Heart of the City Archives

Vaillancourt Fountain in 1985. From the industrial nucleus of a city springs hope, optimism, life.









From the Passion of Angela to Finding Vaillancourt
by Hank Donat

Angela Alioto is, as usual, aiming high. The former Supervisor and three time mayoral candidate negotiated a leadership role in the city's effort on homelessness with Gavin Newsom before last fall's runoff election. This month, with the backing of Mayor Newsom, Alioto convened the 33-member council she formed to draft San Francisco's 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. Yes, end.

"E-N-D," Alioto says, "If you replace the word 'improve' in the sentences of most bureaucrats, administrators, and community program people with the word 'end,' you'll scare those people. They don't get that 'improve' is an excuse to fall short, but they will before I'm finished."

When the council's work is completed by the end of June it will produce a document, 60-90 pages in length, which Alioto says will provide measures for intervening in the lives of homeless people and for keeping at-risk individuals off the streets in the first place.

"Prevention is half the job," says Alioto, "You have to target the programs that stop peoples' entrances into homelessness - from the mentally ill to the incarcerated, to AFDC mothers, to kids in foster care or in lifelong custody disputes."

The chronically homeless - those living outdoors for more than a year or intermittently for more than two years - are the most visible members of San Francisco's homeless population. "That group is 10 percent of the homeless problem but it uses 50 percent of the resources," Alioto says.

To skeptical members of the public, who have seen homeless plans come and go while homelessness is perennial, Alioto says do not expect a cut-and-paste document based on past failures. "Been there, done that," she says, "At this stage in my life I'm not putting my time and passion behind something that's not going to be effective. I refuse to do useless things and I think Mayor Newsom has shown he's about getting the job done, too."

Getting this job done is, on the face of it, a conundrum. In a country with the richest of the rich, living with the poorest of the poor seems inevitable in the spectrum of a competitive economy.

"First of all, the Lord says the poor will always be among us," Alioto says, "But as far as the economy is concerned, those that lose the competition are not on the same playing field.

"As a discrimination lawyer I've represented hundreds of African-American men. If you are going to have black males under-represented in employment statistics and over-represented in homeless statistics, we need to see the correlation and that has to do with an unfair field."

Alioto's careers in politics and the law burnished her reputation as one of San Francisco's intriguing personalities. Asked how she feels about politics today, Alioto is reflective.

"Until I was 31 years old, I was not only apolitical, I hated politics," she says. "It kept my dad away from the dinner table. It took my dad away from me. I hated trying to have lunch with him when 40 people would come up and say hello. We couldn't enjoy the chicken Jerusalem at Jack's. I remember it like it was yesterday.

"Then, I got into politics because I found out it's the only way that you can really help people. You legislate something and then it's the law of the land. What I'm doing now is absolutely dependent upon the fact that the mayor of this city is my partner."

In other news, Supervisor Aaron Peskin has asked city departments to consider removing the Vaillancourt Fountain from Justin Herman Plaza.

After speaking with Peskin it becomes clear that he is not at all adamant about removing the public fountain, which was installed in 1971 but has been dry for the past three years due to energy conservation.

While he personally thinks the industrial design has lost its context without the Embarcadero Freeway, Peskin raised the issue only after some failed attempts to have the water turned back on. His current move is a "use it or lose it" proposition.

It's a bold move for Peskin to court controversy by suggesting the destruction of public art in this decidedly preservationist city. The Vaillancourt Fountain was not intended to be viewed as it is today, barren and bereft. When operating as a fountain, the Vaillancourt is simply one of the most beautiful and compelling works of art in the entire city.

Here's a hint: It's about climbing over and among the fountain's roaring apertures. It is to be experienced, not misunderstood from afar. To see the City through the fountain, not the other way around, is artist Francois Vaillancourt's vision. I am confident that Mr. and Ms. San Francisco will follow Peskin's initiative and see to it that funding is found to return the fountain to its glory. (Update: Thanks to Peskin's effort and support from the public and Mayor Gavin Newsom, the Vaillancourt Fountain sprang to life on August 2, 2004. - HD)

As a columnist who is gay and has written about his marriage in a city-wide San Francisco newspaper, I have been asked to comment on the San Francisco Chronicle's decision to take reporter Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf off the gay wedding story because they themselves got married.

The fact that we're having discussions in our culture about gay reporters and "the story," gay lawyers and "the story," gay judges and "the story," gay children of right wing political leaders and "the story," all reveals to me that the real story is the universal existence of gays and the sheer wrongness of discrimination against them. That's why it becomes more black and white as a civil rights issue each day and it's why gays will win the right to marry in the long run.

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Copyright 2004 Hank Donat
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