The Kent family: A force of nature

10/24/2013

Jack Kent and his wife, Mary, changed lives. From homes in Berkeley and Inverness, where they spent summers since the 1940’s, the couple was front and center in progressive activism. Jack spurred a shift in urban planning with his small-is-beautiful approach to preserving neighborhoods and keeping streets pedestrian friendly. In the 50’s, as the second city planning director, he wrote San Francisco’s first master plan. He was twice elected to Berkeley’s city council, and he founded the university’s College of Environmental Design and Department of City Planning. He envisioned farmland running through cities so that countryside might continue unbroken. He helped to create Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore. His organization, People for Open Space, was the propelling force behind the restoration of San Francisco Bay wetlands.

The couple seemed charged with Jack’s protean drive to engage. A legacy of Quaker faith-in-practice came down through Mary and her sister, Deborah Whitney. The call was to be ecological, direct, functional and concerned with social application. And Jack and Mary passed on that ethos to their sons, Tom, Steve and Dave.

Tom continued a family interest in nature, developing an eco-friendly tree-pruning cooperative in Inverness that he runs with his cousin, Nick Whitney, and his sons. The work involves approaching the landscape as a reflection of consciousness. Dave co-founded Berkeley Mills, creating handcrafted furniture within a model of sustainable manufacturing and community-oriented design. Steve helped launch the Haight Ashbury counterculture in 1964, then left to attend Friends World Institute, a Quaker experiment in education dedicated to turning students into lifelong agents of social change. 

I met Steve in 1967, and came west to visit. After attending the Friends Institute for several years, I moved to Inverness in 1971. Reimagining my existence required help, and thanks to the Kents, I met the Russells, the Bratenahls, the Whitneys, the Cardwells and others. 

I had known from the first time I met Jack and Mary that they weren’t ordinary folks. We became friends for life. Whether marching to protest the war in Vietnam or nuclear power plants, they—and other elders in Inverness—were committed activists who taught young people, including me, about getting off our butts to do something positive.

In 1973, Steve and Alex Bratenahl, a painter with whom Steve had grown up, joined a migration from San Francisco and Marin. Transplanted in Mendocino and Humboldt, these new subsistence farmers lived off the land in bandit communities, bringing their urban consciousness, putting in water systems and living off the grid. Marijuana became the primary cash crop and the basis of an economy then pivoting from timber to weed. The resulting collision of lifestyles could be hilarious.

On one occasion, the Garberville police set out to bust some growers. Intercepting the radio waves of their nemesis on their own walkie-talkies were a group of radical dykes, who were having none of it. They pulled out their chainsaws. Once the cops had gone too far, the lesbians felled trees across steep back roads. With ways to advance and retreat made equally impossible by other downed trees, the invaders were trapped in their cars for hours while their intended victims had plenty of time to escape and put their plants somewhere safe. 

The new settlers changed county politics—from sheriff elections to ordinances regarding ecology—tilting them to the political left with growing clout in a state that was always in the vanguard. The Kents endorsed all of this wholeheartedly.

I left Inverness for San Francisco in 1973, swept up in gay liberation culture and politics. But Jack and Mary and other Inverness elders didn’t let me out of their sights. As I underwent natural growing pains, they wrote me, shared advice about becoming an adult, included me at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and served as guides.

What I saw in Inverness, then, and still see now—albeit in changed form—is the power of principled action. Gandhi called it “the truth force,” Martin Luther King Jr. called it his “dream.” Their example is more relevant now than ever, as the country is as riven as it was during the Vietnam War, yet shorn of the moral certainties of that era. Things are clearly more complex these days, but I still believe we’re able to get beyond Will Rogers’s quip, “If being stupid got us into this mess, how come being stupid won’t get us out?”

At times the lesson of solidarity was delivered with stunning surprise. One New Year’s Eve, some friends and I breezed into the Russell house at midnight to find Jimmy and Leonore with Jack, Mary and Deborah Whitney marching around singing “The Internationale.”

                                                     

The people only want their due

This is the final struggle

Let us group together!   

 

We stood at the door, jaws agape.

“Come on, come on,” they cried happily. “Join us! Sing! Sing!”

“But we don’t know the words,” we muttered. 

They gave us a look. “You don’t know ‘The Internationale’?” they asked in disbelief. “What’s the matter with you kids?”

How could we explain that we knew the Beatles and Dylan and lots of other things, just not the classic Socialist anthem of the 1930’s? In many ways, they were a lot more radical than we. But, God knows, they fully expected us to fight the good fight. 

Jack died in 1998. But his engaged, committed activism resounds in wilderness left unmarred by suburban encroachment. With that legacy comes the responsibility to preserve what is beautiful and to salute the unorthodox. It was that remarkable cross-hatching of conservative preservation and radical idealism that made Inverness unique to begin with and spared it the fate that befell Carmel and Sausalito. 

Amen.   

 

Adrian Brooks is a former Inverness resident, poet, playwright and performer who lives in San Francisco.