Mendocino Talking: Pinky Kushner

 (Pinky was born and raised in St. Louis, spent time as a child living in Cuba, received her degree in comparative literature and her PhD in neuroscience. She is a leader in the San Francisco Sierra Club and has been involved in various environmental projects here in Ukiah. –DS)

I consider myself a liberal in the sense that I treasure democracy, where a group of people grapple with a problem and come up with a solution that may not be perfect but satisfies enough of everyone’s demands that satisfactory compromises are made. I also consider myself an outdoors person.

I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and lived the first five years of my life in a inner suburb of that city. Off and on I came back to St. Louis… for vacations with my two sets of grandparents and for college at Washington University. St. Louis was where I settled down with my husband, now 51 years ago.

It’s a complicated place and has been in the news notoriously with the events in Ferguson. The art museum in St. Louis is a monument to what is the best about St. Louis… etched in granite high above the entrance to the Beaux Art building are the words, “Dedicated to Art and Free for All.” But St. Louis also has had a very bad history in its dealings with race issues. Even when ‘things were better’ as they were 50 years ago, race was something one dealt with often.

In the 1940's, my maternal grandmother proudly helped bring the municipal sewage system to the poor black neighborhood near her fine (and lily white) neighborhood of Webster Groves. My paternal grandparents lived in a neighborhood that was ‘mixed,’ but social interactions were still separate. Later, I returned to the complexities of life in St. Louis when I went to college there.

My family left St. Louis when I was five and moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. We were now living in a gated city. The hills of East Tennessee are some of the most wondrous in the world and the strongest memory I have about Oak Ridge is playing in the woods every day… I swung on grape vines, I made a little moss garden, I wandered. I even had a way of walking the mile to my grammar school where I didn’t have to step on pavement, but I did have to cross through a few back yards.

Cuba was paradise for me. I lived there from 10 to 12 years of age… between 1950 and 1953. I had a horse, a beach to run him on, a gorgeous Cuban saddle I polished weekly, and a window in the bedroom I shared with my sister that was large enough for me to climb out and be free all by myself. After school I would oftentimes buy a pineapple or a mango for a nickel before I saddled up to go down for a ride on Capitan Veneno… meaning Captain Poison, my horse. There were green lawns with servants clipping the grass and putting in flowerbeds. It’s very different now.

After 47 years, I went back to Cuba with two sisters and my daughter. Our old house is home to three families and has no lawn, but a veritable jungle of flowering plants everywhere intermixed with banana trees. The house next door to where we lived is home to one family but also has a large family of pigs that run in and out of the house. Pigs are very important in Cuba given its limited resources because they help control garbage and are a food source.

Our daughter, Rachel Kushner, wrote her first novel, Telex From Cuba, about the life of the Americans in the 50's based on our life there. I thought Rachel’s novel would give me peace about my time there, that I would quit thinking back to those free, tropical, golden days, and it did, but not completely. In the midst of many things, I find myself reverting back to being a child on my horse riding into the cane fields and asking a cane cutter to give me please a piece of sugar cane to chew on. It was painfully obvious to me, the young daughter of a mining director, how different my gay life on my horse was compared to these hard-working cane cutters.

My dad was a chemical engineer and worked in various commercial manufacturing companies. In Oak Ridge he worked with rare earth metals to help build the bomb. He felt really bad about that. One day, he saw an ad for a chemical engineer to work in Cuba to be in charge of the Pilot Plant to develop a production protocol to reduce nickel from its oxidized state, the condition it is found in the tropics. He very much loved his work there and being there, but my mom didn’t. It was a relief to her when we moved back to the States.

My mom was trained as an architect, but she was unable to work when she graduated in 1933 because there was no work for architects… then came motherhood. When I was a nine months old she came down with polio, and that changed everything for her. She couldn’t practice architecture because her disabilities meant she could not perform the apprenticeship work required to become licensed. She had a three year old and me, a near one year old, and was faced with severe disabilities. She had diminished use of her right hand and her left leg. In Cuba she took up watercolors, but later, she returned to architecture as much as she was able, designing kitchens, porches, and clever ways to minimize problems of water run-off, although she never became licensed.

After Cuba, it was hard coming back to the States at age 13. We lived in St. Louis for a while, I with one set of grandparents, the rest of the family with the other. We next moved to Chattanooga which was a real re-birth for my mom who developed a lot of very close friends who understood her artistic talent and hired her to do various architectural jobs for them. She designed our house and oversaw its construction.

My mom and dad were very progressive. As an example, there was a school outside of Chattanooga called Highlander Folk School run by a guy named Miles Horton, who wanted to bring leadership training to the people of the South. Highlander was up in the mountains just outside of Chattanooga. Miles Horton, who had read about Gandhi, realized that his real goal should be to teach leadership training about social justice and to teach the principles of civil disobedience. As it turned out virtually all the luminaries of the Civil Rights movement went to Highlander Folk School. It was there that “We Shall Overcome” was first sung. Rosa Parks attended before she sat down on the bus. Martin Luther King went there. My parents encouraged us to go on weekends and make Highlander part of our life. My father and mother offered our house as a place where racially mixed couples could get married. We were very proud of serving the community in this way. I should also add that my parents were founders of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Church, as well as the Chattanooga Unitarian Church.

At Washington University in St. Louis, I studied comparative literature. I was a member of the St. Louis NAACP and participated in sit-ins. My college roommate and I initiated and led a successful fight to get Washington University to dissociate themselves from the government requirement to sign a Loyalty Oath, then required for federal money. I went on a peace march that was going across the country but I only went as far as some place in Illinois. I had many interests and was ready for action. Settling down to do course requirements for graduation was a chore and it took the offer of a full scholarship to get me to graduate in comparative literature.

My husband, Peter, came to St. Louis to teach philosophy at WU when I met him. He seemed to be the one and only for me, a presence I had almost been seeking for impossible decades. We had children very early. In 1967, Peter got a job in Eugene, Oregon. Having no money and no offer by the University of Oregon to pay our moving costs, Peter bought a school bus, took the seats out, put all our furniture in, and moved us to Eugene. In an eight-year period Peter had teaching work about three of those years, and the rest of the time we lived on his unemployment checks. The last teaching job he got was in Pullman, Washington. I decided to take some science classes and started studying molecular biology. I loved my classes. In fact, I was just having a ball.

Peter decided that I was having more fun than he was so he started studying science also. When his year of teaching was up, we went back to Eugene and fortunately both got student fellowships. We lived on $325 times two for a family of four. We had food stamps and free breakfasts. We heated the house with wood. I sewed all the clothes. The children were classic latch key kids. Somehow we both graduated with PhD’s on the same day, Peter in molecular biology, I in neuroscience. The next piece of luck was both finding postdocs at UC San Francisco.

As a graduate student, I had had a wonderful project studying the nervous system of the West Coast lobster. The motto of the lab was “Eat Your Work.” A lobster is sort of like a chicken… it has teeth inside its stomach, so it puts anything into its mouth. We would get these animals and ceremoniously cut the tail off putting it in the freezer for the next lab party. Then I would do a dissection of the nervous system that I was studying. This dissection could take up to six hours of incredibly tedious work. My project was to figure out if there was a control coming down from the central nervous system to the small peripheral collection of nerve cells that ran the muscles of the stomach, or was the coordination intrinsic to the peripheral nerve cells.

The muscles have to operate in a very patterned fashion. When I would hook the nerves up to an audio-monitor, it would sound like a washing machine… chicka chicka chicka… chicka chicka chicka. Were these nerve impulses intrinsic or driven by something else? My work showed that there were command fibers coming from the central nervous system, and they contained dopamine. I also showed that dopamine was regulated by a re-uptake system very similar to the dopamine neurons in our brain. After dopamine is released, it is sucked back up into the nerve as a means of inactivating its action. I didn’t realize that my studies would lead me to cocaine, which is the most powerful uptake inhibitor around. I innocently ordered 50 grams from the university’s science supplier… and, of course, the cocaine started disappearing. In the end, to complete my studies, after ordering a supply, I had to hide the cocaine in little bottles around the lab to insure that I had enough for the experiments.

It was a big jump from graduate school to being a post doc in San Francisco. I went from lobsters to the nervous system of the rat, then the human nervous system, with frogs also somewhere along the way, but that’s a travelogue for another day.

Fresh from graduate school, I plunged myself into my science work. That along with mothering two teenage children in San Francisco kept me very busy. I found myself interested in how the City/County of San Francisco worked, how decisions were made, and how the public could interact with the policy makers to make things better. I had friends in the Sierra Club. It was an abrupt change to go from neuroscience research to becoming an environmental activist, but I loved learning about how governmental change happens.

I became a leader in the local chapter of the Sierra Club specializing on local issues of park and open space policies. San Francisco has many little and some sizeable remnants from the natural world from time immemorial, untouched by the colonizers hands. Too steep, too rocky, too sandy to do much with. The remnants aren’t very big but taken altogether they constitute about 868 acres within the city proper, and another 237 in the city of Pacific.

The San Francisco chapter of the California Native Plant Society has been restoring these small natural areas by freeing them from aggressively invading plants and replanting them with plants that are indigenous to San Francisco. Led by a buddy, Greg Gaar, I climbed over the hills of San Francisco to learn about these places. I, and others, encouraged Greg to collect seeds from the native plants he found and to set up a nursery to propagate these plants at the Haight-Ashbury Recycling Center. I did replant with Greg, but probably my most valuable contribution was to take the program to the Sierra Club and get the Club to help put the program firmly into city policy. The real driving force of this project was to see how nature survives and thrives if given just a little nudge, and to see how enthusiastic the public can be to go from a strictly ornamental concept of landscaping to landscaping with an aim of bringing back the natural world full of critters.

As a family we were having a great time. The children both successfully got into UC Berkeley. Husband Peter was doing research on the estrogen receptor. As some of our friends got breast cancer and some died, Peter got more involved in the medical aspects of the estrogen work… breast cancer that is driven by activation of the estrogen receptor present on the tumor cells. In very recent years, Peter and my nephew Cyrus Harmon started a company to help push some of the estrogen discoveries into the clinic. Just a year ago the company made an agreement with a large pharmaceutical company to help take the discoveries into clinical trials.

So the children were now adults and moving forward in their independent lives, Peter was moving into an important and very busy aspect of his research goals, and I found myself turning more and more to environmental work.

In 2001, we bought a house in Ukiah as a vacation adventure. It was an historic house, built in 1874 that had been divided up into four apartments we think in the 1920’s and it was a wreck. We had one apartment. Starting with the rental units, I began fixing them up, calling on the skills my architect mother had taught me growing up. It was a lot of fun to bring life back into the old house, and I got to exercise a lot of principles of conservation and the environment that I was preaching. Outside I took out almost all of the non-native plants and replanted only with natives and eatables. Inside, repairs were done using gorgeous recycled, fine-grained redwood. The aesthetic of the house was pre-Victorian and responded well to my desire for a stripped down, Shaker type of style.

The Ukiah community also gave me interesting opportunities. I got involved in the Ukiah Valley Area Plan, UVAP, and its environmental impact report, EIR. Instead of working in San Francisco on a collection of patches of land, suddenly with the UVAP I was thinking about the entire Ukiah Valley and how it should grow over the next several decades.

California state law invites the public into the policy process in many ways. An area plan like the UVAP is a vehicle to bring the planning process to the public. An EIR is a double-check to make sure the public has had its opinion about policy decisions heard. Together with others we worked on the plan and its EIR. We called ourselves Smart Growth Advocates. The planning issues we tackled are complicated dances between the pressures of economic interests and those of community.

The planning process begins and ends with zoning. If a property owner can get a piece of property changed from agriculture zoning to residential, the property is worth more. Likewise, if a property can change from ag or residential to a commercial zoning designation, it is worth even more. Yet no one wants to live near a strip of commercially zoned sites, with traffic, parking lots, signs, large garbage bins, and sidewalks completely trespassed by cuts for cars and trucks.

Smart Growth met weekly or biweekly and worked through the changes and the vision for the future of the Ukiah Valley diligently, analyzing and discussing each environmental impact of future changes. In the end, however, what happened to the UVAP’s EIR is somewhat sad. Just two weeks before the final acceptance of the EIR and the final acceptance of the UVAP itself, a notice was sent out by the Mendocino County planning department asking property owners to make any and all requests for zoning designation changes. The letter read the equivalent of ‘just let us know.’ Never mind principles of smart growth, never mind the potential for strip malls and traffic. And those last minute requested changes went through. The result was that all along North State Street parcels got rezoned at the last minute, pulling the rug out from under a lot of the planning principles of smart growth that we had promoted.

Turning to other efforts within Ukiah, I got involved with the pools at Todd Grove Park. The pools had meant a lot to me when I first moved here. Then the hours got reduced. One day, reading the minutes of a Ukiah City Council meeting, I learned that the City was preparing to change the pools around, eliminating the single depth, smaller pool and converting the larger pool into two pools, a small, warmer ‘therapy’ pool and a smaller graduated-depth pool. I was dismayed at the potential loss of the small pool and what I considered the ruination of the large pool.

My plan of action was to plead for a delay of the decision by the city council for two weeks. Then, when I won that, I studied the problem in depth. I learned that the city had gotten a $500,000 State grant to save the pools and that the grant required $75,000 of matching community funds. The pool grant was the same State funding source that the City had gotten for the skateboard park and Anton Stadium. The fact that small Ukiah had gotten 3 grants from this same source was quite remarkable and highly commended the work of the City’s dedicated staff. Staff was, however, overwhelmed with the three projects, each of which had the matching fund requirement. The obvious grant to drop was the pool grant, but persevering staff came up with a consultant who proposed the idea of filling the small pool and reconfiguring the large pool. The idea was a pleasing one because just one combo pool would mean less staff to operate it and less chemicals to keep it clean, etc.

Somehow in those two weeks between council meetings, we did it. The smaller pool was the favorite of a senior pool exercise group. Its single depth means that 40 to 50 participants can exercise with the same ease since no one is relegated to the deep end of the pool where they cannot stand. With the help of the remarkable members of this exercise group, we were able to make the case to keep the smaller pool. Staff and the council agreed to back us, and we worked to get our share of the costs. There were bake sales, rummage sales, and solicitations, but the community responded. The smaller pool was saved and refurbished, and Ukiah still has two pools, not one.

I must first confess I am still bi-urban, spending part of my time in Ukiah and part in San Francisco, where my husband still works. In San Francisco, we go to concerts, visit museums, and climb the hills. When Peter comes to Ukiah, he enjoys tromping around with me and discovering things I have not found yet.

PinkyKushner

My more recent environmental work in Ukiah has concerned the wetlands south of the new Costco site. That work was an extension of the efforts I am involved with as a member of the Friends of Gibson Creek, an organization that is dedicated to protecting the creeks of Ukiah. The recent very good news about the Costco wetlands is that these wetlands will be protected and Costco will help in the process.

The state Water Board has requested changes from the original Costco plans, and Costco has agreed to these changes. The wetland will be protected by an average of 15 more feet of a Buffer Zone between the wetlands and Costco’s paved surface areas. The Buffer Zone will be planted exclusively with native plants and will additionally contain a specially constructed wetland, adjacent to the existing wetlands that will receive the direct runoff from the large parking lot. Within the parking lot, there will be multiple bio-swales to receive runoff as well. All of the rainwater from the Costco roof will drain into yet another larger bio-swale, almost a miniature wetlands, to the northwest of the building, far from the existing wetlands to further protect the existing wetlands from inundation in large storms. The Costco building itself will be somewhat smaller to help accommodate these environmental changes.

Finally, with almost inadvertent help from the California Department of Finance, a small parcel lying south of the wetlands, south of the Costco site, is currently being re-zoned by the city council from a commercial designation to parks/open space. This zoning change will not convert the parcel into a park similar to Todd Grove Park or even like the new Riverpark at the eastern end of Gobbi Street. The parcel will remain vacant and will serve to allow the wetlands to breathe during periods of unusually high water volume, which traditionally Ukiah has had.

The changes to the Costco project and the changed zoning of the parcel south of it represent a new level of water conservation for Ukiah and the entire Ukiah Valley. The protection of a wetland and the setting aside of a parcel as park/open space are remarkably progressive actions for any community and are due in part to the new respect the entire community has for water and periods of drought. In part the actions are the result of the new State-mandated requirements embodied in a document entitled Low Impact Development. The third part of the changed actions towards water is due to the contributions of the smart staff of the City of Ukiah.

(Coming up: Spencer Brewer — Composer, Pianist, Performer, Impresario, Concert in the Park, Acoustic Cafe; Todd Walton — AVA Columnist, Author, Musician, Artist; Mark Scaramella — The Anderson Valley Advertiser.)

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