has been providing local jurisdictions with substandard streetlight services,” Herrera writes, adding that the company “makes no commitments to improve its level of service or reliability, or publicly report its performance.”

San Francisco Supervisors David Campos and Scott Weiner are co-sponsoring an upcoming — to be scheduled in November ­— Neighborhood Services & Safety Committee hearing on streetlights.

“At a previous hearing I held at the Board of Supervisors over a year ago, PG&E pledged to update its system and improve its repair response time to be more in line with the PUC response time,” said Supervisor Weiner on Tuesday in an emailed statement. “I look forward to seeing the results of these efforts at a follow-up hearing in November…If PG&E is going to ask for a rate increase, we need to see performance results that show our streetlight system is improving.”

Follow Us

Greta Mart is a Bay Area-based newspaper reporter and freelance writer, and currently a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. From 2005 to 2012 she was a staff reporter at two community newspapers in WA and CA, and has contributed to several Bay Area and Seattle area newspapers, as well as Pacific Yachting and Italy's Gulliver and La Republicca's D magazines. Greta holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and studied history at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. She lives aboard her sailboat at the Berkeley Marina.

Join the Conversation


Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I don’t understand how turning the lights on will prevent hustlers from making money because I’m pretty sure when you can see you can do things easier and safer. so I’m pretty sure they’re just going to be giving people easier ways to do things.

  2. Glad to see this is being worked on. I live on Capp. We need more lights. I finally put up my own lights (but they are solar and not very bright).

  3. We’ve intentionally created a black market for prostitution. Fixing the lights is nice and all, but we need to solve the underlying problem, not the proxy problem.

  4. It would be nice to get this streetlight problem addressed for other streets as well, so that if the Capp situation improves, the “hustlers” don’t just move to another street with poor lighting. There are many like this between Mission and Bryant, and 16th and 24th.

  5. What’s missing here is that the neighborhood is classified a high-crime area, and therefore PG+E is REQUIRED to address streetlight outages in a more timely manner than those in other areas. The story changes — sometimes I’m told that they must “inspect” within 48 hours; other times they say it’s two weeks. One nighttime supervisor told me that the company could take a leisurely 90 days, and when I called him on it, stuck by his lie. PG+E will give you a case number, but I’ve called back to check up on a case only to be told that “there is no such number” or, one time, to learn that the employee didn’t even know what a case number was. P.S. I’m a renter.

  6. We once had to lobby to get a streetlight on Capp and 17th replaced — we phone both our supervisor and PG&E. Each party suggested calling the other. This went on for 6 months or so.


  7. Why does it matter, in 2nd paragraph, that folks are homeowners? I think most folks on Capp are renters–does homeowners give the term residents more cache? Or just assume that the renters don’t care?