Thursday, September 29, 2011

BIKE NOPA Takes A Break -- Book Deadline Prompts Shift

Dr. Marie Equi, 1872-1952 Oregon Historical Society #23491

Dear Readers,

The time has come for a break and to shift more time to another passion: completing a biography begun a few years ago.

I started BIKE NOPA more than two years ago to increase awareness in the North Panhandle about the feasibility of bicycling for everyday transportation. Part of my impetus resulted from the initial hesitation of neighborhood leaders to endorse more bike lanes through NOPA in 2009. (In that case it was lanes for McAllister and Masonic -- proposals that were later dropped from the city's bike plan). I thought neighbors were perhaps unaware of how many cyclists live in NOPA and need safe routes for travel or of the diversity of neighborhood riders.

I started a gradual campaign, taking notice of the streets around us and profiling the cyclists who live next door or nearby. I launched the series Women on Wheels and Dads on Bikes. I interviewed older and younger riders, professionals and entrepreneurs, women as well as men, marathon riders and crosstown commuters.

I never expected that NOPA would generate so much content. With just 30 or so square blocks, this is a small neighborhood. But bordered by four vehicle-dominated thoroughfares -- Fell, Oak, Divisadero and Masonic -- and sporting an essential link in the city's cross-town bike travel, NOPA's realities reflected many of the top questions San Franciscans face about how to use our public spaces.

In two years NOPA has seen a slew of developments that led to dozens of stories here:
  • a partial re-design of Divisadero that revitalized the corridor
  • a successful push-back of city plans for freeway-style signs (SFgo) on Fell and Oak
  • a surge of advocacy for a safer approach to Divisadero on the Wiggle bike route
  • the launch of the first neighborhood-based block party all about bikes (BIKE THE BLOCK in September 2009)
  • start-up of the first neighborhood-based monthly bicycling group, NOPA VELO
  • the arrival of Sunday Streets to NOPA in September 2010
  • a push for a safer Masonic for all road users, a grass-roots campaign that few expected to succeed until last May when the plan cleared a public hearing
  • an effort to reclaim Panhandle Park as a destination for neighbors and visitors, one that deserves capital improvements and better stewardship
  • a vision to transform Fell and Oak between Scott and Baker (and then beyond to Stanyan) for safer transportation with new separated bike routes
Everyday journalism requires a huge amount of time. To get the story right, to earn the trust of public officials and advocates, and to help push an agenda of enhanced livability demand a responsibility I take seriously. For this work I think it's essential to develop a voice and a point of view -- one that readers approach with confidence whether they agree or not. I've really enjoyed the challenge.

Now I'm shifting my time to the story of Dr. Marie Equi, a woman of conscience and conviction who never let social or political norms keep her from the pursuit of her passions. She worked in New Bedford textile mills as a teenager in the 1880s, fled to Central Oregon a decade later to homestead with her female companion, managed to scandalize a rural outpost by horse-whipping a local minister in the streets, studied for medical school in San Francisco and became one of Oregon's early woman physicians. She kept her ties to the Bay Area and joined a doctor train from Portland in April 1906 to help earthquake-stricken San Franciscans, earning her a medal from the U.S. Army. (Her homestead companion had married and settled her family in one of NOPA's landmark houses along Fell).

Marie became publicly identified as a lesbian in Portland after her passionate affair with a young heiress led to front-page stories of a family dispute over her new companion's inheritance. From the personal to the political, Marie engaged the times. The public tumult of the early 20th century led Marie on a course from hearty progressivism to staunch anarchism. She championed the rights of the underpaid and the unemployed, of women in need of birth control information. In labor disputes, she often wrestled with cops and refused to follow court orders. She developed a reputation. The birth control advocate Margaret Sanger once wrote that Marie was "a rebellious soul -- generous, kind, brave but so radical in her thinking that she was almost an outcast in Portland."

Marie objected to the capitalistic motives that led the U.S. to enter World War One, and for this she was tried by the government as a subversive and sentenced to three years at San Quentin prison. Through all this, Marie remained so devoted to her profession that friends referred to her simply as "Doc."

How could I not want to tell the full story of Marie's life and times? She died in Portland in 1952, but 60 years later her struggle to be politically active, romantically involved, and fully engaged in her profession is spot-on relevant to many of us today.

My deadline approaches (please don't ask when). I'm fortunate to have a wonderful editor at Oregon State University Press. She is a huge supporter of my bike advocacy. (OSU Press published "Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities" by Jeff Mapes). But she'd also like to get the story of Marie Equi on the market.

I'm not abandoning BIKE NOPA. There are stories I'm too committed to following, like the implementation of the Masonic Re-design. I'm sticking with it until San Franciscans can stroll and bike and live along a transformed corridor made more livable for all.

I have been blessed with great readers and sources, allies and friends while writing BIKE NOPA. I hope you all know how much your interest and support have meant to me. One request: as I pursue greater dialogue with my keyboard and monitor, please do suggest coffee breaks and lunches. (The isolated nature of writing bugs me).

Curious about Marie Equi, the "stormy petrel of the Pacific Northwest"? Here's some of what I've written about her:
For Lesbian To The Rescue: Marie Equi and the Oregon Doctor Train, a slide and lecture first presented in San Francisco for the 2006 earthquake centennial, expect a repeat on April 18th of 2012.


  1. Good luck on meeting your deadline, Michael. And I for one look so forward to all that you write with great interest. You are such an inspiration. Marie's story is truly relevant to us today and also inspirational. Please don't forget to take social, exercise and food/drink breaks.

  2. Such an important voice and as usual, thoughfully and reflectively laid out for us readers. I for one have come to depend on BIKE NOPA for news in the hood. I check here first when I see something afoot or afar that is impacting us. I've met countless people and been inspired by you to get involved. And NOPA VELO has been a blast. How about that coffee this am? Good luck with the book.

  3. Thank you for all your great work Michael. You have earned the right to shift your focus to whatever project is calling you. I hope you can return refreshed one day soon. Your voice is so important to this community. Looking forward to seeing you out and about and carefree!