To the 12,600 people who pass through the 16th Street Mission BART Station on a typical Wednesday, the scene on the plaza can be simultaneously beautiful and ugly. Salsa emanates from junky boom boxes. Grimy stairs rise up into a rainbow-colored railing etched with birds and suns. Scrubby palms poke up around the circular concrete benches, where dozens of the city’s poorer residents sit munching on bagels and swigging from paper bags.
Then the wind stirs, and — is that piss? Man, it reeks out here. There goes an urban tumbleweed: an empty Flamin’ Cheetos bag rolls along the cement. Just then, BART director Bevan Dufty runs across the plaza. “We just had a bad poop situation,” he says, pointing to the southwest corner of the southern plaza one day in early November. “On a scale of one to 10, it’s definitely a nine.”
Human waste is a job for Public Works, so that cleanup will have to wait. In the meantime, Dufty will continue his work of the last six Wednesdays — work that he started after realizing that this famously grimy, famously peopled, famously crazy station didn’t have a single full-time cleaner on staff. Although Public Works has a contract with a nonprofit to maintain the portable toilets and those workers have recently started to sweep up in the plaza as well, Dufty wants BART to clean the station. And until it does, he’ll go out there and do it himself, armed with an industrial-size wheelie waste bin, gloves and a push broom.
So far, Dufty’s efforts have commandeered the attention and elbow grease of District Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who has helped him out the past three Wednesdays, and led BART to hire a temporary weekday custodian four weeks ago. Still, Byron Hudson, whom Ronen described as a “powerhouse,” cannot compete with the debris. With pinched noses and exasperated can-do temperaments, Ronen and Dufty enumerate all they’ve seen this morning. Used syringes. Empty alcohol bottles. Floods of cigarette butts. A dead pigeon. Human feces and urine. Just a few days ago, BART customer Meghan Johnson caught someone peeing in the elevator — right next to her son. “I had to stop them myself,” she says.
Even with all the extra help, Dufty’s efforts feel a bit like taking a squirt gun to a wildfire. Which is his point, of course. And he says he will continue his Sisyphean task until BART meets his demands for the station: four hours of power washing a night — up from one hour, previously (which they have just started doing, according to Dufty, who can already tell the difference) — a cleaner on-site from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, specifically for the plaza, larger trash cans and clear signs in Spanish and English.
“If Dufty wants to get more resources, we welcome that effort,” Gordon said. “But it does cost money.” The plazas are BART’s responsibility.
Who does Dufty say he’s doing this for? Well, the station’s patrons, for one. The tech bros with briefcases, school kids with Spiderman backpacks, skaters, moms pushing strollers, elderly folks who take the stairs slowly. And then there are the ones who aren’t even there to ride BART, who’ve been hanging out here for as long as they can remember — some as far back as the ’60s. Most of them live in the SRO hotels, nearby tents or the station itself.
For them, the Mission station is not just a throughway, but community center and meet-up spot, bar and kitchen, playground and living room — yes, even a bathroom (The Department of Public Works staffs two public restrooms here). They are the ones Dufty wants this project to benefit most, he says, but he can also get frustrated by them.
As he picks up a used needle and slides it into his tray for future disposal, Dufty wonders aloud why these community members can’t be afforded a little dignity.
Safety, too. Of 8,025 instances of assault, burglary, drug offenses and robbery that happened in the Mission between 2015 and 2016, 3,447 of those — 42.3 percent — happened at 16th and Mission. Dufty hopes that purging the station of grime will discourage bad behavior.
“Change is slow,” admits Hudson, who’s been at this full-time for over a month now and hopes a cleaner station will make people feel safer.
“It’s getting there,” he said. “It’s gonna take awhile.”
Before Dufty’s recent publicity effort, BART employed a system service worker to clean the Mission station at night, and a contractor to power-wash the station for one hour each evening. Public Works also staffs two monitors from the community organization Hunters Point Family to clean and monitor the station’s two public toilets through the Automatic Public Toilet Program, or Pit Stop Program. These monitors work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. shifts on weekdays.
Recently, these workers have been cleaning in the plazas as well, said Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon. They’ve made a noticeable difference in the cleanliness around the station, but it remains anything but pristine.
Dufty says that others have tried to tackle Mission Station’s grime problem before him. But people spearheading these efforts — specifically Jack Davis of 2014’s “Clean up the Plaza” campaign, he says — often used “cleaning up” as a euphemism for “kicking out.” In other words, they viewed the station’s homeless and low-income community as the scourge they wanted to remove. Dufty insists his goal is quite the opposite: he wants to clean the station for these folks, not of them.
Though his campaign might have one believe otherwise, Dufty wasn’t the first to try and make the plaza clean and “dignified,” as he says. An effort by BART in 2015 involved trying to hold events at the Plaza and even ran a podcast program profiling some of the long-term denizens.
And not everyone who hangs out at the station trusts Dufty’s intentions. Just ask Dwight McQueen who, on Wednesday, sat on a little purple-and-yellow spray-painted BMX bike, popping wheelies in place.
“In order to clean these streets, you’d have to clean us off of the streets,” McQueen says. “That means deleting me from the picture.”
Others would like a cleaner station — they just think they could do it better than Dufty. “If I had my own damn push-broom, this place would be clean!” says Mark Berger, a young man in a green trench coat.
A few people are already helping. Like Anne Griffin, 61, who’s been hanging out at the station for the last 35 years.
“I know every child that hangs out here,” she says. “I try my best to make sure they don’t leave a mess.”
“They all call me Big Momma,” she says. “They all know me.”
The kids Griffin knows aren’t all kids anymore. Some are still around. Others have been killed. Others have moved away.
James H. Williams said he has been sitting near the station since 1966, long enough to note the little things. He has a few words of advice for Dufty and his hoped-for armada of cleaners.
“See that?” he says, pointing to crumbly debris piling up between the railings and the stairs on the northern plaza. He notes that when cleaning staff pressure sprays, they do it towards the station. “They should do it the opposite way.”
Williams then indicates the stores around him — a Burger King, a Walgreens, Taqueria Vallarta.
“They’re tearing all of this down,” he says. “Building a high rise.” Rumors were already circulating about rent prices, and Williams was in disbelief. “$2,500 a month for a studio?!” he says.
Williams is referring to a 345-unit market rate project planned for 1979 Mission St. by Maximus Real Estate Partners, the estate agency behind the “Clean Up the Mission” project Dufty criticized. Activists dubbed the project “Monster on Mission,” and want to see a 100 percent affordable project there. So far, Maximus is promising that 24 percent of the units — the city minimum is 12 percent — will be affordable.
This project has yet to be approved. But its looming possibility means Dufty’s project does not take place in a vacuum. Regardless, the test of Dufty’s project is, perhaps, how long he endures. On a Wednesday morning in mid-November, he and Ronen were still there, pushing brooms through the gathering puddles.
Nonplussed by the rain, he recounted his latest esoteric rubbish finds — a mango and a jug of milk. “I felt like I was on Iron Chef today,” he said.