Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...
 

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 525: Michelle Forshner

How do you solve a branding nightmare like WNP? Nicole talks with new board member Michelle Forshner about her background and tackling the branding issues.
by Nicole Meldahl - Nov 25, 2023

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 525: Michelle Forshner Outside Lands Podcast Episode 525: Michelle Forshner

(above) Golden Gate Heights, circa 1949

Vista view north toward from about Pacheco and Cascade Walk, incomplete construction at Grandview Park. St. Anne's Church, Golden Gate Park, and Park Presidio Boulevard in the distance (slide has some damage and color shift)


Podcast Transcription

WNP525 – Michelle Forshner

Nicole: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of Western Neighborhoods Project. Your weekly dose of friendly neighborhood history.

Hello Outside Landers, I'm Nicole Meldahl and it's great to be with you again. Now it's that time of year where we remember how problematic the origins of Thanksgiving is. But also, the time of year we take time to reflect on all the things we're thankful for in the year that's almost behind us. And I can tell you that I am very grateful for everyone who helps us get the history done at WNP, including members of our board of directors. We're very lucky to have so many talented and dedicated people in our corner. And I'm really excited to share one of those phenomenal women with you. So, let's just get right into it. Everyone, please welcome to the podcast, Michelle Forshner. Welcome, [00:01:00] Michelle.

Michelle: Hi everybody. I am Michelle. Happy to be here. Thanks, Nicole. I honestly, I'm so stoked to be a part of this and this is a very special organization.

Nicole: Now Michelle's one of our newer board members. You were on boarded in August?

Michelle: August, September. Right about the time I was starting a brand-new job. It was perfect timing.

Nicole: You know, someone very wise once said that nothing good comes at the right time.

Michelle: No, it just kind of snow falls. It was awesome, though. I'm just thrilled that I could. I've been a part of this organization a little bit as a volunteer since last fall, when I had a little extra time in my pocket and was looking for a way to give back. And this organization just really stood out to me. And as soon as I talked to Nicole, I was like, oh, this is it. This is cool.

Nicole: I mean, yeah, we, you know, we're a small organization as y'all know, and we don't really have time to be working with people who aren't also doubling as friends. [00:02:00] So that's what keeps the vibe fun in the WNP clubhouse and keeps the work really authentic, I think. So, yeah, it's true. The minute Michelle and I met over Zoom during our quarantine times, we were like, oh well, yeah, of course.

Michelle: Yep. Count me in. That's basically how it went.

Nicole: And we started interviewing our volunteers and our members and things like that because we want folks to know who is behind WNP and especially those who are in charge of its strategic future, right? Which is what you are as a board, you are directing the strategic future of the organization. So that's why you're here with us today, a peek behind the curtain. And so, everyone can love you as much as we do. So, we're gonna, we're gonna go way back to Michelle's origins, not way back. She's a young, she's a young duckling, just like myself. So, Michelle, you're not from here originally. Tell us where you’re from.

Michelle: I am a California native, but I hail from [00:03:00] Southern California. I actually grew up in a town called Vista. It's in northern San Diego County in the coastal part. And my parents are still there on the same piece of property, cute little kind of a farm, cute little situation, fruit trees. We had horses, chickens, everything else growing up. It was fantastic. And I, the long story short is I moved up to San Francisco in about 2008, just seeking kind of what's next. And I can elaborate on that later.

Nicole: What's, you grew up in Vista? So, we initially bonded listeners because we had very similar childhoods growing up. And not that I grew up on a farm, but I grew up in a barn. So.

Michelle: It's all the same.

Nicole: It’s all the same soup, right? So, what did you, like, what did you study when you were in college?

Michelle: So that's an interesting question. I think like many of us, maybe Nicole as well, I don't know, you tell me, but when you start college, unless you're really special, like my husband, who knew he [00:04:00] wanted to be a software engineer, you don't know. And if you're in the liberal arts and sciences, there's just a lot of great options and everything is interesting and as an overachieving, you know, recovering international baccalaureate advanced placement student of that day, it was hard to just pick one thing. I went in studying cognitive science. I switched that over to genetics and said, oh no, no chemistry. No thank you. Hightailed it. I was writing a lot and thought, oh, okay, I'll do something with this. Maybe I'll go into law. No, I don't want to do that. Various things through literature that make no money. And, you know, certainly music and art. I was a musician and had been performing for several, several years and still practice on my own. I need to find a new venue for that thinking…

Nicole: Ooh.

Michelle: Which, I know jazz flute, wait for it. And that was, that's actually real, but also a really great joke because I'm from San Diego. So that being said…

Nicole: That's an Anchorman reference for people who are [00:05:00] too young to understand what that is.

Michelle: Thank you. Thank you. And if you haven't seen it, watch Anchorman. Thank you very much. Stay class San Diego.

Nicole: Yeah, it's vintage now, so you should be into that, young folk.

Michelle: We’re all vintage. This is scary. So, I studied a little bit of everything, long story short. At the end of the day, I went to CSU San Marcos, and that is in the California State University system. It's a sister school to San Diego State. It's just in northern San Diego County. And it was actually, funny fact, it's built on a former chicken ranch.

Nicole: Ooh.

Michelle: Yes, very, it's not really like a town anymore. Let's be real. But it was a different experience. And when you say, oh, I'm from San Diego, and I'm like, oh, La Jolla, and I'm like, no, not that. No, not so much. We had a tractor. Good times. So, I went to CSU San Marcos and it was, at the time it was a younger liberal arts university, had a business school, everything else. I was just jumping through classes, you [00:06:00] know, doing very well in my courses, but just really didn't find that thing that settled with me and made me think, oh yeah, this is what I want to specialize in for the rest of my life. Which is still a scary thought. I ended up making up my own major and they allowed me to do this. So, I was taking some linguistics courses that were absolutely just life changing, mind boggling. My teacher was doing a lot of work with some native groups in northern California and then coming back down to San Diego County to teach. And at the same time, I had been studying German language and literature for about 6 years, like one does. It just sounded like a fun thing to do, and I was fairly decent at it. And so, I said, hey, can I do a fancy major on my own and just make my own? They're like, sure, it has to be two different disciplines. I said, well, I love linguistics and I've run out of classes to take. And I've been studying German and I'm in independent study now reading German poetry from the 1960s. So how [00:07:00] about that? And they said, sure. And so, at the end of the day, my diploma says special major linguistics and German.

Nicole: Amazing.

Michelle: Welcome.

Nicole: What German poetry were you reading?

Michelle: Oh my gosh. To remember the names at this point in my young years, I don't remember. But it was, there was a lot of very surreal pieces particularly in the 1960s. And then, very much prewar when we're getting into this, like, post art deco period, but before a lot of the changes that were happening in Germany in the 1930s.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: Very fascinating, very peaceful things. And then reading some other items that I read in English, but then reading them in German and having conversations with my professor, the only other guy who spoke German in, you know, like, 50 miles, about the literature. It was fun. It was great. But then applying that to linguistics. And linguistics I've carried through throughout my career, because, at the end of the day, you're talking to people and personalities and cultures and dimensions [00:08:00] and to not consider these very important things when communicating at any level. And it's, you're missing the point, this is very serious. Yeah, not even from a business, for sure apply it to business. Do that. But this is about how we communicate as humans and how can we educate others on some of these elements. I think there's more education on this now. But back in the day, it was sort of a new concept. And I still think there's a lot of room for San Francisco, California, and the rest of the United States to really grow in this area.

Nicole: Yeah, I totally agree. I read a lot of articles these days about how humanities majors and liberal arts colleges are struggling because people can't see a clear through line to a profitable career, right?

Michelle: Right.

Nicole: And like, I struggled with the same things you did. I didn't declare as a history major until a really long time because I was like, I need a practical career like law. Although, can you imagine me as a lawyer? I really cannot.

Michelle: Same as me as a lawyer, please.

Nicole: Oh, oh, it would have [00:09:00] been hilarious, though, if we had met on either side of a case.

Michelle: We would have had so much fun than gone out for like cocktails after. That's probably what would have happened.

Nicole: Yes. But to get back to my point, we like, it makes me so sad because I think the critical thinking skills that you acquire as a liberal arts major, the way you are able to sift through, like, you know, prime resources and, you know, verify information that you're getting and think abstractly at the same time. Like, you know, when I think about what makes me good at my job, it's not what I learned in museum study school, although, sorry USF, you guys were great and like, thank you for the skills that I did acquire, but it's really just the broad way I approach to learning that I got at S.F. State, taking a bunch of humanities classes as an undergrad. So, like, yeah, I do think you're right. Like I wish more people would learn for the sake of learning and then try to apply that to a career you get in like a post graduate, like program that [00:10:00] gives you some more like life skills, like a museum studies degree or things like that, but…

Michelle: Agreed. Agreed. And even when folks are reviewing job applications, you know, people are out of work right now, people are looking for work.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: You're reviewing resumes like I am too with my team and, you know, folks kind of feel like, I'm kind of weird about this, you know, cause I just have an English degree or something. But talk to them and this is just feedback and thoughts for the rest of you and in cyber world and space on the radio here of what else do they bring? What are those skill sets?

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: Where they as a person not know all those gritty details, but how do they come across? How do they solve problems? How do they think about problems? And that's how you assess how someone can work in a dynamic environment to embrace and be flexible with chaos. I routinely, back when I was interviewing awhile back said, no, I love chaos. It's more interesting. And people kind of laugh. They're like, no, for real. And I said, no, I'm not kidding, [00:11:00] because those are the things we really need to solve for. And it's going to be a lot more fun to dig through all of this and get information to then get something that's a solution that works for a large number of people, you know, or systems or whatever that is versus, oh yeah, I went to school and I studied this one thing. It's about gathering information and being open to that flexibility that happens in history.

Nicole: Oh, you’re not the first board member who has told me that they thrive on chaos. So, I feel like it's a real reflection of how we do things at WNP. But yeah. But yeah, I agree. Like so many of our, like some of our younger volunteers and our interns that are very like career oriented are getting churned out in a system where like, they won't let you just take classes for classes. And like, they're really focused on where they're going next. And like, god bless them. I always ask, [00:12:00] hey, like, you know, are you, do you like a really regimented environment? And if the answer is no, we’re probably not the right place for you. Cause we're like much more touchy feely than that way, although not in a bad way. In like a good way.

Michelle: Yes.

Nicole: Not in like HR way.

Michelle: No, no, no.

Nicole: Not an HR way. But I also ask like, well, what do you want to do? And all these museum studies kids, they're all like, I want to curate. I'm like, okay. yeah. It's great. I mean…

Michelle: That is a task.

Nicole: Yeah. Like that's a very specialized task that unless you're really dynamic and lucky and like make a name for yourself as, like, someone to be listened to, you're going to have to get a Ph.D. for that. Like, and you know, go do a lot of school and they're like, no, I don't want to do that. I wanna pick out art and like have it go on the wall. Like, which we let them do sometimes, but anyways, I feel like we're getting really off topic.

Michelle: This is the topic. It's very interesting. It is, how do you balance [00:13:00] the, what the community and our culture says about education? What those requirements are? There's nothing wrong with very straightforward, like, I did my master's degree as a masters of science and integrated marketing communications versus something more broad, like, English or I don't know. I don't know something more broad and less focused. But I did that because I'm working in business now.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: But that being said, I think the folks that experience these degrees that go around just many different areas where the critical thinking is really the center of it. At the end of the day. I think that those folks have an opportunity to thrive in a different way as our world changes. As how we interact with the world changes.

Nicole: Totally. And you don't have a straight history background, which is, but you love history and you love vintage things. And like, we have bonded over that for sure. And I think that's really valuable. Like we've got a lot of great historians who work with us. And that's great. But the, the, I don't want to say outsider perspective, cause you're not an outsider, but [00:14:00] just the different perspective that you bring to it from a science background, from a business background, from a marketing background has been super valuable. And she just jumped in with the chaos right away. So that was extra great. So what, you came up here in 2008, what did you start doing up here?

Michelle: So, before I started working in science, which I fell into very, very randomly several years ago, I was actually a nonprofit person, just like Nicole here, but in a different scope. I began my career doing a lot of web based. Like I was building websites, some of the first websites that organization nonprofits ever had. Building out systems, strategic plans, things like that. I was doing copywriting journalism and really just fell straight into nonprofit marketing and fundraising. Which, as we know, marketing, fundraising is essentially a nonprofit say, or it's like nonprofit sales. It's like our version of it.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: So, I was doing that, but it's just asking people really nicely to support the things they already care [00:15:00] about.

Nicole: Yep.

Michelle: And that's pretty fun. And just how you put that all together. I loved it. It's a lot of work, but it's a wonderful learning experience in how you move communities and individuals to build more of a community and support the things that we care about the most. So, I came up to San Francisco because, as I said at the time, that's where nonprofits breed. And I needed more options and opportunities. I had been working in Orange County, the one in California, and it just, it's a different environment. And I was ready for something new. So, I came up here. I worked for a little over three years with the St. Vincent DePaul Society of San Francisco. That was the job I landed while I was in the process of moving up here. And work there subtly doing marketing work, you know, certainly fundraising events, communications, and working with that giant membership database and moving that into an actual database and out of Microsoft Excel, which was important.

Nicole: Yeah, I do. That sounds familiar.

Michelle: Yeah. I [00:16:00] figured we can all relate. Any of us in the nonprofit world or have, you know, our side businesses, yes, that was a lot of fun. So how I really decided to approach it based upon all my experience in journalism, writing, the nonprofit fundraising marketing, but the other approach was also digitizing the nonprofit sector. Cause here we are at this pivotal point in our journey of, we're transitioning. Yes, you're still working with those populations and those stakeholders that are in different generations and different exposures and in technology adoption. But there's a huge group of people that are now beginning to donate online. And this was back in, you know, 2008, 2009, when I was really engaging with St. Vincent de Paul society. They're moving there. And certainly, it depends upon your constituency base and what the organization is and what they're supporting, but how do you bring that digitally? How do you bring it? It's a systems design question. And I love that because then you're solving for something much broader and you making it scalable, while also ensuring that [00:17:00] experience, that user experience and, at the end of the day, what our constituents, our supporters, our volunteers, our friends, how they're reaching us. They want to do it seamlessly too. So, let's make it simple for them.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I think we've mentioned it on the podcast before, WNP is in a real transitional moment with a lot of that stuff right now. That's how Michelle sort of came to us. We were like, we're trying to rethink the website and how it can be simpler for people to use. And we're a branding nightmare because, and this, I always am reminded of Michelle, when we table at like community events, like Stoke Fest, which we were at last weekend I think it was, people were like, oh man, have you seen this website? It's got all these old photos in San Francisco. And I'm like, yeah, OpenSFHistory. That's us. And they're like, no, I don't think that's you guys. I'm like, no, it definitely is.

Michelle: I wonder why. The brand identity is unclear at that point. Although the content’s solid.

Nicole: [00:18:00] Yes. We are, we have always been solid on content. And, but like, yeah, Outside Lands, OpenSFHistory, Western Neighborhoods Project, like everyone loves what we do, but they're not sure we do it. Which I'm sure is impacting our fundraising. But anyways.

Michelle: True.

Nicole: But yeah, Michelle, I mean, this isn't an overnight fix. This is something you want to do right and do once. And so, like Michelle has, you've been integral to making sure we're not just, cause I get frustrated and I'm like, oh my god, let's just be done with it and pick a logo. But, but you're great at being like, no, we got to pick the right logo.

Michelle: I love that one. Nope.

Nicole: Dp another version. And it's been great, right? Because in the process, you know, you think a color, a choice about color is sort of an arbitrary choice, but it's not, you know. To think about, okay, we're going to pick the color orange because it means this, and this is who we are. It's been such a wonderful process to drill down into what WNP really wants to be. What it's doing. Where it wants to go. How we can [00:19:00] help serve our communities better and all that process. And you are so wonderful, Michelle, at pushing us when we need, because we need it. We're historians and we're stuck in our ways. But also, being very kind and like calm and just like asking questions to help us get there on our own, not telling us what we're supposed to be doing. And like, it's so clear that you've been doing this for a long time and you're an absolute pro at it. So, we're so grateful to have you with us.

Michelle: Well, thank you. I have big shout out to Stanford D school who is continuing to profess the value of design thinking because really that's how I approach a lot of my work with digital strategy, when we're coming up with new concepts and ideas, or maybe it's just a website redesign. But whatever that is, embracing that design thinking mentality of like, hey, let's just try something random. Oh, we learned something cool. Let's update what we're thinking. Now let's go test it with some actual people and then it's refined and go back. And we've done it. It's normal to do several rounds of this and it's okay. You put stickies [00:20:00] on the wall or not. I think there's still some sticky notes on Nicole's wall at her house where we first started this conversation last fall. And they are still there.  Thank you for confirming.

Nicole: Yes.

Michelle: It's about, again, going back to the chaos concept.

Nicole: Yeah. Post It note concept.

Michelle: Yeah. It's just being okay with ambiguity and getting some joy out of the ambiguity. And I think we all need to consider that. And even, you know, correct me if I'm wrong, but working in history, there's definitely a lot of ambiguity. And then, there's a lot of ambiguity about how do we get funded or how do we do this? How do we continue this work?

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: What's it going to look like in 50 years? So, I think it's just an important area that we can all, from any walk of life or, or prospect, work on ourselves and being okay with that ambiguity and taking little steps towards it. You know, it feels awkward. It's weird, especially if you are more of a, you're comfortable with regiment and structure. [00:21:00] That's okay and that's great. We need people like that too. Please do that, because that is not me. But being okay with ambiguity, I think helps us all react differently when issues arise. When difficult things arise. And I think we can all benefit from that as a culture and society.

Nicole: Yeah, totally. I talk a lot about how, you know, it'd be so much easier, history would be so much easier and connecting it to the present day and, if it were black and white, right? If it were done when it was written, but it's not. There's so much gray in anything human beings are involved in. And like the, it takes time to figure that out and it takes time to do it right. And yeah, it's just not a, it's just for, as dependent as we are on computers, it's not a binary world that we live in. So, I do think it's you're absolutely right that, like the middle ground is the best ground to be working in.

Michelle: Hey, that gray area is a really interesting space.

Nicole: Oh, look at that.

Michelle: We learn a lot from that [00:22:00] area and it only makes us stronger.

Nicole: Absolutely. Oh man, I have to connect you with the fellow I started dating, cause he's all about design thinking. And I think you guys are just going to like.

Michelle: We're best friends already.

Nicole: Oh my gosh, yeah.

Michelle: As of now. Yes.

Nicole: Anyways. So, before we move on into like the more of a WNP, that stuff I like, you are a vintage maven. You, I mean, we're just going to plug your side business right now, because I've purchased a purse from you that you fixed up. Like I, I find that like if people are in the vintage, they're into history, right?

Michelle: That's true.

Nicole: And like, tell us about your love for vintage.

Michelle: Absolutely. I was going to antique stores and flea markets and all of those things when I was basically in diapers. I would go with my parents. I'd go with my mom or even my grandparents when we were able to do that and get together. And it was just a normal experience for me. A lot of people went to, I guess, Target and stuff. And I went to these stores and then went to the random market down the street to buy [00:23:00] tortillas and things, right?

Nicole: Same.

Michelle: But going to these antique malls and you're just, well, what is this? And, you know, I was talking to someone else, who's new to this kind of work as well, and I said, you know, the thing about going into vintage stores and antique stores and having these experiences is, you look at something, you go, huh, what's that? Or I kind of recognize that, but not sure you pick it up. You think about it. You then do some research, whether you happen to have your phone with you, or you go home and you're like about that thing I took a picture of it. Let me look into it. And suddenly you're an expert on midcentury glassware made in Bavaria. And why not? I just bought some. So that's, you know.

Nicole: There it is.

Michelle: My little thing for Rosenthal. But I did the same thing when I was, yeah, just cruising around. I certainly I have had experience working with leather because we had horses and there's a little bit of I work with my hands a lot too. It's just very comforting. And I met someone who was [00:24:00] also selling vintage leather coach handbags. So, these are the older ones. So, this is pre-1994. Typically, these are the ones that don't have some fancy shiny interior lining. They are just thick, beautiful, very, very well-made leather bags. Dooney and Bourke did a good job too. So, I do look at those older pieces as well, which is what Nicole has in its quarters.

Nicole: I'm a Dooney and Bourke girl. I have a bunch of their like pre-1995.

Michelle: I love it. They're great bags. And so how I look at it too, is all right, here's an older distress leather bag that was. First built in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or maybe the early ‘80s. Yeah, it needs a little bit of help. Someone who's just looking at it and doesn't know how to restore leather is just like, ew, it's old, would just pass it by, and that goes in the trash.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: And like, that breaks my heart, thinking about that. Just like any old, I mean, any things that we're getting rid of. And it's like, I can't. No, that belongs in my family. No, I have a [00:25:00] sentimental value to this. There's always a moment of calming us down. But if we were throwing all these vintage leather coach bags, as my example, into the trash, just because they were older or they weren't shiny and they're flaking and the leather was brittle or something's missing. Why? Why are we doing that? This isn't about recycling, you know, plastic bags. This is about preserving something that's well-made for another person to enjoy and actually love. And people do really love these bags.

Nicole: Yes.

Michelle: They do. So, I look for these older bags through thrift stores, garage sales sometimes online I do find them and they just need help. So, I purchased them for myself. I do my own work on the leather restoring conditioning. I work on the brass as well. I remove those pieces and remove all the corrosion there separately. That's really fun working on all these materials. I'm learning how to work with suede a little bit too, which is much harder.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: I do love that just perfect vintage thick saddle leather and getting that to [00:26:00] shine like it's brand new than. The before and after photos, that alone is just absolutely brilliant. And then I'm able to turn those and see, like, who would like these? And there's certainly a demand. And I just like being able to apply, you know, hours of my time into bringing it back to life.

Nicole: Yeah, and you do beautiful work. I've got one Dooney and Bourke purse that is just like, it looks like it's brand new and it's not. And I do agree. Like there's such a throwaway culture with fast fashion and all that kind of stuff. And generally older pieces are better made, though longer if you just like give them a little love.

Michelle: I think we've all had that stove or refrigerator in our house that was still going. You're like that was from 1974, but it's working better than the one that was in my house when it was still a rental. Yeah. We all know about these situations. So, there's something to be said for it. And same thing with vintage jewelry. I also work with vintage and antique, which is weird for me to think that antique is no longer from [00:27:00] the 19th century, by the way.

Nicole: Oh, don't get me started. I had a student use the phrase in the late 1990s.

Michelle: I can't.

Nicole: Like it was a historical epic and I wanted to die.

Michelle: Oh gosh, I'm really old thinking about that.

Nicole: I'm sorry, in the late 1900s.

Michelle: Okay, I can't handle that. That's not okay.

Nicole: Oh my god.

Michelle: Oh no. That's it. No.

Nicole: We also had a student ask us seriously, like, can you tell me about Y2K? Like anthropologically, I need to understand your experience in this essential early 2000s.

Michelle: Wow. Do they want to know how, before Year 2000, we were building out a huge, like, cabinet of, you know, emergency food and stuff, just in case? Because that's what my parents were thinking was a good idea. I'm like, no, it's gonna be fine. I'm like, turn off the computer. I'm like, no, really, it'll be fine. I'm like, in high school, they're like, no, we should really turn everything off, but [00:28:00] we have extra water in the garage.

Nicole: I mean, like, Y2K is the equivalent of, like, our parents hiding under their desks if there was an atomic bomb. You know, hat are we going to, what are we going to do if this is coming at us?

Michelle: Oh no, the hackers are going to get us. Like, it's so bad. Like, all those things. I'm like no. No.

Nicole: Y2K is a historical event. Oh my god just, just put me in the grave.

Michelle: I know.

Nicole: But what I was going to say before I went up on that tangent is like, I think what I love so much, you know, I read a lot of philosophy around, around artifacts and collections and things like that. Again, pulling in a liberal arts perspective to history and why we do history and why we keep things and that kind of stuff. And I love Walter Benjamin. He's one of my favorites. He talks a lot about the aura of the object, you know?

Michelle: Oh yeah.

Nicole: That there's irreplaceable sense to, to artifacts, authentic artifacts. And especially when you're talking about mass production versus like, you know, maker made, you can [00:29:00] really, when you can see, when you can see unique like carving details that were done by hand, like you can feel the presence of that carver with you there. And there's something to say, like, I, I really don't do well in, in newly built spaces. The house I live in is from 1931 and it has a lot of bumps and cracks and, you know, things. But to me, I can feel the lives that have come through these walls and it really grounds me and it makes me feel like part of something larger. And like…

Michelle: I agree.

Nicole: And yeah, and you being able to like keep these pieces in play, you know? I just think that it adds so much more texture to our lives and it helps us just sort of, I don't know, it's just, I just understand why people don't want old things around.

Michelle: I know.

Nicole: Like they just doesn't make sense to me.

Michelle: When was the last time you stayed in like a new typical hotel?

Nicole: Oh, it's just…

Michelle: I can’t. Like I did it one last time because it was some sort of work [00:30:00] trip, but I can't. I was like, where's the really old ones that used to be a monastery. I want that one.

Nicole: Yeah, same.

Michelle: That’s legit what I look for. It's the same thing with these bags. And I have a ton I'm working on. I'm just a little slow with producing more to get them on my sites for folks to look at, because I started the new job a few months ago.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: And it's been awesome, but I've just been a little preoccupied. But between Etsy, Poshmark, eBay, that's really where I try to share those pieces. And the vintage stuff honestly lives on Etsy, I think a lot of us like Etsy anyway, cause you get your handmade and you also find a lot of beautiful vintage things. And I am RunVegVintage. That's one word. So, like run, like you're running veg because I'm a vegetarian and it's just V-E-G, and then vintage. Just put those words together and you have me. If anyone is actually interested in looking at these things too, I have a lot of bags that are still, they need like one more coat of conditioner and they're ready to go. So just let me know. Honestly, I'm local. I live actually pretty close to Nicole. [00:31:00] Let me know.

Nicole: Yeah. That's a great segue into how you first found out about WNP.

Michelle: Yeah, about that. I was making my donations for the year and cruising around going, oh yeah, these guys, these guys are great. And then I, of course, I go to the website. Wait, where do I go? Wait, is this connected? I wasn't sure. I was actually working on a project for grad school, doing some research on what my house looked like when it was built. And, you know, what did my lot look like before my house was built? And it was just my neighbor's house and, you know, all these things. I'm in Golden Gate Heights. So, I'm in a fun little area just up from the Inner Sunset. And it's, I'm really lucky. I really love it there. But I was doing some research and finding out what the history was there. And so, of course, here I am looking at OpenSFHistory, lots of great photos, sharing them with my husband. I was like, look, that was our house. I was like, what? It was great. So, I'm engaging with that. And then, I was making my membership annual contribution. And somehow, I was just like, wait, these are [00:32:00] connected? And I was very confused again,

Nicole: Yeah. Yeah.

Michelle: I'm not judging. I'm not judging because the content’s there. It's just about wow, I wonder if I'm not the only person thinking this? And I'm not just being critical because I'm in digital and this is what I do for a living. But indeed, like what could be an opportunity to improve that experience, so folks are getting what they're looking for and they see the holistic and they also recognize this organization, because most times I have conversations, oh, I'm on this great organization and they're so fantastic and they're local and I mentioned it and they're in Outside Lands. They're like in our community and they're like, oh, what's that?

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: You guys.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: There's a lot to educate and it's fun, but what else can we do from a brand presence to help encourage that and make it simpler for folks?

Nicole: Yeah, and we're, you know, we're slowly working on it. It's funny. It's like either you can do the work that gets the attention or you can do the behind the scenes. Let me restart that. I just feel like it's so hard to [00:33:00] make space to do this behind the scenes work because it's not the fun stuff, right? You're not like, and it's not the stuff that has like major deadlines. If you want to get this stuff done by our 25th anniversary next year, but like, we also want to do all this programming and do all kinds of other work and grant funded work and things like that. So like, it's so hard to keep it moving forward and like having folks like you and one of our volunteers, Nicki Flynn, who's been fantastic, just like gentle prods being like, hey ladies, like maybe let's get back to this. It's been wonderful and it like, we had been, Chelsea and I had sort of just been in like a doom loop of like, great, we know what we're doing. Okay, this got more complicated. Oh my god, nevermind. And just looking around Michelle and we're just like, just, we're just like, it's going to be okay. Shut the website. It's going to be okay.

Michelle: It's just, nobody had a marketing emergency. Like nobody had a marketing emergency. As I tell myself working in digital marketing, it has had emergencies. But, you know, if we [00:34:00] think about it and we set back first world problems, like fine, it's fine. And you do want to incorporate, you know, push and pull strategies to use a really old marketing term. You can't just go yelling from the rooftops, oh my god, there's this thing, it's so great. We'll see you soon. Yay. You have to also create an environment where new folks can find you.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: They feel supported.

Nicole: We do have pretty good SEO, which I think I'm using correctly.

Michelle: Well done.

Nicole: Yeah, thank you. When you Google some sort of subject on the website, we're generally one of the first like articles to pop up. And my favorite, my ex-boyfriend got super into ChatGPT and stuff like that, which I’m not. I really don't understand still. But he asked ChatGPT, I just led a walking tour of Golden Gate Park, and we talk about the 1894 Midwinter Fair, Midwinter Fair, and he was like, what are the buildings made of? And I was like, well, I don't know. We always just say like architectural papier mâché. And he was like, well, that's not a technical term. So, he was like, I'm going to ask ChatGPT what the building materials were. And hilarious, it was [00:35:00] like ChatGPT pulled up this thing and it was like to quote Woody Labounty. And he was like, oh my god, you are the ChatGPT.

Michelle: That's amazing. So, for those of us that aren't, for those who may not be using ChatGPT, the similarity there with like, remember back in the day when Google would provide like an answer box?

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: For something and you get a little answer box and it sounds like, oh, you mean this? Here's the URL. Here's what, you know, this product is intended for. This is sort of the ChatGPT version of that.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: Where you become the answer box. And that's actually a highly coveted area. And it matters because that is the most relevant answer for whatever they're looking for. And you want to be that most relevant answer. Not from like, oh look, we just added a bunch of keywords, but no, you're actually serving the people the best. And you want to be that, right? Especially as historians.

Nicole: Yeah. So, I don't know, ChatGPT found us just [00:36:00] fine, but I was like, cause I remember everyone was like, oh no, this is going to steal jobs and stuff like that. And I was like, well, this just seems like another form of Google. So, it's like Google for extra lazy people. I think we're all going to be okay. I also don't know what I'm talking about.

Michelle: You’re fine.

Nicole: So don't listen to me, but so that's how you got to us and we're so grateful you're here.

Michelle: Thank you. Yeah, I just had the idea that I send in my membership and someone said, thank you or something. And I responded back and I was like, hey, do you have like, cause I was like, I'm not doing volunteer where I stand at an event. Like I have actually done that for you.

Nicole: Nice.

Michelle: But because I just, it reminds me of when I worked in nonprofit before I went into biotech, and it just, there's so many hours of that. And I thought, okay, maybe they have something else. And I was thinking about board roles, just where I am in my career and what I'm doing with my life and where I can give back more. So, there's a bunch of information in my brain I'd like to share with somebody. There's a lot of it. Please let's pull that out.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: I just really want to [00:37:00] provide what I know and how can apply that to an organization who can benefit. And I was thinking this, you know, feeling really excited. And then they were like, oh yeah. talk to Nicole and somehow, we got an email. And then we talked like a few days later. I was like, oh, it's like an interview, but it was just like this talking right now.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: And realizing we had a million things in common. And we loved San Francisco and all these wonderful places and experiences and cultures behind all of it too.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: And I was like, okay, website plan.

Nicole: Please Lord. Yes. You know, we've always been such a small organization that we didn't really have to think about these things. But the truth is, like, WNP has grown sort of exponentially over the last five years. And like, you know, to keep us continuing to grow, we really do need a strategic plan. We need a better website that's easier to access and better, you know, swifter, branding, and stuff like that. It's, I'm so [00:38:00] glad to have you with us at this time, Michelle.

Michelle: Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here.

Nicole: Well, this has been a great conversation so far, but now I think it's time for us to move into the Barbara Walters section of the podcast. Are you ready, Michelle?

Michelle: I’m so ready for this.

Nicole: Okay, question number one. What is the best meal you've ever eaten in San Francisco?

Michelle: So, this is a hard one because there's so many incredible meals, restaurants, you know, come and gone too, in respect for those that we've lost, but I've never had a bad meal at Greens. And as a vegetarian with a vegetarian family, that's our date night place. It's like, oh, we're going to go hike all the way over to North Beach, which is a big deal in itself coming from the Sunset, right? But the food has been fantastic, you know, where the food originates from, how they put together, the art behind it, not just the science, but the art, and just the humanity in it is incredible. And frankly, it's just really well done. Plus, you get to watch the [00:39:00] seals out the window.

Nicole: I mean, yeah. Like what's better than that?

Michelle: Can't go wrong.

Nicole: You know, you mentioned restaurants that have gone away. I would like to give a shout out to Video Cafe on Geary, which was not great food, but was open all the time and would show videos while you could get fried chicken and, you know, a Coors, which is something San Francisco is sorely lacking these days. So.

Michelle: This is true. Good call out.

Nicole: Okay, number two. What is your favorite place in San Francisco? The one place you return to again and again.

Michelle: I'm biased, because of where I live in Golden Gate Heights, but Grandview Park. I love it. It's the best view in the city. Don't tell all the out-of-town people. I mean, I guess you can. That's fine. But you can really see it. If you're visiting, you've got to check this out. It is a tiny little park. It is blustery windy up there.

Nicole: It is.

Michelle: It is a piece of gorgeous California before any of these houses were here and it's breathtaking from that. And frankly, best view of the [00:40:00] city and the best sunsets. If you haven't been, and you're local, you need to go up there, even if you're not quite local, you should just go there. It's good.

Nicole: Great. You know, this section should be sponsored by San Francisco Travel, but it's not.

Michelle: Hey, we should call them.

Nicole: If anybody who works at San Francisco Travel and would like to sponsor this segment, please call me.

Michelle: Absolutely.

Nicole: Well, maybe this is a double, this is a double answer, but what's the one thing that you think out-of-towners shouldn't miss? Like, where do you take people when they visit?

Michelle: This is a tough one. This is a bit of a toss-up with two or three places I really love. I'd say runner up to Lands End and Sutro Baths, because I'm an outdoor person if you can't tell. Obviously, I like going over there because there's so much history. There's a lot to learn. I have enough history in my brain about this area to share that to unwitting audiences for hours on end and then you're just walking in nature and you get your steps on and you climb [00:41:00] these stairs and visit and see beautiful wildlife. It's a really special area. So that has a very, very personal place in my heart. But to answer your question, my number one would actually be Sutro Forest because what big city has a forest in the middle of the city? Can we just think about that for a minute? And I'm not meaning like a park. You know, Berlin has a park in the middle. That's fine. They can have that. We have a park, but do you have a forest? We have a forest and it's amazing. And those trails are awesome. And it's, you do not feel like you are in a big city and I love that.

Nicole: And has a great group that manages it called Sutro Stewards. So yeah, all around good stuff at, on Mount Sutro.

Michelle: Yes.

Nicole: Okay, number four. What's one San Francisco thing you would bring back if you could.

Michelle: This is a tough one because there's a lot of cultural elements and places. I'm going to choose a place that recently has left us and that is Thrift Town in the Mission. [00:42:00] As an avid thrifter and lover of vintage antique, I think that was one of the first thrift stores I ever visited in San Francisco. And that was back when I was 16 on a trip here for orchestra. Actually, I came up here for an orchestra trip like one does.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: I loved it. And it really blew my mind when I heard that, you know, it's gone now. And I know changing times, things are moving. I mean, I get it. But it's also just, it's sort of the end of an era of that kind of thrift experience. And it makes me a little sad. So, I would bring back some Thrift Town.

Nicole: Yeah. Amen. Hey, this one's the doozy. Are you ready?

Michelle: Bring it.

Nicole: Number five. Why is history important?

Michelle: Oh, my gosh. How is it not important? Like, please, guys. I feel like I touched on a lot of these items in our wonderful conversation so far. But history is, it's about us. It's yes, it's about [00:43:00] our past, but it's also about our future. You know, the typical thing to say is, well, we have to learn from, you know, our history in order to make wonderful life choices in the future, or plan for the future, beyond our lifespan. I think people don't understand that still. I think they should probably go back and read some history. Because there's stuff happening that is a bit, you know, we should know by now. But that being said, it's, history gives us more than just information, but a glimpse into how societies work. Into how communities and cultures work or don't work. And that gives us context. Again that liberal arts background. If you have all these, you know, facts in your brain, you're ready to go on Jeopardy with all of this information that you've, you know, compiled in your brain. But what do you know then about broad cultures? Your frame of reference has blossomed into an ocean from a little pond and that's beautiful. And the more of us that are embracing that and [00:44:00] sharing that with others who may not have as much access to history and want that exposure or don't know that this exposure is a really incredible gift. That's our job. You know, I'll take that on. I did minor in history.

Nicole: Yeah!

Michelle: But it's not, you know, it was good enough. Lots of, yeah, lots of history classes cause I loved them, but I did not major in it. But that being said, it's about providing exposure to things that others can't see, just like you would with art, right?

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: Just like you take, like, an art appreciation class or something else, but, you know, a bit more snazzy. We need exposure to that. That's your word. I think I stole that from you.

Nicole: I do like the word snazzy. You know exactly what it means.

Michelle: Exactly.

Nicole: It's a very effervescent word. But.

Michelle: It really is. My dad says it probably five times a day. you know, bless his heart. But it really is an important aspect. And I hope that my answer gives a little bit more context into that worldview.

Nicole: Totally.

Michelle: And just making it [00:45:00] available so others can have exposure.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: We all could.

Nicole: Listeners, that's why you too should read up on Land's End and Sutro Baths and go there and tell strangers all about its history like Michelle does.

Michelle: Yes, be like Michelle. Talk their ears off.

Nicole: Yeah.

Michelle: It’s great.

Nicole: Give people the answers to questions they didn't directly ask you.

Michelle: Yes, just make a joke on the side. It'll be great. They'll love you.

Nicole: You know, the thing about this site that you don't care about is that there was something else here once before. Anyways.

Michelle: Perfect.

Nicole: Well, Michelle, this was all so wonderful. Thank you for being with us tonight.

Michelle: Thank you for having me. This was so much fun. And again, I'm just delighted and grateful to be a part of this organization, help our city, help our community and be a part of history.

Nicole: Oh, we couldn't do it without you. So.

Michelle: Thank you.

Nicole: And now we go into the part of the podcast that I can technically do without you, [00:46:00] but you're welcome to stick around and if you would like, you're also welcome to ghost me and go about your business this evening.

Michelle: Thank you, Nicole. Just big thanks to everybody. I'm going to go make dinner.

Nicole: There it is. All right. Thank you, Michelle.

Michelle: Take care. Good evening.

Nicole: And we are heading into listener mail. So, first of all, you know by now, my dear listeners, just how to send us listener mail. You email us podcast@outsidelands.org. But you can also take advantage of our social media presence on Instagram, Twitter, or whatever we're calling it now, and Facebook and you can post a podcast comment there.

And in response to last week's podcast about the legendary USF baseball manager, Dante Benedetti, we received a comment on Facebook from Miranda. She said, and I quote, “as someone who is a baseball lover and who had, has lived across the street from Benedetti diamond for [00:47:00] 15 years, I greatly appreciate this story. Thank you for researching and sharing!” Exclamation point. End quote. So, thank you for listening and writing Miranda. And we're still hoping to hear from someone who played with one of Dante's USF teams or one of the youth rec league teams that he sponsored. So, if that's you, or that's someone, you know, please give them our email address, podcast@outsidelands,org.

Because we are a family that loves sharing history, and I think that this is the perfect time, because it's the time that always comes right now, after the listener mail, where I tell you the benefits of membership and donating. So, if you clickety, clickety, clack the big orange button at the top of any page on either of our websites, that's outsidelands.org or OpenSFHistory.org and you give us $50 or more, that automatically makes you a member. Well, maybe not automatically. If you don't press the right button, because our membership system is still a little [00:48:00] clunky, but we're working on it thanks to Michelle. Sometimes it just comes through as a regular old donation, unclear what you intended that donation for. And if that happens, then I will email you and be like, hey, thanks so much for the $50. Did you want to be a member? If so, I can make that happen for you. Because as a member you get the quarterly membership magazine, which I am actively writing articles for this week. You get discounts on events and other exclusive perks, but also it supports all the good work that we do and make available for free. The huge photo archive on OpenSFHistory. The Cliff House collection, it's care and exhibition, which is a real doozy, my friends, let me tell ya. And then, naturally, this podcast, because we don't like to put things behind a paywall, but also, we are running a nonprofit in one of the most expensive cities in the entire world. So, we do need your donations to stay alive and to keep getting the work done. So, we appreciate every single dollar and every, even a dollar goes a long way [00:49:00] at a small nonprofit like ours. So, thank you members. And thank you for considering making a membership donation at the end of the year.

Now, with all that said, I think you should know What's Up at WNP. So, this is the section we formerly called Announcements that I do keep forgetting we renamed to What's Up at WNP and then I call it announcements again. So, I'm sorry for the back and forth. We're doing our best here with the limited brain cells I have at the end of 2023.

But here's a really fun one. This is kind of why we do what we do. So, I don't know if maybe some years back when we were putting together the OpenSFHistory archive, I was working as an archivist at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Park Archives and Records Center. So, I was processing photo collections there, and I was processing photo collections at WNP, and I just, by chance, recognize the [00:50:00] same little dog, this like terrier, in a negative at the GGNRA and in a print at WNP. And by making that connection, I was able to connect these two pieces of an archive that had been purchased by different people from an antique store here in San Francisco. And the information pieced together from all of these disparate materials allowed me to put a name and a history to a woman named Irene Canby LeRoy. She was amazing. She married into a Mexican land grant family, but was the daughter of a paymaster on post at the Presidio. And they were like distantly related to European nobility and like John Kerry, which is very weird. But anyways, the photo archives that we have at the GG, or I'm sorry, on OpenSFHistory are so beautiful. They're Irene with her daughter Peg. And I really grew to love this woman. I wrote an entire article on OpenSFHistory about her as part of my San [00:51:00] Franciscan series. And y'all know, I love, I love an extraordinary woman that's been overlooked by time. And so, when you get a chance, go to OpenSFHistory and search Irene Canby LeRoy. But the reason I'm bringing this up now, because this is, was research I did a long time ago. And it's a story we've been sharing, for some time, is that a person named Bertrand Pellegrin purchased her passport likely at the same antique store and has been looking for information on her for a really long time. Well, he found the article on OpenSFHistory and he sent us photos of her passport. And oh my goodness gracious, is she beautiful. I'm so glad, thank you so much Bertrand for reaching out. He was like, oh my gosh, I've been trying to find this information for so long. And because of you and your work and this archive, I'm able to like piece together a lot of things. He's been trying to figure out the family's history so he could return the passport. And now he knows that, unfortunately, there's just no heirs to return it to. But so, that's sad. But this is honestly me, what we [00:52:00] live for. It makes me so sad when personal family collections end up for sale like this and I, I wish if you're someone who knows of an archive that's heading for sale or something like that, you know, consider making a donation to OpenSFHistory, at least letting us know about it so we can scan it before it goes off into four corners of the world. So, thank you Bertrand, for making our day. I love seeing new photos of Irene. It literally just makes all that we do even more validating and, I don't know, filled with love and admiration for these archives that are out in the world. So thank you again.

I did mention last time that our public programs have pretty much closed for the year, so we can focus on planning for 2024. But we do have a special announcement coming soon about programming we’re going to kick off 2024 with. And most importantly, you're going to see our winter appeal out and about in the world. And I'd like to make a personal plea for you to make an extra donation to [00:53:00] WNP this year. We are doing bigger and better things than ever before, but it's still not enough to pay two full time employees a living wage in San Francisco. So, this means we'll need to tighten our belts next year. And how much tightening happens depends on how much we're able to fundraise by the end of the year. So please consider a contribution when you see the appeal come through into your inboxes or land in your old-fashioned mailbox, and help us keep making history together.

And with that. I will segue out of this podcast with a preview for next week. So, we hope to bring you that story of the unique public-private partnership at the Presidio of San Francisco, and we'll be bringing on a new voice that has been a bright light at the WNP clubhouse this year. So, you have that to look forward to. Until the next time, I'm Nicole Meldahl and this has been another episode of Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of Western Neighborhoods Project. Thanks as always for being with us [00:54:00] history friends.

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. You can also find us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.

More Podcasts
  • Podcast # 306: Sutro's Ashes

    Mysterious object, relocated ashes, shadowy characters... John Martini unearths the stories behind Adolph Sutro's missing remains. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Dec 22, 2018)
  • Podcast # 24: Adolph Sutro

    Did he own one-twelfth of San Francisco or just a twentieth? Either way, Adolph Sutro made his mark on the city, especially the west side. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Jun 21, 2013)
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History