By Aaron Williams
On a February morning, Peter Vaernet’s dream came true.
Eighty Lick-Wilmerding High School students were at his disposal to work on Brooks Park. Vaernet, a 6’3, blond-haired man with a Danish accent, towered over a group of students as he explained the variety of native plants.
“You’d pay $50 at a french restaurant for these in a soup when you can get them right here,” he said while waving around some seasonal onions. Next, he showed the students miner’s lettuce growing on the hilltop. He straightened up, smiled, and told the students why community work was important and that they should come back to Brooks Park often.
“This is your park,” he said with enthusiasm.
The Lick-Wilmerding students were there to serve the neighborhood. For Vaernet, they were a private army to maintain a park he champions.
Vaernet, 58, works for the San Francisco Department of Public Health in the Maternal and Child Health section, a job he’s held for 24 years. He travels to different clinics around the city to take care of low income families. He also prepares students for kindergarten and makes sure they don’t lose interest in school because of physical or mental hardships.
When he’s not working officially for the city, he’s out landscaping and cleaning the park.
Peter Vaernet grew up in what he called the “old world.” He was born in Frederiksberg, Denmark, a city known for its abundance of foliage and open space near Copenhagen.
“No one moves,” he said. “The person pruning the apple tree next door is the great-grandson of the man I remember pruning the apple tree for as a kid. I suppose it’s a place where people don’t feel as rootless.”
One thing he enjoyed about his homeland was that everyone in the community knew each other and they would regularly meet in a village square.
“When I was a kid, you couldn’t get away with anything,” he said. “There were always aunties or grandmothers watching you.”
He would grow to appreciate that about his hometown after he married his wife Lily and had their 14-year-old son Bjorn . However, before he came to those realizations, he said he needed to leave Frederiksberg.
“Many countries in the old world are boring for a young person,” Vaernet said. “Scandinavia, Denmark, Sweden; there’s no major issues, no major problems. It’s just OK. As a young male you become restless, so I decided I’d leave.”
Arriving in the U.S. in 1972, Vaernet traveled around the country using the Greyhound promotion: $99 for 99 days.
“I’d sleep on the bus all night,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience to travel around the country and experience the variety of people that are here.”
When he landed in Santa Cruz, Calif. he settled down to attend Cabrillo Junior College.
“It was just so beautiful,” Vaernet said about Santa Cruz. “It had a nice beach and was actually affordable as a foreign student, which was a big factor. There was just a great feeling of freedom for a young person.”
Vaernet studied many languages in junior college, but fell in love with Mandarin Chinese.
“I took Chinese because it’s a very old, continuous culture, and possibly the oldest with a written language,” he said. “It also sounds very different than other languages.”
His love for language and the Chinese culture led him to transfer to San Francisco State University in 1975. After graduation, he traveled around China for 10 years, sharpening his Mandarin. His fluency would get him hired by the Department of Public Health.
“I lived downtown near Chinatown,” Vaernet said. “But, man, after all the banging streetcars, I decided I wanted to live in a place where I could see the ocean from my house.”
He found that place in 1986.
Finding Brooks Park
“I was standing on the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway, looked up and wondered, ‘What is that strange hilltop up there?” he said. “What neighborhood is that?’”
So, one day Vaernet took a hike up Shields Street and saw the Ocean View neighborhood for the first time. He saw residents working in their yards and taking care of their homes. Memories flooded his mind of Denmark. While admiring the scene, he turned and saw the ocean behind him and realized this was the neighborhood for him.
“It was affordable at the time. I was working for the city, and I could actually afford a house. So that’s what brought me there,” he said.
Vaernet become the guardian of Brooks Park, defending it from drug dealers and fighting the city to give it more attention. He worked alongside the Department of Public Works to landscape parts of the park.
“[Vaernet] and the neighborhood came to us about 20 years ago to create a gate for the front of the park,” said Mohammad Nuru, deputy director for DPW.
“He treats [the park] as open space to bring the community together,” Nuru said. “I’m always there to help him and Brooks Park.”
Victoria Street resident and owner of Gentle Giants Gardening John Herbert befriended Vaernet in 2005, and joined Vaernet’s cause.
“I started off landscaping in my own backyard,” Herbert said. “It’s how I started my business and how I began working with Brooks Park.”
Herbert expanded the garden south toward Jose Ortega Elementary School, adding terraces so people could walk around the garden. Nuru aided this endeavor and brought leftover sidewalk concrete from construction work DPW did around the city, Vaernet said.
Vaernet continued gathering neighbors to help the park, including a retired high school teacher and beekeeper who Vaernet convinced to lead beekeeping workshops, as well as mushroom identification walks.
“Peter is awesome,” Herbert said. “He’s really easy going. He just wants people to come to the park and enjoy themselves. People don’t understand how much work he does. He is the heart and soul of Brooks Park.”
While Vaernet was modest about his role with the creation of Brooks Park, he didn’t believe any of his work was finished. In fact, he didn’t even believe he started it.
“Our ancestors did work like this all the time,” he said. “To me, this is a 5000 year project. We’ll never be done.”
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