A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The woman who tore down walls

(Above: Sue Olive with her granddaughter, Shama)

When Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, died, he was buried in the cathedral under a headstone reading, "If you seek his monument, look around you."
The same could be said of environmental leader Sue Olive of Berkeley, who died at age 66 on Aug. 30 after a 4 ½-year battle with uterine cancer.
Her monument is the San Francisco Municipal Railway's Third Street Light Rail Project, which, as Project Manager, she spearheaded from start to finish. It brought the previously isolated minority neighborhoods of the Bay View, Hunter's Point and Visitacion Valley in contact with the rest of San Francisco.
But another important legacy is something that wasn't built. It seems incredible now; but after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, CalTrans actually wanted to rebuild the collapsed Cypress Structure, which cut West Oakland off from the rest of the city.
But Olive and her husband, Michael Fried, teamed with the late grassroots organizer Chappell Hayes to mobilize the community to put the kibosh on that dumb idea.
Olive was the first female president of Urban Ecology, a band of merry pranksters with a serious purpose, which was founded in 1975.
Operating out of the Urban Ecology House at 1939 Cedar Street, they would sally forth on roller skates to distribute "Gasaholics Anonymous" parking tickets, inviting car owners to think about their dependence on automobiles.
The Urban Ecology House was instantly recognizable by the warm glow emanating from within - it seemed as if there was always a dinner party going on - and the "Veggie Car," a 1968 Pontiac GTO with a vegetable patch growing inside, parked in front.
Urban Ecology also was known for its very attractive women members, known as the Eco-Babes, of whom Olive definitely was one.
"Needless to say, they attracted a lot of men to their meetings, and I was one," says San Francisco architect Paul Okamoto, Urban Ecology's current president, who met his wife, Ariel, at the Urban Ecology House.
One of Urban Ecology's first projects was the successful campaign to redesign Milvia Street to slow cars and create safer spaces for pedestrians and bicyclists. It was considered radical then, but today every neighborhood in Berkeley is clamoring for its own bike lanes, speed bumps and roundabouts.
But just as important as what she did was the way she did it. Drawing on her Midwestern roots, she always treated people - even those with whom she disagreed - with respect and consideration. Her generosity could defuse almost any conflict.
"When you have a $600 million project like the Third Street Light Rail Project, which goes through three different communities, you have to bring all these people together, and Sue did that better than anyone," says San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who remembers one meeting when everyone was in a panic because of rumors of a proposed change to the project.
"Sue just kept saying very quietly, 'Just a moment, let me explain it to you.' And everyone calmed down! They were fuming just a moment before, but because they believed in her, they listened. And it turned out not to be as bad as they thought."
By the way, this "Eco-Babe" was also a proud feminist.
"When I proposed to her, she accepted," says Fried. "Then she proposed to me."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Eat at Bill's, part 2

(Above: Bill Fujimoto and his wife, Judy)

Last June, after I wrote about Bill Fujimoto (the man who made the Monterey Market in Berkeley the mother church of the seasonal food movement) getting the heave-ho after 31 years, I got a ton of phone calls and emails from his loyal customers, all saying the same thing: "Please let me know where he ends up so I can shop there."
Well, Berkeley's loss is Lamorinda's gain. He's signed on as a consultant with Diablo Foods in Lafayette, where he's happily turning the produce section into a mini-version of the Monterey Market.
"The management is treating me wonderfully," he says. "They're allowing me the freedom to do what I do. And the customers are great. I thought appreciation of seasonal foods was just a Berkeley thing, but these people are real food people. I had no idea it was so pervasive."
He's also impressed with the staff, many of them veterans with as much as 20 years' experience.
"They only thing they didn't have was a buyer," he says. "That's my role."
Which means that instead of buying produce from a catalog to fill a designated space on the shelf, whether or not the item is in season, he inspects everything personally and buys only whatever is top condition that day.
"Strawberries are always better when you see them before you buy them," he says. "Some days, the tomatoes might not be at their best, but the greens are. So I'll pass on tomatoes that day and load up on greens, instead."
Just like old times, his day starts around midnight, when he wakes up without an alarm clock and starts phoning growers to find out what's hot and what's not that day.
Then he goes back to sleep for a couple of hours. But he's up again in time to be at the Oakland produce district at 4 a.m.
He selects only the best of the best, loading the produce in the back of his pickup truck and driving to Diablo Foods, where he's setting up the produce by 6 a.m.
All the while, he's indirectly instructing the staff in the fine points of seasonal produce buying.
"I teach the only way I know how," he says. "By example."
He's also introducing them to his favorite growers - contacts that will stand them in good stead long after he's moved on to his next project.
"I'm only a consultant," he says. "My goal is to eventually make myself unnecessary."
Then, just like the old days, he's back home in Berkeley by noon for his daily midday nap.
But unlike the old days, that's the end of his workday.
"I used to wake up again at 2 and go back to the Monterey Market for the afternoon shift," he says. "Now I actually have a life. I can actually have dinner with my wife. I'm working hard and enjoying myself, and I've lost 18 pounds!"
After he was so unceremoniously dumped by the Monterey Market last spring, there were dark mutterings of a boycott by both customers and growers. But Bill is having none of it.
"I'm a Buddhist," he says. "Everything always works itself out. Besides, the employees are like my family. How can I wish them anything but the best?"