Lead Contamination Closes 24th Street Mini-Park for Half a Year

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For roughly seven months the muraled walls, swings and animal-shaped playground structures at the 24th and York Mini-Park were kept locked behind a gate. Usually bustling with young children, parents, and caretakers, the park, wedged between two buildings on a busy commercial stretch, sat empty and quiet, with little explanation.

Last October, a sign was posted on the park’s gate:  “Dear Park Patrons…is temporarily closed” the notice stated, without further explanation.  Brief chatter on Nextdoor Potrero Hill wondered what was going on.  It wasn’t until April that a fuller picture emerged, when a “Notice of Hazard Control Work” sign was taped up, indicating that a project was underway to “Remove lead contaminated soil from the park.”

According to San Francisco Recreation and Park Department spokesman, Joey Kahn, health concerns were prompted when lead was found from chipping paint on the murals from neighboring building walls. The Department of Public Health found traces of lead in the soil throughout the park, and connected it with the paint fragments that’d fallen into the play area.

Before it was developed into a playground the park was an empty lot, which the City purchased in the 1970s. Murals painted by Michael Rios and Mujeres Muralistas were installed in 1974 and 1975, respectively.  In 2006, Precita Eyes Muralists, a Mission-based nonprofit community and arts education group, helped create – with Collete Crutcher, Mark Roller and Aileen Bar – the Quetzalcoatl mosaic sculpture that winds through the space.

To make the park safe for children, the City removed contaminated paint chips and all the soil from planted areas, replacing it with new dirt and vegetation. The murals have to be restored; parts of the walls are sealed off to prevent more paint chips from falling into the play area, Kahn said.  Municipal agencies and community groups “came together to ensure that the issue was safely resolved while preserving the integrity of the murals,” he said.  DPH and RPD worked with Precita Eyes Muralists on the cleanup process.

According to Calle 24 Latino Cultural District president and co-founder Erick Arguello, the “long, slow process” during which the park was closed was painful. The commons – created for small children – has become a cultural landmark, with school groups and tours visiting the murals and public art. “It was sorely missed,” he said. During the months-long closure Arguello said that people asked neighborhood merchants why the park was closed and when it would reopen.

The park reopened early last summer, from morning until sundown. Calle 24, which serves as a steward of the mini park, is still working on restoring the murals to their previous glory. “We said ‘just open the park,’” Arguello said, when it came to discussions with City agencies about what to do about repairing aesthetics after the hazardous lead had been removed.

Arguello said his group is working with Precita Eyes to raise grant money to restore the murals, which were scraped to remove lead underneath. “If you see them, they look shabby right now,” he said. By the end of the year he hopes restoration will be complete.