Palo Alto Online - Lasting Memories - Trevor R. Burrowes's memorial

Trevor R. Burrowes
Nov. 27, 1937-March 4, 2024
Madrid, New Mexico

Submitted by Penny Durham

Trevor Burrowes -- artist, visionary, and tireless defender of natural and man-made beauty in our environment -- has died.

Born in Jamaica, Trevor lived on both American coasts and in Mexico, before making his home in East Palo Alto in the 1980s. His education in fine art, art restoration and architectural history, coupled with a transplant's fresh eye, gave him a singular ability to spot what was unique and precious in his new environment. This community, divided and isolated by a freeway, survived with much of its rural history intact within its landscape, while the surrounding Peninsula was rapidly losing any such traces.

The steady growth of Silicon Valley placed it in imminent peril from real estate pressure. But Trevor saw, instead, how East Palo Alto offered a model for sustainable urban/suburban living -- where food could still be grown locally, and the peaceful, desirable qualities of green neighborhoods without sidewalks, so admired in the most prosperous areas of the Peninsula, remained. East Palo Altans were still able to keep sheep and horses, goats and chickens, and to grow vegetables.

He was prescient. Today, our local organic growers must travel between far-flung lots along the Peninsula. And in contemporary Japan, those in search of healthy mind and body now head for the outdoors to partake of the proven value of "forest bathing".

Trevor was driven first and foremost by aesthetics. He received his education at Parsons School of Design, Yale Art School, UC Berkeley, and in Mexico City, and possessed a great gift as a visual artist. He painted in spare and subtle or sometimes rich color and had a rare command of pencil, with great softness and sensitivity. He produced striking work on both a large and a small scale.

But he was unable to stand by and witness the destruction of great beauty in his environment and he became an outspoken champion of preservation. Catching the wave of environmental awareness generated by Earth Day 1990, Trevor, long a maverick lone voice in East Palo Alto (EPA), formed the East Palo Alto Historical and Agricultural Society (EPA HAS), a non-profit dedicated to preserving EPA's historic environment. He put together an assortment of community activists and experts, drawn from within EPA as well as the wider Bay Area, to serve on its board.

As eloquent in language as he was in art, Trevor had the ability to open eyes. He began to give tours of the community, bringing in prominent people from far and wide and showing them landmarks of local history and buildings of note -- such as the rare remaining wooden tankhouses (water towers), greenhouses, domestic wooden architecture -- and above all, the land, with its heritage live oaks and open sky. This was a landscape worth preserving.

Of particular interest was a relic from the early part of the 20th century, still forming an intact neighborhood within the city. Along with successive waves of immigrants, including Japanese farmers and flower growers, and African Americans, often from the rural south, the area had been chosen by Charles Weeks for one of his "poultry colonies", intended to promote self-sufficiency, with the motto "one acre and independence." These one-acre lots were still there in the form of the "Weeks Neighborhood".

It was apparent that the most promising means of preservation was through the planning process, most importantly, the city's General Plan. Through Trevor's unflagging perseverance, help appeared in the form of skilled fundraisers and significant organizations, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Service. An alternate plan was completed for the Weeks Neighborhood, for possible adoption by the city into its General Plan. Additionally, Stanford University and the San Mateo County Historical Association aided in the production of an architectural survey, or historic resources inventory. These achievements were immense, especially in light of the former unawareness and lack of regard for EPA from its neighboring cities.

A local activist with global vision, Trevor achieved prominence in the lively environmental community of the mid-Peninsula but died feeling his work was unfinished. Yet he was probably the only person who could have filled the role he created. His years of excellent education in art, his broad experience of vernacular architecture and sense of place, drawn from living in many contrasting settings, enhanced his ability to see what others missed. He possessed a determination, fired by aesthetics. These qualities, among others, enabled him to identify East Palo Alto as one-of-a-kind. Much has disappeared since Trevor left the area and it is regarded by some as a tragically missed opportunity that the Weeks Plan remains unimplemented.

In the final years of his life, even after his cancer diagnosis, Trevor continued to make art and to advocate for preservation in three spots close to his heart: historic St Ann's Bay, his Jamaican birthplace; East Palo Alto; and the Turquoise Trail in New Mexico, where he ended his days. But East Palo Alto alone possesses those documents produced through Trevor's work with EPA HAS, that offer a guide for historic preservation within this special place.

Photograph by John A. Banich

Tags: arts/media, teacher/educator, public service

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