Asmaa Donahue lives just a couple of doors down from the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Library. Over the past year, she says she's seen some distinct changes in the area surrounding the library, including an increase in public drug use, waste accumulation, and temporary encampments. “We’ve noticed a parallel between those groups congregating there and an increase in property crime in our neighborhood,” said Donahue.
According to Donahue, she has used 311 numerous times to report individuals sleeping on the sidewalk or to call attention to something that has been seemingly vandalized. “Most of my calls have been looking for services for people,” said Donahue. “That is the reality on my block. On any given day you can come through and find somebody who is not able to really make decisions for themselves or take care of themselves, or who may be a danger to themselves or others. It seems like the city should be able to respond to those very human needs.”
The city is attempting to respond to neighbors’ concerns. In May, Mayor Lee created a new organization, Fix-It Team SF, which is intended to address quality-of-life concerns across San Francisco. Fix-It director Sandra Zuniga hosted a community meeting on June 15th that was intended to give a forum for residents to voice their concerns, as well as identify specific locations for those concerns. Two weeks later, Zuniga led her team of city officials on a two-hour walk through the neighborhood, again with the hopes of identifying quality-of-life concerns along the Castro’s streets.
Now, armed with extensive 311 data, first-hand observations, and plenty of anecdotal evidence, Zuniga is preparing to focus her team’s efforts on the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Library at 16th and Pond. She’ll be leading a community cleanup event tomorrow (Saturday, July 16th, from 9am-12pm). Her plans are to, with the help of volunteers, clear an overgrown pathway located at the backside of the library.
In addition to tomorrow’s cleanup, the ficus tree stumps along Pond Street were removed this past week and will be cemented over. The trees were brought down in an attempt to increase visibility in that area, and to widen sidewalk access. Zuniga has also requested a light to be placed directly across from the library on 16th Street.
For Zuniga, focusing her team’s initial efforts around the library made sense. “During our walk, we noticed the library can use some attention. Our libraries are treasured neighborhood resources and should be welcoming for everyone,” said Zuniga. “We know both through 311 street cleaning requests, public comment, and our own observations that the library entrance is dark and not very welcoming or pleasant. We want to change that.”
According to Zuniga, in July, Public Works is focusing on District 8 as part of the Community Clean Team Cleaning and Greening Program. She asked her partners at Public Works if the agency would provide assistance if she helped to lead a cleanup of the library. Public Works agreed, and Zuniga got a thumbs up from Roberto Lombardi, the library's director of facilities, who said that if her team spruced up the area—with lighting, landscaping, and signage—the library would agree to provide ongoing maintenance.
Mark Silva has lived on Pond Street since 1988. He would like to see the city do more than what he described as “soft solutions,” such as lighting and signage. He wants the city, including Zuniga’s Fix-It team, to put forward and implement more concrete solutions.
“When I say hard solutions, I mean put a fence up around the library,” said Silva. In addition to fencing, Silva suggested something similar to pigeon spikes to be placed around the library to discourage people from sitting and lingering. “We don’t want to criminalize homelessness,” explained Silva, “but the behavior that we are dealing with is bad street behavior and crime.”
Silva shared the example of the nearby Dimensions Queer Youth Clinic, which, according to him, used to be “a magnet for homeless people to sleep at night.” According to the Pond Street resident, it wasn’t until a fence was placed around the perimeter of the clinic that the problem was solved.
Though he thinks that Fix-It's “soft solutions”—including power washing the area at 5:30am every morning—are steps in the right direction, Silva would also like the city to explore its rationale for having a library parking lot. “I don’t understand why the city has to provide free parking in the neighborhood at night when the library is closed,” said Silva. “People congregate there; they go there to do drugs. It’s one thing to say 'we’re going to provide free parking for the neighborhood,' but the neighbors who live on that street actually pay for it with the behavior that takes place in our block.”
Petey Barma, a public school teacher, has lived on Pond Street for nearly 13 years. According to her, what’s happening around the library today is reminiscent of the first dotcom bust. One major difference, she said, is that now, the library offers free Wi-Fi access. “It has Wi-Fi,” said Barma, “so people are drawn to it. It presents like a park. Not just the library inside, but how they’ve structured the architecture outside. It looks like a park, so of course people are gonna want to go there and sit.”
“We’re not treating this space like it’s a public space that is meant to be used,” said Barma, who warned that if the city deters some people, it will deter everybody from using the public space around the library. When asked what she would like to see done to improve the area around the library, Barma said that she is all for public bathrooms, posting rules, and garbage cans. “It sounds simplistic, but there are no garbage cans. This is a place that presents like a park and yet there are no garbage cans,” said Barma. “Rules should be posted, because then you have a talking point. 'Here are the rules and expectations for this public space.'”
In the short term, Zuniga said that additional signage will be posted around the library. “The library is coordinating the appropriate language for the signage with the city attorney,” Zuniga said. “The signs will probably be different than the ‘no trespassing’ signs.”
Given that her priority area is defined as 18th to Market, from Castro to Church, when asked about what she plans to tackle in the neighborhood after the library, Zuniga said “plazas, gathering spaces, and parking lots are being reviewed for quick fixes to help improve safety and cleanliness.”
Zuniga encouraged neighbors to come out and help at tomorrow’s cleanup event. “If we say that one person or one agency should be able to change a community or improve quality of life, we won’t get far,” said Zuniga. Pond Street neighbor Barma agrees—she’ll be at tomorrow’s library cleanup. “You have to be out there and participating,” said Barma. “Otherwise, our meetings and walkabouts don’t really mean a lot if we’re not going to participate.”In addition to the Castro, the Fix-It team is also focusing on the UN Plaza/Civic Center and Market Street areas. In August, Zuniga’s team will start working with the Inner Sunset neighbors on their concerns.