Richard Register

My Friend Sylvia

I hadn’t seen Sylvia in six months, the longest stretch in the last 20 years or more. Too much travel, followed by greatly reduced mobility – mine, because of sciatica. Man did it hurt! Hard to walk. But being 90% recovered from two months of that, last Monday, January 18, I visited Sylvia in mid-afternoon.

I’d prepared a slide show for her: of images from my recent trips that I thought she would enjoy. Even in June when last I saw her she was having trouble talking, tired after every breath. At that time I said, “Well Sylvia, we’re finally getting kind of old. I’m 72 now.” “You’re just a spring chicken,” she said. But mostly I did almost all the talking.

I was expecting more of the same problem this time. So I thought, in addition to bringing her some chocolates she always relished, I’d tell her various stories about what she was seeing in my little presentation. As usual I’d bring her my more personal news and news of my projects, the sort she used to be involved in and often provide enormous help for in the past. For example we had probably co-hosted more than two dozen events of various sorts staged in her lovely big house with the sweeping full view of the Bay, the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco, the Golden Gate, its graceful bridge and the endless Pacific beyond.

1. Sylvia's Bay

Sylvia’s bay, from Mount Diablo, Berkeley on the left back shoreline, Oakland to the right, San Francisco to the right in the foreground, then Golden Gate Bridge, then Marin County in the left foreground. Photo by Richard

In 1988 I was ending four years of “inactivity” with Urban Ecology – things had slowed down discouragingly in those Reagan doldrums. In, meaningfully, 1984 members of our ecocity organization simply weren’t doing that much anymore. Membership was slipping away. Though several of us had purchased a house together in 1980, just when things went real estate scale and the future should have been sparkling with pending progress, the opposite was happening. So I took a break – and so did the others. Instead of being “an activist” I wrote Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for a Healthy Future, published in 1987.

Now, 1988, it was time to see if we could light up the notion afresh: Ecocities for all! That was one of the ideas behind writing the book in the first place: try to reactivate the group with a new tool, the book itself.

Time to see if Sylvia McLaughlin might like to join with us and us with her. I invited her to our house on Cedar Street to discuss some future project ideas.

Everyone in the Bay Area with an interest in keeping the Bay healthy and happy knew Sylvia. She and her “University wife” friends had already saved the bay, literally, by founding the Save the San Francisco Bay Association, starting their work way back in 1961, getting organized, and politicking to cease the filling of the Bay and defend it into the future with new government regulations and even new institutions. The development-controlling, shoreline-protecting Bay Conservation and Development Commission was the most powerful of their creations.

The burning dumps around the bay and untreated sewage outfalls were bad enough back in 1961. But while thoughts of doing something about all that percolated in Sylvia’s mind, there appeared a map, in the Oakland Tribune, of San Francisco Bay reduced to a river system with a shipping channel.

2. Bay or river?

The map in the Oakland Tribune in 1961 that catalyzed Sylvia, Esther and Kay into action. Illustration from the Tribune

That did it. Sylvia, wife of a Regent of the University of California – the whole then nine-campus system – and her colleagues and friends Esther Gulick, wife of a professor, and Kay Kerr, wife of the Chancellor, held a meeting at Sylvia’s house. They wanted to see what they could do to turn around the creeping, shrinking, stinking disaster that the Bay had become.

The three of them called together the then big environmental columnist for Northern California, Herald Gilliam of the San Francisco Chronicle, Sierra Club leader Dave Brower and a few other environmentalists and influential people. There in her dining room around her Thanksgiving sized dining room table she said, “We need to do something – who can help?” They could all help some but not enough, said Brower. He and obviously the others there were so busy with their own work new and focused leadership was required. Brower was in his usual way emphatically forceful about it: “You have to start a new organization.” They did.

As Sylvia had told me many times, the main idea was to appeal to the most universal instinct shared by all of us, of whatever political persuasion, our understanding that things can be beautiful, that the quest for beauty is the common ground for all, that the beauty of the Bay now needs defending. It was this higher calling and appeal to something deep in all of us, something, I believe, that gave Save the Bay – the organization and the much larger movement – not just its power but Sylvia her famous “I’ll talk to anyone and everyone” calm common language. It gave her the ability to find support for that one treasure among the many that she focused on like a laser. With a little sober, reasonable thought, and some polite conversation (backed by ten thousand supporters), the quest for saving and enhancing the beautiful could be embraced by everyone. I think this is almost certainly her most powerful lesson for us all. And, as reported about her so often, she was charming, always friendly and gracious – and for achieving her goal, strategic, relentless and successful.

One obituary reported that someone introduced her to David Rockefeller and he admitted that his idea was finished, the idea of filling a large part of the Bay by dismantling San Bruno Mountain and trucking it into profitable real estate development where people used to boat and fish used to swim. Congratulations. The way she told it to me was more fun. She was at one of those social events that, given those present, inevitably has to be a political event too. Those events were important to attend, she told me many times as something of a mantra, “To see and be seen.” To her surprise, there across the room was arch enemy David Rockefeller. “Holly cow! Look who’s here!” Or these days maybe it might be “Oh my God!” or “OMG!” I don’t remember the exact wording. Then he looked directly at Sylvia, got up, walked across the room, smiled, shook her hand and said most pleasantly, “You win.” Then he turned and walked back to where he’d started and sat down.


The way it was

It’s hard to think back through the better times Sylvia, Esther and Kay largely created here. They had transformed the Bay. They not only stopped some of the practices such as filling and extending suburbia into the bay and the burning of garbage on the water’s edge, pursued by about ten municipalities into the 1960s, but they had actually begun by the mid-1980s to radically increase public accessibility to the bay while stimulating a much more thoughtful idea about how cities should be built in the first place: in a sensitive relationship with nature. Dumps were turning into public assets, Berkeley’s for example into Cesar Chavez Park with its magnificent views and some great native plants areas, which of course, has brought back native birds.

I was here early enough to experience, unfiltered, the condition of the Bay before their work took hold. I was at UC Berkeley for the May 21-23, 1965 Vietnam War Teach-in. By coincidence I had been sitting in my Los Angeles to San Francisco airplane next to one of the speakers, psychologist Isadore Zifferstein (Benjamin Spock, Norman Mailer, Willie Brown and dozens of others also presented to about 30,000 of us; Bertrand Russell sent over a recorded message). Zifferstein rented a car and we drove over the Bay Bridge.

I was stunned. We were surrounded by a drifting haze, not the almost uniform miasma of the vast Los Angeles smog of the day but individual plumes of glowing orange rising from a ring of burning dumps reflected in Bay waters, smoke drifting into patterns of sheer threat, poisoning the air. It looked exactly like descriptions of Hell. The thick, sharp smell of sewage was intense: “Roll up the window!” Inland a couple miles, near campus the smell was barely noticeable. But even there a mild stink occasionally assailed your delicate little nasal membranes. All that is long gone thanks to Sylvia and her friends – with the help of tens of thousands she and they organized with their cheap $1.00 Save the Bay memberships and big numbers of people constantly educated, goaded and herded by the busload up to Sacramento to confront the law makers.


So much help, so many memories

Right away at first meeting, at our house on Cedar Street owned by six members of Urban Ecology, Sylvia offered her bigger house for more ambitious fare. She’d be happy to speak with us at City Council on our project ideas, such as opening creeks, especially in downtown Berkeley. She loved that idea. Soon after we met and the notion for an International Ecocity Conference began floating about, she was happy to champion that too and when I organized Ecocity Builders in1991 (incorporated in 1992) she joined our Board of Directors. She was not only a speaker at the First International Ecocity Conference but hosted the planning of the first conference at her house and the selection of hosts for #s 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 around the same table where Save the Bay was organized: in her dining room. What happened to #7? That one we didn’t select the host for, we were the host for it, held in San Francisco in 2008 and much of that planning again took place around Sylvia’s dining room table.

3. Sylvia at her house, 5_2014

Richard and Sylvia in the entry of Sylvia’s house, May 2014. Photo by Felecia Neals

Then there were so many other events at her house. Just off the top of my head: A reception for Congresswoman Barbara Lee in the living room. A slide show lecture by Leonard Pitt on the history of ballet, also in the living room. A talk by my architect/developer friend Ron Morgan from Charlotte, North Carolina with his version of ecological cities. More than one meeting with selected city council members in the effort to get the City of Berkeley on board for what we called in the 1990s and early 2000s “The Heart of the City Project” centered on opening Strawberry creek where Center Street is now located. Planning meetings for four local conferences more regional than international, exploring that downtown project idea, also centered on Sylvia’s dining room table. Two strictly advisory meetings to help Ecocity Builders, with Dave Brower and others counseling. Baking big “creek critter” cookies to sell at the KPFA Holiday Crafts Fair in Sylvia’s kitchen. Many slide presentations from me including one in which I was joined by Claire Greensfelter – we had both returned from trips to Nepal, hers in September (too many clouds to see the mountains) and mine in October (beautiful views of the Himalayas) – timing is everything!unnamed          Sylvia in her classic red, center, working at our Ecocity Builders’ table at the 2002 Berkeley Watershed Poetry Festival Photo by Richard


Just a friend…

Plus there were many Thanksgivings and a few Christmases…

Most pleasantly, Sylvia was my partner for what she called “a little something,” meaning sherry, or sometimes another wine, or even a nip of bourbon. She was my almost monthly drinking buddy for about 25 years, just sitting around her study in the late afternoon, sunset time or in the dark depending on the season and when we got started. Sometimes we’d begin well before sunset and she’d notice, “Richard, it’s dark in here. Turn on the light!” “Ah! So it is,” and I’d walk over to the switch by the door and, click. Now we’d be all interior; no dim twilight peaking in.

The Bay view was right out her window, she in the foreground, a vastness surrounding her halo of hair getting whiter by the year in the background: clouds, blue sky, rain, moon, city lights, stars, just black sky behind her as we would meander on for two or three hours nibbling bread, dips, cheese, sardines, salmon, crab for special occasions, fresh blue berries and strawberries, sometimes bananas with crème fresh, a little chocolate. I’ve never been one to hang out with “the guys” discussing sports nor a frequenter of bars or television living room football games with beer and popcorn. I’ve always been directed to real life challenges that I’ve believed need human help in our times. Sylvia and I had a lot in common like that. She told me she read almost no fiction. I try fiction once in a while but often end up irritated, impatient as if there is something that actually needs to be done. She had the same attitude. She said over and over there is simply so much going on that is real, and much of it needing our attention, where is the time for fantasy when reality really needs our help? – and also happens to be so fascinating? There is always saving more acres of redwoods with the Save the Redwood League, saving more birds with the National Audubon Society, both of whose Board of Directors she also sat on.

So we would compare our dreams, and tell stories of our families’ histories and Sylvia’s went way back in England, as a direct descendant in the line of Archbishop Cramner’s family who made it through King Henry the VIII’s reign only to be executed by order of Queen Mary, Carmner being Church of England, almost its co-founder, and Mary being Catholic. Sylvia would also visit her brother in London every year and bring back stories. Plus she would tell tales of the mountain climbing of her other brother who almost died on K-2. Oh yes, long before that, as a physically courageous teenager she climbed the towering Flatirons, those red 45 degree angled almost smooth sandstone rocks near Boulder, bare hands and bare feet for just enough traction, with her two brothers and without parental permission. There were coincidences: her mother and mine were both named Jean; on her living room wall the whole time I knew her hung a painting of the mountain behind Santa Fe, New Mexico called Lake Peak – from exactly the same angle as the view from the house I was living in growing up in the countryside just south of Santa Fe.

5. New London busses

Sylvia enjoyed this picture of the new busses in London. Photo by Richard

Such memories of growing up, she in Colorado, me in New Mexico, of Sylvia visiting Germany with her father in the mid 1930s having to do the Hitler salute and say Sieg Heil (victory + hail) or maybe be deported, of Sylvia working with wrenches and screwdrivers at the B-29 modification facilities in Denver – the planes were so new and advanced, the bugs had to be worked out even after they came off the assembly line – and my father test flying B­–29s 400 miles south of there, some of which she almost certainly had worked on, he commissioning them for the war in the West Pacific. Then that next idea for the future of the Presidio and what did you read in the newspaper this morning…? “How are your kids doing in New Mexico these days?”

At my last meeting with Sylvia, sitting next to her in the corner of her kitchen, with the window to the back yard on her right, with the telephone on the wall to her left, within six feet of where we cut and baked those fund raising creek critter cookies for the Christmas Fair 15 or 20 years ago, with my laptop on the small table right beside her, she couldn’t speak at all. But she did nod her head occasionally and looked at me, and then the screen in recognition as I described what the pictures meant to me, what they might mean to her. For example she had been to the Andes with her husband in the 1940s – I showed her some amazing mountains. “This one is called Illimani; it’s 21,000 feet and still covered in glaciers.” She definitely nodded. I’ll include here a couple of her favorites. But she also gave me maybe two of the most radiant smiles of our times together, her face suddenly flexible and beaming like the sun, a last and wonderful gift. She certainly did like the chocolate.

6. Columbus at Barcelona

Sylvia thought this picture was particularly funny and laughed quietly. It is the statue of Columbus pointing out to sea at the Barcelona, Spain waterfront. Photo by Richard

7. Huayna Potosi

 She sighed and smiled in recognition at seeing this picture of 20,000 Huayna Potosi next to La Paz, Bolivia. Photo Google Earth file – Richard was there but too many clouds just then…

Well we are all irreplaceable, but some are especially so. Luckily we all have truly irreplaceable friends. They just disappear one day, and so do we. What a gift, though, to have had such a friend as Sylvia, what a friend to all of us. Without her, as some have said so literally, even the weather around here would be different – and not so… beautiful.

8. Richard and Sylvia at Shorline Park

Richard with the everlasting Sylvia at the McLaughlin Shoreline State Park monument in her honor – and in honor of all those other folks busying saving the beauty of it all. Photo by Bill Mastin


About the author

Richard Register

Richard Register is an eco-pioneer and founder of Ecocity Builders. He lectures and consults internationally and has authored several books of illustrations and ecocity design principles. Get his latest book, World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build online or directly from the author by emailing ecocity (at) igc (dot) org.

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