Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom, 1933-2021: Her Moxie Helped Save Glen Park

On February 15, 2021, the Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project (the GPNHP) received the very sad news that Glen Park Gum Tree Girl Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom had passed away earlier that day. Zoanne was known and loved by several generations of residents as one of our neighborhood icons. In many ways, we can thank Zoanne for the character of Glen Park we enjoy today, an outcome of her leadership and the support of other residents who answered the call to “Save Glen Park.” You can read more about her amazing life story, including interviews with friends and fans, at the Glen Park News.

Zoanne reacts to conversation during the video recording of the Gum Tree Girls oral history in 2016.
Zoanne Nordstrom, Glen Park Gum Tree Girl. Image by the GPNHP.

In 2016, the GPNHP was fortunate to have the opportunity to video record the oral history of the surviving Gum Tree Girls, Zoanne and Joan Seiwald. The third Gum Tree Girl, Geri Arkush, passed away in 1999. We anticipated it would take several different sessions to record Zoanne’s and Joan’s responses to our questions but once we got started, we powered through the entire set of questions for a full 90 minutes. You can view snippets of their interview at the GPNHP website. [1]


While Geri had been born and raised in Glen Park, both Zoanne (at the time, married to Reginald “Reg” Theriault) and Joan with her husband, Robert, had moved to Glen Park in the early 1960s. The women shared in their oral history how they had been attracted Glen Park because it was a nice, affordable neighborhood with a park nearby (each purchased their respective homes at the time for $18,000 – about $160,000 today). By happenstance, the three young mothers ended up living within 400 feet of each other as the crow flies, and within one block of Glen Canyon Park. It was in the park where they met while supervising their children in the playground. They soon became close friends.


Their destiny as Gum Tree Girls was set long before any of the women were born. In a 1926 survey of the national transportation landscape, the powers that be declared, “Circumferential routes were quickest for automobile movement and best for relieving congested centers.” [2] By 1937, the attitude was, “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 …” [3]


In late 1948, a plan for freeways from the California Highway Department (CHD; today’s CalTrans) and the San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) would be laid upon the City of San Francisco. This “system of traffic-ways would criss-cross San Francisco” and include the Panhandle freeway to the west, the Mission freeway to the southwest, and the Bayshore freeway to the south. “These three great thoroughfares are to be articulated by the Central freeway, which would function as a distributor and diffuser of these heavy traffic concentrations.” In addition, “the Circumferential Expressway would be built along the Seventh avenue-Woodside-O’Shaughnessy route … to connect directly into the Alemany 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.” [4] The outcome of this plan for circumferential transit between San Mateo County and Marin County – in other words, a shortcut – would mean the bisection of Glen Park and Glen Canyon Park.

The plan for San Francisco Freeways published in 1948. Remnants today include the western terminus of Interstate 80 (the Central Freeway), US Highway 101 (the Bayshore Freeway), and Interstate 280 (the Southern Freeway) and the San Jose Avenue approach. Image from KQED.
San Francisco Freeway Plan, 1948. Image courtesy of KQED.

Understandably, residents across several San Francisco neighborhoods, from Richmond to the Panhandle to North Beach, were not happy with plans that would cut their neighborhoods in half and lead to the demolition of hundreds of residences and business. The CHD and DPW rebutted with a rather imaginative storyline as to why freeways were essential. In an article entitle, “S.F. Skyways to Ease Traffic, Open Up Vistas,” they pontificated that, “With the loss of the ferry boats, [the] beautiful approach to the city has all but vanished … the beauty which has long been San Francisco’s fame will not only be restored to view [by viaduct freeways], but will be unfolded to the public entering from all directions … From these freeway structures, the view is here again.” [5,6]


At some point, someone must have decided that the tongue-twisting mouthful named the Circumferential Expressway was too complicated, and by 1958 it had been shortened to the Crosstown Freeway. Designed to accommodate a predicted traffic demand of 48,000 vehicles per day adjacent to Bosworth Street from Diamond Street (necessitating the widening of Bosworth) and along O’Shaughnessy Boulevard, the Crosstown was planned to be 2.8 miles in length and would hover 60-feet over Glen Canyon as it made its way to Portola Boulevard. There, a tunnel 1,100 feet in length would burrow under Woodside Avenue and Laguna Honda Boulevard and emerge at 7th Avenue. Continuing to Lincoln Avenue, the route would again go underground to leave Golden Gate Park untouched, and finally re-emerge on Park Presidio for easy access to the Golden Gate Bridge. While the City of San Francisco claimed they owned about 75% of the right-of-way, in Glen Park the city would need to purchase or take by eminent domain about 120 homes and 13 businesses. [7-9]

Proposed Crosstown Freeway Glen Park, 1958 (L), 1965 (R).

Minnie Straub Baxter, daughter of Glen Park saloon icon and co-founder of the first Glen Park Improvement Association, August Straub, was going to have nothing of it. She likely recalled from her childhood the suffragists of the Glen Park Outdoor Art League, their participation in the California Equal Suffrage Association, and their leadership in the first suffrage march in America in 1908. She may have remembered how they, along with the Glen Park Improvement Association, atypical of early improvement associations because of its inclusion of women, were always fighting to make Glen Canyon Park a public park and to preserve the open space on Twin Peaks. Through their efforts, 10 acres in Glen Canyon Park (in the area of today’s recreation center) was finally purchased by the city from the Crocker Estate in 1921 for $30,000 (in three annual installments of $10,000 beginning in 1919). The park opened to the public in 1922. [10,11]



Before the days of the Internet, social media and viral messaging, Mrs. Baxter handwrote letters, printed announcements, and made telephone calls to anyone who would listen. She knew she was up against a wall. Barney Booker, Assistant State Highway Engineer in charge of nine counties and based in San Francisco, was quoted as saying, “… the automobile is here to stay … Everyone has the right to his own opinion, even though he is dead wrong. Where politics rules, it is different.” The Chamber of Commerce believed, “Freeway construction is for the common good.” Mayor George Christopher was concerned that if the plan were not approved, San Francisco could lose “millions.” And, State Senator Randolph Collier, known as the “Father of California Freeways,” exhorted, “Some San Francisco residents protest against the freeways, but they are the ‘articulate 10 percent’ minority.” [12-14]


Mrs. Baxter organized a meeting of concerned residents at Glen Park School who became galvanized by her promotional flyer stating, “Come and learn how Glen Park District will be DESTROYED! Only God created this beautiful neighborhood in which we live – what man dares destroy it?” By all reports, the meeting gathered 400 to 500 and, depending on the reporter’s perspective, either “glum and bitterly protesting” Glen Park residents, or a crowd “jeering and hooting” at the audacity of the $20 million proposal (about $182 million today). [15] She traveled to Sacramento to voice the district’s opposition to the California Assembly, and her “Three-Minute Speech” to representatives received high praise. [16,17] From the cacophony of protests emanating from throughout San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors ultimately rejected the plan. Mrs. Baxter had won Round 1 of the Glen Park Freeway Revolt.


Seven years later in 1965, Zoanne was walking with her toddler son along the main dirt path in Glen Canyon known as Alms Road (renamed the Gum Tree Girls trail by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department [SFRPD] in 2015). Sighting a workman drilling a post hole in the road, she walked up to him and asked what he was doing. When he responded that this was for the new freeway coming through, she said, “THE HELL IT IS!” As soon as she got home, she called her friends, Joan and Geri, and immediately started the Save Glen Park Committee. Their first meeting, with Zoanne as committee chair, met at Glen Park School on October 19, 1965, with the goal of seeing what could be done to stop the project. [1]

Flyer for Protest Meeting, Save Glen Park Committee, November 9, 1965.

The Save Glen Park Committee identified the reasons why Glen Park and Glen Canyon should be saved from freeways: 1) Glen Canyon 1 of 9 designated conservation areas; 2) tree removal of nearly 120 eucalyptus would lead to a loss of the windbreak and its protection for playgrounds, as well as minimize the sylvan beauty of the district; 3) it would destroy the landscape enjoyed by 1,000 children annually who attended the summertime Silver Tree Day Camp; 4) freeways would result in pollution from increased traffic (before the days of clean fuels); and 5) the Arthur D. Little Report on San Francisco Community Renewal, a directive issued by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to address the “mass exodus of middle-income families from the city,” that stressed how San Francisco needed to retain these citizens and one way to do so was to create more parks and playgrounds, and to prevent destruction of existing parks and greenbelts. [18]


They immediately began typing letters and making telephone call after telephone call. Mrs. Baxter assisted in the effort behind the scenes by handwriting several letters and acting as adviser. Along the way, Zoanne, Joan, and Geri would connect with former Mayor George Moscone, former Mayor Willie Brown who was just beginning his political career, as well as nearly all San Francisco city supervisors. Joan kicked off the letter-writing campaign with a Letter to the Editor of the Bay Guardian. She urged readers to “save the trees,” that they shelter the park and give children a place to play. Why run a freeway across the baseball field? In reference to Mrs. Baxter’s efforts, Joan exclaimed, “At the time the Crosstown Freeway was killed, we thought we had won the battle … In many respects, we were snowed as this ‘boulevard’ will do much the same damage to our area.” Zoanne also wrote Letters to the Editor at the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle, and other local papers to get the word out to Save Glen Park! [12,19]


With the San Francisco Redevelopment Project Diamond Heights underway, Zoanne immediately notified architects Joseph Eichler, the Hayman Brothers, and Diamond Heights residents that they were about to lose their westerly views of the canyon and Mt. Davidson. They immediately opposed the freeway proposal. [12,20] The women also reached out to representatives from other city neighborhoods who were being impacted by the railroading of freeways through their district to collaborate and gain a louder voice.


Zoanne wrote a personal letter to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson for support and who was just starting her Keep American Beautiful campaign. Zoanne did not recall receiving a response. She also contacted Mayor John Shelley, who in turn forwarded her letter of concern to DPW, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, and the Director of City Planning. She wrote the reporters of Assignment Four at KRON television, and encouraged the monsignor of St. John’s Parish to alert the congregation. He followed through. [12]


The three women also engaged in what Geri Arkush’s daughter, Kristen, stated was “small-scale disobedience.” At the time, Kristen was 5 years old. She recalled how their families, “swung into action in order to delay this ill-conceived project any way that we could.” Every time surveyors set flags next to eucalyptus trees on the west slope of Glen Canyon that were targeted for removal to make room for the freeway, a gang of children was dispatched to remove them. [21] At committee meetings at City Hall, the women always seemed to be placed last on the agenda. It was Zoanne’s idea for the women to bring their children with them and allow them to play in the back of the meeting room. Because of the ruckus, the women and their cause to Save Glen Park would be quickly moved up to the next item on the agenda. [1]


Zoanne, Joan, and Geri hit a wall of intransigence at DPW, particularly with City Engineer Clifford Geertz. Joan recalled how, “They [City Hall] thought Glen Park was a ‘bucolic backwater’ … they didn’t want the working class in the city.” [1] Geertz was very much for freeways, and very much against eucalyptus trees (also known as gum trees), stating that once they’ve been cut, “… they grow back like weeds.” [22] The women thought Geertz was waiting for them to lose interest in the effort. They did neither. His disdain for the women became clear when he referred to Zoanne, Joan, and Geri as the “Gum Tree Ladies.” Rather than taking the insult, they thought that was a “great name” and so they took on the name and would be forever known as the “Gum Tree Girls.” [1]

Gum Tree Girls (L-R) Geri Arkush, Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom, Joan Seiwald.

In late 1965, the Board of Supervisors and the Save Glen Park Committee received a commitment from Geertz that no further damage would be done to Glen Canyon, agreeing to remove the bulldozers and repair the damage already done. [23] In December 1965, the Board of Supervisors rejected the freeway plan. [24]. The women’s grassroots civic activism had beaten the City of San Francisco and the California Highway Department. Zoanne and the Gum Tree Girls won Round 2!


There would be additional government efforts to reintroduce the freeway plan, sometimes disguised to make the intent less obvious, but the Gum Tree Girls came back to the table each time to win Rounds 3 and 4 up to 1970. While the viaduct freeway through Glen Park and Glen Canyon was never constructed, Bosworth Street was eventually widened in the late 1960s, leading to the demolition of several homes, as well as the building leased by the city at that time for the Glen Park Library.


But Zoanne’s work to save Glen Canyon was not over. In the late 1980s, bus service delivering campers to Silver Tree Day Camp had been halted by the city. As a result, parents started driving into Glen Canyon along Alms Road/Gum Tree Girls Trail. They parked and walked their children the remainder of the way to the site, then returned in the afternoon to pick them up. By some estimates, there were as many as 3,500 car trips weekly into the sensitive landscape of Glen Canyon’s parkland, and local residents wanted cars out of the canyon because of its impact on wildlife and habitat. Then in the summer of 1995, SFRPD, concerned with the human risk of so many cars in the canyon, conceived a plan to add a paved, one-way loop that would encircle the recreation center. Cars would enter at the Bosworth Street entrance, have access to 13 parking spaces, then exit through a gate at Elk Street. SFRPD believed this would not only reduce risk, but also improve access to the canyon for all. [25]

Cars in Glen Canyon, 1995; No Cars in the Canyon pin, 1995-1997.
Cards distributed as reminders to neighbors, visitors. Image courtesy of Ruth Gravanis.

Zoanne soon founded the Neighbors for a Car-Free Park. Glen Park residents vehemently opposed the plan because it was expected to increase car capacity in the park, encourage a dependency on vehicles to arriving at and moving within the park, reduce open space by paving more earth, create additional parking hazards, and require SFRPD staff to become parking monitors. Instead, residents wanted cars banned from Glen Canyon altogether. [26] Zoanne’s sons shared with the GPNHP that Zoanne partook of more of that small-scale disobedience by standing in the middle of Alms Road with her bicycle to block vehicle access. [27]


Many meetings were held with SFRPD and, after collecting 2,500 signatures in opposition in the Spring of 1997, then-Mayor Willie Brown assigned a liaison to find a way to revert camper transit back to busses. [28] By summer, Zoanne, now serving as the vice president of the Glen Park Association (she would later become president), reported a successful outcome with 3 MUNI busses entering the canyon daily and driving half-way along Alms Road where the children were dropped off. Zoanne also noted that, in addition to the increase in safety and reduction in damage to the landscape, busses could bring children from across the city into the canyon, resulting in more diverse demographics of Silver Tree day campers. [29] Busses would be eventually banned from the canyon, as well.


Zoanne was a true leader, and one of the Glen Park women who over the past 110 years have worked so hard to make Glen Park a better place. We owe a great debt to Zoanne and Gum Tree Girls Joan Seiwald and Geri Arkush, as well as all of the additional women from the 1970s to present who have volunteered, and who continue to volunteer their time and energy to protect the character of our neighborhood.


We are certain you will join us at the GPNHP as we extend our deepest sympathies to Zoanne's family, friends, and neighbors for their loss during this very difficult time. Zoanne believed that Glen Park was “the perfect small town in the middle of a big city.” [30] She certainly knew and loved her neighborhood, and for that, we will forever be grateful.

Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom with Evelyn Rose, Kristin Arkush, in 2018; certificate given to the Gum Tree Girls, 2017.

Resources

  1. Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project, Wonder Women! Glen Park's Gum Tree Girls, Minnie Straub Baxter, and the San Francisco Freeway Revolt, 2016.

  2. San Francisco Chronicle, August 13, 1926.

  3. San Francisco Chronicle, July 29, 1937.

  4. San Francisco Chronicle, December 19, 1948.

  5. San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 1954.

  6. San Francisco Chronicle, August 9, 1954.

  7. San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1958.

  8. Glen Park News, Summer 2000.

  9. Glen Park News, Winter 2007/2008.

  10. The Recorder, March 21, 1919.

  11. San Francisco Chronicle, June 3, 1919.

  12. Zoanne Nordstrom. Glen Park Freeway Revolt Scrapbook, 1965 to 1970, private archive.

  13. San Francisco Examiner, April 26, 1959.

  14. San Francisco Examiner, April 11, 1961.

  15. San Francisco Examiner, July 9, 1958.

  16. San Francisco Chronicle, July 8, 1958.

  17. San Francisco Chronicle, July 9, 1958.

  18. Save Glen Park Committee Report, November 9, 1965, in Zoanne Nordstrom, Freeway Revolt Scrapbook, 1965 to 1970, private archive.

  19. Joan Seiwald, Freeway Revolt Scrapbook, 1965 to 1970, private archive.

  20. Simonson HL, Modern Diamond Heights, 2017.

  21. Dr. Kristin Arkush, personal communication, 2017.

  22. San Francisco Chronicle, July 9, 1958.

  23. San Francisco Examiner, November 9, 1965.

  24. San Francisco Chronicle, December 10, 1965.

  25. The City Voice, June 2 to June 8, 1995.

  26. Traffic in Glen Park, Petition, ca 1995, Dawn Murayama, Friends of Glen Canyon notebooks, private archive.

  27. Theriault Family, personal communication, 2019.

  28. Glen Park News, Spring 1997.

  29. Glen Park News, Summer, 1997.

  30. San Francisco Chronicle, May 26, 2000.


Image Attributions

  1. Zoanne Nordstrom. From the Oral History of the Glen Park Gum Tree Girls, Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project, 2016.

  2. San Francisco Trafficways Plan, 1948. Image courtesy of KQED.

  3. Proposed Crosstown Freeway Glen Park, San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1958, and San Francisco Examiner, September 26, 1965.

  4. Mrs. J. C. Baxter (Minnie Straub Baxter), July 3, 1958. Freeway Fight. Overlooking Diamond Street in Glen Park. San Francisco Public Library Historical Photograph Collection.

  5. Save Glen Park Committee Protest Flyer, November 9, 1965. Zoanne Nordstrom. Glen Park Freeway Revolt Scrapbook, 1965 to 1970, private archive.

  6. Collage of Gum Tree Girls, (L-R) Geri Arkush, Zoanne Theriault Nordstrom, and Joan Seiwald. Courtesy of San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks.

  7. Cars in Glen Canyon, 1995. Images by Richard Craib. No Cars in the Canyon pin, 1995-1967. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

  8. Evelyn Rose with Zoanne Nordstrom, Kristin Arkush (back) at the dedication for California State Historical Landmark No. 1002 in 2018. Image by the Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project. Certificate presented to the Gum Tree Girls "for their moxie" by the Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project in 2017.

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