The late Peter Vaernet was the most noticeable fixture of Brooks Park. He'll be honored at City Hall for his work there in June.
Peter Vaernet, the longtime neighborhood resident and volunteer who died in March, will be honored for the decades of contributions he made to Brooks Park at City Hall later this month.
Blond-haired and standing at 6’3”, Vaernet was perhaps the most noticeable fixture of Brooks Park where he regularly made improvements and gardened. He also advocated for open space improvements all over the Ocean View-Merced Heights-Ingleside, such as Sisterhood Gardens.
Vaernet lived a few steps away from the park with his wife Lily Yang-Vaernet and son Bjorn.
Born in Frederiksberg, Denmark, he arrived in the US in 1972. He retired from San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Maternal and Child Health section a few years ago.
“Over the years Peter has been a strong advocate for improving parks, playgrounds and Community Gardens in the O.M.I. and Excelsior-District 11 neighborhoods and all of San Francisco,” Vaernet’s longtime friend Dan Weaver said.
Vaernet, along with resident Lonnie Lawson who died in May, were dedicated to the neighborhood and expressed that devotion in the restoration and maintenance of Brooks Park.
Vaernet discovered the O.M.I. while on campus at San Francisco State University where he was a student in the 80s.
“I was standing on the corner of 19th and Holloway, and I looked east, southeast,” Vaernet told historian Woody LaBounty for an oral history in 2003. “And I saw this hilltop of trees, and I said, ‘What in the world is that up there? What neighborhood is that?’ So I walked up here, and it was just fantastic.”
At the time, the neighborhood was ignored and overlooked. Realtors advised him not to buy a house in the neighborhood. There was crime.
It was the Scandinavian part of his upbringing, that sturdy Viking spirit, that spurred him to go forward. Meeting neighbors like Minnie Ward and Lawson confirmed there was a beautiful neighborhood to be nurtured — especially in Brooks Park.
Reclaiming The Park
In 1987, Vaernet and a group of neighbors formed Friends of Brooks Park to organize work parties to clean up years of neglect and deter crime.
The school district was asked to lock the gates of the elementary school behind the park to prevent entrance and escape routes through the school. Neighbors started a massive anti-graffiti effort and began removal of the glass shards. Community members confronted people with antisocial behavior and put out the word on the grapevine that Brooks Park was no longer the place for pitbull fights. License plates of dogfighters were recorded and forwarded to Animal Care & Control for follow-up home visits.
The gangs, feeling the pressure, began to fight back. Neighborhood houses were shot at but no one was injured.
Slowly those responsible for the problems drifted away into jail, jobs, school or the cemetery.
Brooks Park’s Growth
In 1990, the Friends of Brooks Park requested a grant from the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Committee to acquire the hillside's surrounding six acres and enlarge the park to its present size. In 1994, a $1.3 million grant was approved and a purchase was made.
There’s a community garden and native plant area.
This year, the 18th anniversary of the grand opening of Brooks Park Community Garden will be celebrated.
“Apparently, July 31, 2004 was the date of the grand opening of the Brooks Park Community Garden that Peter started with the success in receiving a large grant and tons of hours volunteering up there at Brooks Park,” neighbor Wendy Dwyer said.
The nurturing of Brooks Park and the O.M.I. will continue.
“To me, this is a 5000 year project,” Vaernet told The Ingleside Light in 2011. We’ll never be done.”
Alex Mullaney contributed reporting to this article.
San Francisco Honors Peter Vaernet
Date: June 14, 2022
Location: City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Board Chamber, Room 250
Time: Arrive at 2 p.m. for seating
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