Story-telling from my little corner of San Francisco.
Author: Bettina Cohen
I've watched the little corner of San Francisco where I live get "built out" and the neighborhood grow by leaps and bounds to its current near-completion status.
I am the author of hundreds of published articles, two nonfiction book chapters published as part of an authoritative guide series, and an unpublished novel. I recently resumed freelance writing as a community reporter for The Potrero View.
I belong to a book group that meets every two months at the local branch library. We alternate between fiction and narrative nonfiction, mainly literary journalism or memoir. We don’t necessarily split it up evenly and read three of each per year. It seems to work that way, or perhaps novels hold a slight edge.
Our current selection for May is Janesville: An American Story, by Amy Goldstein. I’m reading it now.
We’ve selected Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, for July. I’ve already bought my copy.
Warlight, by Michael Ondaaje, was our March selection, and I led January’s discussion of There There, by Tommy Orange.
Past nonfiction we read included Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance, and Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond, by E.J. Dionne, another discussion I led.
Though we meet only six times per year, we wind up discussing more than six books, because of our selection process. At each meeting, we spend several minutes talking about books we’ve read or would like to read.
This segment of the meeting is a lightning round, with members tossing suggestions into the ring and giving brief summaries of why we think it will be a good discussion book – not simply saying that we liked the book, since we wouldn’t recommend a book we didn’t like; but what about it gives us the idea that it will yield a fruitful discussion, with insights into life that we can mull over.
We take turns leading discussions when the group chooses a book we recommend. We usually choose a book that the member has already read.
Nonfiction we considered recently includes Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover, and The Library Book, by Susan Orlean.
I tossed a couple of novel suggestions into the hopper that I haven’t read yet – Little Boy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s latest, and If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin, which was recently made into a movie.
The book club I’ve described is open to everyone, but all of the regular members are women, and lately all of the drop-ins have been women too. We see each other around the neighborhood, and the book club is one of those activities that lets us strengthen our sense of community.
Corinne Woods passed away last week, way too soon, at 72.
Corinne loved the creek. In fact, she lived on the creek, in one of Mission Creek Harbor Association’s houseboats, or as she called them, floating homes.
I’m not aware of anyone having called Corinne
the Godmother of the Waterfront,
but that’s a pretty accurate way to describe her dedication to making the waterfront the special place it is to live, work and recreate.
Of course, Corinne would probably have rolled her eyes at such an exalted accolade.
Corinne would have shrugged off the fuss her leaving is receiving.
Newspaper columns quoted civic leaders, environmental activists, and friends of the waterfront who extolled her fierceness as an advocate or occasional adversary, depending on the issue of the moment. Her image was displayed on the jumbotron at newly renamed Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, at the start of the 2019 season opening game on April 5. Next to her familiar crinkled smile were the words, “a neighborhood icon who helped shape plans for the waterfront, ballpark, and surrounding community.” All of which is true, though “icon” would have evinced a sardonic grin and she probably would have scoffed, “Aren’t you laying it on a bit thick?”
Corinne was selfless and tireless in her advocacy on behalf of all residents of Mission Bay. Understand that a phrase like “all residents of Mission Bay” meant future residents for a couple of decades during which a neighborhood that required planning – lots of planning — existed mainly as a concept, aka, The Master Plan. This was the last mega tract — 303 acres — of undeveloped land (fill, to be precise), in a city that had pretty much run out of large tracts of undeveloped real estate by the late 1990s. The majority of people who live here today probably never met Corinne, after moving in where earth movers and construction cranes broke ground and drove steel piles deep into all those acres of a wilderness occupied predominantly by wild fennel and wildflowers.
The Mission Bay that Corinne poured her heart and soul into is a neighborhood that houses people of diverse income levels, with nearly 30 percent of the housing here dedicated to moderate to very low-income households. An entire building that’s still to be built will house formerly homeless people, adding to other 100 percent affordable buildings that are newly occupied by low-income and formerly homeless families or individuals in this otherwise affluent slice of the City.
I met Corinne three months after I moved into Mission Bay a little over eight years ago, when I attended my first Mission Bay Citizens’ Advisory Committee meeting. For me, she’ll always be indelibly linked to the planning of every little detail here, from the planting of trees to the question of vehicles crossing sidewalks at driveways into garages. Or whether there was room in the furniture zone outside the Mission Bay Branch Library for a food cart to operate without impeding pedestrian traffic as crowds of residents and employees head in both directions on Fourth Street on busy weekdays.
She served on a number of advisory committees throughout the years, in addition to chairing the MB CAC. My last memory of her is in the Creek Room of Mission Creek Senior Community at the February MB CAC meeting. The announcement that she wouldn’t be attending the March meeting as it was called to order seemed odd. I couldn’t recall an MB CAC meeting that Corinne hadn’t chaired.
Corinne served in roles on behalf of the Eastern neighborhoods plan, future developments at Mission Rock and Pier 70, the ballpark, and the not-yet opened Warriors Arena. She advocated for the Blue Greenway scenic recreational walking trail along the waterfront, and was part of the San Francisco Blues Festival family. I attended a District 6 pedestrian safety task force meeting one day at City Hall a few years ago, and Corinne was there because of items on the agenda that affected Mission Bay. She greeted guests to the annual Fourth of July shindig in Huffaker Park. Like the MB CAC meetings, it’s hard to imagine what that summer bash will be like without her.
Corinne wasn’t an advocate because she sought notoriety. She didn’t do it for power or political standing of any kind – though she did urge people to vote at every Mission Bay Citizens’ Advisory Committee meeting that preceded a municipal election. She believed strongly in people exercising their precious right to vote. She urged people to vote in local elections most of all, not just in races for local representative offices, but also for the alphabet soup ballot measures that apply to the City and County of San Francisco. Last November’s Prop A was a ballot measure for the City to issue $425,000,000 in bonds to repair and reinforce the 100-year-old Embarcadero Seawall that protects three miles of the waterfront, from Fisherman’s Wharf to the ballpark on the north bank of Mission Creek, against the ocean and earthquake damage. Corinne closed the October 2018 meeting by urging people to pass Prop A; it was a charter amendment that required a two-thirds supermajority to pass, and it was really important for protecting the waterfront she loved. (Prop A passed by 82.7%.)
Although Corinne probably would have protested naming something here in her honor, I hear I’m not the only one who has had the idea. But what?
The Fourth Street Bridge? I recall her barbed comments when the City renamed the western span of the Bay Bridge after former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Besides, the Corinne Woods Bridge doesn’t roll off the tongue the way the Lefty O’Doul Bridge does, so nah.
How about a portion of the Blue Greenway, the 13-mile network of parks, trails, beaches and bay access points along the southeastern waterfront which Corinne had input in planning! The Blue Greenway will start at China Basin across from the ballpark and link established open spaces, create new recreational opportunities and green infrastructure, and provide public access through the implementation of the San Francisco Bay Trail, Bay Water Trail, and green corridors to surrounding neighborhoods. These picturesque trails will extend all the way to the City’s southern border. Not the entire Blue Greenway, but perhaps the first portion of it that will run from China Basin to Agua Vista Park, past the Bayview Boat Club, could be called the Corinne Woods Walkway on the Blue Greenway.
Then I thought — the Corinne Woods Mission Creek Room, for the room in Mission Creek Senior Community where she chaired countless MB CAC meetings.
Why not name them both after her?
I learned of Corinne’s passing on the Facebook page of friend and neighbor Sarah Davis, who was raised on a houseboat on Mission Creek and knew Corinne most of her life.
Matt Springer, a friend who now lives in another part of the City, commented on Sarah’s post that Corinne was, “Truly an epitome of civic service: no agenda other than to make things better and advocate for responsible growth of a brand-new part of SF without stomping on the organic long-standing part that was already there; no power trip, no positioning for official political ladder climbing; just pure service. So many of us know how much we owe her, and so many of the newer people in that community will never truly understand how much they owe her but I’m sure that this would not have bothered Corinne.”
Yes, many will never understand how much they owe her. I know I’m living in a nice home in Mission Bay and that she’s one of those who influenced the decision-makers to make it possible.
And I’m looking forward to walking the Blue Greenway.
Below a photo Sarah shared, Peter Snider, Corinne’s husband, is tagged in a comment that reads:
“A rainbow starts in mission creek and stretches over mission bay on this solemn day.”
To which a friend named Helen Wheels replied:
“And there goes Corinne, somewhere over that rainbow!”
Corinne Woods left the world a better place. Her good work made it possible for thousands of people to call this new neighborhood home, and ensured a fine quality of life for future generations to enjoy. What better can be said of someone than that.
Long ago and far away, I was a staff reporter for community newspapers on Long Island. At the time I moved to San Francisco, I was a freelance writer for Thoroughbred trade journals.
I took a break.
A long break.
And then one day, I picked up the January issue of The Potrero View, a monthly newspaper that covers a few eastern neighborhoods in San Francisco, including the neighborhood where I live.
The ad read: Freelance writers wanted. Modest pay. Interesting assignments. I contacted the editor and very quickly, was covering local news again as a freelance community reporter.
Irony of ironies, my first assignment back after an 11-year hiatus was about a writing program. 826 Valencia is a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing strong writing skills in under-served children and youth. You can read my article in the March issue of The Potrero View here.
The grand opening of 826 Valencia took place on Saturday, March 9. A couple of hundred people of all ages – most of them wearing unicorn hats — turned out for the ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of 1310 Fourth Street.
Live music by a mariachi band, games and refreshments were part of the fun.
It was a milestone moment for a community that is still settling into newly constructed buildings, awaiting a new dog park and a few more streets to open, and hoping stores move into the available storefronts that are debuting on the commercial real estate market. 826 Valencia is the first occupant to move into any of the retail spaces on the 1300 block of Fourth Street, bringing positive vibes and dynamism to the corner of Fourth and China Basin. The mixed-use building combines retail and residential. The residential units opened for occupancy roughly six months ago. It’s all very new, with more to come.
Children from Mission Bay’s expensive market rate properties met children from affordable housing. There was much dashing hither and yon, energy levels running wild, and the discovery of marvelous things camouflaged in the creative décor.
They explored a cave in the enchanted forest, and all ages got their first look at the Woodland Creatures Limited Store. It sells a curious mix of odds and ends — things like notebooks, pencils, T-shirts, socks, bird houses, book bags and books, including a beautifully illustrated quarterly publication of short stories and essays written by students in the writing program.
At the corner, China Basin Street was closed off for the neighborhood’s first ever block party.
The ribbon-cutting followed speeches from event organizers and City officials. The large crowd spilled off the sidewalk and into the parking spaces along Fourth Street to hear the speeches.
“Mission Bay, more and more, is becoming a family neighborhood,” said newly elected San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, one of the City officials who was on hand for the ceremony.
By 2023, a newly constructed public elementary school – one of the last buildings that will be constructed in Mission Bay – will open to schoolchildren just a few blocks from the new 826 Valencia Mission Bay Center. The nonprofit will partner with the new school to support teachers and students, so that all students who attend schools throughout the Bayview and Hunters Point, as well as Mission Bay, can prepare for success in college and beyond.
Till then, the enchanted forest at the new 826 Valencia Mission Bay Center, with its tree sculpture, rock-pool stage, and cave, will be a destination for public school field trips and one-on-one after-school tutoring that will help shape the voices of the writers of tomorrow.
“We are going to celebrate the weirdness, the power, and the potential of the imagination of children,” Haney said.
It was exciting to see such a huge turnout for 826 Valencia’s grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony. Mission Bay celebrates the next generation of writers!
It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I took more than a passing interest in wild birds. Being new to the Pacific Flyway reacquainted me with our feathered friends in ways I never anticipated. Birds came to fill the place in my heart that horses had held when I lived in New York and Kentucky. They became my new spirit guide for a new phase of life journey as I made my nest in a new city as a newlywed.
Birding became my hobby. My husband bought me field guides and binoculars, and I listened to CD recordings of bird songs while I kept house. Birding got me out to different parts of San Francisco and other destinations in the Bay Area. My longstanding favorite way to spend Sunday was riding the 76 Marin Headlands bus out to the Marin Headlands, hiking the hilly trails through the Gerbode Valley and around Rodeo Lagoon, listening and looking for sights and sounds of resident or migratory avian species. I brought food and water, dressed in layers and hiking boots, caught the first bus of the day to get there, and often rode back on the last bus home.
When we moved to our home in the still-developing Mission Bay neighborhood, trips to the Headlands eventually stopped. Living close to Mission Creek, I had plenty of birding habitat nearby.
In my very first visit to the neighborhood, a glimpse of the houseboats in their slips on the south bank drew me to the promenade on the north bank of the creek. A great blue heron waded in the shallow water on the north bank. An Anna’s hummingbird perched in a tree on the promenade above the heron. The hummer zoomed up and hovered above me, then zoomed down and perched again. I was captivated! Smitten to my core! In love! Here were one of the largest and one of the tiniest birds you’re likely to meet in the same field of vision! Across the creek, flashes of rapid wing beats and white bellies caught my eye. A flock of little birds were skimming low over the mudflat between the rocks and grassy edge of the south bank that gets exposed when the tide is low. It was a flock of least sandpipers landing, scurrying in the mud once they touched down and searching for morsels of food.
I was fortunate to move into the neighborhood, and over the years my favorite pastime has been birding the creek. In my first three months here, I’d counted 36 species of birds on Mission Creek. I’d have to sort through and compare random lists for a complete lifetime count.
Birds mark the seasons. They challenge our powers of observation.
Yes, sparrows all appear at first glance to be little brown or gray birds hopping on the ground or flitting in the shrubs and tall grasses along the creek banks. But look at their eye lines and head markings, and listen to their songs.
White-crowned sparrows are abundant year-round here, singing freely from dawn to dusk. But golden-crowned sparrows also visit the creek, though not in great numbers like the white-crowned.
Other sparrow species occasionally drop in for quick respites in the park along the south bank before flying off again. You might see fox sparrows doing their two-footed hop and scratch in the gorilla mulch under the landscaping., or white-throated sparrows. A couple of months ago, I heard a song I remembered from my trips to the Headlands, so I stopped to search the shrubs for the bird. Sure enough, the streaked breast with a dot in the center confirmed that a song sparrow was staking out a place along the north promenade. The song sparrow chose to remain. I’ve seen him a few times since then, always in the same general area.
The creek’s year-round residents include a flock of black-crowned night herons which nest here. My neighbors and I have seen juveniles along the creek banks for years. We know which trees they like to nest in. One sunny Sunday last fall, those of us who notice these things were treated to the unusual sight of an entire colony sunning themselves on the pilings that once formed the Carmen’s pier, just inside the 4th Street Bridge. There were adults and juveniles, and a few night herons roosting in a tree nearby on the south bank. I counted 25 herons in all.
A great blue heron visits throughout the year, but it’s a solitary bird. I’ve counted as many as nine snowy egrets at once in close range of one another. A great egret showed up last winter. These elegant white birds hadn’t been seen here for several seasons, and it was a real treat to see one again. The great egret has returned this winter, and keeps pretty much to itself.
Grebes and cormorants are regulars on the creek. Double-crested cormorants are here all year, and amuse me the way they spread their wings wide open and tilt their long, crooked necks back to let the sun dry their feathers, after their deep dives for food on the creek bottom. On a cold winter day, a pelagic cormorant might visit the creek. Western grebes are here more than any other grebe species, but Clark’s, eared, horned, and pied-bill visit too, particularly in the winter and spring. Try distinguishing several species of grebes in winter plumage from one another while they’re diving underwater more than staying up, and you’ll soon forget anything that was bothering you.
Winter is duck season. Like the grebes and cormorants, most of the ducks that visit are divers. Cute little buffleheads are abundant winter residents in flocks of more than 30. These playful ducks like to suddenly take off in little groups flying low to the water for a few wing beats before touching down and skidding in gleeful delight along the surface, sending sprays of water up in their wake. Scaup – greater and lesser – also visit in small flocks during the colder weather. Occasionally, common goldeneye check in for a short stay, including a male and female that I’ve seen this winter. A couple of pair of mallards usually visit in the winter, the only dabbling ducks that visit. They usually just paddle about contentedly in pairs among the other ducks.
It’s usually serene out there, but sometimes the peace is broken by the sharp cries of gulls. The gulls are vigilantes when it comes to hawks. When a gull sees a hawk, it sends up a cry, and soon there are a dozen or more gulls circling and shrieking. Search the sky for a hawk when this happens. It’s usually a red-tailed, but lately, a red-shouldered hawk has taken up residence in the trees near the houseboats, and a few months ago, a Cooper’s hawk moved into the ‘hood.
The 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count
As many birders know, February is the month that citizen scientists can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count throughout the United States. This takes place over the four-day Presidents’ Day Weekend, and is a collaborative effort between the National Audobon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to gather data on local bird populations. I’ve been on eight Great Backyard Bird Counts around Mission Creek now. These have always been organized by Beth, from the houseboat community.
A group of regulars form the core of the group, and we’ve had lots of friends and companions over the years who have taken part on our group walk that starts at the library and heads down the promenade, around the bend by the Caltrain tracks, past the traffic circle, into the plot where the community garden used to be, and then through Huffaker Park past the houseboats and the eucalyptus trees. It is always followed by a cozy cup of coffee and fresh baked goodies in the pavilion while we recap what we saw.
The 2019 edition of the Great Backyard Bird Count around Mission Creek might have set the record for number of species we were able to report. In total, spread among all of us who reported seeing birds, we counted 35 species between Friday, February 15, and Monday, February 18.
You can bet it helps that some of the birders on the bird count live in houseboats on the creek, and others, such as myself, make a point of getting out to keep an eye and ear on our avian community. I identified the song sparrow and the Cooper’s hawk that I’d observed in the months leading up to the bird count. My sighting of the great egret on Friday afternoon made it possible for us to report a great egret two years in a row, after it debuted on our GBBC list in 2018. And I learned, after consulting my field guides, that the sleek, elegant black cormorant with the white flank patches I saw on that cold Sunday afternoon walking home from the pavilion was a pelagic, the first I recall ever seeing.
But the crowning glory on our Great Backyard Bird Count in 2019 was the Say’s Phoebe that surprised us on the path leading off the traffic circle to the houseboats. It darted like a fly-catcher, and hovered. It bore a slight resemblance to the black phoebes we see around the creek all year, yet it clearly was not, with that brown coloration and rosy belly. In a sudden flash of intuition one of our group called out “Say’s Phoebe!” and lo and behold, she was right! A lifetime first for me, and a first sighting ever for Mission Creek that any of the regulars are aware. The Say’s Phoebe sighting was no fluke — I saw the bird again when I walked along that path a couple of mornings later.
Redevelopment Brings Departures and Arrivals
Habitats change. It’s exciting to see a species that’s new to the ‘hood, but the rapid development in a planned urban environment like Mission Bay can lead to displacement of some bird species. Mission Bay was about 300 acres of vacant lots full of tall fennel plants and wildflowers growing through cyclone fences until about a decade ago. It is now a very built, urban development supporting more than 6,000 residential housing units, as well as retail spaces, the UCSF Mission Bay campus, and several large biotech research companies.
When I first moved to Mission Bay, it was not altogether unusual to see killdeer on both banks of the creek. A couple of times I saw these double-necklaced shorebirds land in the vacant lot adjacent to the building in which I live. A really exciting place that local birders liked to go was known throughout the neighborhood as either the vernal pool or the construction ditch at 16th and Illinois. The site was once going to be the Salesforce campus in Mission Bay. Twisted steel rails in the ground harkened back to the area’s industrial past as a rail yard. Cyclone fences kept people at a respectful distance from the bird life, down where water filled the bottom of the ditch and long grasses and more fennel filled the lot down to Terry Francois Boulevard. Canada geese liked the construction ditch, but what was most cool about it were the killdeer. One year, I watched tender young killdeer chicks scampering on the mud bank through my binoculars.
A 129-unit apartment building now stands on what was a vacant lot next to where I live. And on the site of the old construction ditch at 16th and Illinois now stands two nearly completed office towers and the nearly finished Warriors Arena that will comprise the new Chase Center. I haven’t seen a killdeer in Mission Bay for several years.
Diversity of the human population is one of the things the urban planners aimed for in Mission Bay, with nearly 30 percent of the housing here designated for low- to middle-income households. Some of the new human residents recognize that Mission Creek, a literal urban oasis that fosters a diversity of bird life, is something special. I look forward to seeing more of my neighbors get into the habit of bringing a pair of binoculars with them when they go out. I’d love to see more of my neighbors out there, birding the creek.
Since I posted last, I’ve gone on many a walk around my neighborhood. This is a part of San Francisco where everything is new. Since I posted last, I’ve seen the playground open. Earlier today I went by the playground and it was quite a lively scene at midday, midweek, noon on a Wednesday. See the pictures I took.
Each time I walk along the promenade on the north side of the creek there are always more mommies or nannies with young children in strollers, and today the park on the south side of the creek was as full as ever with folks out enjoying the sunshine in so many ways. Out walking dogs, taking the kids for a stroll, or just lying in the grass reading. Urban parks are the community’s oasis, and that’s truer than ever where businesses are taking so long to move in and give those of us who live here places to go.
It’s not fully built out yet. I passed by a construction site on my walk today. I’ve lived here since before most of these massive mid-rise and high-rise residential buildings sprung from the empty lots that were here. People who grew up elsewhere in San Francisco pass through and can’t believe how different it looks compared to how vacant all this land was just three or four years ago. Thousands of people live here now.
Construction on that kindergarten through elementary school hasn’t started yet. That’s another year away, and then it will take three years for the school to be built. It’s going to be one of the last things to be built here. It was promised to the community in the master plan for redeveloping this part of the City, and now it’s up to the San Francisco Unified School District to get moving on it, now that the voters approved the bond measure last November that earmarked money to build a school here, where so many young couples and families are moving in. I’m part of the steering committee that’s been advocating for the school to be built and in the past week or so, neighbors who are following this community effort have been asking what’s happening with that property? They see it’s now being used as a parking lot for construction workers. They are wondering when the school will be built.
Yes, there’s a lot going on. I’ll keep taking walks through the new neighborhood that’s no longer new to me but still very new in the sense that it’s growing, before my very eyes, and still has a few years to go before it’s completely built out.