Mary Brown, Organizer of Valencia Street Bike Lanes + Historian of Mission Architecture, Passed on 12/10/15 - by Tina Gerhardt
If you have biked down the Valencia Street Bike Lanes in San Francisco you have benefited from the organizing work of long-time SF Mission resident Mary Brown, who passed on December 10, 2015 of cancer.
Mary Brown was a loved and integral part of the Mission community, which she called home since moving to San Francisco in 1994 after completing her B.A. in Journalism at Humboldt State University in 1992 and traveling in Central America. She also had a minor in art and worked as a research assistant to photo-historian Peter Palmquist, assisting with archival research for his books on pioneering photographers and early California women photographers.
For about two decades, from 1994 to 2006, she lived in the 22nd Street coop - a collective household between Valencia and Mission Streets. And from 1996 to 1999, she wrote for the New Mission News, a monthly paper with the motto "Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable" printed from 1980 to 2002. Topics often covered included tenant's rights, landlord code violations, and the first dot-com boom of the 1990s.
From 1997 to 2005, Mary Brown worked at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) as membership director. She was known for her quick wit and dry sense of humor, both of which undoubtedly played a key role in increasing membership and creating a vibrant volunteer program at the SFBC. According to Leah Shahum, former Executive Director of the SFBC, when Mary Brown began, as membership coordinator, the SF Bicycle Coalition had 1700 members. When Mary Brown left the staff, in 2005, it enjoyed around 5000 members. Today, it has over 10,000.
Mary Brown was tremendously civic-minded and devoted to the community around her. She developed campaign and outreach strategies for the Bayview / Hunter's Point and Excelsior neighborhoods.
Soon after joining the staff, she began work to organize the Valencia Street Bike Lanes. Leading the campaign, she talked to neighbors and to area shop owners. Striped in 1999, Valencia was the first street in San Francisco to replace car lanes with bike lanes. According to Shahum, in the year after, ridership increased 144%. Currently, plans are afoot to rename the Valencia Street Bike Lanes the Mary Brown Bike Lanes in her honor.
Shahum underscores that the Valencia Street example of a road diet, replacing car lanes with bike lanes and widening sidewalks to allow for more pedestrian traffic, led to other bike lanes in the Mission District and elsewhere, for example, the bike lanes on Folsom Street and Howard.
Shahum says, this work is not completed: "On Potrero Avenue, there are plans for a road diet, which will add wider bike lanes that are physically buffered, wider sidewalks and dedicated bus only lanes. The Valencia Street Bike Lanes," Shahum emphasizes" deserve more credit for not only improving bike lanes but also providing healthier transportation and commuting options and for increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety. The Valencia Street Bike Lanes mark an early pivotal success for San Francisco re-thinking street space and rethinking access to it."
From 2002 to 2005, Brown was Bike Network Director. During this time 20 plan projects were funded by the state and Mary Brown developed campaigns for the implementation of bike lanes on key streets in the citywide bike network.
Mary Brown not only loved to bike. She loved to walk. She researched and led walking tours, on topics such as women's history in San Francisco and public art. She developed these tours for the public, led them for USF's Urban Affairs program, and carried them out privately with friends. She also incorporated them into her subsequent work.
In 2005, Mary Brown began graduate studies in Geography at San Francisco State University, funded by the Switzer Fellowship for environmental leadership, a highly competitive statewide graduate student fellowship; and the David Lantis scholarship, awarded by the California Geographical Society to one graduate student.
She focused on land use planning; urban transportation and the development of San Francisco's streets and street patterns; the WPA mural movement in San Francisco; the environmental history of Islais Creek; and the impact of industrialization and residential settlement on Mission Creek and Mission Bay.
Her M.A. thesis, completed in 2007, focused on the Mission District. Entitled Landscapes of Mobility: Reconfiguring Space in the Mission District to Accommodate Automobiles, it examined the impact of mass automobility on Victorian and Edwardian era architecture of the Mission District. For it, she was awarded the Graduate Student Distinguished Achievement Award, granted to the top graduate student in each department at SFSU.
In 2007, Mary Brown landed what she called her "dream job" as Planner and Preservation Specialist with San Francisco's Department of Planning and Preservation.
She was an architectural historian and worked to identify, map and preserve historic properties from Sam Jordan's Bar in the Bayview District to Duboce Park Landmark District; from the Golden Gate Park Landmark District to Marcus Books.
Moses Corrette, who lived down the street from her on 22nd Street but did not meet her until they became colleagues at the Department of Planning and Preservation, stated that "her colleagues appreciated her joie de vivre, her good work ethic and the fact that she was just fun to be around."
Mary Brown was lead author of the Modern Architecture and Landscape Design, 1935-1970 - Historical Context Statement which outlined development in San Francisco between 1935 and 1970. After outlining stylistic precursors it focused on San Francisco's modernism, including residential, commercial, institutional and recreational examples.
Corrette described her writing on San Francisco as digestible, scholarly, thorough and groundbreaking. He said one San Franciscan wrote to the department "complaining of a ruined weekend because they couldn't put her context statement down until they finished reading it."
Two prestigious awards recognized the merits of her well-researched and well-written report: the 2011 Governor's Award for Historic Preservation and the 2011 California Preservation Foundation's Preservation Award.
Mary Brown's wit, humor and savvy will be missed. But her legacy will continue through her work to make the Mission a better place to live, exemplified by the Valencia Street Bike Lanes. And her civic-mindedness will continue to inspire.
Tina Gerhardt is an environmental journalist and academic. Her articles have been published by Climate Progress, Grist, The Nation, The Progressive and the Washington Monthly.