How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco — a series of conversations about art, class and race that emerged from “Block by Block,” a public art project.

The Gatekeeper Charged With the Fate of a San Francisco Public Art Experiment

Reflections by Simon Bertrang, Project Manager of Better Market Street at San Francisco Public Works

Simon Bertrang in his office. Credit: Kenneth Rainin Foundation

Bertrang’s role: The Department of Public Works (DPW) is the city agency in charge of issuing permits for public art installations, ensuring there’s public consent and a plan for who will care for it. Bertrang heads the agency’s involvement in the Better Market Street plan, which is coordinating a massive reconstruction slated for 2020, of the 1970’s era streetscape for better transit and public space.

Read the series intro: How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco


Simon Bertrang’s Perspective

When we say we want public spaces for all San Franciscans, we have to mean it. It can’t just mean we only want spaces — to just be blunt — for the tech workers in the area.

The bench worked in that it allowed a group of people to hang out together. It’s a wonderful design, but we let it be taken over by a particular group of people, and it became impossible to dislodge that group of people and create a safe space for everyone.

I think the [frustrations of the] single room occupancy (SRO) hotel residents were the tipping point for me.

Once we realized this was going on and we heard so clearly from the residents of the SRO, putting ourselves in their shoes:

If the city installed something right outside your window that was being used as an all-night party zone, and people were there all day long dealing drugs, I think you would be pretty upset and demand action.

We took the position pretty early on that we couldn’t afford to continue to subject the SRO residents to this as an experiment. It was not a difficult call that we needed to have it removed.

What we’ve found is there’s no substitute for staff. We’ve put full-time staff at the city’s public bathrooms and needle drop-offs. Based on our experience with “Block by Block,” we’ve done the same at the new Exploratorium installation near UN Plaza.

The Exploratorium installation at UN Plaza, San Francisco. Credit: Exploratorium

We’ve hired stewards who are there eleven hours a day, seven days a week. They’re the docents; in addition to making sure it’s clean, they help people engage with it. So there’s a reason for the staffers to talk to people that is not policing: it’s about excitement and the project. The installation has transformed the whole feeling of that section of UN Plaza. I’m not sure that the nature of “Block by Block” would have lent itself to this kind of staffing because it’s a bench.

We have a multi-million dollar capital project coming through Market Street predicated on needing wide usable sidewalks, better transit mobility, and public art. Whatever we do in the future can be a catalyst for people to do something that’s not top down. It’s a way for people active in that space to express themselves — plopping benches all along Market Street isn’t going to be the solution for Market Street.


This post is part of a series of conversations about art, class and race that emerged from “Block by Block,” a public art project.

Let’s hear from other stakeholders…

The Funder: Shelley Trott
The Neighbor:
Wayne Shaw
The Guardian:
Darryl Smith
The Artist:
Marisha Farnsworth
The City Planners:
Paul Chasan and Neil Hrushowy
The Entrepreneur:
D’Mond Hill
The Changemaker:
Ilana Lipsett

Where does the story begin?

How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco

What did we learn?

Insights From Our First Public Art Collaboration