That message from the ‘Poop Map’s’ creator — meant figuratively, not literally — is not aimed at who you’d think it is


Jenn Wong has had her own Sorcerer’s Apprentice moment: Her creation has been wrested out of her control, and is, ever more quickly, working in ways she did not forsee — or approve of.

Except those are not brooms. And it’s most certainly not water.

Rather, it’s human excrement. Which, in San Francisco stories presented to a non-San Francisco audience, has quickly become the coin of the realm.

You probably don’t know Wong, but you may be familiar with her work. In 2014, the civil and software engineer created (Human) Wasteland, which was, in the resultant blitz of media coverage, ubiquitously dubbed the San Francisco “Poop Map.”

Wong transposed years’ worth of 311 reports of human filth onto an interactive map of San Francisco. Interactive maps and lighthearted commentary about human filth on the streets of San Francisco were, in 2014, considered novel. Even humorous.

That was avant le déluge. That was before the cavalcade of filth porn.

“Honestly,” Wong tells me at a SoMa cafe located within a clear island on her “Poop Map” among the seas of brown — indicating you-know-what — “the original intention of the project was just to be funny.” This, she thought, was an amusing way to bring attention to the state of this city’s streets.

In 2018, nobody is laughing. Least of all Wong. Lurid descriptions and/or photos of this city’s grimy streets, especially in put-upon areas like SoMa, the Tenderloin, and the Mission, have become de rigueur in both reputable and disreputable publications; Human Misery Safari is now a genre of San Francisco story.

Is San Francisco dirtier than it has ever been? Anecdotally, yes. The opioid epidemic is tearing up this and every city, and complaints regarding needles and feces have gone through the roof — though, via 311 and ubiquitous cell phones, residents have never had such an effortless ability to raise a stink.

More to the point: Was San Francisco ever clean? In prior years, the sparkling, airy tech cafe where Wong and I sit — and where the man with the handlebar mustache insisted I order my coffee via the iPad and pay via card — would have been blanketed in the soot belched from leaded-gasoline-powered cars. Prior to that this was the site of working factories and rendering plants and horseshit underfoot on unpaved roads.

Complaints about human fecal matter here are not new; District 6 residents were in 2006 none-too-pleased to be sent political fliers  depicting a large, glossy photo of an actual human turd and a bottle of piss (or Mountain Dew). “The No. 1 reason to dump Chris Daly … IS number one … (and number two…)” read the flier.

Voters, perhaps unamused at finding this dangling from their doorknobs or crammed through their mail slots, did not dump Supervisor Daly.

District 6 voters found *this* hanging off their doors in 2006. So, issues with human filth on the streets are not exactly new.

That didn’t make the New York Times. But that was then and this is now: The gratuitous descriptions of squalor on the streets of today’s San Francisco are one more way that the city is covered as if it is a foreign place, even by domestic media. For those who live here and have for some time — Wong is a native, as is your humble narrator — it rankles. But, inarguably, the streets are filthy. People are miserable. As much as the media obsession with filth porn in this city seems exploitative and callous and repetitious, it’s also an unwelcome mirror. Warped though it may be, that really is what our streets have become.

So, four years ago, Wong was surprised when reporters began asking her questions about social justice. She was, subsequently, spurred to become somewhat active in homeless causes herself. She updated the “Poop Map” to allow users to link to thoughtful articles about the homeless crisis and donate to service providers. She has advocated for housing-first solutions to homelessness. 

But, after the initial flurry in 2014, interest in her website died down. Yet, in recent years, as Human Misery Sarafi stories have proliferated, it has spiked again. And, now, she noticed that visitors didn’t want to help alleviate the homeless crisis.

They wanted to revel in it.

There’s an old-school banner that scrolls across the top of Wong’s website now. “It’s a joke in web development; using a marquee tag is super out-of-fashion,” she says. “Well, now you get a marquee. It’s scrolling across the page. You can’t ignore it.”

That marquee reads, in part: Hello. I created this map to bring attention to the issue of homelessness. Not to insult people or places. Not to further political agendas unrelated to homelessness.  

This ostentatious reminder is necessary because much of the traffic directed to (Human) Wasteland these days is coming via right-wing “news” sites — which have co-opted Wong’s project into Exhibit A of the disastrous consequences of allowing libtards or libruls or the libs or what have you lead your city.

There is a seemingly insatiable demand for stories about San Francisco’s failings, particularly when they involve tangible details about things like shit and filth and criminality. (Your humble narrator, by the way, has written more than nearly anyone about this city’s governmental shortcomings. Liberalism isn’t the problem: The problems are soft corruption and tribalism and a government run like a cartel in which virtually nobody is held accountable — to name just a few. But that’s a subject for another story or a series of stories. Or a book. Or a series of books.).

Human Misery Safari tales and filth porn are a staple on rightist blogs. But, more accurately, the stuff you’d read on right-wing Internet sites is usually a book report-style summary of a news article from an actual news organization, with political agitprop sprinkled in like bacon bits.

Reflexive defensiveness aside, San Francisco’s streets are, inarguably, wretched. But actual, responsible news sources should question how and why these stories are told, and who they intend to tell them to.

To wit, last week our city received an out-of-town media colonoscopy from both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. The former is about an out-of-town techie who has created an app enabling users to send photos of shit and filth to city officials — which would appear to be a self-serving move and a product duplicative of 311. The Grey Lady documents 12 hours on the 300 block of Hyde Street, ostensibly San Francisco’s most putrid.

In both of these stories, San Francisco’s fetid streets are depicted as one would recount the aftermath of a hurricane. No actual homeless people are interviewed. Only their detritus is described. They have been cleansed from a story about their own filth.

Articles like these can result in a surge of visitors to Wong’s site — via the original story or the bastardized anti-libtard version. This has grown old. “The problem has been pointed out again and again and again,” she says with a roll of her eyes. “If it’s all about the problem and not the solutions, what’s the point?”

What is the point? That’s worth asking. What’s the point of a story about homelessness and filth in San Francisco that’s long on descriptions and short on context? What’s the point of not asking why this problem came to be and persists, despite the money and attention directed its way?  What’s the point of not talking to actual homeless people and those who work with them? What’s the point of not asking who should be held accountable for the disastrous status quo? What’s the point of not asking what the city can do to proactively attack this problem instead of merely reactively cleaning the streets? (Even the city’s so-called “Poop Patrols” are merely being proactively reactive).

What’s the point of talking more and saying less?

These are questions Jenn Wong has been asking for quite some time. The increased attention paid to her site eventually led her to “feel a lot of guilt, actually. It was unfair for me to be getting personal press because of this without actually helping people.”

She is now doing more. But “I feel like there’s a lot more I could be doing every day.”

So could we all. So could this city. And that — that’s a story worth writing.