Photo by Lydia Chávez

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Huzzah! The barricades are down and the plaza on the southwest corner of 16th Street is simply the cleanest I have ever seen it. Ever.

So, it is possible to have an immaculate plaza. Perhaps it is the new surface that repels liquids — or the fact that most of the plaza has been barricaded for nearly a week while the repellent was applied.

Cheers for BART and to BART Board Member Bevan Dufty and District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who spent Wednesdays from October 2017 to March 2018 cleaning the plaza in an attempt to get more resources for it.

That battle appeared to work — sort of. In March, BART promised nightly power washes and two weekday cleaners; one working from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the second working from  2 p.m. to 10 p.m. But, as Heather Knight pointed out in the SF Chronicle last Sunday, the plaza’s condition deteriorated considerably from March to now and, when she visited, she saw no clean-up crews.

I had watched that deterioration and, I suppose, in not writing about it, can be accused of becoming complacent. I walk by or use the 16th Street BART Station nearly every day. Recently, as I eyed the mess, I’ve thought wistfully of those Wednesday mornings when Dufty and Ronen tended to it. They were such good cleaners. And present. They said they would be there on Wednesdays — and they were there — even when it rained!  

Not so the BART cleaners. In the many months since their announced arrival in March, I managed to catch one working at the plaza only once. Perhaps they were taking a break when I happened by, but at the end of the day, it was clear that they had either not been there, or that they were terrible cleaners.

Until Thursday’s unveiling of the new surface, the plaza had degenerated into a wasteland of junk, hardly soothing to the many residents who pass the day on its benches. Could they be the culprits?

All of the more than 12,000 people who use the BART Plaza daily are responsible for putting litter in the bins, but as Robert Cialdini, a professor of social psychology at Arizona State University has shown, the more littered a public space is, the more likely people are to add to the mess. If it is clean, there is a tendency to try and keep it clean.   

But the BART Plaza was far from clean from March 2018 until Thursday. And, as Cialdini’s studies predict, it got dirtier by the day.

The barricades to seal the surface went up two weeks ago and, when they came down Thursday, I experienced a new and very clean plaza. We should keep a closer eye on BART’s second busiest station (after Civic Center).  

16th Street BART Plaza Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at 9 a.m. Photo by Lydia Chávez.
16th Street BART Plaza Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at 9 a.m. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

By Thursday evening, it suffered a  bit, but it was nowhere near what it looked like on earlier evenings.  The clean plaza stayed cleaner, just as behavioral scientists predicted. A worker who attends to the public toilet said one person had been there in the afternoon and stayed a short time picking up trash.

16th Street BART Plaza Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at 8 p.m. Photo by Lydia Chávez.
16th Street BART Plaza Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at 8 p.m. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

Friday, September 21

Again, at 8:05 a.m., the plaza looks good. So, someone has cleaned up overnight — Probably the power washers. Trost wrote in an e-mail that BART will recommend in a new October contract that the power washes increase from one to four hours a night.

“We did a trial period of 4-hour pressure washing and we determined it was needed and incorporated it into the new contract,” she wrote. In my mind’s eye, the plaza glistens after such a wash.

16th Street BART Plaza Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 at 8 a.m. Photo by Lydia Chávez.
16th Street BART Plaza Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 at 8 a.m. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

At 10:10 a.m. there is some trash but, again, nowhere near what is there on most mornings, and there are already plenty of people using the plaza’s benches and sitting out in the sun.

The worker who appeared during the early afternoon on Thursday never showed up again, according to one person who is at the plaza from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  No one was there at 8:00 a.m. or 10:15 a.m. to clean up.

“Good workers are hard to come by,” says one person, who had also not seen anyone cleaning up that morning.

Where are these workers that BART is presumably paying? Victims of the Rapture?

No, Trost wrote on Friday, there are crew workers out at the plaza — one who works from from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and another who works from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.

I’m perplexed. Where are they?

Frustrated, I plant Abraham Rodriguez, our intrepid reporter, out at the plaza on Friday from 11 to 1 p.m. His report:

At 11 a.m. the BART plaza is sparsely populated. The only cleaning staff around is the man at the Mission Pit Stop and Public Works custodians sweeping the sidewalks — not the plaza — free of debris. That’s their job and jurisdiction. The BART Plaza belongs to BART’s maintenance man, who is nowhere in sight.

16th Street BART Plaza, on the southeastern side, was mostly clean at 11:23 a.m. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.
The south side of BART Plaza at 11:23 a.m. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

It’s a pity. Trash is accumulating on the south plaza — someone has tossed a slew of scratched-off lottery tickets against the southernmost wall. Tyrone Butler, a homeless man I met a few weeks ago on Clarion Alley, comes by.  We catch up — he’s still sleeping on the streets, his old bike was stolen and he was disappointed by the removal of the Walks of Life mural that featured him and some of his friends.

Without anyone asking him to, Butler cleans up the spent lottery scratchers before riding off to look for something to eat.

BART Plaza, and more of the sand-like dust at 12:10 p.m. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.
A woman had dropped a bag full of bird feed next to a tree, much to the dismay of the plaza’s denizens at around 12:20 p.m. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

At 12:24 p.m., the Mission Pit Stop workers change shifts. The younger staffer picks up one or two pieces of trash, but they are charged with staying next to the Pit Stop.

At exactly 12:53 p.m. a BART employee ascends from the bowels of the 16th Street BART Station and scans the plaza. He glares and starts cleaning up. By 1:09 p.m. — with the south Plaza in much better shape after 16 minutes of work — the BART employee relocates his cleaning efforts to the northeastern plaza, adjacent to Walgreens. Six minutes later he’s finished there and again descends.

Trost writes that the maintenance workers “cover the whole station.”

To be continued.

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. Lydia and Abraham – thanks for this article. Do you have any plans to come back and do some more reporting? We’ve had some significant improvements happen since September, including increased cleaning, new murals and new koi fish painted on the Plaza sidewalks.

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  2. SF Transit riders were out this morning, along with Mission 4 All, people from Hillary Ronen’s office and BART Supervisor Bevan Dufty. The place looks great. I’m delighted to see this level of engagement. Thank you!

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  3. trost is a paid hack, trying to spin the worth the
    worthlessness of overpaid bart employees

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