Wonder Women! Glen Park's Gum Tree Girls, Minnie Straub Baxter, and the San Francisco Freeway Revolt
Let's Celebrate Glen Park Moxie!
at the Glen Park Gum Tree Girls Festival!
Sunday, July 10, 2022, 10:30 am to 3:30 pm, Glen Canyon Park
We are hoping to raise $5,000 for the nonprofit and free Glen Park Gum Tree Girls Festival
on Sunday, July 10, 2022 in beautiful Glen Canyon Park. We want to ensure Glen Park’s historic activist women receive the honor and recognition they deserve for striving for the rights of all!
Read more about the legacy of Gum Tree Girl Zoanne Nordstrom and her fight to protect Glen Canyon by clicking the above link, then linking on the post about her.
Learn more about her amazing life story at the Glen Park News.
In the summer of 2016, the Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project recorded the oral history of two of Glen Park's Gum Tree Girls: Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom and Joan Seiwald, who also spoke for their late compatriot, Geri Arkush. The legacy of the Gum Tree Girls was celebrated at a meeting of the GPNHP in October 2017, during which Zoanne, Joan, and Geri (represented by her daughter, Kristen) were presented with a Certificate of Appreciation for their "... civic activism and moxie that saved Glen Park and Glen Canyon from freeway construction during San Francisco’s Freeway Revolt, 1965 to 1970." The history of the Freeway Revolt in Glen Park is below. Here are quick links to snippets from the Gum Tree Girls oral history video:
Part 1. "The Hell It Is!" Part 2. "The Beautiful View of the Freeway" Part 3. "Pave It, and Paint It Green" Part 4. "We Were Trouble" Part 5. "A Great Name!" Part 6. "You Can't Do This!" Part 7: "You Can Beat City Hall!"
Freeways for All!
In 1948, the California Highway Department (today, the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans) and San Francisco's Department of Public Works published a grandiose plan to crisscross the City of San Francisco with freeways. It was an idea that had already been percolating for 20 years.
First, a brief history of motoring. The first automobile in San Francisco had been built in 1896 by John L. Meyers, foreman at the J. L. Hicks Company, manufacturer of gas and gasoline engines. (1,2) By 1900, there were 5 vehicles registered in the City, and by 1903 the number had increased 100-fold. (1) By September 1930, there was one auto for every 4 residents in the City: with a census of 658,000 in 1930, that would be nearly 160,000 automobiles. For comparison, as of 2015 there were nearly 500,000 cars registered in San Francisco, a number that included registration of only about 25% of the 5,700 Uber and Lyft cars using road space in the City on any given weekday. (3-5)
With the love of "Motordom" on the rise in the early 1900s, both automobilists and highway engineers were already looking for alternative routes, and freeways had become the newest call to action. As first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1926: "Circumferential routes were quickest for automobile movement and best for relieving congested centers.” (6) Eleven years later, anticipation for the new roadways intensified: "We are ready for highways divided physically to end the menace of the head-on crash. And we are ready to build super-bypasses or circumferential routes that avoid whole regions of congestion …" (7)
In the 1948 plan, a “System of traffic-ways would criss-cross SF,” including a Panhandle freeway to the west, a Mission freeway to the southwest, and a Bayshore freeway to the south. Further, that, “These three great thoroughfares to be articulated by the Central freeway, which would function as a distributor and diffuser of these heavy traffic concentrations.” [For more of the citywide history, see Chris Carlsson's "Freeway Revolt" at FoundSF.org.]
Moreover, it was also announced that, “The Circumferential Expressway would be built along the Seventh avenue-Woodside-O’Shaughnessy route ... It would connect directly into the Alemeny freeway by way of Bosworth street ... Eventually it should be extended across Golden Gate Park to Park-Presidio boulevard for access to the Richmond district and the Golden Gate Bridge.” (8)
Talk of freeways continued in the years that followed. Sensing some resistance in 1954, the San Francisco Examiner and other papers attempted to portray how freeways would be a savior of the thing most precious: "... for tourists and San Franciscans alike, as the evolution of transportation continues, the portal picture is being revived by what the engineers call skyways - the Bay area freeways. As these skyways are developed, the beauty which long has been one of San Francisco's great traditions not only will be restored to view, but will be unfolded to countless thousands entering San Francisco from all directions. The recently completed section of the Bayshore Freeway [now U.S. Highway 101] between Army [now Cesar Chavez] and Bryant Streets opened an entirely new vista. Motorists skirt Portrero Hill on wide curves. As they approach the elevated section of this new freeway facility, a panorama of the imposing city skyscrapers develops with a real life suddenness to dwarf the thrills of Cinerama." (9)
It's true that driving upon high, no matter the landscape, may indeed offer the better view. Yet, any plan for the bisection of a neighborhood, already known for its beloved open space and sylvan beauty, with an elevated viaduct that would run parallel to Bosworth Street, then bank north to run along aside O'Shaughnessy Boulevard and hover 60 feet above Glen Canyon, then plow underground at Portola Drive and rise again 1,100 feet later at 7th Avenue, then bore underground a second time under Golden Gate Park and reappear at Park Presidio, while in the process taking out 120 homes and 13 businesses and with the sole intent of being a quick jaunt to the Golden Gate Bridge was an affront to a large number of residents. (10,11)
Freeway Revolt, Round 1: Minnie Straub Baxter
In 1958, enter Mrs. Hermini "Minnie" Straub Baxter, a native of Glen Park, daughter of August Straub, iconic Glen Park saloon keeper and co-founder with Theodore Pinther of the first Glen Park Improvement Association in 1907. Born in 1895, Minnie had witnessed the explosive growth of Glen Park following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As a pre-teen, she had been exposed to all of the civic activism bubbling around her from the time the gavel calling the first meeting of the Glen Park Improvement Association to order was struck. She was there when the ladies of the Glen Park Outdoor Art League and Johanna Pinther's San Francisco Women's Club (of which Minnie's mother was a member), both founded in 1908, were working to bring basic infrastructure to the new community of Glen Park and striving to achieve votes for women in California. All three associations were imploring the Crocker Estate to return the southern portion of Glen Canyon, at the time being operated as a reservation-only pleasuring ground, from the grips of private ownership back to public recreation (a mission they and their successors would pursue until 1922 when the Crocker Estate finally sold 10 acres to the City for use as a public park). Minnie had known the value of grassroots activism as long as the term had been in use, and 50 years later she would be carrying that Glen Park tradition forward.
Minnie soon set out to galvanize the neighborhood. She first circulated a card to promote attendance to a community meeting that declared, "Come and learn how Glen Park District will be DESTROYED!” Some 500 "glum and bitterly protesting" residents attended the meeting at Glen Park School, with Minnie closing the meeting with this: "Only God created this beautiful neighborhood in which we live – what man dares destroy it?” (12,13) She traveled to Sacramento to speak in opposition to the freeway plan before the California Assembly to deliver what became famously known as "The Three-Minute Speech" (Read Minnie's Three-Minute Speech). (11)
She soon met face-to-face with the Director of the DPW, Sherman P. Duckel, who without apology noted that, "someone is always hurt by construction of a freeway." City Planning Director Jim McCarthy proclaimed, "Like it or not, the automobile is here to stay. Some of us must pay." The Mayor of San Francisco, George Christopher, whose own Christopher Dairy cows had roamed and ruminated on the slopes of Glen Canyon until 1940, stated, "If the City doesn't support freeway planning, it could lose the millions the legislature plans to allocate." (Of note, some $350 million in highway funds had been tagged for San Francisco, equivalent to about $3 billion today). The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce believed freeway construction was for the common good. And, State Senator Randolph Collier, identified as the "father of freeways," responded with, "By and large everyone including San Francisco officials endorse the freeway plan. Some San Francisco residents protest against the freeways, but they are the articulate 10 percent minority." (11,14)
Despite all the government hubris being dispensed, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously against the city-wide freeway plan in January 1959. From an editorial by the San Francisco Examiner, "The Board of Supervisors correctly reflected public sentiment when it killed several proposed San Francisco Freeways last week. The lawmakers and highway planners at Sacramento seem reluctant to accept that as fact ... there can be no doubt that the unanimous vote was a true reflection of public sentiment ... The officials at Sacramento ... must be helped to see that this extremely compact city of hills and panoramas possesses values and qualities given to few cities in this world. San Franciscans are neither quixotic nor pointlessly stubborn when they insist these must not be destroyed by surface and elevated freeways ... but this city of never-ending beauty is also a great, throbbing commercial center ... In rejecting freeways they're not seeking quaintness, like Carmel-by-the-Sea. Their revolt is against the kind of freeways they see around them ... They are rebelling against freeways ... that stride along as huge, ugly elevateds or that slash great gashes through residential or business districts. The revolt is the day of reckoning for all those who have exalted freeways above other urban values." (14) Round One had been won, and Glen Park's Minnie Straub Baxter had played a tremendous role in its success.
Freeway Revolt, Rounds 2, 3, and 4: The Gum Tree Girls
In the early 1960s, 2 young moms - Zoanne Theriault and Joan Seiwald - had become new residents of Glen Park. They had first met on one of their frequent outings to Glen Canyon Park to entertain their young children. Soon, they would also meet lifelong Glen Park resident Geri Arkush and quickly became fast friends. They had no idea that over the next few years they would become icons of a new generation of grassroots activists.
While Minnie Straub Baxter, along with a multitude of residents throughout San Francisco, had waged a successful battle against the freeway demagogues, the defeated highwaymen were determined to still carry out their plan. Reports surfaced in 1959 and 1960 that the DPW still planned to widen Bosworth and tunnel under Portola Drive, claiming that traffic along Bosworth and O’Shaughnessy would double by 1980 because of the new redevelopment project called Diamond Heights. Glen Park residents labeled the plan as “the Crosstown Freeway plan in disguise” (engineers had renamed the Circumferential Expressway to one that rolled more easily off the tongue). (15,16) By 1965, DPW had purchased and razed nearly 20 structures along the north side of Bosworth, including the building at 700 Bosworth at Lippard that housed the Glen Park Branch Library, as well as the former home of Glen Park suffragist Johanna Pinther at 1006 Bosworth at Hamerton. (17-20) The widening of Bosworth to four lanes would not be completed until 1970.
With Bosworth taken care of, DPW set its sights on O'Shaughnessy Boulevard by threatening to straighten the hairpin curve exiting from Glen Park and extending the widened road further up the hill towards Portola Drive, which the San Francisco Examiner said, "... will offer the eager motorist a hot-shot route from the Southern Freeway [today's U.S. Interstate 280] over Twin Peaks to the northern side of The City.” (21) Concurrently, plans were underway to also widen Elk Street running along the eastern border of Glen Canyon Park between Bosworth and Sussex Streets. (22)
One day in 1965, Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom was strolling through Glen Canyon with her toddler son and came upon some activity that raised her suspicions. View Part 1 below, "The Hell It Is!", to hear Zoanne and Joan tell their "origin story." (Read the letter Joan Seiwald refers to in Part 1.)
Zoanne, Joan, and Geri called the first meeting of their new Save Glen Park Committee to order on October 19, 1965. During the meeting, they shared the mission of the committee: To investigate the plan for the rerouting of O’Shaughnessy over the recreation area, and to see what could be done to save Glen Park that, according to Zoanne years later, "... was the perfect small town in the middle of a big city." (11,23,24)
Joan and Zoanne speak about that first meeting in Part 2, "The Beautiful View of the Freeway."
The Save Glen Park Committee members, with Minnie Straub Baxter providing assistance by writing letters in longhand, quickly got the word out to news organizations, government officials, and even local developers. For example, construction of new homes in the Diamond Heights redevelopment project was just getting underway. Zoanne wrote letters to both Joseph Eichler and the Hayman Brothers, architects in the project who had many properties facing Glen Canyon (in 1950, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency had claimed Glen Canyon as part of Diamond Heights to preserve the natural views). Zoanne was to the point: “We would like to inform you that Glen Park faces destruction … Since Glen Park will be one of your main assets for selling these homes, we should like to enlist your help for saving the park … Can you help stop this senseless desecration?” Both architects agreed to help stop the freeway. (23-25)
Surprisingly, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department had believed that a freeway hovering over the western baseball diamond and recreation center would not impair the enjoyment of recreation. In September 1965, Recreation and Park General Manager James P. Lang had stated the department would "... not stand idly by while the 'forces of progress' plow ahead unheeded." Lang went on that, "When the engineers notified us last year part of Glen Park [ie, the recreation area] might have to go, we had an understanding that we would be kept posted as to their plans ... To date we have heard nothing ... I'm not going to just roll over and play dead when it comes to a questions of what happens to the trees in our parks ... We may need improved throughways but we need our park areas as well." (21) Yet, two days later, General Manager Lang responded by letter to Zoanne that, "It is the objective of this Commission to protect park lands for the enjoyment of the people of San Francisco. In January 1957, the matter of the Crosstown Freeway was considered by the Recreation and Park Commission and at that time a route was approved which would do very little damage to the Park." (22,23) (Read the letter from General Manager Lang.) By November 9, the Save Glen Park Committee had learned from City Engineer Clifford Geertz and DPW Director S. Myron Tatarian that Superintendent of Parks Frank Foehr and the department's Chief Nurseryman, Jack Spring, had approved the test borings in the canyon without triggering any new deliberations by the San Francisco Parks Commission. (26)
View Part 3, "Pave It, and Paint it Green" to hear more from Joan and Zoanne.