Sylvia was an Earth-Day baby, born April 22, 1987. She was the absolute joy of our lives. Since we lost her over 11 years ago, Francoise and I have taken pleasure in our annual event with our friends and family around the time of her birthday to remember her, sing songs and enjoy fabulous French quiches and tartes lovingly baked by Francoise. We also raised funds to support SBF. Sadly we weren’t able to do anything last year, a month into the pandemic shutdown. We thought of a Zoom event this year but decided it wouldn’t work. How to choose whom to invite so it wasn’t too cumbersome?
Consequently we decided instead to share essays Sylvia wrote while in high school and college. As she never got to have a profession, we like to imagine that this first essay suggests that she wanted to return eventually to the Bay Area as an urban planner. When you’re finished reading it, scroll through the pictures of her on the website and vow to keep her spirit alive as you do your part to make our planet a better place to live for everyone. Remember, she was born on Earth-Day.
Senior essay, Yale, 2008-9
- Why is the city you selected important to you and what contribution would you like to make to that city? (600 words)
An hour-long commute is murder for most rush-hour drivers, but for middle-schoolers crammed into a short yellow school bus, it is a rollicking adventure. In 6th grade, I began commuting from Marin County to my new middle school in San Francisco, the Lycée Français La Pérouse on Ashbury Street. In the back of the bus, the 8th graders hulked around a boombox playing Tupac; this was the soundtrack of the daily scenes of San Francisco flying past the bus windows. On the Golden Gate Bridge, I would check to see if the Farallon Islands were visible in the glowing new day, and then I would catch a quick glimpse of Baker Beach before we plunged into a tunnel and emerged, gasping from the long held breath, into the asphalt and tumult of the city. On Nineteenth Avenue, I saw odd collections of people gathered at Muni stops: a Chinese grandmother in tan loafers, grasping bags of groceries; a tall brown-eyed college student, reading a pocket novel; a mother bringing her pimpled and be-speckled daughter to pick out a bat mitzvah dress. Driving through Golden Gate park, I saw homeless hippies playing with pit bulls and roller bladers stretching out their spandex. My school was an open campus for the high school students, and they would come back from lunch smelling of burritos and coffee and cigarettes. The only happiness greater than being asked for a slow at the school dance, I thought then, would be to be free in San Francisco.
I ended up going to public high school back in Marin, so my opportunities for exploring the city were limited to weekends. Even so, San Francisco became my adolescent nursery: this is where I took my first steps as an adult, and where my first words were uttered, as an adult. Going to rock shows and museums with friends, I learned independence. Wandering around the Mission, the Castro, North Beach and Van Ness, I learned metropolitanism. And at political rallies at Dolores Park and the Civic Center, I felt community as a nest we were all weaving together.
I want to return to the city that raised me not only for these sentimental reasons. In college I have begun to understand, in a more intellectual sense, what it is exactly that I love about San Francisco. In his book Left Coast City, Richard DeLeon chronicles how, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, San Franciscans united across ideological and socioeconomic lines to combat the urban renewal projects that were transforming downtown. I am interested in these moments when politics overcome parochialism and focus on grander common goals. As DeLeon suggests, city planning offers an opportunity for disparate groups to work together—Chinese grandmas with college boys with Jewish moms, for example. I would like to help the City Planning Department manage the growth of the city in a way that preserves and enriches the diversity of San Francisco’s streets.
Over the course of my studies, I have become interested in a school of architecture known as New Urbanism. Based on the tenets of Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, it is no accident that New Urbanism was first developed by San Francisco-based architects. New Urbanists stress the importance of diversity—of income, age, race, and use. They imagine streets busy with pedestrians walking to work or local corner stores, and children scootering to school or the nearby parks. These ideal streets are broken up by parks and community gardens. The style of the buildings is place-specific, like the Victorians of the Haight and the pastel stuccos of the Sunset. The diversity of San Francisco is a model for American cities, but it is at a fragile quality that is threatened by untrammeled gentrification.
You can also read a collection of several poems Sylvia wrote as a high school junior, “Summer is a maraschino cherry” posted here.
We invite you to visit the Sylvia Bingham Fund website where you can also contribute to the Fund so that we can continue providing grants to organizations Sylvia would have loved to support or which advocate for street safety.
Francoise continues to teach (online for now) at College of Marin. Steve actively works on traffic safety issues with Families for Safe Streets, Vision Zero Network, Ride of Silence and California Bicycle Coalition as well as the San Francisco and Marin Bicycle Coalitions