by Janet B. Thiessen, Dorothy Erskine Biography LLC, 212 pages, $25
The Bay Area has no shortage of environmental heroes, but beyond a few big characters known by thousands–John Muir or David Brower–our local heroes tend to live on mostly in the memories of friends and colleagues, and perhaps on a plaque here and there. Janet Thiessen has done her part to be sure Dorothy Erskine finds a different fate. Today, Erskine is best known for her role in the founding of People for Open Space, which eventually became the Greenbelt Alliance. But that was more capstone to a long career than the sum of it.
Thiessen begins her story with Erskine’s grandparents, who emigrated from Ireland in the 1850s. If you already know a bit about Erskine’s later accomplishments, her ancestry is a good place to start. If not, you’ll need to have faith in the payoff for the long back story. Stick with it. It’s worth knowing that Erskine’s mother was both a single parent and a prominent homeopathic physician who ran a hospital in San Francisco while raising her children (and occasionally taking them on epic trips to Japan and Europe; this was not a childhood of deprivation). Erskine herself was no simple lover of open space. She was that, but she also was a Communist sympathizer who, disillusioned after a trip to the Soviet Union, helped forge modern urban planning in the Bay Area–for better (helping found spur, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) and for worse (advocating “slum clearance” in the Fillmore District). And to top that, she was the only woman on the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and helped lay the groundwork for protections of agricultural lands in Napa County.