My office spent 2016 in a near-constant state of bustling activity, tackling a robust legislative agenda that many of you are familiar with at this point.
What you may not be familiar with is the “why” — why choose service, choose policy-making, choose endless e-mails and meetings? As I reflect on last year’s work and the work ahead, I am grounded by a central compass: Community. And no, not just a flat catch-all word for speeches and soundbites. I’m talking about the fantastic tapestry of neighbors, characters, and behind-the-scenes people who make this city run.
One of the classic cornerstones of the Emmy-award winning show Sesame Street was the tune, “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood,” popularized by Bob McGrath’s character. It’s an ode to the everyday people who make a neighborhood vibrant and healthy, and for millions of children everywhere it has been an opportunity to value equally myriad occupations that make a city tick. As a Berkeley kid raised on Sesame Street, it was a foreshadowing of the many characters I would come to know and love later in life.
So who are the people that make up this community? I could go on forever about the people I look forward to seeing in my daily routine, the people I continue to miss after they are gone because they made the neighborhood special and unique. This community is a jumbled kaleidoscope of real people who overlap in fascinating ways. I saw this tapestry on full display at a memorial for a dear friend recently, someone that I’d like to tell you about. In many ways, she quite perfectly sums up what I love so much about District 3 and San Francisco and, yes, community.
I first met Mary Beth Marks (or “MB” as she was known to the many fortunate enough to call her a friend) one evening many years ago when my wife and I ate at Da Flora restaurant. I had the privilege of officiating a double wedding that included MB and her wife Flora Gaspar, as well as Patrick Marks of Green Arcade Books and his husband, Gent Sturgeon. It was a classic North Beach affair, taking place right in Flora and MB’s corner restaurant, complete with a DIY oyster bar. It was joyous and raucous, and filled with so much love.
It was filled with love again last month as many of those same community members came together to celebrate Mary Beth’s life. I was struck by the diversity of the local tribes intersecting in the tiny restaurant and thought to myself that MB was one of those very special people who managed to touch so many different people. That’s the kind of person she was. The LGBTQ community, the Dolphin Club swimming clan, the small business community, the host of artists, families, and North Beach regulars who treated that cozy restaurant at Columbus Avenue and Filbert Street as their personal home and meeting place — everyone was drawn to the big laugh and big love that MB emanated.
Flora and Mary Beth opened their restaurant with no real money, no experience, and no back-up plan. They literally built a community hub from nothing — and people came. On any given day, you could find MB in the back, caked in flour, prepping her famous focaccia bread or maybe throwing together a round of pear tarts for the evening menu. She might have some friendly neighborhood gossip to share, or maybe she would press Flora to share her latest Hungarian recipe, which of course would require the sweet Hungarian paprika that Flora sold on site. Eventually, they turned the restaurant over to their chef, while simultaneously leasing the storefront down the block to local artists to ensure it was used as a community space, and not some corporate shell of an office.
Mary Beth was a magnet for those in need of a mother — or perhaps a guardian angel. For years, she was one of many guardian angels who took care of beloved North Beach citizen Millie, eventually working with me to get Millie a permanent spot at Laguna Honda. She was someone who felt the struggle of others deeply, and no injustice — no matter how slight — could be tolerated. She had a wonderful sense of humor and she loved her wife very much. She also loved North Beach and San Francisco.
Sadly, we lost many community members in 2016, each one with their own special story and contributions. I’ve singled out Mary Beth here, but truly every person in this community has touched me (and one another) in some way. So, yes, sometimes I can be a little protective of this city and this community. I don’t view policy-making as a series of dry legislative digests or the requisite phone calls to push on problems. It is the human beings whose stories are reflected between the lines of each piece of legislation. Potholes, small business struggles, rent increases, evictions, street cleaning, taxes, and leash laws — every issue, no matter how big or small, has a direct impact on someone in this community. And now, more than ever, we will need community to get us through the dark days ahead.
I will continue fighting for this community because I love it. Very much.