Eugenia Chien has been eavesdropping on the 47, 49, or 1 lines since the mid-90's. She lives by the adage, "Anything can happen on Muni" (and also, "That's not water.")

Painting the pandemic void, one storefront at a time

One of the most sobering moments for me at the beginning of the pandemic was walking by Le Central on Bush and seeing the bistro window covered with plywood. Once the popular lunch spot for Willie Brown (who’d play dice with his pals at the table by the window), the bistro’s board-up was the first time I really sensed the fear and emptiness that would soon permeate downtown.

As plywood boards sprung up all over every neighborhood, though, a couple of San Franciscans created a project that truly made lemonade out of all the lemons that 2020 has thrown at us. Within weeks, pedestrians started seeing beautiful murals on plywood boards that covered closed shops and restaurants, starting in Hayes Valley and extending all over town. The project is called Paint the Void, which matches mural artists with shuttered storefronts. Since April, Paint the Void has matched artists who beautified over 84 shops and restaurants, making walking around in San Francisco a joy again.

In today’s podcast episode, we invite Lisa Vortman, the Co-Founder, Director of Photography, Media and Storytelling of Paint the Void, to share the story of the first mural she photographed for the project. All the photos in this post are also from Lisa and Paint the Void.

Listen to her story:

The beautiful flower mural in Lisa’s story is by Nora Bruhn (@konorebi on Instagram), which covered Chez Maman in Hayes Valley. The restaurant has since re-opened for outdoor dining, but you can scroll down to see photos of the mural and Brunh working on-site this spring.

Seeing these murals on my daily walks has been one of those things that makes me say, “This is why I live here.” You can even make a day of it—follow this map to more murals via the Paint the Void website, where you can also contribute to the nonprofit’s excellent work.

If you know someone who’s doing something great to help San Franciscans get through this terrible year, we want to know! Our submissions inbox is always open: email us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com or tag us @munidiaries on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Why the SFMTA head says riding Muni is “the right thing to do”

Muni, like many other public transit agencies around the country, is facing a financial “death spiral” in the face of the pandemic. In today’s podcast episode, we talk with Jeffrey Tumlin, the Director of Transportation of the SFMTA who started in his role right at the end of last year—capping a year mired in underground meltdowns with high hopes of turning the train around (as it were).

He had a great honeymoon period, especially with transit fans on Twitter who have been advocating for a car-free San Francisco. But things changed quickly, through little fault of his own.

The pandemic hit right as Tumlin was settling into his new role, and it’s been some rollercoaster ever since. Muni has cut most of its 80+ lines since the pandemic, with only 17 lines currently running as the agency faces the biggest budget crisis it has ever seen. On Saturday, Muni will be restoring 11 more lines, boosting frequency on 13 bus routes, and reopening the underground Muni Metro stations, though the underground routes will also see some changes.

The SFMTA chief is not counting his chickens: “There’s a really good chance things will not work as well on Saturday as we hope. That’s part of the culture that I’m trying to bring to the agency. In order to get the system that we need, particularly in a time of dramatically reduced resources, we have to get creative. We have to move quickly. We have to try things. And sometimes that means getting more comfortable with failure. And quickly making corrections and learning from our mistakes.”

So what must the SFMTA do in order to make Muni awesome, or at least functional? He joined us to provide his take on tomorrow’s Muni service expansion, and some personal insight into the quirkier, more human side of our municipal transit system.

Listen to the interview here:

If you have your own Muni or BART story to contribute, especially if your Muni line has returned, we want to hear from you! Please email us at munidiaries.sf@gmail.com, or tag us @munidiaries on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Photo by via SFMTA.

SF Neon historians in search of an iconic sign

You’ve walked past them and under them a thousand times, seen them from afar and used them as landmarks. But do you really know the history behind San Francisco’s neon signs? We invite two neon historians to this episode of San Francisco Diaries podcast to tell us all about one very memorable neon sign that they are still hunting for.

Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan are the creators of San Francisco Neon, an organization of historians, educators, and advocates for the vintage neon signs you see all over our city. They are also the authors of the book, San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons

Listen to their story:

San Francisco Neon has evening virtual presentations about the history behind historic neon signs in the Tenderloin and Chinatown, and an online version of their festival, Neon Speaks, is in September. You can find out more at SFNeon.org

If you’re looking for more stories from San Francisco’s history buffs, be sure you check out this episode about the Transamerica Pyramid’s bohemian past.

We are dedicated to bringing you more stories about our city as told by everyday San Franciscans. If you have a story to share, or know someone with a story you think everyone should know, email us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com.

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Late-night Muni always provides

Over on the Muni Diaries Twitter wire, readers tipped us to Michael’s late-night N-Judah Muni tale, which he captured in his Flickr account. Oh, how we miss the after hours “Temporary Autonomous Zone” on Muni, where you never know who you’ll meet or what will happen.

It was just after closing time at the bar, and two groups of skaters got on the bus along with a host of other characters. Somehow, different strangers on the bus offer our narrator drugs, booze, and a surprisingly thoughtful detail for both. Here’s Michael’s story:

Both of my preferred seats are occupied so I’m sitting in the last row + middle seat. There’s Junkie Guy to my left who is sitting in the corner seat and has turned the seat between us into his living room where all of his worldly possessions are spread out as he frantically rearranges his living space. A bunch of skaters in their 20s get on and sit in front of me and one of them starts playing a country western type song on his phone and they all start singing along to lyrics that are all about a love song to cocaine. 

Junkie Guy instantly looks up and starts asking if any of the skaters have cocaine and they’re all, “No, it’s just a song.” Then they further explained that the guy singing on the phone does not have any cocaine to share either. Sorry, Junkie Guy, false alarm.

Then another group of skaters with a case of beer get on the back of the bus. They recognize the first group of skaters and start talking about their night. I get the impression that their paths crossed earlier in the day and now they are crossing again on the Night Owl on the way home.

I really like those moments where everyone’s story comes full circle and these different storylines converge, like the end of Dazed & Confused. I also like getting to know all of my neighbors that keep the same hours that I do but are part of different scenes.

Here we all are, the disco queens, the punk rockers, the junkies, the preppies, it’s the 2AM Breakfast Club. This is where we all End Up. All the people that did not feel like paying money to take an Uber home in a timely fashion, all on the crazy train headed off into The Sunset, all in the No Man’s Land Temporary Autonomous Zone / wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the back of the bus. 

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A moment of connection on Muni

In the last few weeks we have all been re-examining social justice in our communities, and on our Facebook Page and Twitter, you’ve brought up great discussions around the role of public transit in race and class in San Francisco. We’ll continue these conversations while still bringing you stories of people connecting in the city and on Muni.

Today’s story is from a submission by Muni Diaries reader Wil. How often do you let a moment of connection pass you by? In this story, Wil shares a conversation with a stranger on the bus. This story is read by Dayne W.

Hear Wil’s story:

Photo by @ptpower.

SFMTA head addresses challenges of reopening Muni

What must we do to bring public transit back into our lives? (Not a rhetorical question, please give us a list other than stay the f*ck home.)

In an NPR interview this week, SFMTA head Jeffrey Tumlin shares what he’s learned about how other cities got back on buses and trains, while waxing poetic about the cultural value of life on transit. We knew someday they’d see things our way.

Tumlin says that SFMTA had a Zoom call with the mayor of Taipei to learn about their approach. (Taiwan has been praised internationally for its COVID response). But he says that “fear and exhaustion” remain the biggest challenge in reopening public transit.

Our workforce, all of them are working ridiculous long hours and they are exhausted and our front-line workers in particular have been carrying with them a huge amount of fear. There is an emotional toll to our workforce that is going to take a long time to heal and it’s going to impact our ability to deliver service. That fear is also present amongst members of the public. If Bay Area residents retreat to their cars out of fear, the economy can never recover.

While public transit is essential to our city life and economy, Tumlin also sounds like a fan of the random acts of humanity on Muni—which this comMUNIty knows all about.

Public transportation brings us back to our common humanity. When you get on the bus you have no idea who you’re gonna see. There are the casual flirtations, there’s also the kind of witness of tragedy that kind of breaks your heart, and opens you up to gratitude if we’re lucky. Public transit is not always fun or efficient, but it certainly brings us back to our common humanity.

Listen to his full interview here on Planet Money. We think we’re on the same page about the importance of public transit, but how that takes shape safely remains to be seen. Tumlin says that most Taipei transit riders wear masks; there are temperature probes at subway stations; and importantly, the country has effective contact tracing. It wasn’t clear whether or how the SFMTA might consider similar measures in order to restore transit service.

What will it take for you to get back on the bus?

Photo by @mwichary.

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