Noe Valley Voice June 1999

Florence's Family Album: A Lovely Resting Place for Audrey

By Florence Holub

Not long ago, while striding down 21st Street to Church, I met a young woman and her small daughter panting as they labored uphill. "What a delightful street! I have never seen it before," she said to the girl.

Yes, 21st Street is delightful, now that the ugly telephone poles have come down and the wires have been buried underground. Today you can see our picturesque houses and the wealth of greenery, amid the quaint old-fashioned street lamps that were installed a couple of years ago.

And we owe it all to the vision of Audrey Rodgers, the best friend this neighborhood ever had. Audrey died suddenly (and too soon) in 1994, at only 71 years of age, but her good deeds will remain with us always.

Audrey determined the future of Dolores Heights (also known as Sanchez Hill) by leading the drive to have it named a "special use district." This zoning designation preserves the Victorian and other older buildings in the area, and sets height and size limits for new houses and apartments. Audrey also organized the tree plantings and launched the petitions for putting our utilities underground.

Back in the '70s, this was a major feat. At the time, the only other neighborhood in San Francisco that had gained such growth controls was Russian Hill. But Audrey accomplished her mission with class and a clear knowledge of city government.

She began the drive in 1978, by rallying those residents who were concerned about overdevelopment on the hill. Then she drew up a list of people who had some professional expertise in architecture and housing issues. (I didn't have either, but I was eager to help Audrey with the paper- and footwork.)

When I looked over the list of people she planned to include among her experts, I was surprised to see one name. "He is the enemy," I said doubtfully. She smiled and responded, "That's why I chose him."

Then I watched in admiration as her persuasive manner transformed our potential enemy into a loyal ally.

Later, when City Planning's Bob Passmore scanned the names of those chosen for the Dolores Heights Special Use District Committee, he exclaimed, "You could start your own Planning Commission!"

Although most residents applauded the plan, there were some who opposed the height restrictions. A few, understandably, had dreamed of selling their homes for a large enough sum to finance their retirement. One or two, however, envisioned the hill as a highrise mecca and saw themselves as the new Donald Trump.

One such owner, of an already large parcel of property, approached our late neighbor Rhea Kley upon the death of her husband, and suggested that if she would like to get rid of her two-bedroom home, he would be willing to take it off her hands. Rhea responded with a tongue-in-cheek smile and a polite no-thank-you. However, if he would like to dispose of his own property, she said, he should feel free to contact her. The discussion ended right there.

During two years of intense activity, our case came up many times before the Board of Supervisors. Once, after Audrey delivered a particularly well-crafted presentation, Supervisor Harvey Milk rushed over to pledge his support.

Upon Milk's death, Supervisor Harry Britt carried on nobly, until in 1980 our Dolores Heights Special Use District status was finally granted. Few people realize that Audrey's grassroots organizing opened the door for both Castro Street and 24th Street to gain protection for its housing and rental stock. (That's why there are limits on second-story commercial development on 24th Street, and a ceiling on such things as new bars and restaurants.)

Since then, our neighborhood has become even more desirable, mostly because it has kept its small scale and family-friendly atmosphere. Those who labored so long to make it so can feel justly proud.

This spring, my man Leo and I received an invitation to a block party, to celebrate the official dedication of the Audrey Rodgers Memorial Bench, placed on the southwest corner of 21st and Sanchez streets.

On the afternoon of March 27, we arrived to find the area had been cordoned off and furnished with tables, chairs, and a four-piece country-western band, ready to play all day.

There was also a white peaked tent for heating and serving the entries in a Chili Bake-Off Contest.

After greeting old friends and meeting new neighbors, most of us got around to tasting the bowls of chili. They were all so good that by the time I had decided on my favorite, the winner was being announced!

The recipe voted best was Nance's All-Organic Black Bean Chili. Nancy Levy won the honor and a $100 dollar bill, which she shared with Martin MacClain (who actually did the cooking).

The celebration was well attended by people of every age, from seniors to little children, and all were having a wonderful time. Claiming much attention were the youngest, an adorable set of twin babies from 20th Street. All the while, a little dog wearing a harness wandered around between the legs of the assembly.

Supervisor Mark Leno of Noe Valley mingled with the folks until it was time for him to speak. On behalf of the Board of Supervisors, he said, he was presenting two certificates in appreciation of the outstanding service rendered by the late Audrey Penn Rodgers. One was awarded to Audrey's daughter, Janice Bracken, and the other to her son, Dr. Timothy Rodgers.

It was Janice who planned and actually brought this project to fruition. First, she commissioned an internationally recognized sculptor, J.B. Blunk, to create the redwood burl bench. (That would be the easy part.) Then she spent the next four years wading through red tape. But like her mother before her, she persisted and won in the end.

Leno thanked her and her brother, then concluded his remarks, saying that we could be assured that Mayor Brown would arrive at 5 p.m.

At that hour, all eyes were on the shiny limousine that turned slowly onto our corner. The Honorable Mayor Willie Brown, impeccably dressed in a black hat and suit, topped with a fine, camel-colored alpaca overcoat (it was chilly!), stepped out and proceeded through the crowd. He smiled ear to ear, chatting and shaking hands all the way to the speakers' sidewalk.

The mayor spoke of Audrey's many contributions to the betterment of our city, and her beautification of the neighborhoods, such as this one. Then on behalf of the City and County of San Francisco, he accepted the work of art, the Audrey Penn Rodgers Memorial Bench.

The mayor stayed on for a while, obviously enjoying the occasion and having a turn at trying out the bench. (Later, we learned that he had come directly from Sacramento where he had spoken for President Clinton, who had been required to stay in Washington, D.C., dealing with the Kosovo crisis.)

The bench stands at street level in front of a beautifully landscaped easement on Sanchez between Hill and 21st streets. It has been carved from a section of giant redwood, smoothed and coated with a glass-like protective finish that reveals the rich redwood tones in the grain.

In April, the poppies around the memorial began to bloom, and each week since, new touches of color have burst forth. By midsummer, the garden will be a beautiful sight to behold.

And for the weary, there is a handsome curved bench in which to sit and relax and enjoy the view of the city (and Mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph's Tudor cottage across the way). Audrey would have loved it!