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Farewell to Wind in the Willows
By Wendy Hanamura
For 27 years, if you needed a smile, you could always go to a small storefront on the northwest corner of Church and Cesar Chavez streets. There, if you peeked in the window past the blue gingham curtains, you'd be sure to catch a glimpse of budding artists and architects, hear the delighted laughter of 3-year-olds, and know that Wind in the Willows preschool was in full swing.
On July 1, the checkered curtains must come down. Bulldozers will flatten the big blue fence to make way for new condominiums. On a bright summer day, a Noe Valley institution will leave the neighborhood. "I'll miss the sense of neighborliness," mused Pat O'Connor, the school's director for 14 years. "In San Francisco, you don't often know your neighbors, but in Noe Valley we do."
Priced Out of Noe
As with at least three other neighborhood preschools, Wind in the Willows is losing its lease -- driven from Noe Valley by the prospect of paying triple the current rent.
"Noe Valley has changed. There are fewer and fewer working-class people in the neighborhood," says Joyce Bautista Harrison, a parent and teacher at Wind in the Willows for the past 16 years. "When I first came here in 1984, there were more families with one parent at home, and more dads at home. That's the saddest thing. That's why we have to leave Noe Valley -- we're being priced out."
Yet in a spiraling real estate market, this small school of 50 families has managed to purchase its own building 10 minutes up the road on Monterey Boulevard in the Sunnyside District. Grandparents, parents, and alumni are pulling together to renovate an old television repair shop into a warm, welcoming place for children. The school must raise an additional $40,000 before it can open its doors in September.
Most of the school's families will be making the trek to the new location, including Noe Valley resident Kathleen Maxwell and her 4-year-old daughter Mariella.
"It's hard to replicate this philosophy and environment in other schools," says Maxwell, a professor at Santa Clara University. "I love the emphasis on social skills and creativity, that it's not academic. That's the last thing these kids need, considering the future that lies before most of them."
Remembering Happier Days
For a generation of preschoolers and parents, Wind in the Willows has felt like a second home. "It was such a safe, happy place," recalls Noe Valley resident Bill Russell-Shapiro. "Very sunny, with a muddy garden, lots of laughing children, and a few adults who obviously loved kids."
Russell-Shapiro can still conjure up his daughter Maddy's first day of school. "She was too young to stay for lunch and when I picked her up that first day, she burst into tears, crying, 'Daddy, no have no lunch box!' So we marched down to a little store and bought her a lunch box -- something wildly inappropriate like the Great Hulk," he laughed. "For the next year, she happily carried her lunch box to school -- empty!"
Today, Maddy, 23, is a graduate of Yale University and helping to run a food bank in New York City.
"I'll tell you what I valued about Wind in the Willows," declares Marybeth Wallace, whose 9-, 16-, and 20-year-old all attended the preschool. "There was a sense of community. We would all walk our kids to school. A lot of us were stay-at-home moms, and I learned how to be an organizer at that school. Now I'm an advocate for children," says Wallace, who works for Coleman Advocates for Youth. "Wind in the Willows was my first experience in learning how to be an advocate for my child."
Familiar Strangers, Unknown Friends
When the teachers and children leave Noe Valley, there is much that they will miss. Each Halloween, the school's little pirates and princesses marched down Church Street to show off their costumes to all the residents and merchants waiting with bowls full of candy.
"On our route, there were always certain stops -- the Fire Station, Eric's, Mia's Flowers, Sue Levinson's State Farm Insurance -- you had to be careful to stop at all of them or feelings would be hurt," O'Connor wistfully relates. "And of course, the Chinese Dragon Parade! We have a dragon made of a box and a red flowing cape. The children danced down Church Street with tambourines, bells, cymbals, and made lots of noise, while waving to people on the J-Church."
But what O'Connor will miss most is the people of Noe Valley. She thinks of the man who walks by the school at the same time each day and waves. "He suffered a stroke and now walks with a cane, but every day he always peeks in to see who is painting at the easel. I don't know his name, but we chat about his grandchildren."
So Long to 'Stroller Valley'
What happens to the soul of a neighborhood when the preschools are priced out, replaced by sushi bars and townhouses? "So many families live in Noe Valley that it's called 'Stroller Valley,'" says Wind in the Willows board president Tamra Marshall. "But if all the preschools have to leave, where will the children go?"
"There will be a little more sameness, a little less diversity in Noe Valley," says Russell-Shapiro.
Teacher Terri Barrel grew teary-eyed when she thought about the bulldozers plowing down the sandbox and playground. "My husband, John, built that sandbox. That lovely Victorian boxwood tree where the birds come -- it's going to go. It's been here forever. It's such a sign of the times."
Indeed, the soul of a neighborhood changes building by building, not block by block, almost imperceptibly. Will anyone miss the sounds of children wafting over the fence, or the exchange of smiles between a child painting and a gentleman walking by? Perhaps these small losses will occur without remark, but in some ineffable way, the heart of Noe Valley will be forever different.
Wendy Hanamura is a producer/reporter at KQED-TV and a parent whose 4-year-old son, Kenny, attends Wind in the Willows. She says the school still has openings in its afternoon program this fall and could use a hand with its remodeling efforts at 711 Monterey Blvd. For information, call 415-285-5510. Also, donations, no matter how small, can be sent to the Wind in the Willows Renovation Fund, 1444 Church St., San Francisco, CA 94131.