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Peter Vaernet

Western Neighborhoods Project "I am OMI"

Interview with Peter Vaernet

October 5, 2003

Woody LaBounty,
interviewer

LaBounty: What's today? October 5, right? We're up here, right looking out almost at Brooks Park, and I'm here with Peter Vaernet.

So, how did you get here to the OMI, to this house, to Brooks Park, to this neighborhood?

Vaernet: One thing was that I lived downtown for a number of years, and I realized that sooner or later I had to buy something, because landlords are notoriously unreliable. Even good ones are unreliable. So the only place we could afford a house was in a very rough neighborhood where the real estate agents basically all said, "Oh, my lord, don't buy there!" I said, "Oh, this sounds like my kind of place." I'm a Viking, you know, and I like to take on challenges. And the prices are certainly right, you know; $150, $175,000 for a house is absolutely something that I can maybe swing with my wife.

There's something also about moving into a raw neighborhood. It's a nice, nice challenge, in a way, because, I think, looking back at my childhood in Scandinavia, I have a model in my mind of how things can be, more peaceful and more quiet and a little more community cohesion, and so on. I said, "This is a good project."

And when I saw the views from up here, I said to myself, "This can't possibly remain bad forever." I mean, I only found this neighborhood, actually, because I was standing by San Francisco State one day. I was taking some classes there. In fact, I graduated from there. I was standing on the corner of 19th and Holloway, and I looked east, southeast. And I saw this hilltop of trees, and I said, "What in the world is that up there? What neighborhood is that?" And nobody knows this neighborhood because it's all dead-end streets. Nobody comes here. You can't drive through. So people only come here if they live here, or if they want to buy drugs.

So I walked up here, and it was just fantastic. And I saw this park and I said, "My lord, it's just lying here. What's going on, it's a hilltop overlooking the Farallones Islands and Mount Tamalpais. I mean, this is just incredible."

So, this house happened to be for sale, a very big house. I could get a much smaller house in the Sunset for the same price, but his was a huge house, four-bedroom, three-bath, much more space than I ever needed. But it had the fantastic views. "This is what I want to do. I want to buy this."

So I did. The family that lived here were very nice people. He worked for the city, he worked for DPW. He was a mason with DPW. He built the wall around this house and so on, Sidney Hines [phonetic] and his wife, the older Hines, and they built this house in 1963. They moved out of here because her knees were getting so arthritic that she really couldn't get up the stairs, something that we don't think about until we get to be that age. These stairs, even though they're few, presented a tremendous challenge to her. So they moved to Vallejo, bought a ranch-style house, and they sold to me and my wife. So, we were lucky, I think.

It was very rough the first couple of years when bullets were flying. We got bullet holes in our garage door. People were actually shooting up here. Every night, you would hear bullets flying, every night, every single night. From the back of the house you heard shooting going on down on Randolph.

LaBounty: What year was this?

Vaernet: 1986, 1987.

LaBounty: So you wanted a challenge, a little bit. And you said when you were growing up as a kid, you kind of had an idea, or a young man, I guess, about what a community should be, or kind of had some ideas about it. Did you have that there, or did you not have it there?

Vaernet: In Denmark, we had it. In Denmark, there's lots of community organizations. People pay very high taxes so everything is funded a little bit like in many parts of northern Europe, northwestern Europe, Austria, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden. We pay very high taxes, and then society is much more peaceful, things are better maintained and so on and so forth. So I thought I had a model of it. I thought, "Jeez, things don't have to be this chaotic."

It's almost like a community public health project. Priorities are always kids have a right to be safe, children have a right to be safe, and women have a right to be safe in a neighborhood. It's just wrong that things are this bad. So being a crazy Viking, I said, "Hey, I'll take this on." [Laughs]

And then you meet neighbors that are magnificent. We met Minnie Ward, African American lady in her sixties, who just said, "This is unacceptable. This is simply not the way things should be," and I agreed with her. Then we found more and more neighbors that agreed that this is just unacceptable. Then people, we formed together. We formed an organization of Neighbors In Action. We get together and we start talking about the way things should be. We built block clubs. We start having activities in the park, like you saw the neighbors all came out to a place they wouldn't dream of going.

LaBounty: So when you moved in and you kind of knew there was a bit of a challenge here because the real estate agents are giving you the warning, "Don't move here," and you get here and there's bullets being fired, do you think originally, like, "Oh, maybe I've bitten off more than I can chew"?

Vaernet: No, no.

LaBounty: Or were you just saying, "That's just part of what we're doing here"?

Vaernet: I didn't think so at all, actually, because when I came up here the first time, when I found this hill and I walked around the neighborhood, I noticed many of the people that lived here owned their homes. They were not rentals. They owned their homes, and they were African Americans in their fifties and sixties, and they were maintaining their houses very nicely. They were keeping it very nice. I said to myself, "These people, these neighbors, they know what's right. They know what's right. It's just that there's not a structure to get people to agree about what should be done." It's sort of this kind of principle that my mother always taught me about many little creeks make a big river. You need to get people to funnel together, get into a funnel and get together. When then I saw the neighbors up here, I said to myself, "These neighbors really do care about how things look." It's just that they don't have enough energy to do anything but just their own little home.

LaBounty: They had a sense of pride on their own lot and in their own home.

Vaernet: On just their own little lot, yes. But it needs to be brought wider out in the community, and so I knew that I had allies automatically. I knew that it wasn't like you were sitting there all alone. Mr. Jenkins is still over there. His son is now a Ninth Circuit Superior Court judge, federal judge, downtown, Marty Jenkins, who grew up right here. And there's Mr. Jenkins, the other Mr. Jenkins over there. I mean, there was Jim. I mean, there're all kinds of outstanding people that came here in the forties and when they were building ships and all this, and migrated from the South. These are outstanding people.

So I knew I wasn't alone. And Minnie Ward. I mean, I knew there were lots of people in the neighborhood that really had an idea about wanting the same thing. So I think when we pooled our resources, they all came out to the park, and we started working together on a lot of issues.

LaBounty: So you were welcomed when you moved in here, I mean, by the neighbors?

Vaernet: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, they came right over and said, "Welcome to the neighborhood." There was no kind of racial discrimination or anything at all. And I'm the kind of person, anyway, I don't care what color. As a Scandinavian, I see everybody in this country as being American, period. I'll go up to them and I'll talk to them, I don't care who they are. If they're standing in a group, I'll go up and talk to them, introduce myself. I'm a foreigner here. I'm a visitor, sort of, in a sense. I'll go and talk to the Americans. I don't care which degree of suntan they have, I'll talk to them. Yes, I mean, they're fabulous people.

We discussed, of course, the problems. Many of the problems were interesting, because it's kind of like many people raise their children, they gave them everything they could and really took good care of them, and many of the kids maybe got a little too spoiled and kind of became a little bit out of control and started selling drugs, and really kind of the parents were really good people or the grandparents were good people, but they sort of let their kids go. Because maybe they think, "I had such a hard life, I'm really going to treat my kid to everything." And then, of course, it sort of fell apart, and that was really sad.

So many of the kids that dealt drugs in this neighborhood were actually living with the parents downstairs or something like that, and that's still the truth even today, to a certain extent. But, of course, as parents then get older and move out, then the kids have to move with them. So some of the drug dealings stuff sort of went away when some neighbors just moved.

LaBounty: A natural sort of people moving out of the neighborhood, yes.

Vaernet: A natural sort of, yes, moved out of the neighborhood, and what we have left now is very good people that--I mean, I think the neighborhood is much safer now, and I think that Minnie Ward and other people in this neighborhood, people on this side of the hill, that actually are also very instrumental. Minnie lives--you spoke to Minnie, I assume?

LaBounty: Yes.

Vaernet: She lives over on Farrallones, and many of her colleagues now are my neighbors, and actually live on this side of the hill, magnificent ladies that I think it couldn't have been done without them, couldn't.

LaBounty: How soon was it after you got here, was there already like a neighborhood group sort of working together thing?

Vaernet: It wasn't really. It was being established. I mean, Neighbors in Action was established in 1986, I think, '87. But we started talking to each other about what needed to be done and so on, because people just got tired of it. People went through the late sixties, seventies, and eighties with just things getting worse and worse and worse and worse and worse, just really. And anybody who has sort of any common sense can see there's something wrong here and that this has to be stopped and changed. And the way you change it, I think, is many times, really, like I said, with many little creeks making a big river, neighbors get together and just say, "This is just the way it should be. We insist on things being this way."

And you start saying that, and you're not afraid of telling people, and with the drug dealers in the park, we just went up there and say, "You can't be here. You can't deal drugs here." We started shutting off the gates for the Ortega School back here. They used to run through there to get away from the cops.

LaBounty: They'd go down the hill.

Vaernet: Down the hill, and the black-and-whites can't follow through there, so we had the schools starting to lock their gates every night, because weekends it was people running all over the schools, driving stolen cars, and just acting crazy and tearing cars apart up there. And so we got them to lock the school gates. I basically wrote them a letter saying, "I'm going to sue you if you don't lock these school gates." So they locked the school gates.

And then we started just getting up there a lot, and once you start being up there a lot, suddenly people can't do stuff. We started taking license plates down of people dog-fighting up there, forwarded them to Animal Care and Control.

LaBounty: How soon was that? Was that happening when you moved in? Or when did that pit bull--

Vaernet: Oh, that was going on. This was a pit-bull fighting park. People came from San Mateo to do that. But I also worked with the Health Department, and I started working with Animal Care and Control. We actually did the dog unit at the time, and we ran the license plates and found out where they lived and sent Animal Care and Control out to their homes.

LaBounty: To see what was going on, yes.

Vaernet: And busted it up, and so, I mean, we just started adding heat from every angle possible. I could see guys sometimes here, I could see them hide crack in the park from here.

LaBounty: So you'd know exactly what was going on.

Vaernet: They went away, and I went over and got it and called the cops. You could see some of the guys coming out. I could see guys go out and try to find it, the contacts, and they were going crazy. They couldn't find it. I had the bags of crack right here. [Laughs]

LaBounty: Did you feel a little like you were doing some dangerous stuff there, like were between somebody dropping off drugs and somebody picking up? You didn't really feel in danger in any way?

Vaernet: No, not really, no, no. So, I mean, I just gave it to the cops or I just told the cops or I threw it in the garbage. It was just hilarious to see them get all flipped out because they couldn't find their stuff. After a while, it became very obvious to them Brooks Park is not a good place to drop off. For some reason, they couldn't see that people were looking at them here. They sort of would look around to see if there was anybody in the park. They didn't think about that people had windows, so you sort of see them put stuff in the playground or right in a certain corner there, and then they would leave.

I'd watch, I'd take it all, and get in. And then two hours later, somebody would come by and frantically search for it. So after a while, of course, they stopped that practice quickly, because they realized they were losing lots of loot.

LaBounty: And pit bulls, you were saying. Could you hear the fights?

Vaernet: Oh yes. Oh, we saw them. You could tell when cars pull up, and suddenly people walk their dogs in there. Dogs that lost were shot back here.

LaBounty: Dogs that what?

Vaernet: That lost, the pit bulls that lost, would get shot. So the cadaver would be back there, and we would call Animal Care and Control. I mean, it was completely out of control.

And I also started telling the neighbors, I was saying, "This is unacceptable." And I know the grapevine. I know the grapevine, because people know who. People know.

LaBounty: People know who's involved and what's going on there.

Vaernet: Yes. There is no mystery. Like in Bayview Hunter's Point right now, everybody getting shot up, people know. These are not people from Mars; these are people that are somebody's sons, somebody's nephews, somebody's uncles. People know. So you spread the word, "This park is no longer for this. This park is for kids." And you tell a few people on the street that, pretty soon within very little time, that word filters right down.

LaBounty: It gets down to them, yes.

Vaernet: It gets down. You don't find the people that--you tell a few people that you sort of know at that age range and make it very clear to them, and, of course, when they get heat from Animal Care and Control coming by visiting them, they get scared, because then they know they are really--because it's a felony. It's a felony to fight pit bulls.

LaBounty: Now, Minnie and Lovie, talk about danger, though. I mean, when they were trying to stop things over there, I mean, they actually had gunfire seemingly directed at them.

Vaernet: Well, they shot my house up, too. They shot bullet holes, yes. I don't know. I'm crazy, I guess. I'm a Viking. You know, Vikings love battles. The only way Vikings go to heaven, according to the old Valhalla theory, is if you have to die in battle to really go to heaven. Vikings are, generally speaking, mad.

I mean, I don't think I ever felt scared, because I knew what was right. And Minnie, I don't think that Minnie was scared either. I don't think Minnie was scared. I think Minnie always had the--she's a nurse, too, like me, by the way. We're both nurses. And I think that she knew what was right. And when you start sort of spreading the word and people actually start, there's a silent--you can tell that people silently agree with you.

Because you know who's suffering the most? It's actually the people that are involved in the trade that are suffering the most, and there comes a point where they decide, "Yes, this is wrong." And the change has to happen from within the community. City Hall can't help this much. I mean, they give some money, they can give some police, but cops can't solve this. The neighborhood people have to solve it. The people who live in the community have to solve this. They're the ones that have to.

You know, the village structure is broken in America. In America, people are so busy being individuals that they don't have to be responsible to anybody but themselves. That's the message people get. But then the village breaks down and then all the extended family and all the people that do the stewardship are not around anymore. When stewardship breaks down, then you get what you see in Oakland and Bayview Hunter's Point. But that's when stewardship has broken down. The elders have not stewarded the children.

LaBounty: But it seems to me that there is a village here, especially, I mean, I really feel it more--there's sort of three mini villages in this neighborhood, or even more, actually. So it seems like here, at least, there feels like there is a village sort of rebuilding.

Vaernet: Right, right. No, I think there is that.

LaBounty: Do you think there's that feeling too?

Vaernet: Yes, I think you're right. I think there's a village rebuilding now. It's true that we have different sort of factions within these little places, Southwestern Improvement Program, all these things where people used to sort of feud with each other, the ladies used to feud over things that I don't fully understand.

LaBounty: Breaking up into different groups.

Vaernet: Stuff like that. And that happens, I think. But there's, nevertheless, the idea of the OMI village, I think.

I think the Koshland Foundation coming in made a big difference also. Did you hear about the Koshland Foundation?

LaBounty: Yes.

Vaernet: Did you see the plan we got filled out, the Year 2000 Plan, and all that? I think that that, in a sense, forced some of the people who used to feud, the ladies who used to feud, to get together for a while. Some very good people, Agnes Morton and Minnie Ward and so on, who used to feud, actually sort of were forced to work together more closely and at least to look at what they could be doing together.

I sort of envision an OMI village eventually forming, the neighborhood being very distinctly geographically drawn up, about 280, Nineteenth Avenue, Ocean Avenue, well, that's Holloway, I guess. And then whatever down here, 280. So I think there is a chance to make this sort of--in fact, we should do that all over San Francisco, build mini villages. Mini villages will be responsible for what happens; are there enough playgrounds, are the sidewalks safe enough, are there streetlights? Like Dan Weaver, I don't know if you have spoken to him, making sure we got proper streetlights on Ocean Avenue. You know, you start building the village to make it safe for children, so women and children can walk safely without driving to playgrounds and schools.

That's kind of the vision, I think, also, which is needed across America, actually. There are people collapsing from overweight, from obesity, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, because they drive everywhere. We need to get people out of their cars onto wider sidewalks. Ocean Avenue is becoming now a friendly, walkable street, stop signs to slow traffic down, and Vietnamese restaurants are cropping up and coffee shops, which is good. Stuff is happening, so I can see the OMI village becoming a real thing in some decades.

LaBounty: You mention Agnes, who is also a nurse.

Vaernet: Who I worked with right down here on Randolph.

LaBounty: Yes. So maybe we just need to get nurses in every neighborhood, caretaking, people who are used to taking care of others.

Vaernet: Yes, I think that's a good point. I think nurses are very hands-on when it comes to problem-solving. We tend to deal with patients. "This is what needs to be done, and you'll do it because that's the way it is." We sort of tend to have that attitude, I think, maybe. Doctors sort of are not there with the patients, really. The nurses I know are always working, are doing preventive work, and sort of preventing stuff. So I think maybe there's something to that.

LaBounty: You mentioned like the new Vietnamese restaurants and those kind of--I don't know what they're called--pearl? They're kind of tapioca drinks or whatever.

Vaernet: Right.

LaBounty: And the whole neighborhood, if you just look at census data, if you're trying to get way above this, the neighborhood keeps changing. And now it's like the last census, it was like 45 percent of the people in the OMI had Asian backgrounds or Asian American backgrounds. Have you seen that in the sixteen or whatever years you've been living here?

Vaernet: Yes. Oh yes. It's a very obvious change. I think it's really immigrant-driven, I think. It's immigrant-driven to a great extent. I remember in 1972 when I came here, if you were to find a Chinese person, you had to go to Chinatown, pretty much. I mean, maybe in the Richmond, a few Chinese. But it was basically, no. Now everywhere you go, there are Chinese everywhere.

And then this neighborhood was a neighborhood which was affordable. I mean, this was still, relatively speaking, an affordable neighborhood--Filipinos, Chinese, Vietnamese, and then also many Latino families. I actually just think the neighborhood is very interesting right now. It's almost like we have a mix of African American, Caucasian, Latino, Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese. I mean, it's a real interesting mix of people, and I think that it's almost like it's almost an equal share of everybody now. It's a nice mix now. I think it's very, very nice where it seems the whole world is here.

LaBounty: Does that make it difficult, though, you trying to help build the community and bring people together when you always have new people coming in?

Vaernet: It can be, right.

LaBounty: They're still trying to figure out what it means to be in San Francisco, to be in America, and then to suddenly say, "Oh yes, you have responsibilities to this area."

Vaernet: That actually does make it quite difficult. I mean, I think the language barrier is there. I speak Chinese. Immigrants basically work a lot, and from their countries, they don't necessarily understand community organizing, because the government did it for them in China, for example. You didn't go out and organize your neighbors.

LaBounty: It might be a little dangerous to organize.

Vaernet: It might be dangerous, as a matter of fact. So they don't really have a lot of time to go to community meetings. They work maybe Saturdays. For example, for my tai chi classes that I'm running, it's hard to get people to come sometimes from the Asian communities, because they also work on Saturdays. They work long hours. They feel shy about going out. They're still afraid of the neighbors. It is hard to get many of the Asian folks out for community organizing.

LaBounty: And how do you think that gets done?

Vaernet: I mean, part of the problem is, of course, also, we used to have more come out. Now that the neighborhood is becoming so much nicer, they don't see a reason to come out.

LaBounty: They think it's done. "We've fixed it."

Vaernet: It's done. So it's kind of the irony of community organizing. You make it nicer, and suddenly people don't want to show up to community meetings anymore because they aren't being shot at or they aren't being mugged in the street. I mean, it used to be the first Chinese that came here in the late eighties, people would just walk up to them, snatch their bags, rifle through them, and take what they wanted and give it back to them and walk away.

Many Chinese people told me in the late eighties and early nineties, "If we had known how bad this neighborhood was, we would not have moved here." Many Chinese people told me that. They were being intimidated in the street, very roughly discriminated against, and really being treated very shabbily. And they actually came out to community meetings, some of them, at that time.

Now that it's sort of docile, I'll be darned if you can get them to stop working to come out for a community meeting. That doesn't really happen very easily now, but we do do efforts, making putting materials out in Chinese, and we do actually do some organizing around food. If you do picnics and so forth, people will come out. If you do foodstuff, people tend to come out. And you can actually do that in Ocean View Park and you can do that in Brooks Park. People will come out for food.

LaBounty: Food is the key.

Vaernet: And it has to be on a Sunday, interestingly enough. Sunday is the time, because Saturday the Chinese people work many times. Many Chinese families work Saturdays. So Sunday is really the time you want to do it if you want to reach the Chinese community. So it's an interesting thing.

LaBounty: I think one thing that you mentioned that makes this neighborhood so interesting is that it's such an entry point for people, newcomers. I mean that it became such an entry point for African American families after the war, and, of course, they faced a lot of discrimination and moving in here.

Vaernet: Oh, big time, big time.

LaBounty: And then it keeps repeating. It now becomes Asian American, as you pointed, and they face discrimination. And then they're going to be sort of like, maybe, the predominant culture here. And then at some point, it seems like there's going to be something else. It's always a turnover of people coming into this neighborhood.

Vaernet: Oh yes. Different tribes coming in and feuding each other. It's the thousand-year-old history of human behavior. Yes, it's interesting, and I think that at this point, actually, the houses are getting so outrageously expensive that the only people moving in here are either young people that have parents that are very wealthy, like give them the inheritance early. Like across the street the house just sold for $559,000, that little pillbox, and the only way they could afford it was because the parents from both sides gave the inheritance early, said, "Let's give you this."

Or there are people, the Chinese, three or four families will move into a two-bedroom, one-bath house. They always wonder how big the garage is, because they are going to be building another house downstairs. So you've got two or three families living in one house, and that creates some big problems because you've got so many cars in front, and usually they start paving over the lawns, which is illegal, actually, and they make parking lots. So that's the way it gets afforded, three or four families buy together and then work seven days a week. And then, of course, it actually is a big problem when they have to start splitting up, because they get in fights over how--

LaBounty: Who has the equity in the house or whatever.

Vaernet: Exactly, and then who can really buy who out and so on. But that's the way it's being done right now. There are a few computer people that have money on their own, but they're getting rare. I mean, it is pretty much people that are smart enough to ask for the inheritance early. And actually, as a parent, I think that's a good idea, so you can see how the kids spend their money. [Laughs]

LaBounty: [to Peter's son, Bjorn] Do you hear that? You're going to get your inheritance early.

I think you're associated in people's minds, you and Brooks Park. Brooks Park and Peter.

Vaernet: Because of the backyard.

LaBounty: Yes, it's your backyard. Literally, it's your backyard, and you've invested so much time. Did you get involved with Brooks Park as a community thing, or did you get involved with Brooks Park because of plants? Are you a gardener by interest, necessarily?

Vaernet: No, no. In every village, if you want to speak about villages, I think there should be gathering points. And I saw Brooks Park as one of those places that could be a gathering point for the community. I mean, you need public squares. In every village that you go to in Europe or China or Africa, you will see there's a common space that's sort of a common meeting ground, and neighborhoods need that. You need to create within every ten blocks or so, every twenty blocks, you need to have a common space, whether it's a playground or a park or a square that maybe has a cafe on it, or like [unclear] was going to become that one day, hopefully.

And you need to have common squares, and I think that Brooks Park could become that kind of a place, I thought, because I envisioned taking the asphalted-over lot that we have a picture of here somewhere, I can show you that, that could become a community garden. This whole area behind here could become a big community garden. We could have tai chi classes. We already have a playground. We could have classes on gardening and botany. And we have a barbecue. It could be an eating type of meeting place. And I think I'd like people to come to these meeting places and have reasons to come, and that's why this is sort of something I'm sort of sitting on, to have to create a reason for people to come to common meeting spaces.

Once people start meeting the neighbors, it's just wonderful to see. People are so talented in our neighborhood. I mean, every neighborhood has these wonderful people that don't know that their neighbor is maybe a carpenter or an engineer or a dental assistant or an attorney or a very handy plumber. People have all these skills, that if they knew each other more, they could network and then they could even find jobs for each other's children. I see it happen where this carpenter comes to tai chi and this other person comes to tai chi, and this other person's nephew needs a job in the summer. The carpenter says, "Oh, my god, I know somebody who needs a carpenter's helper. How about getting your nephew."

Suddenly, when people talk to each other again, suddenly the neighborhood becomes very strong, and then youth aren't running around aimlessly in the streets, standing around on the street corners, wondering, "Who wants to engage me and talk to me?" If you want to speak about young people being in gangs, gangs are basically groups of young people trying to initiate each other into adulthood, but they can't do it because they're all the same age. They're all the same age.

LaBounty: They need an adult.

Vaernet: They need an older person to do that. They need an older person to do that, and they can't do it. So they try to initiate each other into adulthood, and then it becomes a disaster. They mix blood and carve each other's initials in each other and test each other, "Can you kill that person?" So when the village breaks down, you don't have the initiators, you don't have the stewards anymore, the older males that take time to talk to the young men and take them into adulthood. And that's what's happening out there. And the steward doesn't have to be a father. It doesn't have to be. In fact, many times there's a conflict between parents and kids. It can be an uncle. It can be a schoolteacher. It can be the neighbor down the street. It can be the guy who runs the butcher store or the bakery owner. It can be a number of people that have to step in and become those stewards.

So I think that a meeting place like this has been great for many kids in this neighborhood. I mean, we're getting them out there to work. They'll never forget that they got paid eight dollars an hour for a whole summer to work with Christy Ann [phonetic], the student from San Francisco State, and learn about habitat and so on. When they started in Brooks Park, there was, "Oh, a lizard, lizard. Let's kill it. Let's kill it." Urban kids are like that. But at the end of the summer, they were able to pick up this beautiful native lizard and look at it and admire it and really see that this is a beautiful animal. So, that transformation, this is what builds young men, and young women, too, of course. But young men, it seems to be, are the ones that are causing problems to us. And young men, if stewarded right, and this doesn't have to be twenty-four hours a day; you can steward a young man twenty minutes every two weeks.

LaBounty: For one summer, it will really make a difference.

Vaernet: One summer will make a difference. Even ten minutes' talk a week is enough for a young man to be spirited in the right direction. But that's fallen apart completely.

I think when people can meet in common meeting places like this, that exchange, that verbal exchange, and that talk can actually occur where people, "Oh, yes, my nephew needs a job." "Well, this guy over here is a carpenter, needs somebody to help him." That kind of thing happens in a village, in a healthy village, and it's not happening here in America very much, even though it's going to have to start happening because it's falling apart.

I mean, you see how crazy people are getting? They are watching TV and doing video games and watching movies, and they actually elected a guy to be governor because he's in movies. It's like there's something wrong with this picture. And it's sort of the loss of respect for elders and the teacher and initiators.

Common meeting spaces in any community, my dream would be all over San Francisco to make common meeting spaces.

LaBounty: Yes, public squares or common parks. So that's really why Brooks Park is important to this area.

Vaernet: Yes, I think so. I think so.

LaBounty: And then out of that, I mean, it's like how do you use this park? It could be a natural thing. It could be have classes like this tai chi, and I know it's become like a place where native plants are talked about and definitely like a ground to talk about the nature of the area and the Ohlone Indians. I know there's things going on here about that. I guess that's what the vision is for Brooks Park, and other than creating a safe environment for people to come together in the neighborhood, how does the vision get put forward? It's Rec and Park land, I assume?

Vaernet: It's Rec and Park land, yes. I wrote the grant in 1991, but basically it's open space that actually took over this whole area. It used to be a very small park. It was just Mrs. Brooks' land. And then what we did was we wrote an open space plan.

LaBounty: Yes, because there's an extra area here now. Was it always part of Brooks Park here?

Vaernet: No.

LaBounty: It wasn't? What was that?

Vaernet: Brooks Park was just this little area, which was the Brooks family home, bought in 1978 by the Recreation and Park Department. Then I found about this Open Space Committee thing. Somebody at Recreation and Park told me about the Open Space Committee, which receives even today 0.025 percent of all real estate taxes go right into this fund, which is now, because real estate taxes are rising like crazy, is now $25 million a year. A neighbor simply has to write a simple letter grant, two-page letter grant, which I did, and then you attach an explanation of what you're trying to do, take over all the surplus, the lots down here on Vernon Street, and all the surplus land from the Unified School District, to expand the park to make it--this is sort of the vision of what's going to happen.

And then letters of support. Then you start getting lots of letters of support. Minnie Ward. You get letters of support to go to all of the characters who were in power back then. Then you get letters of support from California Academy of Sciences, biologists that understand the value of wildlife. You get Native California Plant Society to list all the plants, native plants that are growing on the property. These plants would be saved.

LaBounty: [Looking at the native plants list] Wow, look how many were there.

Vaernet: They've been here for thousands of years. These plants have been here even before the Native Americans came here. I mean, these are the true natives. And these plants saved this land from development. These plants saved the western slope from being developed, because they were going to sell it. The school district was going to lease it out. We wrote to them with all kinds of letters of support from all kinds of organizations, Supervisor Willie Kennedy at the time, Audubon Society, my wife and neighbors writing support letters. Took four years, though. It took four years to take over all this surrounding land, with letters from all these different--

LaBounty: So you were lucky in a sense, though, too, that you had this little surplus land right next to the park.

Vaernet: Very lucky, very lucky, and that it was valuable land. And the real stroke of luck was that between 1990 and 1995, real estate prices tumbled like a rock. You could get a house in San Francisco, in this neighborhood here, for 150,000, and nobody wanted to touch it. Nobody wanted to buy houses. So this land seemed, oh, well, who wants it?

Try to do that today. Try to get the four lots down there today for 100,000 apiece. Try to get this land. I mean, it's like it would never have happened. So it's a stroke of luck that just for this four-year period, which it took four years to get this grant approved, constantly go to evening meetings and Saturday meetings and letter-writing and complaining and raising the flags. It took four years, but it would never have happened. I don't think it would have. Well, it could have happened, but it would have been much harder. So it was just really also timing, as with everything.

LaBounty: So this flat part here, is it a community garden?

Vaernet: It's going to be huge community garden. It used to be asphalt. There is an asphalt part to it that shows right here. That's what it was. I mean, the school moved in in 1952 and paved over stretches of this hilltop and never used it.

LaBounty: What were their original plans, do you know?

Vaernet: Oh, one day have buildings there, maybe. They had trailers there.

LaBounty: While we have the concrete pourers out, [just keep going].

Vaernet: Yes. Just pour asphalt all over. It was a beautiful field of wildflowers before that, according to neighbors that lived here in the forties. They had bungalows there temporarily once, and then they moved them away. For that particular lot, I had a hard time convincing the Open Space Committee, the people that had originally fought for the Brooks Park, the original Brooks Park in 1978, on the Open Space Committee.

Mr. Lonnie Lawson, who lives down here in Ingleside Terrace, he actually did not think there was any value to getting that lot. He had a hard time envisioning why that was worth getting when I explained to him about, "You know, I think community garden is a logical choice for this lot." So he was the original, and he pushed very hard. He and Jake Sigg were the ones that pushed very hard for getting Brooks Park established. Lonnie Lawson was very disappointed when in 1978 he set up, he got barbecue grills and benches and everything, and somebody came in the night before there was going to be a big city dedication, and they tore it completely apart, destroyed it. I mean, just wasted it. Mr. Lonnie Lawson was a valiant fighter who really was fighting against too much at that time. But so he was on the Open Space Committee, and Jake Sigg was the Open Space Committee. And Dan McGuire, various people on the Open Space Committee, and helped me get this through and push for this land acquisition.

The OMI was rough. People knew that. Wonderful park people came out to support us. There were things that needed to be done in the park that had to be done with permits and this and that, and they said, "Forget the permits. We'll just build it." They went with me, and they just did stuff. I mean, the swing set broke, and, "Oh no, we can't do that because all these rules and regulations." And one guy just said, "Forget it. What do you want? You want a swing set? Okay. What do you want? Okay. Like that? Okay." Something about it can't be facing this way anymore. They said, "Let's just turn it around ninety degrees." Okay, so they did. A lot of people in the Recreation and Park Department did stuff for me without permits, and that's why things got done, too, because if it had to go through the permit process, it would never have gotten done.

LaBounty: Bureaucracy was just real slow.

Vaernet: Yes. I won't mention their names, because I don't want to get them in trouble, but they basically did wonderful stuff without permits, and things got moving because of that. They just sent their crews out to do it. "Go and talk to Peter, have Peter tell you what he needs, and then do it." And it was great. So a lot of stuff got done when bureaucrats actually understood the need for bending the rules. So a lot of people did this together. This is not me or just two other people; it's really a whole just--as I said again, it's thousands of creeks becoming a big river, a lot of people pouring their hearts out and really fighting for this.

We were beaten back numerous times. The newspaper article talks about that. In fact, there is a picture here of Mr. Jenkins and his neighbor Jim, how they were beaten back, we didn't get the land approved, and there was a big stink about that. They're both still alive, right over here. Just, in fact, you can talk to Mr. Jenkins one day.

LaBounty: I'd be delighted to.

Vaernet: He lives right over there. He'd love to talk. Mr. Jenkins lives on next to the park there.

LaBounty: In '57 there's an article here about them.

Vaernet: Yes. I know a guy who went to the school, Doug Dawn [phonetic], who lives down here who's a native San Franciscan, who went to the school in 1952. Doug Dawn's father was a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner, and he still lives in the neighborhood, too.

LaBounty: So what's the next step for Brooks Park? I mean, what's the next big thing that has to be done or that should be done?

Vaernet: The community garden. The community garden has to be finished. It's taking us six years. We've had a horrible fight with the neighbor next door because she didn't want the wheelchair ramp sixteen feet from her house, so she got it moved over to twenty feet from the house for a cost of $250,000 instead of $10,000, which was a big scandal. Anyway, that's another story. We won't talk about that. But it was just basically a lot of little delays.

But getting this garden completed now is important because it's becoming a children's education place. It becomes a place where African Americans can meet up with Chinese and do planting. And they all know vegetables from their childhood that they can share with each other, and I think that they need to basically get out there and work together and be able to speak through vegetables, if not through language. They can talk to each other.

I think there's a lot of potential for that place becoming a place where young kids will be taught by older people about where food comes from. Urban kids think food comes from Safeway, that food is made in Safeway.

LaBounty: Well, there you go. You said food. You need food to get people out to the meetings. Maybe you need to have food be the catalyst to get different generations and different cultures together.

Vaernet: It's one of the pieces.

LaBounty: We all eat.

Vaernet: Yes, yes, and there's nothing as wonderful. You can actually get kids to eat vegetables if they grew it themselves.

LaBounty: Right, a sense of ownership to the vegetable.

Vaernet: Oh yes, and of great pride. So, I mean, there's a lot of potential for intergenerational and interracial cooperation in a community garden, and that's, of course, our hope.

LaBounty: Do you think people need to need more about Brooks Park and more about the neighborhood, outside of the neighborhood, I mean?

Vaernet: It might be good.

LaBounty: I've heard some kind of back and forth on that.

Vaernet: I think it might be good.

LaBounty: Should Brooks Park get press? Should the OMI get press to kind of let people know it's here?

Vaernet: I think so. I think it's worth looking at the OMI as a model for ideas of what could be done in other parts of the city. I think so. I think it's worth talking about, because we can all learn from each other. I'm not afraid that Brooks Park will be overrun with thousands of people on a weekend, because people don't just come here. It's up the hill. It's laborious and so on. I think it's fine to let people know the kinds of activities we're putting into the park, because I think it can be used in other parts of San Francisco. And we can all learn from each other. Then somebody will come from another neighborhood and say, "Hey, why don't you do this?" And we'll say, "God, we never thought about that. Yes, that's a great idea." You know, that kind of thing. San Francisco State students are coming up here all the time now.

LaBounty: Yes, you made a connection down with the college. And native plants have been kind of a hook-in for you, too, I think, right?

Vaernet: Yes.

LaBounty: People who want to learn about native plants can go to Brooks Park.

Vaernet: Absolutely. Native plants and the teaching that comes with it, the connection to the land, and the way the native plants connect to wildlife is also very important. People are realizing that--

LaBounty: Simple as butterflies and things like that.

Vaernet: Hummingbirds and lizards, native bugs, all kinds of bugs out there, and bees and animals that we don't understand very much. Human beings are not very sensitive to the connection between nature and food and nature and animals. We don't fully understand the language that plants communicate to animals. There's a lot of communication occurring, but you only understand once you're down on your knees pulling weeds out.

In fact, I can show you in the park where we worked yesterday. These students came out, and they were CalPerk [phonetic]. And they were students that also are taking classes in environment and different biology and so on. And I showed them this grassy area. I said, "See all these weeds here? These are all weeds, various European grasses here, and then you have these weeds here and you have this English weed here and you have this Mexican weed here. These are weeds, and look what happens when you pull them away." And we started pulling away these weeds, and in between, suddenly, you see mint, native mint, some of it blooming. And some soap root, right in between all these grasses. So that just by working out there for three hours yesterday, they were able to liberate all these little native plants, and they could really get a sense of how non-native plants are dangerous and choking out the life of the native plants. I could take you up there and look at that hill, how they cleared it out, just a little space. They cleared it out, but you can now finally see the mint, which before you couldn't even see it.

LaBounty: I'm looking forward to it, yes.

Vaernet: So they learned, "Wow, these weeds are really just crowding out all the native plants, and I see what's happening there." So they learned a lot about it. That's the way you sort of plant seeds in people's minds about what's important.

LaBounty: What's the best thing about this neighborhood, if you were to say what the best thing? I mean, it could be anything.

Vaernet: Well, I like the fact that the whole world is here. I mean, that's one of the reasons why I'm in--

LaBounty: You like that it belongs to different people here.

Vaernet: Yes. I mean, I'm in San Francisco also because I love to be a world traveler, and you can't do that all the time. So then you can live in San Francisco, and the whole world is here. I go on the streetcar in the morning, and the F streetcar to go downtown is packed with Russians. It sounds like you're in Moscow. And then you go to another neighborhood, and it's like you're in downtown Manila. And it's like wherever you are, it's just amazing how the whole world--I enjoy that a lot. And I enjoy the views. Views are wonderful. I love to be able to see the fog come in sometimes.

LaBounty: You have wonderful views from your house.

Vaernet: In a big sheet down the valley there, the fog comes in, and then the mountaintops stick up. It looks like a Chinese painting sometimes. And the fact that we're close to the ocean, we're close to the zoo, we're close to all kinds of things that are right here, two major colleges, City College and San Francisco State. I mean, it's a fantastic area.

LaBounty: Lot of amenities.

Vaernet: Just think about it. Lots of greenbelt. If you look west from Brooks Park, you've got Fort Funston, you've got the Olympic Club, you've got three or four golf clubs down here, golf ranges. It's really an amazing place. Fresh air. The air is very good here, because we are close to the ocean. You don't get pollution in this neighborhood. It's very good air, good for children's lungs. Public transit, you know.

LaBounty: I doubt you even think this way, but is there anything that is the neighborhood needs, that could be better? I mean, not say bad, but what's the thing about this neighborhood that needs improvement, if there's like one or two things that you think are like--

Vaernet: Well, I think the streets need to be safer, need to be made safer for pedestrians.

LaBounty: Yes, crime. Or autos? Safer, you mean as far as like--

Vaernet: Yes, I think it's just automobiles are driving too fast through the neighborhood. I think some areas--in fact, my dream is to one day just close off intersections and close off intersections, and there's some intersections where there's not much traffic. You should close off all the intersections and make mini parks in the intersection, so that that becomes like a sort of center for the spoke of the neighborhood so people will go there and be together and so on.

I think better traffic control. More people walking the streets. We need to get people out walking.

We need cleaner sidewalks, wider sidewalks, better-lit sidewalks. We need to get stores, commercial strips, developed on Broad and Randolph. Dan Weaver is working with the Haas Foundation right now in getting a grant together to do an urban design study. We need to connect that corridor between City College and San Francisco with the M streetcar. We need to get people walking down there. We need to get--you know. Yes, I mean, that's--

LaBounty: There's still a lot of work to be done.

Vaernet: Lots of work to be done, about a hundred years' worth.

LaBounty: You speak Cantonese?

Vaernet: I speak Mandarin, yes. I lived in Taiwan for a couple of years.

LaBounty: And you moved here in '72 to the city.

Vaernet: '72, yes.

LaBounty: What brought you to San Francisco? Just adventure?

Vaernet: I think, yes, San Francisco was always--when I was in Denmark as a little kid, I sort of missed the hippie thing. I was a little bit too young. But you know these songs, "San Francisco," [hums], and all these. And you say, "Whoa, whoa, San Francisco." And it was a very beautiful city and it's multicultural and it's close to the ocean.

You know, San Francisco is actually neighborhoody. You can go to North Beach. You can go to the Russian section in the Outer Richmond and in Golden Gate Park where they hang out. You can go to the Mission. You can go to--I mean, they have neighborhoods that are distinctly sort of different cultures.

And I think that what got me here, one very important thing, was the public transportation system. As a Scandinavian person, that's how I move. That's how we move. We don't really drive, because gasoline is five dollars a gallon. I love to be able to jump on the streetcars. I have three bus lines right here. I have the M, the K, the 29 right here. I mean, it's just wonderful. The 28 bus, the 29 bus, from here I can jump on the 29 bus and I can be in Presidio National Park or I can bicycle to Presidio National Park through Golden Gate Park and hang my bicycle on the front of the bus, and it will take me right back to Garfield Street one block away. Public transportation is what makes this city very, very attractive to me. I could not live in San Jose or Los Angeles where they have no public transit. I didn't own a car until a couple years ago.

LaBounty: So, you've been here how long, seventeen years or something.

Vaernet: Something like that.

LaBounty: And you're going to stay here?

Vaernet: Who knows? Who knows?

LaBounty: Do you have any other plans of--you sound like you have a traveler's sense to you. I mean, when the kids are grown and--

Vaernet: Yes. One plan I have is, basically, I want to do house exchanges.

LaBounty: Yes, live in another country and exchange houses.

Vaernet: Yes, I mean I want to go call up some Parisian family and say, "Hey, you want to live in San Francisco for a month? I want to live in your flat for a month in Paris." Do the same in England and Japan, because everybody wants to come to San Francisco for a month. So you could easily have this house shared, use that family's house in Tokyo, and they can live here for a month. House exchanges like that, traveling and writing. I have some books I want to write, still. I want to write some children's books. I want to write some books about international relations.

LaBounty: Maybe one about Brooks Park?

Vaernet: Maybe something about how you do community-building.

LaBounty: Through this idea of central squares and parks and that sort of thing?

Vaernet: Right, central common areas, even though some of those are being written, I think, right now. But I want to write about international relations. Forget about rebuilding Iraq. Go to Russia. Say, "Cousin Putin, why don't we rebuild your country?" They're the world's second-largest oil producer. Let's rebuild Russia because they're our cousins. Let's rebuild that and get them going and get their oil and forget the Middle East. So there's tons of stuff I want to write about.

LaBounty: And your family is well and they're happy living here?

Vaernet: He [Peter's son, Bjorn] seems very happy. He has lots of friends in the neighborhood, and the school is wonderful. He goes to Commodore Sloat. It's a good school. He chose that. Right?

LaBounty: Did you get to tour the schools and see which one you liked?

Bjorn: No.

LaBounty: But you like Commodore Sloat?

Bjorn: I didn't know it. I didn't know it was a good school. I just chose it.

Vaernet: Why did you choose it?

Bjorn: It was right across the street from the preschool.

Vaernet: Yes, that was why, yes.

LaBounty: He kind of got a little preview of what he could go to.

Vaernet: See, they played in the playground of Commodore Sloat. The YMCA's Stonestown branch preschool uses Commodore Sloat playground.

I thought maybe Lakeshore was the first choice. He said, "No, no, that's not what I want. I want Commodore Sloat." So I wrote Commodore Sloat as the first.

LaBounty: Well, my daughter, she's in first grade now, and she goes to West Portal.

Vaernet: Oh, that's a great school.

LaBounty: And she has a Cantonese program.

Vaernet: Cantonese, yes, that's a great school. Yes.

LaBounty: And we looked at Commodore Sloat, too. We looked at that, too.

Vaernet: I'm very impressed with Commodore Sloat. Oh, they have so much community involvement and parent involvement.

LaBounty: Just the public schools in general, I think, I was really impressed with, because it's like bad reps. It's like the neighborhood, this is a horrible neighborhood, and it's not when you get here, right?

Vaernet: Right.

LaBounty: The schools are terrible. You get all bad press. And then you go and you go, "My school is wonderful."

Vaernet: Commodore Sloat is a fabulous school, and the teachers are enormously dedicated, and they ask a lot of the parents. And that's good. We're over there cleaning up and sawing branches off and everything. Yes, it's a wonderful school, and I'm very impressed. And I don't think I'd want my kid in a private school. Commodore Sloat is very good.

LaBounty: My daughter went to public school and she's learning Cantonese, right. I mean, it's hard to get at a private school, so there you go.

Vaernet: I agree.

LaBounty: Well, this has been wonderful, Peter. I'd like to go see, get the personal tour of the park.

Vaernet: Yes, let's go and take a look at it. Sure. Let's go and take a look. Absolutely.

[End of interview]


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California Stories: Communities Speak

This project is made possible by a grant from the CALIFORNIA COUNCIL FOR THE HUMANITIES with generous support from the San Francisco Foundation, as part of the Council's statewide California Stories Initiative. The COUNCIL is an independent non-profit organization and a state affiliate of the NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES. For more information on the Council and the California Stories Initiative, visit www.californiastories.org.

Page launched 1 December 2003.