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Motel Hell 

It took years for the city to move against an SRO that was full of pests. So one resident took her case to court.

Wednesday, Dec 2 2009

As one of San Francisco's most affluent neighborhoods, the Marina doesn't have a ghetto. It just has the Bridge Motel, a tilted, reeking monument to neglect whose proprietors are being sued by the city for their egregious pattern of crime and safety code violations.

Knock at the door to room 35 of the residential motel on Lombard Street, and you'll find Anita Fritz.

"Who?" she grunts, and it comes off like a command, not a question. Only voices she recognizes will hear the bolt slide.

It was a perilous journey up the stairs to Fritz' room.

Behind the motel's scuffed front door lurks a stench that her neighbor once described as that of a charnel house, one where human remains are stored — except this is a noxious cocktail from decaying rat carcasses and human waste. It emanates from the ripped, uneven carpet of the ground floor entryway and wafts to the top of a winding staircase, where a desolate common area sags beneath a skylight that has been dripping rain into the motel since the Loma Prieta earthquake.

On the north side of the room, two hallways roll back and connect in a loop on which 53 motel rooms are situated. Many of them have been full of trash and crawling with bedbugs, rats, mice, and cockroaches. Their human occupants are sometimes fresh out of prison, mentally ill, or on drugs. One female tenant used to smear her feces on the walls and toilet seats.

Fritz' living space, however, is very tidy. Very funky. Very purple. "I'm a

purple person," she says. "My eye goes right to purple." Stylish and compact with a shock of frizzy, black-pepper-colored hair, she perches on her futon and readies a menthol cigarette to inflame her bronchitis. From an earlier trip to the dentist, she's dressed up in a flowered purple skirt, a lacy white tank top, and purple-tinted glasses. Fritz — who is missing several of her teeth — was turned away because of her cough.

About 10 years ago, her brain became swollen, she says, and as a result she had to relearn basic motor skills like walking and talking. Her spatial abilities, balance, and hand-eye coordination were never quite the same. She has trouble focusing on what she's doing with her hands, and sometimes ends up puffing unlit cigarettes.

Fritz' intellect — sharpened during a two-decade career in business administration — was not impaired. This was a bit of good fortune for her and many of the other tenants at the Bridge. She is the primary plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the motel, a status through which she can help win a $1.35 million settlement for herself and her fellow tenants. The lawsuit, filed in late 2006, exposed how the motel proprietors allowed their property to fall apart and blight the neighborhood.

Over the last decade, while Marina residents groused, city code inspectors bombarded the motel owners with citations, and police became regulars responding to calls over violence and drug use. But nothing seemed to change. In the midst of all the turmoil, the San Francisco Sheriff's Department actually began placing ex-offenders at the Bridge and paying their rent with city money.

You wouldn't expect Fritz — a down-and-out woman living in deplorable conditions — to be more effective at implementing health and safety policies than an army of bureaucrats. But in a city known for coddling slumlords, it took her and a class-action lawsuit to do the trick.

For some people, the Bridge Motel was supposed to be an escape. They wanted to get out of the Tenderloin, or a family member's spare room, or some equally uncomfortable situation. They wanted to save money and start over.

That was the plan for Jon Evans, a mild-mannered and bleary-eyed 43-year-old. Seven years ago, he decided to stop floating around and staying with relatives in San Francisco's downtown. He wanted to try living on his own, he says, and his family in Oakland agreed to pay his rent at the Bridge.

Upon moving in, Evans says he was offered a job cleaning the motel. He took it, he says, because he had nothing better to do and he wanted to make some cash. For his services, which he estimates that he performed every day for three to four hours, he says he was paid just $5 a day. (Citing the pending litigation, the managers of the building refused to comment for this story.)

Evans has lived in five different rooms at the Bridge; his current one has cracks in the wall and a sink without knobs. Sitting on a bare mattress, he laments that the living arrangement didn't live up to his expectations. "I thought it was a nice place and everything at first," he said. "But as time went on, I seen that it wasn't."

In the '60s, Don Stewart, a photographer, followed the Grateful Dead around and smoked pot. He eventually landed in the Haight and worked as a carpenter for a while before he and his partner moved to an SRO in the Mission to save some money. "It wasn't dirty and filthy like this," he said, indicating the Bridge.

The men later moved into the Bridge in hopes of upgrading their lifestyle and saving more money, but they were disappointed to find that many of their neighbors had "bags and bags of headwork" — meaning they were mentally unstable.

Before Stewart and his partner could move out, they both developed cancer. The partner died, and Stewart didn't much feel like going anywhere. Now he takes photographs around San Francisco every day, and sells the enlarged portraits in front of the Ferry Building. He keeps his modest room in immaculate condition, but sometimes the bedbugs still get in. "I've had some battles with them you wouldn't believe," he says, picking up a can of Good Night bug spray. "Finally I got this stuff, and it works like a champ. ... It seeps in and rots them from the inside. Sometimes it melts them right into the mattress, and you've got a big bloody mess on your sleeping gear. You can't ever get it out."

About The Author

Ashley Harrell


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