| December 2012
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By Heather World
Upper Noe Neighbors President Vicki Rosen stands surrounded by the record collection she and husband Randy Zielinski have built over the past 40 years. Photo by Beverly Tharp
Small in stature but larger than life, Vicki Rosen has spent the last 25 years connecting residents in “southern” Noe Valley to the issues that affect them.
“When the Planning Department, the mayor, the supervisors, or Rec and Park think of Upper Noe, they think of Upper Noe Neighbors, and they contact me to let me know about things that are happening,” says Rosen, who has been president of the group since 2000.
Rosen, in turn, passes along the news—about a candidates night, a park renovation, or a change in the J-Church line—using an email list that has grown to 300 recipients.
As head of the neighborhood association, she also runs the group’s monthly meetings, lines up speakers on topics ranging from crime safety to utility boxes, and represents the UNN at Planning Commission and other city hearings.
Her goal has always been to foster a sense of community along outer Church Street through local activism.
“Neighborhoods are not just the quality of the homes and restaurants on the block, they’re the people who live there, and we do better as a group,” says Rosen. “There’s strength in numbers.”
From Starstruck to Star-Studded
Rosen moved to Valley Street in 1978 to live with her now-husband Randy Zielinski and his daughter, Erin. Back then, the neighborhood was still dominated by the descendants of the German Lutherans and Irish Catholics who settled there in the 1880s.
“There were a lot of homes where families had lived through several generations,” said Rosen. Her own block was known as the “Widows Block,” for its many elder residents.
Rosen’s 1888 home was raised from one to two stories long ago, but is otherwise typical of the San Francisco Victorians of the era. Inside, the long central hallway is lined with pictures and mementos that illustrate Rosen’s lifelong passion for rock and roll: a photo (taken by Annie Leibovitz) of her clutching a giant pillow shaped like the iconic Rolling Stones’ tongue; a sketch made by Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart; a note handed to her by the drummer of the Yardbirds, asking her to meet him after a show.
(They had a chaste double date over cappuccino, she notes.)
Mixed in are old pictures of her ancestors from Russia: big families wearing serious expressions and formal clothes. Both of Rosen’s grandfathers were tailors, and both immigrated to the United States to start families here.
Rosen was raised in a conservative Jewish home in St. Louis, Mo. Her parents observed the strict dietary laws of a kosher kitchen, and she and her younger brother went to synagogue as children. Still, she didn’t return to Judaism until 2001, after she discovered Chabad of Noe Valley, an orthodox community on Cesar Chavez Street.
“I was blown away by the simplicity and the tradition of their service and how welcoming the rabbi was,” said Rosen, who is now an active member of the congregation.
More Music Connections
She earned her B.A. degree from the University of Missouri in St. Louis, but by 1972 Rosen was living on Fair Oaks Street, having decided to give San Francisco a try.
She landed a job at Rolling Stone magazine, handling the magazine’s classified ads. The job was a music-loving English major’s dream, she said.
“People worked really hard and played really hard,” she said. There were smart and funny co-workers, unorthodox work hours, tanks of nitrous oxide, and plenty of marijuana.
She left in 1975, but she continued to work as an editorial assistant at magazines including New West, an offshoot of New York magazine. Her short music reviews earned her backstage passes to concerts by bands like Blondie, U2, and the Talking Heads.
She and Zielinski, an investigator with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, also frequented punk clubs in the ’80s, including the San Francisco punk icon Mabuhay Gardens.
Their front parlor is a tribute to their varied musical tastes: the room is lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves made to accommodate their extensive vinyl record collection, which includes classical, rock, jazz, reggae, and blues.
One shelf holds a set of 45s, some of which date back to the 1950s.
Why vinyl records?
“They sound better, and they’re pieces of art,” says Rosen, who insists the format is making a comeback. “They’re something you can hold in your hand and read.”
Zielinski and Rosen married in 1983. Erin attended public schools, and Rosen taught her the first big step of city living: how to ride Muni.
“I taught her how to take the 24 [Divisadero] up the hill and down the hill,” said Rosen. “She knew who to go see if she had concerns about anything because we had friends who had businesses from the Castro to this neighborhood.”
In 1990, Rosen took a job with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Now she is the agency’s liaison with communities affected by the country’s worst hazardous waste sites.
Much like her role as UNN president, her job is to make sure residents understand what the problem is and how it will be fixed. She makes sure EPA technical support is available for people living near the sites, and she follows up with the community after a cleanup is done. “It’s stimulating to be in a job that has taught me things I wouldn’t have been inclined to learn about,” says Rosen, citing the science of hazardous waste as an example.
As a result of her work, Rosen brings some technical knowledge to Upper Noe Neighbors, plus she’s willing to research what she doesn’t know, says Marianne Hampton, who recently retired from the UNN board.
“And she’s willing to go downtown and sit in those interminably long meetings,” Hampton said. “We’re really lucky to have her.”
Hampton got involved with UNN after a senior citizen was killed at the intersection of 30th and Dolores streets, where she lives. Rosen pulled together officials from Muni and the Department of Parking and Traffic, as well as District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, to address the issue.
“She knew who to call at City Hall,” Hampton said. “It can be a warren: you don’t know who to call first.”
Address Book Thickens with Time
Rosen has developed her contacts over the many years she has been involved in Upper Noe Neighbors. She and Zielinski attended its first meeting in March of 1988.
“Randy and I went because we thought it was a great idea to have a group that was concentrated on Upper Noe,” she said. “It seemed to be something that would address our neighborhood rather than just the 24th Street area.”
Founders Sue Bowie and Janice Gendreau soon asked Rosen to join the board. When they stepped down 10 years later, Rosen assumed the leadership and has been there ever since.
She has seen a lot of controversy during her tenure, perhaps nothing as intense as the wars over housing in the early 2000s.
“This neighborhood was Ground Zero for out-of-control development,” said Rosen. “Our objective was to get neighbors to work together to get some kind of compromise on the projects.”
A four-story condo and town-home complex at 29th and Dolores was one of the more contentious. “We were able to increase the off-street parking,” Rosen said, “but we were not successful at other requests for modifications,” such as lowering the building height and providing below-market units.
There was also great debate about a temporary shelter for homeless gay youth in the Metropolitan Church at 27th and Church streets. The UNN supported the project in the face of strong neighborhood opposition.
“It was here for a few months, it closed down, and we had no problems,” Rosen said.
Her proudest accomplishment, though, might be working with Muni back in 2006 to stop the screeching of J trains as they turned the corner at 30th and Church streets, she said.
“I never let up on it. Any time I would hear the screeching or anyone contacted me, Muni would get an earful.”
A Changing Landscape
These days, the focus of the UNN meetings has been on things like the placement of wireless communication boxes and the re-configuring of stops along the J-line. Rosen says she strives to keep the gatherings interesting.
“I want people to leave the meeting and not think that the hour and a half was a waste of time—that they enjoyed being around their neighbors,” she said. Toward that end, she provides refreshments and lively guests.
Rosen knows the neighborhood has changed, as affluent young parents replace aging Irish widows. She is hoping some of their energy will translate into activity with Upper Noe Neighbors.
“I want our neighborhood to be a cohesive group even though we are different ages, have different lifestyles, different backgrounds,” she said. “We need each other for this neighborhood to stay desirable.”
On the lighter side, she’d like to have a party, and is hoping to find someone who can organize it. “We’re overdue to have a party.”
Upper Noe Neighbors usually meets on second Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m., at Upper Noe Recreation Center, 295 Day St. However, please confirm dates on the group’s website, www.uppernoeneighbors.com.