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Artistry Loses in Reaction to S.F. Homeless

Special to The Times

In a seedy district close by City Hall, a fountain that once stood as a monument to world humanity is neglected and fenced off, a haven now for preening pigeons.

Rarely does anyone stop to read the lofty words inscribed in stone that speak of the dignity “of all members of the human family” -- certainly not the homeless and pink-eyed crack addicts who drape themselves on nearby ledges.

Designed in 1975 by Lawrence Halprin, one of the great urban designers of the last half-century, the fountain enhanced United Nations Plaza, which is adjacent to the wide expanse of this city’s Civic Center.

Today’s commuters, scurrying by the panhandlers and the druggies, no longer stop to contemplate the fountain’s concrete slabs, which symbolize the major continents. Nor do they appreciate the water that once rhythmically surged, representing the ocean tides. Only simple jets of water remain.

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The fountain sits at the center of an urban war: a battle over the homeless, who, before fences were erected, used its steps for sunning and sleeping and its basin as a garbage dump for burger wrappers, needles and human waste.

A grass-roots committee of local business people, residents and city officials proposes knocking down Halprin’s fountain and carting it away in hopes that the homeless, too, will wander farther from the civic plaza.

The dispute throws into conflict two San Francisco sensibilities -- intense pride in the city’s beauty and ambivalence about the men and women who squat and panhandle on downtown streets.

The fight over Halprin’s fountain is scheduled to be settled next week by the Board of Supervisors and, perhaps, a city arts board.

For many years, the homeless congregated in Civic Center plaza, right in front of City Hall. Their presence was so distasteful to voters that the issue helped defeat Mayor Art Agnos in his 1991 reelection bid. Since then, the city has removed a reflecting pool, bushes and benches in an effort to shoo the homeless away. The process worked, but the winos, pot smokers and other plaza denizens merely migrated down the wide civic plaza to adjacent United Nations Plaza, the eyesore that the committee and the Department of Public Works now wants to scrub clean.

From his nearby office, Lawrence Halprin has watched the episode unfold. Before a cyclone fence was taken down and replaced with a smaller barrier in front of the fountain, Halprin complained that it was like “painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”

Taking out the fountain is not going to make a difference, he said indignantly. “It’s a social problem.”

At 86, Halprin says he is too busy to attend public hearings to defend his fountain. Among the works on his drawing board, meanwhile, is another San Francisco city project -- redesigning Stern Grove, the urban forest where the city holds its bucolic summertime concerts.

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Called “one of the preeminent place-makers of the 20th century” by Smithsonian Magazine, Halprin received a National Medal of Arts award from President Bush two months ago.

He is perhaps best known for one of his most recent works: the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., which depicts FDR as he was rarely shown during his life -- in his wheelchair.

But Halprin also designed San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, converting an old factory building into shops; the sweeping staircase at the south end of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill; the environmentally friendly community at Sea Ranch along the Northern California coast; the Lovejoy Plaza in Portland; and Freeway Park in Seattle.

He also is redesigning the approach to Yosemite Falls, to move exhaust-spewing buses farther from the base of the national park landmark and to return much of the area to a more natural state.

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At a small public hearing last week before the San Francisco supervisors’ land-use committee, the plan to rid the area of Halprin’s fountain was vociferously supported by officials from the San Francisco Art Institute, whose school is next door to the fountain.

“Transfer the fountain somewhere else,” they said, so eager are they to clean up the area and make it safe for their students. They called it a fountain, not art.

Reached after the hearing, Halprin said he finds such positions “insulting.... This is not just a fountain,” he said. “It’s a piece of public art.”

Halprin has his supporters.

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“I can’t help think everyone is losing their minds,” said Barry Naman, who has worked in the area for many years. “If the brakes go out on your car you don’t paint it,” he said. The fountain did not create the problem of homelessness, he said.

Other speakers suggested restrooms, security guards or addressing the larger issue of the city’s homeless. “We cannot solve social problems by rearranging buildings,” said Terry Hogan, an elderly woman seated in a wheelchair.

Although determined to clean up the area, Mayor Willie Brown has yet to take a position on the fountain. Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who attended the hearing, said later that the city should make “more efforts toward housing and services” for the homeless.

The fountain is “a red herring,” Ammiano said. “If the homeless problem wasn’t there, would we be talking about the fountain?”

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The dispute goes before the full Board of Supervisors at its meeting Tuesday. But the final decision may also need approval from the city’s arts commission, and its director, Richard Newirth, said his staff is “supportive of the fountain.”

“To remove it is like censoring art,” said Stanlee Gatti, president of the arts commission, “and in that regard, I’m not in favor.... But it’s not working,” he said. “Maybe we have to redesign and rethink.”

Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of operations for the city’s Public Works Department, is leading the fight to remove the fountain and spruce up the plaza. A former advocate for the homeless, Nuru studied landscape architecture in school. He calls Halprin one of the designers he most respects.

“At one time, the fountain was a great piece of art,” Nuru said. “Now it’s an abused piece of art.” The community “is looking for change,” he said. “Change is good -- good for everyone.”

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Not far from the fountain, a homeless man named Ben said that removing the fountain “would take a lot of the beauty out of the plaza.” A sunburned Bruce Wayne, a homeless man and amateur art critic, said simply: “This has nothing to do with the fountain. It has to do with the people.”


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