looking back

‘Looking Back’: Sue Bierman Grove

By Kinen Carvala

What if the Golden Gate Park Panhandle had a freeway running through it?

Despite America’s love affair with the automobile after World War II, no freeway directly connected the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge between Hayes Valley and the Presidio, so traffic relied on city streets.

“A Report to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on the Panhandle and Golden Gate Freeways: A Joint City-State Study” advocated for building both a “Panhandle Freeway” and a “Golden Gate Freeway.” (The Golden Gate Freeway would have approximately followed San Francisco’s northern bay shoreline.)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was interested in using a highway construction program to provide jobs during the Great Depression. During World War II, U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower noted the advantage of Germany’s highway network, the Autobahn. As president, Eisenhower called for an improved highway system in his 1954 State of the Union address to Congress, which passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956 and authorized $25 billion from fiscal years 1957 through 1969, according to the National Archives. The federal freeway funds had to be spent by 1972 or else the funds would revert to the general account, according to professor of geography Katherine M. Johnson.

Authorities behind highway construction focused narrowly on funding sources and traffic flow, not on what is today known as “environmental review,” according to Johnson. It was left up to S.F. supervisors and local organizations to bring up these concerns during the public debate about freeways.

City and state officials butted heads over freeway plans. The City Planning Commission’s special subcommittee criticized the State Division of Highways for recommending 2,101 dwelling units be cut along Oak Street for the Panhandle Freeway and losing more than 800 trees for a tunnel under Golden Gate Park’s JFK Drive (then called Main Drive). San Francisco planning director James McCarthy had recommendations that would take up less land, according to Mel Wax reporting for the SF Chronicle on May 21, 1964. Mayor John F. Shelley was described as “still trying to play it cool” despite knowing that no tinkered route could get the votes of six supervisors.

Sue Reynolds was born on Aug. 5, 1924, in Fremont, Nebraska, according to her obituary in the Fremont Tribune. She attended local Midland Lutheran College where she met Arthur K. Bierman, whom she married in 1945. They had two children and later divorced. The Biermans settled in San Francisco in the 1950s. In an interview with Justin Germain from UC Berkeley, Arthur said he encouraged Sue, a stay-at-home mother, to get involved in activism.

Sue and Arthur Bierman co-founded the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC), one of the organizations behind a May 1964 rally at the Polo Field against the Panhandle Freeway, which was attended by thousands of protestors. According to SF Chronicle reporting, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union broke away from other pro-freeway labor groups. Union spokesman David Jenkins cited not only indefinite disruptions to the Park from construction but also the loss of homes in the Haight-Ashbury for 6,000 people, including union members. The “worst desecration of a beautiful area of San Francisco’s history” is how Albert Meakin, co-chair of the Citizens’ Committee to Save Golden Gate Park, described the Panhandle Freeway proposal. “Parents are urged to bring their children and turn out to show what Golden Gate Park means to us all,” said Robert Barket, HANC logistics chairman.

Bierman with other mothers brought their children to Planning Commission hearings as part of their protest that freeway construction would destroy safe play areas for children and to show a different perspective on freeways to the overwhelmingly male supervisors previously presented with engineering information, writes Germain.

Bierman testified at 1:20 a.m. as the 59th witness against the Panhandle Freeway in front of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in a February 1966 marathon hearing.

Here are some quotes attributed to Bierman by the SF Examiner:

“Here we are again … but the same things are missing. The interchanges aren’t drawn. The models that would show us exactly how this freeway fits into the fabric of our neighborhood are not present. The trees haven’t been counted ….”

On March 21, 1966, a six-to-five vote of the Board of Supervisors rejected the state’s freeway plan for a sixth and final time, according to Johnson. Supervisor Jack Morrisey was persuaded to vote against the Panhandle Freeway after a tour of the area where the proposed freeway would run through the park.

A circle of trees, a plaque and three benches are all dedicated to Sue Bierman, who was a leader in the fight to stop a plan to run a freeway through the Panhandle on the east end of Golden Gate Park. Photo by Michael Durand.

The ideas behind freeway revolt became mainstream, according to Johnson, when on Jan. 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law, requiring a comprehensive environmental review for all projects funded with federal aid, including highways.

San Franciscans elected Bierman to the Board of Supervisors in 1992 and 1996. Because of term limits, she was ineligible to run in 2000, which is also when district elections of supervisors started.

Bierman served on the Planning Commission from her 1976 appointment by Mayor George Moscone until 1992 when newly elected Mayor Frank Jordan ended her tenure. Bierman was known as a dissenter on the Commission, opposing high rises that would shadow open spaces, according to Gerald Adams of the SF Chronicle.

Mayor Willie Brown pulled up in a limousine to Bierman’s house on Sept. 5, 2001, whisking her away to a surprise ceremony dedicating a grove of trees with a plaque and three benches to her in the Panhandle near her house, according to the book “Legacy: Portraits of 50 Bay Area Environmental Elders.” San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano was also present, according to the SF Chronicle. The plaque says:

Dedicated September 5, 2001, to Honorable Susan J. Bierman

This beautiful grove of trees and greenery honors a true champion, who brought the neighborhoods together in an eight-year struggle to preserve the panhandle. Victory and what the nation called San Francisco’s “Freeway Revolt” came in 1966 when, by one vote, the Board of Supervisors rejected plans to pave a freeway through this wooded concourse to Golden Gate Park. With the same courage, fervor, and concern for the city she loves, she served as a member of the San Francisco Planning Commission from 1976 until 1992, and as a supervisor from 1993 until 2001.

In 2003, Brown appointed Bierman to the Port Commission, which she was a member of at the time of her death on Aug. 7, 2006, at the age of 82.

The Honorable Susan J. Bierman Grove in the Panhandle is roughly 400 feet east of the intersection of JFK Drive and Stanyan Street, near Shrader Street.

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