By Michael Durand
Vallie Brown’s life story might make an interesting screenplay one day. From her humble roots in Utah to her artists’ collective in the Haight to being appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Brown’s path has been unique and eventful.
Take, for example, her three marriages.
“I came to San Francisco when the AIDS crisis was just starting,” Brown said. “I was in my early 20s in 1985. A lot of my friends were gay and they were getting sick and we didn’t know what was going on. We had a rule in the collective that whoever had insurance, we’d marry the other person. So, I married two friends of mine who were gay. When one passed away, then I married another friend.
“I had a partner for 18 years. We never married. I was like, unless everyone can marry I really don’t want to get married. But he got pancreatic cancer. This was six years ago. Within two months he was gone. I married him at the very end. He said, ‘You should marry me, Vallie. I want to marry you.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ I ended up marrying him a few weeks before he passed away because he really wanted it,” Brown said.
“I always felt that marriage is only good when you need it. If it can help someone, you should marry them. It sounds like an old Bette Davis movie, or a Marilyn Monroe comedy,” she said, laughing.
Today, Brown represents District 5 on the SF Board of Supervisors. She was appointed by SF Mayor London Breed to fill the seat she vacated after being elected mayor. Brown was Breed’s chief of staff. Before that, she was a legislative aide to then-Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi from 2006 to 2013.
District 5 might be the most diverse district in the city, covering the Inner Sunset, Parnassus Heights, Haight Ashbury, Lower Haight, North Panhandle, Anza Vista, Hayes Valley, Japantown, Lower Pacific Heights, Fillmore and the Western Addition.
Now a big city official, Brown has come a long way from her roots in Utah. She is half Native American. Her father died when she was a year old. She was raised by her mother and her grandmother.
“My grandmother died when I was 12 and my mom died when I was 14. Then the community pretty much raised me.”
Brown went to college in Utah to study art, then moved to Southern California for two years.
“After college, I wanted to get away to where no one knew me. I wanted anonymity. I had a friend that I had known forever who was finishing up her degree at (UC) Irvine. I couldn’t stand Orange County, so I moved to L.A. It was great anonymity. No one knew you and no one cared. I lived downtown L.A. I went to the same coffee house every day and every day the same person would say, ‘What do you want?’”
“A friend of mine moved up here and I came to visit him. I was here for about three weeks and we went to the same coffee house every day, the same routine and within four days they knew my name and they knew my order. I said, ‘this is the kind of place I want to live.’”
When Brown moved to San Francisco, she lived with other artists in warehouses. They eventually pooled their money and bought a run-down house in the Haight.
Housing is at the top of Brown’s list of priorities.
“We definitely need more housing,” Brown said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone around knocking on doors and there would be seven people sharing one apartment. We recently had a fire on Golden Gate where there were 12 people living in a two-unit apartment, just packed in, and they were all older people. We need to be building 100-percent affordable housing and inclusionary housing for people who work and can’t afford an apartment.”
Brown said she wants to give long-time residents a chance to stay in the City as rent prices continue to climb.
“That’s why we all love San Francisco, because we have so many great people who live in the neighborhoods and the characters that enrich them. When I think of all the people that have woven their lives into the fabric of the neighborhood and then, all of a sudden, they’re supposed to leave, it just makes me so frustrated. I think if those people want to stay, we should fight to buy the building.”
Brown remembers when she first moved to the City and what got her involved with community activism.
“I started out as a painter and then I went to metal arts. I did welding. I used to have a studio in Hunters Point,” she said. She lived with other artists in a South of Market warehouse where she also had a studio.
Brown worked at nonprofits teaching art, worked in a bookstore part time at night and was becoming an activist in an environmental nonprofit because she was upset at the dangerous conditions she encountered.
“That was mainly at Hunters Point. We would have the officials come to us, when I’d be teaching art at the Boys and Girls Club, and they told us to shut all the doors and windows because there was a toxic leak. I remember our throats would be sore and our eyes would water and we’d usually end up leaving. The thing that upset me so much was the kids. They lived there,” she said. “That’s when I got into what was happening at the shipyard and the power plant.”
Regarding the Inner Sunset construction project, Brown said, “Any time we do construction, it’s frustrating. The road construction had to be done first. Everything is done by outside vendors. The city doesn’t actually go out and do the work. We hire vendors, so we have to be on their time frame. We have to make sure they’re doing the things we want them to do. So, that’s frustrating. You know, we crack the whip.
“I’ve been over there (to the Inner Sunset) and I’m happy that the road work is mostly done. Those platforms are so much safer. I know a lot of people didn’t want them, but now they’re so much safer than they were before. I was getting off on 12th and Judah the other day and that’s where you have to first look and then step down. I see people just jump off (and not look for traffic). We have to make that safer.”
Brown is currently running to retain her seat on the Board of Supervisors.
Categories: board of supervisors