Each year, our Good Neighbor Awards honor some of the dedicated neighbors who volunteer their time to help seniors and people with disabilities get the resources and support they need to age and thrive in their own homes and neighborhoods. We are delighted to honor Janet as our 2017 Good Neighbor Honoree for the St. Francis Square Neighborhood Network.
Janet Tom dreamt of moving into co-housing. She wanted to live in a community. But there is no co-housing in San Francisco, so she’s helping to create it.
Actually, she’s helping to re-create it at St. Francis Square, a 299-unit residential complex in the Western Addition built in 1963. The Square’s closed-off streets and grassy interior common space were designed to nurture community. Old-timers fondly recall days filled with the laughter of children, almost weekly community work parties followed by bounteous potlucks –a village in all but name.
But by 2011, when Janet moved to the Square, most of the early families had moved out. Today fewer than 10 children live in The Square, and yard work and other projects that once brought residents together are now the responsibility of paid staff. What had once been part of a cooperative plan now had to be created.
Building Community at St. Francis Square
Fortunately, Janet was not alone in wanting community. A handful of residents – some longtime residents like Betty Traynor, Marcia Peterzell and Linda Silver of the Community Living Campaign, and others new to the community – invited the Community Living Campaign to help organize around the theme of aging in place.
Committees were formed. Janet is on the conservation committee and the Community Living Campaign committee. The latter organizes birthday parties, workshops and coffee & conversation events.
Janet is also on CLC’s Neighbor-to-Neighbor call list, Betty explained in nominating her as a Good Neighbor Honoree. “The closest thing I found to a community was St. Francis Square. I know someone in practically each building. I see them at committee meetings, the Laundromat, walking their dogs or working together on projects. I feel like the co-op is part of my extended family,” Janet said.
Breaking Bread Together
But the new community still lacked “the breaking of bread together” that Janet missed. Janet enjoys making soup. “If someone isn’t able to cook or just wants a hot meal, I whip up one of my favorite vegetarian soups and bring it over,” she said.
But Janet’s plan involved more people than just a neighbor or two, so at the next Community Living Campaign Committee’s neighborhood meeting she shared her idea with the group. They immediately took it on. BYOB: Bring Your Own Bowl, has become a quarterly event celebrated in the Square’s social room.
“The first time, I made two kinds of soup: lentil and minestrone, enough for 25,” Janet said, pulling out one of the large blue enamel soup pots she uses for cooking. “Another member brought bread, and a third made a salad. Three of the people who came were old-timers in wheelchairs. They came with their caregivers. Everybody was talking to one another, and seemed to really enjoy it.”
For the second BYOB, three months later, another woman also contributed soup and someone else brought bread. And so, like the fabled endless soup pot, the program has grown.
In her life outside The Square, Janet is a reference librarian at the San Francisco Public Library, where she was instrumental in working with Betty Traynor to create the library’s exhibit celebrating The Square’s 50th birthday. Librarianship is Janet’s second career. In her earlier life, she worked with local Asian American performing arts groups.
“I was so surprised I was nominated as a Good Neighbor Honoree,” Janet said. Slowly, event by event, with the help of residents like Janet Tom, The Square is rebuilding itself as the community it once was.