.People First

BART’s Station Modernization Program brings beauty to the East Bay and beyond.

If there’s one thing that unites people from all parts of the Bay Area, it’s Bay Area Rapid Transit. Every day, people from Oakland, the greater East Bay and points all around the Bay Area converge on San Francisco via BART, untold thousands of them routing through the Mission District.

Soon riders who are heading from the East Bay to the Mission in San Francisco will be met with a revitalized mural symbolizing the vibrancy of the Bay area

On Saturday morning outside San Francisco’s 24th & Mission BART station, the skyline is pale white with textures of gray and it’s debatable whether or not the sun will peak through the fluffy clouds. But the vibrancy of the Mission District outshines that, as colorful bouquets of flowers are sold next to pop-up markets atop blue tarps filled with clothing, books, beads and random goods; as a man preaches into a megaphone; and as a steady flow of people moves up and down the stairs to the BART station.

Lucia Gonzalez Ippolito stands on scaffolding a few stories above all this action, painting alongside Carlos Gonzalez, Suaro Cervantes and 76-year-old Michael Rios, to help bring Rios’ 1975 mural, “People First,” back to life. Rios’ original mural, which has weathered nearly five decades of environmental and human elements in the heart of the 24th-and-Mission BART plaza, is a symbol of accessible transportation for all.

After securing a $120,000-plus grant from TODCO, an entity with the aim of preventing the displacement of poor and elderly residents south of San Francisco’s Market Street, the collective of muralists and artists have been on-site in their coveralls—with their brushes in hand—five days a week since early July, doing their part to help restore Rios’ original mural. Ippolito says the mural tells an important story of what the Mission is and what it can be.

“Our neighborhood has become a landscape of an intense wealth gap, where many people are living in desperate times and trying to fight for survival. We’re kind of in a state of emergency here. We need more mental health services and more community funding for resources,” Ippolito says as she looks down from the scaffolding at the community she grew up in. “On top of all of that, we need art. Our youth are looking everywhere. These walls in front of them help inspire and educate and continue legacies of the past.”

Ippolito describes the visuals and color palette in the murals. “It’s about public transportation and the people who work on it and travel on it,” she says. “You can see giant creatures holding up the structure of BART and below it you see people walking to get on BART and others who are walking aimlessly. And behind all of that you see this big city, which represents a very urban landscape.”

On the level of scaffolding below Ippolito, Gonzalez busily paints upside-down purple “L’s,” representing light inside of the windows. “For someone else, this might be a lot of work, but for us, it’s our passion,” Gonzalez says. He says he’s worked with Rios multiple times over the past 45 years, helping with a Santana mural in the mid-1980s and doing some outreach to people affiliated with gangs, and this is a coming-back-together project of sorts. “A lot of people didn’t even know there was a mural here because it was so faded and cracked,” Gonzalez says. “Now that we’re bringing it back to life, people think it’s a brand-new mural.”

Gonzalez served as a San Francisco probation officer for 25 years, retiring in 2015, but he’s been an artist for a much longer time and knows both sides of the carceral system. “I got involved with gangs and drugs when I was a kid,” he says. “And part of my punishment was to do community service by working with muralists, and that’s how I began to turn my life around. I didn’t study art in school. Instead, I learned by doing it with my mentors and artists like Michael Rios. I wound up going to college to become a probation officer in the neighborhood I grew up in.”

Gonzalez gets a little nostalgic. “Art and music really does have a way of saving someone’s life,” he says. “Even the biggest drug addict has the potential to clean up their act and do something positive. There’s always a catalyst that can turn somebody on to changing their life.”

Ippolito also believes there’s something magical about working across generations on this community project. “Even if we’re just outlining or adding details, or if some of our work gets painted over, it’s still really cool to be a part of this,” she says. Her two-year-old daughter might still be too young to understand the power of what her mom is working on, but Ippolito hopes to instill a sense of pride in her about who she is and where she came from. “When we do the unveiling, maybe she’ll be like, ‘My mom helped do that.’”

Suaro Cervantes says the act of restoring the mural on the 24th Street BART plaza is about much more than painting. It’s about repairing and healing from the inside out. “We have a lot of human elements to deal with,” he says as he nods down toward the BART stairwell, where a man is urinating. Suaro also mentions the presence of human feces. “The trees surrounding the mural were filled with discarded shoes, clothing and other human trash, so I trimmed them and took out eight of them.”

Cervantes says that people from around the Bay Area can learn from the Ohlone people who first resided on the land. “They resided here for thousands of years and never had a problem with waste,” he says. “How we treat our land and our space is a reflection of who we are. Everybody has their way with how they take care of space, how they practice self-love.”

The subject of the mural, BART, as a means of transportation for all, is highly resonant with Cervantes. “A mural like this is very iconic, coming from a time when BART was put in,” he says. “It’s a vehicle that connects people. I take BART in from Richmond every day and I grew up taking it where I needed to go. When it comes down to it, it’s like a bridge. It connects us all to each other.”

Though onsite with his team of artists, Rios declines to comment, merely saying, “The mural speaks for itself,” as he reaches for a brush.

This week the scaffolding will come down, giving passersby an unobstructed view of the “People First” mural, which represents the vibrant pulse of the mission and the power of BART to connect San Francisco with the East Bay, the Peninsula and beyond. The official unveiling ceremony is slated to take place on Sept. 9.

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