Joan Seiwald, 91, one of a trio of young Glen Park mothers who in 1965 kept San Francisco from building a freeway through Glen Canyon Park, passed away on Thursday, May 11.
Seiwald and her husband Robert bought their home on Burnside Avenue in 1960, just one block from the park. As today, parents spent hours at the park with their small children and Seiwald became fast friends with other moms there, especially Zoanne Nordstrom and Geri Arkush.
Variously called the Crosstown Freeway or the Circumferential Freeway, it was a proposed connector between I-280 near Daly City to the southern edge of Golden Gate Park.
The City proposed linking 280 and 101 with a freeway that would have begun where the Glen Park BART station stands today, risen 60 feet over the present baseball diamond in the canyon, cut into the hillside, filled in part of the park, tunneled under Portola, slashed across Laguna Honda, joined Seventh Avenue and eventually tunneled under or risen over Golden Gate Park to eventually empty onto the second deck of the Golden Gate Bridge, as the Glen Park News reported in a history of the effort to stop the project.
The City’s Public Works Director at the time, Sherman Druckel, came to a community meeting and said that 120 homes and 13 businesses would be torn down.
The first effort was in 1958, but was thwarted through the efforts of another neighborhood woman, Mrs. Hermini “Minnie” Staub Baxter, who led an uprising that resulted in the Board of Supervisors unanimously voting against the proposed freeway in 1959.
The idea came up again in 1965 when the City began taking measurements in the Canyon. Nordstrom came across the workers and alerted her friends Seiwald and Arkush.
Seiwald wrote a letter to the San Francisco Progress in 1965 that you can read herec, courtesy of the Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project.
The three Gumtree Girls organized, writing hundreds of letters, posting notices, holding meetings and tracking down Supervisors at City Hall.
“All department heads were men. As soon as the three of us showed up, the men would head for the men’s room,” Seiwald told the Glen Park News in 2000.
Eventually, the City backed down. The Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project held a Gum Tree Girl Festival in 2022 to celebrate their victory.
“It wasn’t really until the last few years that she got a lot of publicity,” Bob said. “She was pretty proud of that.”
Joan Walter was born in St. Louis, Missouri near Sportsman’s Park in 1931, the grandchild of German immigrants. She graduated from Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis 1953 and then from the University of St. Louis with a degree in Spanish. After she graduated she worked as a secretary in the St. Louis University chemistry department.
As her husband of 67 years, Bob, said, “The head of the department told her that he could not pay her much money but he would guarantee her a husband. She chose me out of about 15 candidates.”
The couple married in 1956 in Lawrence, Kansas, where Bob was teaching pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Kansas and doing research.
In the summer of 1957, when Seiwald was heavily pregnant with their first child, they drove across the country to San Francisco where Bob had gotten a job as an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco.
Their son Jeffrey was born in 1957, then came Scott, Lisa, Chris and Sally. In 1960 the family moved in Glen Park – a neighborhood they could afford to live in on an assistant professor’s salary with five children – where she lived the rest of her life.
In the early 1970s, Seiwald got her teaching credential and began teaching English as a second language to Spanish-speaking and Chinese-speaking students throughout San Francisco Unified School District. She finished her career as a librarian at Presidio Middle School.
She worked for many years as a substitute teacher in the district. With so many children at home, Seiwald knew how to keep order.
“They wanted her all the time as a substitute because she could maintain discipline,” Bob said. “She could go in and control a class. That’s what they needed so she was working all the time.”
Seiwald was a long-time Atlanta Braves and Oakland As fan and loved watching baseball her whole life.
She was an eager advocate of making Glen Park even more amazing than it already was and was thrilled when work began during the pandemic to paint a mural on the dead end on Burnside at Bosworth, which is right outside the couples’ living room.
“She loved to sit in the living room and watch the muralists up on their scaffolding, and at the same time she could watch baseball,” said neighbor Nora Dowley.
Seiwald is survived by her husband, her five children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.