An Interview With Dorothy Erskine

A founder of SPUR and Greenbelt Alliance

Urbanist Article

While the world has changed a great deal in the last 40 years, and SPUR along with it, certain remarkable individuals had a prescience about the core values that make a difference. One such person was Dorothy Erskine (1896-1982), a founder of both SPUR and Greenbelt Alliance, and a key participant in a wide variety of civic planning activities. Were she here today, we would say Dorothy Erskine was a proponent of "smart growth environmentalism" long before that term even existed, or even before the word environmentalism was in our everyday vocabulary. With her multiple hats of open space preservation, saving the bay, and urban rebuilding and densification, Dorothy Erskine truly understood, well ahead of many others, that saving open space and farmland requires redirecting quality growth into existing cities.

In the spring 1971, SPUR then Executive-Director John Jacobs interviewed Dorothy Erskine, recording a series of conversations to share with the SPUR membership. The Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library later transcribed the tapes as part of the California Women Political Leaders Oral History Project. We have excerpted their discussions as a way to honor the contributions of one of the great heroines of the Bay Area, a woman who helped built the modern environmental movement and simultaneously helped bring urban planning to San Francisco. This interview comes from broad topics – the work of the San Francisco Housing Association; its evolution into the Planning and Housing Association; Save-the Bay; and the events leading up to the reformation of the Association into SPUR.

The San Francisco Housing Association and the Survey of Chinatown Slums

Jacobs: Okay, Dorothy, let me just ask you some general questions. When did you first really develop a desire or an appreciation for preserving some of the open spaces that we have in San Francisco and, indeed, in the world?

Erskine: Well, actually John, it never began with open space, you know. It began with slums, as far as I was concerned. That's where I began.

Jacobs: When did this occur?

Erskine: It was way, way back in 1938, when the national legislation for public housing had gone through in Washington. We formed a kind of economic study group. This was privately financed, but among the things that were done was a survey of Chinatown by about eighteen people who signed up. Among those were Martha Gerbode.

Jacobs: Can you remember the names of anybody else who was involved?

Erskine: Of course, Miss Alice Griffith and Miss Elizabeth Ash had pioneered in the housing field for many years, and actually formed the San Francisco Housing Association and helped in passing the first legislation after the first earthquake of 1906, to prevent jerry-building in the reconstruction of San Francisco.

Jacobs: I think I've seen Miss Griffith's name as secretary, in some of the old records of the predecessor of SPUR, for the San Francisco Housing Association. Is that correct?

Erskine: Yes, that's definitely correct. Several of these people, who had pioneered after the earthquake and fire, took part in that survey of Chinatown.

Jacobs: So these were people who had some expertise in taking housing surveys?

Erskine: Yes, indeed, and two or three of them were architects. At the end of this survey, we found that Chinatown was, of course, in deplorable conditions. Whole families living in one room, seven or eight, and the children slept in little bunks – shelves. There'd be one bathroom for many, many families and one cold water faucet in the hall, where the water for the whole family would be carried back and forth in pitchers or buckets. The rate of tuberculosis was very, very high, indeed.

Jacobs: Because of these congested living situations?

Erskine: True.

Jacobs: After you took the survey, what did you do? This was in 1938?

Erskine: Yes, I would say about 1938. When the first public housing legislation had passed in Washington and the California legislature had passed enabling legislation in order to receive the new federal subsidies for low-income housing.

Jacobs: The first housing act of the federal government was passed in 1937, and so you were taking a Chinatown housing survey to prove the need for public housing in San Francisco.

Erskine: That's right. And, of course, when the need to support this enabling legislation began in San Francisco, there was really no one to turn to except this small group of people who had been studying the situation. We were called upon so many times to make speeches in clubs and so forth, that we decided we better have a little organization. Miss Griffith's San Francisco Housing Association was revived for that purpose, and that was the beginning

San Francsico Planning and Housing Associates and Getting a Planning DepartmenT

Jacobs: When did you become interested, and who stimulated the interest of this group, in city planning?

Erskine: Well, that is always a fascinating story. It happened to be a group of young students from the University of California who had just graduated. It was the end of the depression, and they didn't have jobs, but they were crusaders for planning. They felt that planning the city environment would answer many of the social problems we had. They banded together under the name of Telesis. Telesis never continued beyond this group, but it was extraordinarily effective in launching the whole idea of city planning.

Jacobs: What did Telesis stand for?

Erskine: Telesis comes from a Greek word with almost the same meaning as environment: our earth surroundings and man's relation to those surroundings. Anyhow, there were about fifteen or twenty young graduates, and they put together an exhibit of city planning, which was shown at the San Francisco Museum.

Jacobs: When was this?

Erskine: Oh, I imagine this was about 1939 or 1940. Jack Kent and Fran Violich came to me to collect some money for this exhibit, and that's how I met them. So these young men thought they would educate us. They sat down, I remember, right around a table at one of our meetings, and they said: public housing is only a drop in the bucket. What you really need to do to improve society is planning, and you ought to add the name "planning" to your title.

Which we promptly did. Henceforward we became known as the San Francisco Planning and Housing Association. They said San Francisco was the last big city without a city planning department, and that's what we had to do at once.

Jacobs: This was 1940, and San Francisco still did not have a planning department?

Erskine: No. There was a zoning department, but that was all. Save-the-Bay and Citizens for Regional Parks

Jacobs: When did you begin to think regionally, or to become more active regionally, as opposed to simply within San Francisco, and what brought that about?

Erskine: Again, it was the same group of young people who graduated from the University of California way back in '39, I guess. They were always moving on and influencing and affecting my thinking. They began to say that there should be regional planning as well as planning for cities

Jacobs: Who was the leader of that thought?

Erskine: Well, again, it was Jack Kent and Mel Scott and Fran Violich. All of them now were in positions of real responsibility. They could influence citizen groups more than ever and they were moving into this regional thing.

They wanted citizen support. They urged the formation of a group to support regional planning. Rather than support it as a concept, we decided that we would form a group called Citizens for Regional Recreation and Parks. In trying to establish large regional parks out in the counties where urban sprawl was by this time rampant (with no provision for parks), you would get people to think regionally. So this organization came into being in 1958. It was a group drawn from already existing conservationists battling local issues in the nine Bay counties who were beginning to think along regional planning lines in seeking help.

Jacobs: What did you do then?

Erskine: The Extension Division of the University of California held three conferences in three succeeding years – 1959, 1960, and 1961 – which were all co-sponsored by Citizens for Regional Recreation and Parks. The first one was called Our Vanishing Open Space. The second, Now or Never, and the third, San Francisco Bay as a Recreational Resource.

It was in making a quick survey of the Bay for this last conference that Mel Scott discovered that most of the tidelands around the edges of the Bay were privately owned. The state had sold these water-covered acres for fifty cents an acre about 1870. He found that one third of the Bay had already been diked off and filled. Also, now that thousands of people were coming into the Bay Area after the war, that there were extensive plans underway for land fill throughout the whole region. The Corps of Engineers circulated a picture from their Bay study entitled "Bay or River." Mel Scott was aghast and horrified at the state of affairs. That third conference became a blast at and expose of environmental destruction. People suddenly woke up. This publicity led directly to the movement to save San Francisco Bay.

Jacobs: It looks as if things were beginning to come along with a rush – doesn't it? That is what we began to call the westward tilt, was it not?

Erskine: Oh, I think undoubtedly, yes. You were faced then with so many problems. In fact, that's the queer thing about planning. You say city planning: well, you don't begin city planning – at least we didn't here – until the city was almost completely built up. Its when you have a built-up city, and there are changes to be made and so many people are involved, that you have to get a common trouble-shooter – someone who will constantly be on the job just getting the facts of each crisis situation. If you don't have facts you can trust, you can't make decisions – take action. So our planning departments in cities and counties became that. They furnished the facts and information leading to decisions.

What is fascinating about regional thinking is how the Bay came into it, and helped to clarify the concept. Mel Scott used to say to me: why can't we get a regional planning bill through legislature? We can't seem to get even one councilman to write a letter or any citizen group to support the idea. I used to answer: Mel, you have to somehow show people what they are going to getting out of it. It was about this time, after the sensational third U.C. Extension conference, when people were aroused and alarmed, that a meeting was called to save the Bay. That night Mel Scott was there and Jack Kent and all of us again – the same group of people.

Jacobs: Who else was there?

Erskine: The meeting was called by Kay Kerr and Esther Gulick (it was her house) and Sylvia McLaughlin. They were all connected with the University of California. They wanted to do something about saving the Bay because Berkeley at this time proposed to fill the tidelands for two or three miles out into the Bay and build a big industrial complex of one kind or another. So they called a meeting.

It became very clear that evening that you couldn't save the Bay just for the birds, or even one section of the shore. You couldn't save it in Marin and lose it to developers in San Mateo County. If it was to be saved at all, it would have to be saved by regional planning and regional thinking. The Bay was a regional resource. Suddenly regional planning and regional thinking became living concepts because of the passionate feelings that had been aroused over preserving the Bay.

San Francisco Reconstruction Needs after World War II and the Roots of SPUR

Erskine: The Planning and Housing Association was always a very modestly financed operation. Maybe seven thousand dollars a year we had in our budget. We were always baffled by the fact that certain big cities in the United States, like Cleveland and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, had very eminent citizens and very influential businessmen at the head of their planning operations. We couldn't figure out what argument was used to get this thing started. When my husband and I were East one summer for our vacation, he came home by air and I took the train and stopped at different cities to in order to find out how these citizen groups functioned and what argument they used to get business leaders into the picture.

The first city I stopped in was Philadelphia. I saw Aaron Levine there, and in five minutes he told me what the secret was. The secret of the Philadelphia success was that the citizen group supported the redevelopment projects, which in turn brought into Philadelphia two federal dollars for every dollar that the city spent on its improvements. You could compare: San Francisco had two redevelopment projects at the same time, Western Addition and Diamond Heights. We were able to get from the federal government seven million dollars at the same time that Philadelphia was getting 66 million for about a dozen projects. But they had been stimulated by the citizen groups, and it was Aaron Levine who really put these things together and made redevelopment tick.

Well, it was easy to see what San Francisco was missing. They were missing, of course, the citizen group which would do this. The government wasn't powerful enough in San Francisco to buck the opposition that comes from slum clearance of the magnitude that redevelopment is. There has to be, in each case, a citizen group that can back it.

We are indebted to the Bancroft Library for the use of the interview, and to Dorothy Erskine's son.

John Jacobs