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Aaron Williams - Articles

Cayuga Park in San Francisco sees future renovation

Ingleside Light, Summer 2010

Cayuga Park has seen better days.

The famous park has a fence and chains around its play areas and the clubhouse closed two years ago due to plumbing issues. However, plans to rebuild Cayuga Park are in the final stag- es as community members and city departments figure out to maintain and enhance the garden-like vibe of the park.

The joint venture between the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, The Cayuga Improvement Association and the San Francisco Arts Commission needs final approval from the Art Commission, which is scheduled to happen in September. Prospective park builders will then be sought for afterward. Funding for the park came from the 2008 voter-approved $185 million Neighborhood Parks bond that gave money to parks in dire need of repair. Funding also came from BART to replace the playground area that will be removed while they rebuild the track support columns.

The renovation, which the city planned to be completed by the Summer of 2012, will replace the antiquated park clubhouse with facilities the community can use and provide a safe place for families and residents in the area. At one point, the park offered kids programs throughout the week. Currently, the park suffers from a lack of programs space families can enjoy.

“It used to be nice and clean 20 years ago,” resident Bill Short said. “It’s run down hill no doubt.” 93-year-old Bill Short has lived on Foote and Cayuga Streets for 69 years and raised all of his kids there. He said sometimes they’d run down to the park and play or catch frogs by the old lake formerly in the park.

“It was a great place to grow up,” his daugh- ter Shirley Short said. She noted that at one time the park was gorgeous and that though it still has plenty of charm, the vandalism and facility closures aren’t helping to portray that. She attributed the vandalism to kids having no stake in the park. “It’s too bad the city can’t provide the same support as they used to, but people need to take care of the park as well,” she said.

“We have a lot of young children taken care of by their grandmother and there’s no bathroom available 95 percent of the time, you know, no drinking fountain, it’s just rough to have a child down there and not have something you can do with them,” CIA member Barbara Fugate said. Fugate, along with other members of CIA, worked closely with Recreation and Parks architect Marvin Yee and the San Francisco Art Commission to help design the park and new clubhouse. She said currently families seek outside of the park’s area for kids programs and lei- sure space. The new park and clubhouse will hopefully change that. One key element was to rebuild the clubhouse.

“Our whole goal was to build something ecological responsible as well as a building that fits in this neighborhood,” Fugate said. After plenty of meetings and an architect change, the planned clubhouse now includes an additional space increase of 1000 square feet to accommodate more programs, more windows to increase natural lighting and a pathway to channel rain water. There are more plans to make the clubhouse more environmental friendly in the future such as solar panels for energy, but the priority is to have the park up and clubhouse running as soon as possible Fugate said.

Another key element was to redesign the park layout. The children’s play area is located in the back of the park and at its present size makes it harder for parents to watch their children Fugate said. However, the new plan called for the playground location to switch with the larger basketball court area, which should provide better supervision and space for kids. Other notable renovation plans for Cayuga Park include new planter boxes throughout the park, better fencing to discourage loitering and vandalism, and redesigned entrance on Cayuga Avenue as opposed to the cross street Naglee Street.

Unfortunately, construction won’t begin until BART finishes earthquake reinforce- ment on the aerial structures throughout Daly City and San Francisco, several of which that run alongside Cayuga park. “It’s in BART’s hands at the moment”, Fugate said. BART started rebuilding the track support columns in May and their plans call for completion by March 2011 accord- ing to Recreation and Parks Architect Marvin Yee.

One of the most prominent features of Cayuga Playground are the wooden sculptures retired gardener Demetrio Barceros made 20 years ago. The Arts Commission curator arranged the restoration of half of these sculptures and placed the rest in storage until the park reopens Fugate said. The sculptures remaining in the park are beyond repair and are left to decay.

Luckily, Baceros planned to make roughly 15 new pieces to debut at the park reopening. According to Fugate, none of this would have happened without the community around Cayuga park coming together.

“People have to get involved. They have to make time to work with the city or this won’t happen the way you want it to. Someone from the community needs to make sure plans reflect the needs” she said.

City Restarts Emergency Training in Ingleside

Newswire21, Spring 2010

The recent images of earthquake damage in Haiti and Chile raise chilling questions about whether the Ingleside District is prepared for a similar quake.

Though the district sits on solid rock, a powerful quake could cut off city services, leaving residents on their own to fight fires and help injured neighbors.

The city offers Neighborhood Emergency Response Team training so that citizens can learn what to do, but questions remain about how effective NERT will be during an actual earthquake.

First, despite its 12,000 active members in San Francisco, NERT isn’t well known.

“I’ve never heard of it,” said Robert Ross, who has lived in the Ingleside for 32 years. He said he hasn’t felt a need to seek emergency training because nobody has made it “readily apparent” that people need it.

“It feels really disconnected out there,” said fire Lt. Erica Arteseros, program coordinator for NERT. “I haven’t really known who all the players are. I don’t have any professional marketing for the program. It’s all word of mouth.”

20-year History NERT started in the Marina District in 1990 because residents wanted to feel more prepared for a disaster. Fire destroyed a multistory apartment building in the Marina during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.

Some new homeowners in the Ingleside have taken training, but Arteseros said the majority of residents are under-prepared, primarily because family resources aren’t as abundant.

NERT has since trained 19,700 people citywide and plans to train another 2,200 people, according to Arteseros. But only about 60 percent remain active.

Members helped to clean-up the Cosco-Busan oil spill in 2007, and also helped with wildfire fighting in Southern California. However, their quake-recovery skills remain untested.

NERT is coming to the Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreation Center on March 16 for the first time in a few years to kick off what the program hopes will be a new beginning of disaster preparedness in neighborhoods like the OMI – Ocean View, Merced Heights and the Ingleside. A full schedule of NERT training through April 20 is located on the Fire Department’s web site.

“This will give us an opportunity to test the OMI coalition and see where everyone is at,” Arteseros said.

Cultural Challenge NERT offers classes in English, Spanish and Cantonese, but about half the Ingleside’s residents are foreign-born and speak many other languages. Arteseros hopes bilingual city service workers will take the training and help bridge language barriers.

Another concern is the age of NERT participants. Arteseros estimated that the average age of NERT members is 40. NERT worked with Balboa High School’s JROTC and Science majors at City College to help train younger volunteers.

Apathy is a big obstacle. Ross said people feel that earthquakes are so powerful that preparation is superfluous, and he isn’t alone in that thought.

David Younge, business entrepreneur and owner of Discount Hookah on Ocean Avenue, wasn’t worried about earthquake preparedness despite the thousands of dollars of glass merchandise in his store front.

“I owned a night club in San Rafael and during the Loma Prieta earthquake. I lost three bottles. That’s it.” Younge said. “I got through that one. I’m just going to take my chances. Talk to me after. I’ll be sorry then.”

Myth Busting Arteseros admitted it’s hard to predict how effective NERT will be during an earthquake. She said NERT has worked to create a community infrastructure that kept members trained through recertification, consistent training sessions, a stronger database of members and collaborating more with currently community organizations.

“I work a lot harder on busting the myth that it’s a resource to you,” Arteseros said. “Before you put responsibility on your neighbor, think about how much responsibility you’d be willing to take on for the whole neighborhood.”

State Wants Diners to Know How Clean Their Plates Are

New York Times Student Journalism Institute, May 2011

In a city known for the quality of its cuisine, the cleanliness of New Orleans’ kitchen facilities has always been something of a mystery.

After six years of delays and false starts, Louisiana plans to launch a new Web portal this summer providing public access to restaurant inspection reports.

The new site, called Eat Safe, is to include a searchable database of inspections as well as health and food handling tips for all the states’ restaurants. The site will also make it easier to report complaints.

The state created a similar site, called Louisiana Health Finder, that provides hospital, dialysis facility and nursing locations as well as prescription drug prices.

The new system will not distill inspections down to a simple letter grade or score, as some cities do, said Lisa Faust, director of media and communications for the Department of Health and Hospitals. 

Instead, the reports will provide details and context about each violation.

“It’s not a ‘gotcha’ mentality here,” Faust said. “We felt it was better to be transparent than give a letter grade and assign value.”

She said it should be up to the public to decide to visit a restaurant after reading the inspections and to not be swayed by a letter grade. The ultimate goal of the site is to encourage proper food handling and accountability.

The department tried to launch a similar site in 2005, but pulled it down within days because of technical issues. Faust said the project languished in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but was revived in 2010 under the direction of the Department of Health and Hospitals secretary, Bruce D. Greenstein.

Eat Safe replaces an antiquated system that requires people to visit parish offices to view inspection reports.

“It is really cumbersome and we recognize that,” Faust said.

Restaurant owners were generally supportive of the initiative, said Erica Papillion of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. The organization worked with the state to create a website that was “palatable” to its members. Papillion said a vague or simplistic reporting system could lead to misinterpretations.

“A critical violation would be a cup without a top,” she said. “That’s a violation, but that doesn’t mean the place was unsanitary.”

Michael Weber, marketing director for K-Joe’s Restaurant in the French Quarter, supports putting food inspections online.

“Having worked in the restaurant business for some time, there are kitchens you don’t want to go to,” he said. But, he added, “rundown and old-school does not have to mean dirty.” Other New Orleans food vendors disagree with Weber.

“New Orleans is gonna be New Orleans,” said Doretha Keelen, who runs a 17-year-old Lucky Dogs hot dog cart on Bourbon and St. Louis streets. The 52-year-old New Orleans native said local establishments should follow health codes, but that populous events like Mardi Gras can hamper consistent cleaning. Faust said the department was working to change that.

“Frankly, we think food scores are everybody’s business,” she said. “We want people to be more empowered with their health.”

Peter Vaernet: Guardian of Brooks Park

Ingleside Light, March 2011

On a February morning, Peter Vaernet’s dream came true.

Eighty Lick-Wilmerding High School students were at his disposal to work on Brooks Park. Vaernet, a 6’3, blond-haired man with a Danish accent, towered over a group of students as he explained the variety of native plants.

“You’d pay $50 at a french restaurant for these in a soup when you can get them right here,” he said while waving around some seasonal onions. Next, he showed the students miner’s lettuce  growing on the hilltop. He straightened up, smiled, and told the students why community work was important and that they should come back to Brooks Park often.

“This is your park,” he said with enthusiasm.

The Lick-Wilmerding students were there to serve the neighborhood. For Vaernet, they were a private army to maintain a park he champions.

Vaernet, 58, works for the San Francisco Department of Public Health in the Maternal and Child Health section, a job he’s held for 24 years. He travels to different clinics around the city to take care of low income families. He also prepares students for kindergarten and makes sure they don’t lose interest in school because of physical or mental hardships.

When he’s not working officially for the city, he’s out landscaping and cleaning the park.

Growing Pains Peter Vaernet grew up in what he called the “old world.” He was born in Frederiksberg, Denmark, a city known for its abundance of foliage and open space near Copenhagen.

“No one moves,” he said. “The person pruning the apple tree next door is the great-grandson of the man I remember pruning the apple tree for as a kid. I suppose it’s a place where people don’t feel as rootless.”

One thing he enjoyed about his homeland was that everyone in the community knew each other and they would regularly meet in a village square.

“When I was a kid, you couldn’t get away with anything,” he said. “There were always aunties or grandmothers watching you.”

He would grow to appreciate that about his hometown after he married his wife Lily and had their 14-year-old son Bjorn . However, before he came to those realizations, he said he needed to leave Frederiksberg.

“Many countries in the old world are boring for a young person,” Vaernet said. “ Scandinavia, Denmark, Sweden; there’s no major issues, no major problems. It’s just OK. As a young male you become restless, so I decided I’d leave.”

Cross-country voyage

Arriving in the U.S. in 1972, Vaernet traveled around the country using the Greyhound promotion: $99 for 99 days.

“I’d sleep on the bus all night,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience to travel around the country and experience the variety of people that are here.”

When he landed in Santa Cruz, California he settled down to attend Cabrillo Junior College.

“It was just so beautiful,” Vaernet said about Santa Cruz. “It had a nice beach and was actually affordable as a foreign student, which was a big factor. There was just a great feeling of freedom for a young person.”

Vaernet studied many languages in junior college, but fell in love with Mandarin Chinese.

“I took Chinese because it’s a very old, continuous culture, and possibly the oldest with a written language,” he said. “It also sounds very different than other languages.”

His love for language and the Chinese culture led him to transfer to San Francisco State University in 1975. After graduation, he traveled around China for 10 years, sharpening his Mandarin. His fluency would get him hired by the Department of Public Health.

“I lived downtown near Chinatown,” Vaernet said. “But, man, after all the banging streetcars, I decided I wanted to live in a place where I could see the ocean from my house.”

He found that place in 1986.

Finding Brooks Park

“I was standing on the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway, looked up and wondered, ‘What is that strange hilltop up there?” he said. “What neighborhood is that?’”

So, one day Vaernet took a hike up Shields Street and saw the Ocean View neighborhood for the first time. He saw residents working in their yards and taking care of their homes. Memories flooded his mind of Denmark. While admiring the scene, he turned and saw the ocean behind him and realized this was the neighborhood for him.

“It was affordable at the time. I was working for the city, and I could actually afford a house. So that’s what brought me there,” he said.

Vaernet become the guardian of Brooks Park, defending it from drug dealers and fighting the city to give it more attention. He worked alongside the Department of Public Works to landscape parts of the park.

“[Vaernet] and the neighborhood came to us about 20 years ago to create a gate for the front of the park,” said Mohammad Nuru, deputy director for DPW.

“He treats [the park] as open space to bring the community together,” Nuru said. “I’m always there to help him and Brooks Park.”

Victoria Street resident and owner of Gentle Giants Gardening John Herbert befriended Vaernet in 2005, and joined Vaernet’s cause.

“I started off landscaping in my own backyard,” Herbert said. “It’s how I started my business and how I began working with Brooks Park.”

Herbert expanded the garden south toward Jose Ortega Elementary School, adding terraces so people could walk around the garden. Nuru aided this endeavor and brought leftover sidewalk concrete from construction work DPW did around the city, Vaernet said.

Vaernet continued gathering neighbors to help the park, including a retired high school teacher and beekeeper who Vaernet convinced to lead beekeeping workshops, as well as mushroom identification walks.

“Peter is awesome,” Herbert said. “He’s really easy going. He just wants people to come to the park and enjoy themselves. People don’t understand how much work he does. He is the heart and soul of Brooks Park.”

While Vaernet was modest about his role with the creation of Brooks Park, he didn’t believe any of his work was finished. In fact, he didn’t even believe he started it.

“Our ancestors did work like this all the time,” he said. “To me, this is a 5000 year project. We’ll never be done.”

Study Predicts Damage to Southern SF Homes in Quake

Newswire21, Spring 2010

A major earthquake could damage 80 percent of Ingleside and Excelsior homes and cause $2.3 billion in losses according to the draft of a long-awaited study.

The data reflects the collaboration of public and private agencies studying the potential effects of the 7.2 earthquake that is projected to hit the city within 30 years. The final report, covering the entire city, is due this summer. Follow up reports are expected in the fall.

The report will likely influence the debate on mandatory retrofitting of homes to better withstand earthquakes. Residents of the Excelsior and Ingleside also can use the report to weigh the costs of improving their homes against a higher earthquake insurance deductible.

“I just pay for a bundle that includes earthquake insurance,” resident Christina Ridad said. A sewer below Ridad’s home broke during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which her insurance covered. Despite the minimal damage, she decided to keep the insurance.

Homeowners such as Teresa Nasareo said that she wouldn’t live without her insurance, although her home was not affected by the 1989 quake. “You have to have it. It’s necessary,” she said.

Danger Below The garage or store under a multi-tenant, soft-story wood frame building is the most vulnerable to earthquake damage in San Francisco. It is also the most popular type of apartment structure. Though these building aren’t prevalent in the Ingleside or Excelsior, most of the single family homes there have garages underneath that don’t provide adequate support.

“Just because many homes in that area don’t fall into that category doesn’t mean they’re exempt,” real dstate consultant John Paxton said of the neighborhood. “It’s very popular to have the construction of garages under the living unit in that area. So these people should be aware that their building type is susceptible.”

Laurence Kornfield, chief building inspector for the city, also noted that though earthquakes pose a threat to the city, the shaking isn’t the biggest concern. The biggest risk, he said, comes from the fires that follow.

The Department of Building Inspection jump-started the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety to tackle the imminent danger of an earthquake in 2001.

While the city figured how to combat imminent natural disasters, think-tanks like the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) created their own proposals. In 2008, SPUR published a report entitled “The Resilient City” that asked for improvements such as transparent building codes, near-term cost-effective repairs and better owner incentives.

“We want to be prepared for the rebuilding process and part of that has to do with our buildings and our lifelines being strong now, so that we can prepare for a major earthquake,” SPUR Deputy Director Sarah Karlinsky said. The DBI, SPUR and CAPSS all collaborated to create the draft report.

Voluntary Cost To be sure, earthquake preparedness is a primary focus of the city. Newsom’s push in February for mandatory retrofitting came with a strict criteria.

Currently, the primary focus is on homes that are three or more stories, five or more residential units, and have wood-frame structures according to Paxton. Buildings built before May 1973 also get attention because building codes were changed after that date.

The city has waived some fees and expedited inspections so that the city can have safer buildings. Still, a report by the San Francisco Controller’s office stated that an average of only 40 homes a year have been retrofitted since the 1989 quake.

The report noted that the city gave landlords the option to pass the entire cost on to renters over a 20-year schedule through a rent increase of 5 percent or $30, whichever is greater. However, some residents do not like the thought of increased rent, no matter the reason.

“It seems like a loophole around rent control,” Ingleside resident Max Gerhardt said. Gerhardt rented his home and doesn’t want any other cost on top of his rent, regardless of the what it’s supposed to do. “I’d be pissed. I’m worried homeowners would be able to abuse it.”

1 in 4 Southeast SF Residents Feel Unsafe in Daylight

Newswire21, Spring 2010

More people feel unsafe during daylight hours in Southeast San Francisco than in any other neighborhood, according to a citywide study.

About a fourth of residents feel unsafe during the day, according to the health department survey. The percentage rises to 49 percent at night.

The report follows a recent rise in robberies and burglaries in the Ingleside police district, according to Capt. Louis Cassanego. “Although we’ve made numerous robbery arrests and a major burglary arrest with multiple suspects, the numbers have climbed up,” he said.

The report links low community trust and high levels of violence in the neighborhood, and comes at a time when both the police and residents are making efforts to make the area safer.

The Ingleside station set a goal to reduce street, property and MUNI crime by 20 percent this year, according to Cassanego. He also said that the station worked to have more face-to-face community involvement, such as working with community groups and putting officers on foot patrol.

“On the surface this may not seem to be an important link to the community, but it is the initial step to bonding with the neighborhood,” he said in an email.

To be sure, not everyone in the community is waiting for the police to notice their issues. Jackie Tash, member of the Excelsior District Improvement Association, said her group began a project called “Light Up The Night” that encouraged Persia Avenue residents to keep their porch lights on to deter crime. The project boundaries stretched from Mission Street to McLaren Park. To get the news out, they partnered with the Excelsior Action Group to print flyers in several languages.

“People in the Excelsior don’t just speak English or Spanish,” Tash said. “We are not a homogenized neighborhood. We printed flyers in Russian, Tagolog and other languages.”

Persia Avenue had a prevalence of cars and trees that block the street light, she said. As a result, the association wanted the city to prune trees and install brighter lights. Residents were thankful that someone noticed the lighting issue on Persia Avenue, Tash said. “We’re the sleeping giants out here.”

Tash and EDIA are not alone in their efforts. Excelsior native Adriana Iglesias said teens used to loiter on her block, and neighbors reported vandalism last year. As a result, Iglesias started a neighborhood watch group through the nonprofit SF SAFE.

“People didn’t talk because they were scared and afraid of retaliation [from vandals]. We created a relationship with the school and we constantly talk to the police. We want to keep communication open,” said Iglesias, who noted there’d been no trouble since the watch group began.

Iglesias hopes to create a block festival with the schools so that kids could have more ownership of their school’s neighborhood.

“We have more sense of a community,” she said. “It makes people feel concerned about their community and help support it.”

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