Publication Date

October 17, 2023


  • United States


Latinx, Urban

Attendees at the 2024 AHA annual meeting in San Francisco will undoubtedly encounter the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system. If they take a ride to the Mission District, they will find art commenting on BART right outside the station. In 1975, artist Michael Rios, assisted by Anthony Machado and Richard Montez, painted a 100-foot-long mural overlooking the 24th Street Mission District BART plaza. The piece depicts human figures holding up BART’s beams and its trains on their backs. Impossible to miss as you come up the escalator or stairs from the station below, the mural is both public art and a criticism of the space it overlooks.

A mural of human figures holding up a train's beams and its trains on their backs above a train rail

A 1975 mural criticizes the BART system right next to a BART plaza. Tim Drescher/FoundSF/CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Rios’s mural is just one representation of how Mission residents, primarily made up of working-class people of color, carried the burden of BART’s construction and the inevitable changes to the region that came in its wake. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Mission was on its way to becoming a majority Latino neighborhood, building on its long reputation as a working-class space with factory jobs and affordable apartments. The arrival of two BART stations on Mission Street at 16th and 24th Streets linked the neighborhood directly to downtown, which the Mission’s working class argued would put their lives and livelihoods at risk. Rios’s art attests to local concerns about the social and economic consequences that could come with public transit by depicting BART being built on the backs of the people.

A regional subway system was first proposed in the Bay Area following World War II and found support from regional power players, including both municipalities and large corporations. Construction for the 34 stations that spanned from San Francisco to Oakland and the East Bay began in 1964, with stations opening from 1972 to 1974.

San Francisco was not alone in this urban project. Across the United States, a postwar boom in automobile ownership led to congestion on the roads as suburban residents drove to work in cities. Many localities focused investment in roads and highways to accommodate these trends, while neglecting to make a matching investment in public transit systems.

Residents critiqued how plazas interrupted pedestrian flows and commodified Latinidad.

The Bay Area, however, responded differently. BART promoters reacted to increased auto congestion by promising that transit riders would zoom past cars on the highways in comfort and style. The system drove growth throughout the region, linking suburban residents throughout the East Bay to white-collar jobs in San Francisco’s downtown and along the train route. BART promised to streamline transportation while facilitating the region’s explosive growth.

While BART promoters focused on connecting the region, Mission residents expressed a range of concerns. They registered complaints about BART’s physical appearance, both for how its infrastructure would disrupt the local landscape and because the art commissioned for its Mission stations was not from local artists but from outsiders. (Rios painted his mural on a building adjacent to the BART plaza that is not controlled by the transit system.) In addition, residents critiqued how station plazas interrupted pedestrian flows and commodified the Mission’s Latinidad. One early plan for the 16th Street station included kitschy taco and piñata stands alongside towering commercial and residential buildings. A 1970 article in the local newspaper Basta Ya! expressed frustration with this commodification intended for outsiders: “BART will bring tourists from downtown to 16th and Mission in three minutes. Our homes will become hotel rooms and restaurants and serape stores, and Topless Taco Clubs that do not serve Mexicans.”

Residents also expressed concern about BART’s potential to fuel economic growth targeted at middle- and upper-class people from outside the neighborhood—what we would now call gentrification. As the Basta Ya! article continued, tourists would be joined by “the higher income single people and childless couples that will find the Mission more desirable to live in because BART will take them to work quickly,” while pushing out lower-income residents of color. BART’s arrival could increase the value of land around the stations. Higher property values would fuel speculators to sweep up this land and lead developers to build small flats targeted at white-collar workers (all of which did happen in the following decades).

With this potential development, residents argued that BART would fill the neighborhood with unwanted newcomers, including developers, real estate agents, large corporations, suburban commuters, and young middle-class singles and childless couples. As El Tecolote, a Mission-based bilingual community newspaper, made clear, “For the suburbanite, BART means convenience. But, for the Mission, it means high-rise construction, higher rents, and job losses.” Many Latinos feared that this influx of outsiders would transform their neighborhood and destroy the place they called home.

These discussions put residents in direct opposition to BART’s narratives about the transit system. In neighborhoods like the Mission that would be bisected by BART, residents worried about the transit system’s intrusion into their neighborhoods and residents’ safety outside BART’s stations. In contrast, BART planners focused on moving people safely through urban spaces, promising that its stations and tunnels would safely move riders through neighborhoods commonly thought of as “unsafe”—including the Mission. BART assistant general manager L. A. Kimball explained in 1968, “We want our passengers to feel as safe and comfortable as they do in their own automobiles.” Such a statement revealed the ideal passenger BART’s leadership imagined—one who owns a car and chooses to ride public transit.

BART could change safety and well-being outside the tunnels.

While celebrating the safety and comfort of its cars, BART extended promises of a comfortable, streamlined experience to its stations. A 1968 BART promotional video encouraged riders to “stop at a magazine stand, buy tickets from the automatic vending machine, enjoy the clean, spacious architect-designed station” on their way to the train. BART planners envisioned passengers moving through these stations—browsing newsstands, grabbing a coffee, or relaxing while waiting for BART to arrive—while seamlessly connecting their homes and offices.

In some cases, commuters could even get to work without ever walking on city streets. For example, the Standard Oil and Wells Fargo buildings offered pedestrian passageways that connected to BART stations, ensuring that workers could move from train to workplace without bumping into street vendors, unhoused persons, or others who might inconvenience their commute. Isolating riders as if they were in a sort of pneumatic tube, BART offered a sterilized and reliable path from suburbs to city.

Engineers reassured riders, especially suburbanites who may have felt uncomfortable riding the BART through certain neighborhoods, that they designed BART stations for riders’ protection. As Kimball detailed, “Our architects are eliminating the dead spots in stations and concourses—alcoves, recesses, protrusions that would cast shadows and other places that would let a person hide.” In addition, they ensured that “illumination is bright—office bright—throughout the stations” and that restrooms would be kept locked. BART hired security officers and eliminated jurisdictional boundaries in order to police the system through the four counties and 13 cities it crossed. These efforts to design for social safety also worked to reassure suburban riders of their personal safety.

While BART’s planners and promoters prioritized rider comfort and the creation of a more unified regional economy, residents in neighborhoods like the Mission District publicly criticized the impact of BART on their safety and well-being outside the tunnels. Mission residents expressed these concerns through journalism and direct action alongside organizations like the Mission Coalition Organization, which united many local organizations between 1967 and 1973. Residents continually advocated for local input in planning processes to create BART plazas that fit within the Mission environment, minimizing disruption to residents as well as high-rise development.

Mission residents protested BART’s grand opening celebrations at the 16th and 24th Street stations, as well as along the parade route in between. Alongside Mayor Joseph Alioto, stagecoaches sponsored by Wells Fargo, and police atop horses, photos from that day show protestors carrying signs emblazoned with slogans like “Bay Area Rapid Tragedy.”

While residents’ activism did not stop BART, their efforts lessened the impact of urban development on the Mission. Their advocacy rolled back plans for high rises around the BART plazas that would have been filled with shops, apartments, and offices. Although BART enabled new development by connecting the neighborhood more directly with the urban core, this development was more contained than elsewhere in the city; neighborhoods like the Fillmore District and SoMa (South of Market) in the 1970s saw widespread demolition.

This isn’t a uniquely San Francisco story. Across the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, cities tackled urban redevelopment by removing “slums” and “ghettos” and pushing factories and heavy industry to the outskirts, replacing these with highways, high-end housing, skyscrapers, and a tourist infrastructure. These efforts displaced residents and jobs while driving up the cost of housing and small business operations. Many of these urban redevelopment efforts launched processes of gentrification over the subsequent decades, where wealthier residents moved into formerly working-class areas, causing displacement and eviction of the former residents. Marginalized communities had varying levels of success in reducing the impact of these policies on their neighborhoods.

The Mission did not escape this period untouched. As waves of increasingly wealthy newcomers arrived in the 1970s through the 1990s, housing costs kept rising and small businesses faced growing challenges. Latinos, along with other marginalized groups in the Mission, echoed earlier concerns about the impacts of development on their safety and livelihoods.

In the 2000s and 2010s, the rise of Silicon Valley companies led to new concerns linked to transit. Tech corporations began providing private bus services throughout the region to carry employees from home to work. Echoing BART’s earlier attention to rider safety and comfort, many of these buses picked up riders at corners near their homes and provided amenities such as Wi-Fi and snacks. Stamen Design, a Mission-based design firm, sought to map these bus routes with tools including observation, bike messengers, and Foursquare posts. The resulting visualization echoed the aesthetics of the official BART subway map. As Stamen collected this data, Mission activists documented the impact of these buses on the rising rent costs and displacement in the Mission. Once again, infrastructure that pledged safe and efficient transportation for workers resulted in the displacement and harm perpetuated on marginalized communities in these spaces.

Nearly 50 years after its creation, Rios’s plaza-sized protest image painted in the heart of this contested space provides a reminder of these Mission critiques of the city’s development practices that prioritized profits over people. The mural’s 2023 restoration shows the continued importance of this critical commentary in a neighborhood that has faced gentrification for half of a century. Through the creation of a Calle 24 Latino Cultural District; the continuation of Latino community organizations like El Tecolote and its parent organization, Acción Latina; and a vibrant mural arts scene, the Mission’s Latino residents continue to advocate for prioritizing people in the neighborhood.

Lindsey Passenger Wieck is an associate professor of history and graduate director of public history at St. Mary’s University. Find her on X (formerly Twitter) @LWieck.

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