As seen on Balmy Alley. Photo by Contributor.

The electronic squeal of hand sanitizer squirting out of automatic dispensers echoes through the jarringly desolate corridors of City Hall. 

Those who can (or must) sequester themselves are doing so. The anxious present day feels like the phony war before the blitzkrieg and the preamble to a dark and lengthy book. 

But, at the very least, City Hall feels cleaner now. Both physically and metaphysically. 

San Francisco government is — again, physically and metaphysically — cleaning house. But not exactly because we wanted to. Rather, outside events forced our hand. 

Faced with the noxious COVID-19 pandemic — and the federal government’s incompetent response — states and municipalities are forced to bear an undue burden. In San Francisco, our notoriously filthy trains and buses and many of our (notoriously filthy) gathering places are being buffed to a dull shine.

The key to “flattening the curve” — preventing large numbers of people from becoming simultaneously infected in short order and overwhelming hospitals — is in part stuff we should’ve been doing anyway: Cleaning stuff up, maintaining proper hygiene, spending more time with our families, and listening to doctors and scientists. A number of the rules or requirements suspended in the face of an epidemic were arbitrary or even cruel and draconian; in an ideal world, maybe they won’t return. 

Faced with the noxious San Francisco culture of casual corruption — and the federal government’s competent response — San Francisco is making belated attempts to cleanse itself as well. The FBI’s Jan. 28 arrest of ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru on fraud charges has necessitated a long-overdue internal crackdown; a probe led by the City Attorney and Controller’s offices is — at long last — rounding up this city’s usual suspects

This, too, is something we should’ve been doing anyway. Several of this city’s most notorious and longstanding ganefs have been plastered with subpoenas or hounded out of government. In an ideal world, maybe they won’t return either. 

In any event, we’re now in a crisis. And crises provide clarity. Crises provide the opportunity for expedited change. 

Crises expose — and enhance — the problems you already had. In short: Crises reveal who you are. 

Shy, who lives in a homeless encampment on Alameda Street at San Bruno Avenue, watches as Public Works cleaning crews sort through her belongings. Photo by Laura Waxmann, 2017

Last week, your humble narrator wrote about the strange and terrible saga of Mohammed Nuru’s penthouse. In short, Nuru’s monomaniacal desire for the top-floor luxurious office he felt was his due led him to cash in on his prodigious City Hall connections and bulldoze even his ostensible equals. He got what he wanted, per the usual: The design of the 16-story tower at 49 South Van Ness, originally envisioned without an “executive floor,” was altered to meet his whims. Meanwhile, the public-serving employees who’ll be toiling on lower floors here say they’ve been given substandard accommodations.  

So, that’s who we are. But, facing the crisis of self-reflection due any city when federal agents arrest long-serving senior employees and level extensive allegations of entrenched corruption — is it who we want to be? 

That remains to be seen. A good test case for this may be found in Nuru’s former stamping ground, the Public Works Corporation Yard on Cesar Chavez. Workers here didn’t miss the article about Nuru and his machinations to carve out a corner penthouse for himself. Far from having half a dozen underlings and three outside contractors poring over their office decor details, as Nuru did, workers at the corporation yard tell your humble narrator they’re dealing with coyote incursions, infestations of raccoons, possums, and skunks — and mounds of excrement from all of the above. 

There are buildings and trailers with no hot water and visible mold and grunge and buckling surfaces. There are, workers say, only two janitors for the entire vast complex. 

As seen on the Public Works corporation yard.

These, by the way, are the workers often tasked with seizing homeless people’s things. Which is also something we’re still doing during a pandemic. Dispersing homeless people — an incredibly vulnerable, compromised population — around the city to mix and mingle would seem to be a terrible idea, both from a humanitarian and an epidemiological point of view. 

San Jose has suspended homeless sweeps for just this reason. San Francisco has not; a Public Works spokesperson told the San Francisco Public Press that the city continues to break down homeless encampments and “bag and tag” residents’ possessions because “that’s what we do.” 

Of note, a homeless San Franciscan contacted by the Public Press noted that she and her colleagues are reticent to leave their possessions and see doctors because of fears that Public Works will make off with their worldly goods. 

That may be what we do, but workers in the corporation yard tell me they do not want to do this. They do not feel good about doing this. And they do not feel safe about doing this — they claim they’ve had no COVID-19 training, do not have regular access to running water or soap, and are only assigned one disposable Tyvek HazMat suit and two disposable face masks per day. One worker on this yard years ago came down with SARS, longtime Public Works employees recall. Another developed shigella after stepping in a heap of human excrement. 

In a March 10 email obtained by Mission Local, Nuru’s successor, Alaric Degrafinried, said workers shouldn’t be concerned in the era of COVID-19. “According to our environmental health and safety manager, it is very hard to get exposed when working outside,” he wrote. “As long as the employees are wearing the [personal protective equipment] we offer to them, they should be at low risk.”

You’re not going to believe this, but that response wasn’t well-received. 

“I have lived in San Francisco for my whole life. My dream job was to go work for the city,” says a veteran Public Works employee. “Sometimes I feel like I sold myself short.” 

Contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong, right, pictured here in 2018 with ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Susana Bates for Drew Alitzer Photography.

Journalists are trained to obscure what they don’t know. But uncertainty is the hallmark of this burgeoning pandemic. The dearth of federal leadership is also forcing difficult — and bad — choices on cities and states. 

What seems more certain is that COVID-19 and corruption scandals have laid bare the faults in the city’s deeply ingrained status quo that were, previously, seen but tolerated. On the other end of this tunnel we may, for good or ill, be a changed city. 

There is a fire here. It may burn us. It may purify us. It may do both. I just don’t know. 


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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Joe, as a long time San Franciscan who refuses to give into cynicism and who is not giving up on this city, I so appreciate your reporting. Thank you for speaking truth to power.

    What you are doing is truly sacred work.

  2. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for the reporting. Even now, as the Mayor orders private businesses to close, Recreation and Parks has instructed all of their staff to report to work as usual. No hand sanitizer, no gloves, no concern for cross-county travel. Mayor Breed is making the right move for public health, but incorrectly socializing the policy with department such as Public Works and Recreation and Parks, likely among others.

  3. I appreciate Joe Eskenazi’s reporting on the corruption. Like the first commenter, I am a lifelong San Franciscan who does not want to give up. The cronyism and corruption in our political structure is unacceptable. The fact that we have uncontested elections for major offices points to a closed culture — we need a thorough house-cleaning. It is not mere coincidence that corruption seems to go hand-in-hand with downtown development. I believe that we need a pause to over-building. And we also need to clean our streets, offering and requiring changed situations to those who are “on the streets.” I am sure jail is not the answer and I do not have an easy answer, but I am anxious for all of us to be able to join in the conversation for solutions.
    Note to the incompetence of the national government: if there is no culture of respect, and no diligent attention to both physical and social sciences, then I do call that incompetent.

  4. Joe, the above the fold reads like you’re dredging up lessons from that long ago creative writing course.

    But your below the fold portrayal of lower level City employees as downtrodden or sorrowful is simply over the top. A City job is virtually a guaranteed life long ticket to a stable well paid career and old age. With just a little moxie, keeping your nose clean, and displaying Trumpian loyalty to your bosses, City workers are certain to be promoted well beyond The Peter Principle’s guidance. And make no mistake, the likely prospect of a City job is a reason too many young people in SF believe pursuing academic excellence is a waste of time.

    1. Hey, Not a Native — 

      I never took any creative writing courses. Clearly that makes two of us.

      If you think working for Public Works is such a plum assignment, I suggest you don a Tyvak suit and go shovel up human shit.

      It’s a pretty tired act to bemoan every last city employee as an overpaid slacker. I’ve been doing this 20-plus years, and it’s long been clear to me that the real shame is the disillusionment of good, hard-working, diligent workers, who are actually penalized for their positive attributes. That’s a far more notable tragedy, I think.

      Try harder, sir. Please.


      1. There is some truth in the original comment, though. The city employs far more people per capita than any comparable metro area, with or without the enterprise budget. We don’t have all that much to show for it.

    2. You really nailed it. Blame the City Workers. While the citizenry is madly sweeping toilet paper off the shelves, city workers are all sitting back, counting their money, and enjoying the show. They’re paid so much, they can barely move because their bank accounts are so heavy. I’m not a native either, but I’ve been here for over 40 years, and never never has anyone pointed the finger at the real cause for the decline of academic standards — city jobs. Note. Over forty years ago, city workers were blamed for filthy SF streets. You would have loved it. Street sweepers, those aristocrats earning $19/hour, were to blame. So the people of SF rose up and got rid of them. Look how much cleaner our streets are today! Some think it’s a miracle, but others know that if the City’s got a problem, the solution is to get rid of the workers.

  5. San Francisco’s filth and corruption are solely the responsibility of the local officials, not the federal officials. The City has been under the control of Democrats since 1964. Yet, you insinuate in the fifth paragraph that the current POTUS is somehow responsible. That’s nonsense. Republicans are blameless for San Francisco’s problems.

    1. Ronald Reagan cut federal funding for HUD, healthcare and other social programs, leading to the terrible conditions/neoliberalism we see in SF today. Mainstream Democrats and all Republicans have followed suit, so no party is blameless.

      Trump literally slashed funding for the pandemic Response Team/ has also done huge cuts in federal health programs which is indefensible though.

    2. Hey, the GOP is in town. Get out the hand sanitizer! No Trump didn’t have a thing to do with the present situation. He didn’t cut federal funds for public health, he didn’t dismantle the pandemic office in the NSC (probably because they were all Deep State spies), didn’t block WHO from providing testing kits, told everybody to go out and have a good time, that the virus was nothing but a common cold and it would all be over soon. Yes, Trump’s leadership has been exemplary. And as corrupt and venal as the City Family (aka the Shorenstein Mob) has been for the last 50 years, they’re not in the same league Trump, his Family and Friends.

  6. Is there any reason why Mayor Breed is not ceasing the homeless sites sweeps? Who do those workers go to if our own mayor doesn’t?? Is this the time we clean SF and I don’t mean the streets, I mean the dirty politics that have escalated in my life as a native San Franciscan that does not want to give up?? Our homeless are part of our communities across the US and yet they are mostly ignored .