The case of the missing mural box

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Several observers in the blogosphere have pointed out that a utility box painted by San Francisco muralist Mona Caron was removed without warning, and replaced with a “boring box.”

The public art piece, titled Manifestation Station, featured an optical illusion completing a view of the intersection of Duboce and Church streets with an alternative reality incorporating a garden, a creek, cyclists and mosaic sidewalk art.

When the box was removed, “Mona had no idea where it went, and it took a while – lots of phone calls and emails – to locate it,” reports Hugh D’Andrade, a friend of Caron’s. D’Andrade finally tracked it down at a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency rail yard, at 2502 Alameda Street.

D'Andrade tracked it down and took this photo at the SFMTA yard.

In addition to being flagged on neighborhood blogs, the sudden removal of the box has also attracted the attention of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association. According to an email that was forwarded to the Guardian from DTNA’s David Troup, “Supervisor [Scott] Wiener is aware of the situation and monitoring it.”

According to Paul Rose of the SFMTA, "The controller box was replaced after the completion of the Church & Duboce Rail Replacement project, as part of a system-wide upgrade of various electrical sectionalized switches and associated controller boxes."

In a note to a community of concerned supporters on Facebook, Caron related the backstory.

It all started when the SFMTA needed to install two new boxes as part a 2012 track improvement project at Church and Duboce. “The community complained of additional sidewalk clutter,” Caron explained, so “under pressure, MTA softened the pill by agreeing to beautify the two new boxes with art.”

At that point, another neighborhood group pushed for including a pre-existing box, at the corner of Church and Duboce, in the beautification project. That’s the one Caron transformed into Manifestation Station, but unfortunately the switches inside it were aging and in need of replacement. “This was a last-minute addition, pushed for by well-meaning, community-oriented people, and nice people at MTA shooed that in,” Caron notes. However, “I repeatedly asked about the projected longevity of that old box, and was reassured.”

Rose said SFMTA did not know that the box would have to be replaced at the time the project was approved. But while he initially told the Guardian that he believed it was the Art Commission that had granted approval for Manifestation Station, it was actually SFMTA. “They basically informed me down the line a ways that there was a third box to paint,” Caron explained.

It didn’t take long before Muni learned (the hard way) that the switches inside the box needed to be replaced. “The switch failed in that location,” Rose told the Guardian in a phone interview. “And that’s when it became evident that they needed to be replaced.”

What Caron had heard about the switch failure was this: “Awhile back, a sectionalizing switch inside it actually blew up, and caused a nine-day mess at that corner affecting J and N train service. I remember seeing the white smoke sediments beneath the box's vents.”

And that is why Manifestation Station was removed and replaced with “this new, narrower but much taller box,” in Caron's words. Rose said SFMTA plans on asking Caron to paint it. “We’re going to reach out to the artist,” he said, adding that the agency hopes to address it over the next three months. As for what will become of Manifestation Station, Rose told the Guardian that decision would also be left up to the artist. 

If a new utility box creation does manifest at the corner of Church and Duboce, don’t expect a repeat of what was there before. Asked how she might respond if the SFMTA contacts her with this request, Caron said, “I guess I may be willing to in this case – though I won't redo the same thing. Generally I don't really want to spend too much time painting boxes. I want to paint walls. I'd love for Muni to have me paint a big wall.”

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