Capturing History One File at a Time

Imagine getting a glimpse of the history of your neighborhood from original documents. Over the past two years, a unique group of student interns have been sorting through dusty old records and maps to capture and preserve San Francisco history while gaining important skills at the same time.  

“Our interns are creating important modern records of San Francisco’s evolving development,” said Brenda Donald, Supervising Wastewater Control Inspector at the SFPUC Wastewater Enterprise Collection System Division. “Our team not only operates and maintains the collection system that transports wastewater from household, business and street drains to our treatment plants, but we also keep all kinds of old but important paper records.”

Project Pull interns Mateo Zelaya (front center) and Khang Truong (back) taking a break to take a picture with their work coach Luis Medina (left) and Brenda Donald (right).

At the Bayview Plaza offices of the SFPUC, interns from a collaborative program between the Project Pull and Access SFUSD have been scanning and digitizing boxes and boxes of documents dating back to the 1940s through the 1970s detailing technical records of research and inspections of land use for all of San Francisco.

“It makes me feel like history in the making when Brenda explains some of those files and maps,” said Project Pull Intern Khang Troug.

Project Pull interns Khang Truong (back left) and Mateo Zelaya (front right) with their work coach Luis Medina (left).

Entering its 25th summer, Project Pull is a paid summer internship program sponsored by the City and County of San Francisco that provides professional mentorship to high school students from the diverse communities within San Francisco. During the eight-week program, interns explore careers in architecture, business, engineering and science by interning with full-time City employees from various City departments. Access SFUSD is a community-based program for students 18-22 with disabilities that focus on teaching functional life skills within a community setting.

“By digitizing data, it gives us a reference point. It makes for a complete record. It will be useful in informing developers and property owners what their land was once used for and will hopefully help them make good decisions,” said Donald.

Donald is in the business of making sure there is accurate record keeping in place to minimize any environmental impacts that may affect wastewater. She says the work the interns are doing is an example of how modern technology is helping to reduce environmental impacts. The interns play a key role in making sure important history is not lost. They also get hands-on training that will serve them will in future jobs and stresses the importance of reducing environmental impacts close to home.

Project Pull interns Khang Truong (left) and Mateo Zelaya (right) with their work coach Luis Medina (back).

“After I chose PUC as my job site, I started to feel very nervous, thinking all the new people and places I will be working, scanning all those old files. But it’s been awesome! I remember one file in particular, Coca Cola Bottling Plant in the 60s and 70s and thinking it’s not too far from where we are right now, on Third Street,” said Project Pull Intern Mateo Zelaya.

On January 26, 1971 the City and County of San Francisco passed the Industrial Waste Ordinance, an early adoption of environmental regulations. Through this ordinance, pioneering Industrial Waste Program staff kept detailed records of the research and inspections of San Francisco Industry at the time. This resulted in a huge volume of documents that were only getting older and more at risk of being damaged or misplaced. Donald gives thanks nearly every day that the amazing interns and their work coach Luis Medina came to the rescue.

“The thing that I always admire from our students is the ownership they take every time they have a project in hand, their responsibility and the effort they put into it, as well as the independence they build interacting with every staff member at SFPUC,” said Medina. “This is a living example of how regulations and modern technology are helping to reduce environmental impacts.”

Project Pull intern Khang Truong scanning to digitize a map.