By Patrick Cochran
Since the tragic death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville there has been increased pressure to tear down statues commemorating Confederate leaders and historical white supremacist politicians and rename the streets, schools, and parks named after them. Much of the focus has been on the South, where in the former Confederate states these types of monuments are numerous but they are everywhere, even in San Francisco.
From afar San Francisco seems like a beacon of equality and progressiveness but for people who knows its history know that it does in fact have a long past of bigotry, prejudice, and inequality; it might not be as prevalent or blatant as other locales but it exists.
Two locations that come to mind are Justin Herman Plaza and City College’s very own Phelan Avenue. Justin Herman plaza is located on the Embarcadero right across from the Ferry Building and the extremely stark Vaillancourt Fountain in the center. Its namesake M. Justin Herman was in charge of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1959 to 1971 and before that the Housing and Home Finance Agency.
Under his direction San Francisco decimated the historically black Fillmore District and Western Addition, along with other neighborhoods, displacing tens of thousands of residents. In 1970 Herman said that “this land is too valuable to permit poor people to park on it”.
Thomas Fleming a columnist for the San Francisco Sun-Herald said in 1965 that “victims of a low income generally regard Herman as the arch villain in the black population of the city.” The process of displacement that Herman helped create is still alive and strong today in San Francisco. It might not be caused by official government action like in Herman’s era but each year thousands of residents are forced to leave because of rising rent. To name such a prominent public plaza after a man who displaced thousands of people of people is disgraceful.
City residents have begun the process to rechristen the plaza after local photographer/civil right activist David Johnson which is a worthy cause. The Board of Supervisors signed onto a resolution in July to support renaming the plaza.
Phelan Avenue wraps around City College’s west and north side. Most of the students probably never stop and think about whom the avenue is named after but if they knew in whose honor it’s named after they would be revolted. James D. Phelan was the United States Senator from California from 1915 until 1921 whose favorite topic to bring up to get votes was the supposed “Yellow Peril”.
Phelan was especially prejudiced against the Japanese and campaigned on the slogan “Keep California White”. He lobbied hard to restrict immigration from Japan and other Asian countries and was instrumental in passing the California Alien Land Law of 1913 which prohibited Asians in California from owning or holding long-term leases on farming land. Before that he was on the committee that was tasked with rebuilding San Francisco after the 1906 Earthquake which advocated for the expulsion of the Chinese from Chinatown and force them to move to the area that is now Hunter’s Point.
Both of those locations should be renamed immediately. Renaming Justin Herman plaza after a noted photographer/civil rights activists David Johnson is completely appropriate. Herman does not deserve to have such a prominent place, let alone anywhere, named after him. To this day San Francisco is losing black residents and to the ones that stay Justin Herman plaza is a slap to their face.
Phelan Ave. should be renamed for a noted Asian civils rights activists, especially one with roots in San Francisco. San Francisco is 33.3% Asian as of the 2010 census and to have a street named after a politician who was obsessed with the “Yellow Peril” is just plain wrong. The City should follow in the footsteps of the University of San Francisco which this past spring renamed a dorm that Phelan’s name used to adorn. Taking his name off of the avenue and replacing it with someone like Yuji Ichioka or Nellie Wong, two famous San Francisco Asian rights activists, would be a great first step in beginning the healing process.
San Francisco and especially City College are diverse places where people of every background should feel welcome. Having things named after bigoted and divisive historical figures like Herman and Phelan is unacceptable. If we truly want to be the beacon of equality that we view ourselves as then we need to rename those right away.