Remembering Gum Tree Girl Joan Seiwald
With the passing of Glen Park Gum Tree Girl Joan Seiwald on May 11, 2023, a significant era in the history of Glen Park has sadly come to an end. Joan was the last surviving member of the Gum Tree Girls trio that also included Zoanne Nordstorm (1933-2021) and Geri Arkush (1936-1999). These stalwart women with moxie, in collaboration with their predecessor, Minnie Straub Baxter (1894-1973), are largely responsible for saving the vast natural landscape of Glen Canyon that is so near and dear to all of us.
Joan and all of these women cared so very deeply about the quality of life in Glen Park. So much so that, without hesitation between 1958 and 1970, they stood up to some very powerful men in San Francisco city government and the California Highway Department to stop an implausible and outlandish plan to construct a viaduct freeway along Bosworth Street and through Glen Canyon as a shortcut from the Southern Freeway (today's I-280) to the Golden Gate Bridge. Had the "Circumferential Expressway" (later referred to as the Crosstown Freeway) been built, the harm to Glen Canyon, a Significant Natural Resource Area, and the neighborhood of Glen Park would have been irreparable.
Mrs. Baxter channeled the moxie she had observed as a 14-year-old in 1908 when the women of the Glen Park Outdoor Art League (including her mother) were crusading for improved infrastructure for the new district that was booming after the 1906 earthquake. Their civic involvement in an all-male public domain included frequent presentations to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and fighting for a woman's right to vote, with Glen Park resident Johanna Pinther co-leading the first official march for woman's suffrage in America in Oakland in 1908. It was this female-led civic activism that Mrs. Baxter brought to the first phase of the Freeway Revolt in 1958. She galvanized the neighborhood against the freeway and spoke in front of the California Legislature in opposition. She succeeded in halting the freeway.
Geri Arkush was a lifelong resident of Glen Park; Joan and Zoanne had both moved to Glen Park in 1960, purchasing their respective homes for $18,000 apiece - that's the equivalent of about $183,000 today. While these three young mothers had first met at the children's playground, remarkably, all three of their homes were within only 400 feet of each other about one block from Glen Canyon Park. When the freeway plan threatened the district again in 1965, the three women quickly took up the mantle and led the charge, with Mrs. Baxter supporting them in the background.
Joan wrote a letter to the San Francisco Progress requesting their support in opposition to the freeway plan. Glen Park was very much a blue-collar district well into the late 20th century. At the time, there were concerns that the city was driving the middle class out of San Francisco, a concern that still rings true today.
In an oral history interview recorded by the Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project in 2016, Joan shared that when Zoanne first alerted her the freeway plan was back, she got "a little a-twitter about it" and complained that the freeway was "going to take out 2nd base" in the Glen Canyon Park baseball diamond. She added that the "motto" of the San Francisco Parks Department at that time, which had approved of the freeway plan, was to "pave it and paint it green." She observed that because City Hall thought Glen Park was a "bucolic backwater," they believed the neighborhood could easily be taken advantage of. The women did everything they could to speak out and oppose the plan.
In the interview, Joan and Zoanne agreed that the trio's activism in opposition to the freeway plan clearly got on the nerves of City Engineer Clifford Geertz, who derisively referred to the women as "the Gum Tree Girls" ("gum tree" referred to a grove a eucalyptus planted in the late 1850s by a milch rancher that once stood near today's Diamond and Chenery Streets). In the oral history interview, Joan noted it was clear "we were getting his attention...he meant it in a derogatory way but we pretended we didn't know that." The women happily adopted the new moniker.
In October 1965, Joan typed a personal letter to then-Mayor John Shelley complaining about the freeway plan. In response, Mayor Shelley said while some portion of Glen Park would be affected, that it was his "...intention that the project not proceed until all possible alternatives have been explored." The following year, and not one to mince words, Joan wrote again to Mayor Shelley. He had been quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle as saying the realignment of O'Shaughnessy Blvd was necessary to accommodate a new high school in Diamond Heights: "Your statement...fills me with consternation. How a high school requires a realignment of a boulevard is beyond me --- especially when the article next to yours states that San Francisco is losing population. Just why do you suppose it is? As a member of the 'Save Glen Park Committee' I feel that any attempt to take any part of Glen Park for road widening will be met with the same, if not more, resolution to save our lovely park."
In response to another letter from Joan, Supervisor Terry A. Francois thanked her for her "most enlightening letter" and that "unquestionably we must begin to find solutions to our transportation problems; however, in the process we cannot afford to destroy or seriously damage what is best of our city, its great natural beauty. Further, I find it difficult to accept the notion that we need eight lane freeways to meet local transportation needs." She received similar responses from Supervisors Peter Tamaras, Roger Boas, and Leo T. McCarthy. With the assistance of Geri Arkush, the women also garnered support of then-State Senator George Moscone, in addition to then-California Assemblyman Willie Brown, and others.
Family members refer to the Glen Park Gum Tree Girls as "The Catholic" (Geri), "The Hippie" (Zoanne), and "The Republican" (Joan). They are a prime example of no matter the personal differences or philosophies, people can work together for a common cause - a fact that seems to have been lost in today's divisive society. Their methods have been cited as an important example of civic activism that should continue to be used moving forward (see: San Francisco is at a Tipping Point. The Revolts of the Past Must Show us the Path Forward, at SF Gate, October 13, 2021). A route in Glen Canyon named for the Gum Tree Girls was also highlighted in an article by National Geographic about the San Francisco Crosstown Freeway (see: You Can Walk Across San Francisco in a Day. Here's How, at nationalgeographic.com, July 28, 2021).
At the Glen Park Gum Tree Girls Festival in July 2022, the GPNHP was thrilled that Joan was able to attend. Just prior to the festival, the Burnside Mural had just been completed. Above the display of the amazing history of Glen Park and Glen Canyon, Mrs. Baxter, Joan, Zoanne, and Geri cast a protective gaze over the landscape. Joan was able to view the beautiful art from her home.
While the Gum Tree Girls are no longer with us, their legacy of moxie, persistence, resilience, and locking arms for a common cause can continue to be our guiding star in these challenging times. Long live the legacies of Joan, Geri, Zoanne, and Mrs. Baxter.