San Francisco’s City Arts & Lecturer

Sydney Goldstein forever changed the cultural landscape of San Francisco and beyond. Author Dave Eggers remembers this California pioneer.

Sydney Goldstein on stage at her beloved Nourse Theater, which she transformed from a nearly derelict auditorium to the home of City Arts & Lectures in 2013.
Sydney Goldstein on stage at her beloved Nourse Theater, which she transformed from a nearly derelict auditorium to the home of City Arts & Lectures in 2013.

Editor’s note: The following was delivered as a eulogy at Sydney Goldstein’s memorial on October 29, 2018, at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.

The first time my wife Vendela and I socialized with Sydney Goldstein and Chuck Breyer, we went to dinner in the Mission. We didn’t know what to expect. We knew Sydney was the legendary founder of City Arts & Lectures, and that Chuck was a federal judge and wore a bowtie. So we believed, justifiably I think, that there was at least an outside chance the dinner might be a bit, let’s say, starched.

But right away Sydney ordered a margarita and started telling a story about a case Chuck was presiding over. Apparently, a couple had brought their cat to the Toronto airport, in a cat-crate. They gave the cat to Air Canada and then … Well, the cat didn’t make it to San Francisco. The crate arrived, but there was no cat inside. That was unusual enough, but more unusual was that the cat’s name was F.U. This is true. You can look it up. The cat’s officially registered name was F.U. So, the plaintiffs were suing Air Canada over the loss of their treasured cat, lovingly named F.U. I think the name was even on the crate — F.U. Sydney and Chuck told the hell out of that story. I believe at some point Sydney wondered aloud, Did the cat’s name, and the sentiment it expressed, have anything to do with the baggage handlers misplacing this particular cat? Right then Vendela and I thought, OK, we love these people.

That was almost 20 years ago. From then on Sydney became to us something between treasured mentor and that certain aunt you never wanted to disappoint. Vendela and I moderated a lot of events for City Arts & Lectures, and it was always clear when you’d done well. Sydney would be there in the wings, the first person you’d see when you got offstage, and she’d have her arms folded. That’s how she typically watched the events — on the monitor in the wings, arms folded. As you approached, she’d reach out to you and grab your shoulders. That was Sydney’s congratulatory hug — a vigorous grasping of your shoulders. She’d look you square in the eyes and say, “Well done!”

And sometimes she wouldn’t say that. If the event hadn’t been so great, she wouldn’t mince words. “You looked tired,” she might say, and leave it at that. She had a gift for words, each one laser-cut and unvarnished. And that voice! Hers evoked a kind of California Katharine Hepburn — something in that expansive vowels that sounded just a bit aristocratic.

It was easy to be in awe of Sydney. She’d built a monumental organization, and I was new to the nonprofit world, and I was trying to start 826 Valencia, and I knew I could ask her any question. No task seemed daunting to her. She dismissed every problem or obstacle as easy, doable, done before, not a problem.

Now, in the history of arts organizations here in San Francisco, or anywhere else, I challenge anyone to find a greater achievement than this: Sydney invented a series in which two people sit in chairs and talk. And for 30-odd years, she somehow managed to bring about 800 people to each of these conversations, and she did this 50 or a 100 times a year, and she did it with a staff of what, two? And City Arts more than broke even. It made money. I know. I was on the board. Sydney Goldstein created a nonprofit that made a profit. Technically, in the nonprofit world it’s called a surplus, but still. That is frankly absurd.

When she invited me to be on the board about eight years ago, I told her I was on too many boards already, and she said, “Don’t worry. This isn’t the kind of board where you’d have to do anything.”

She wasn’t kidding. The City Arts board is made up of an incredible group of humans, all of them talented and pretty much none of them necessary. Most of the time, we didn’t really need to fundraise because, like I said, Sydney ran a profitable nonprofit. Occasionally there was a legal or accounting issue that she needed help with, but otherwise we showed up once or twice a year and ate bagels and lox. The meetings were scheduled for an hour but usually lasted a lot less than that. She’d run through the year’s successes, show us some startling surplus, and then she’d say “Questions? No? Thank you so much for coming.”

I’m exaggerating a bit. But Sydney was old school. She just plain got stuff done. The one board meeting I remember being eventful was the one where she announced that she was taking over the Nourse Theater. It had been shut down for so long that most of us had never heard of the place. She showed us a few pictures of the current state of the building. It was a mess. This beautiful theater was being used to store old furniture and about a thousand boxes of files. She wanted to take it over, and was trying to get a three-year lease on it. Oh, and it needed seismic retrofitting. Oh, and the landlord was the Department of Education. It seemed impossible.

I might be compressing time a bit, but I’m pretty sure that within 18 months of bringing up the idea, Sydney had somehow convinced the Department of Education to give her a lease, she’d raised a few million dollars, she’d renovated the building and opened it and was already running events there. I was looking through my old emails from her recently and found the thread about the Nourse. She would periodically send me news about the progress with it. “I’m really excited about this,” she wrote one time.

That was Sydney gushing. That was Sydney over the top. She was known for her cool demeanor, her professionalism and a nature that might be called exacting, might be called reserved. But she was a softy, too.

Because she ran a nonprofit that made a profit, she had to do something that few nonprofits could ever do, or would ever think to do. She gave money to other nonprofits. So one day she said she wanted to start a City Arts & Lectures series that would benefit 826 Valencia, our literacy center. Together we decided the funds would go to college scholarships. The money that first year allowed 826 Valencia to give college scholarships to three students from San Francisco who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to go.

The next year she wanted us to give more scholarships, so she gave us more money. The number went up to four scholarships. The year after that, she sat on the committee that chose the winners of the scholarships. This is a bittersweet job. You fall in love with 150 applicants and can only give money to a few. I remember her reading the student essays with us, and she couldn’t bear that one student we all loved couldn’t get one of the scholarships. “Damnit,” she said. So she found the money and that year we gave five scholarships. In our fourth year, one of our scholarship students graduated from NYU with Sydney’s son Joseph. I don’t know if I ever saw Sydney so happy as when she got back from New York and talked about the dual joys of seeing her son graduate and seeing one of our scholarship winners there, too. This student, by the way, gave the commencement address.

Since then, the number of scholarships has ticked up every year. This past year we gave eight. From the time Sydney Goldstein established the 826 Valencia scholarship series, she’s sent 91 students to college. Without her help, few if any of these students — most of whom are the first in their family to make it past high school — would have gone on to higher education. Ninety-one families now have a college graduate in their midst. The destinies of 91 families have been changed. Ninety-one.

Last year, with Sydney’s permission, we named one of the scholarships in her honor. The winner of the inaugural Sydney Goldstein Scholarship is a young man named Kenan Mirou. His family fled the civil war in Syria in 2012, and Kenan came to the U.S. speaking no English. But he learned quickly, made his way through Mission High School with high honors and, with Sydney’s help, is now studying pre-med at San Francisco State.

Not that she ever took much credit for anything. She was not one to bask in praise or adulation. In writing this, and thinking about Sydney since she passed on, the words “no-nonsense” and “exacting” came to mind a lot, but when I looked back at a decade of email exchanges, a different version of Sydney emerged. Every email, no matter how banal the subject matter, was signed affectionately. Many ended, “XO, Sydney.” More often, she signed off with “Love, Sydney.” At one point I had mentioned that I wasn’t feeling well, and I thought — erroneously — that the pain was coming from my kidneys. That time she ended her email with “Love to your kidneys and to you, Sydney.”

There is talk about renaming the Nourse in Sydney’s honor, and this makes perfect sense and must be done. No one in the last 40 years has done more to enrich the cultural life of San Francisco, and the monument she revived should be rechristened in her name. I’m not sure if she would have allowed it in her lifetime — she likely would have considered it too much, even gauche — but her work must be honored with this most apt reminder. I know Sydney’s daughter Kate, who is now running City Arts & Lectures and is doing so brilliantly, supports the idea. The family supports it, all of us who knew Sydney support it, and Sydney and the city she changed irrevocably deserve it. Every time a conversation is had in that building — and an idea so simple and pure and necessary ensures it will endure — the name Sydney Goldstein should be seen above the door as you enter.

Update: The Board of the San Francisco Unified School District voted unanimously to rename the Nourse as the Sydney Goldstein Theater on December 11, 2018.

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