“Time to rename Justin Herman Plaza” … Chelsea Manning Plaza anyone?

By David Talbot May 2, 2017 (sfchronicle.com)

The Vaillancourt Fountain at Justin Herman Plaza. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle.  The Vaillancourt Fountain at Justin Herman Plaza.

Lots going on these summery spring days. (Who turned up the heat?) So today’s column will have to do some multitasking.

Item No. 1: After watching “Citizen Jane” — the excellent new documentary about writer-activist Jane Jacobs and her titanic struggles with New York urban planning czar Robert Moses, who preferred high-rises and highways to human beings — I got to thinking about San Francisco’s own Moses, Justin Herman.

Back in the late 1950s and ’60s, when Herman ruled over the city as executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, he was responsible for razing much of the Fillmore district and disappearing thousands of its black residents in the name of urban renewal — or “Negro removal,” as James Baldwin mordantly put it.

Once known as the Harlem of the West, with its vibrant nightlife and street scene, the Fillmore became a bleak moonscape of vacant lots and dreary street corners after Herman’s wrecking balls began their destructive work. Herman became so loathed in San Francisco’s eviscerated African American community that one irate citizen lunged at him during a heated Redevelopment Agency meeting and nearly throttled him. The powerful bureaucrat died shortly after of a heart attack in summer 1971.

Tom Fleming, editor of the Sun-Reporter, an African American newspaper, summed up Herman’s sorry legacy this way: “Negroes and the other victims of a low income (fate) generally regard him as the arch villain in the black depopulation of the city.”

As cities across America re-evaluate their histories, taking down monuments and renaming streets that celebrate dishonorable men, it’s time for San Francisco to do the same. We need to rename Justin Herman Plaza.

There have been earlier efforts to do this, but they went nowhere. In 2001, Supervisor Chris Daly introduced a resolution to strip Herman’s name from the plaza, but it never even got a board hearing. In 2015, Brett Harris-Anderson, who grew up in the Western Addition, and his wife, Michelle, started a petition to rename the plaza after the late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who was San Francisco’s first black female streetcar operator and began her performing career here. Unfortunately, their campaign didn’t catch fire, but it’s time to reignite it.

“I would welcome a public conversation about changing the name of Justin Herman Plaza,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin told me. The plaza is located in his district, so he’s the right one to start that conversation. “Herman’s name evokes memories of a dark time in San Francisco history that we’re still grappling with today. It’s a legacy of displacement, of removing people of color and low-income people. That’s not something we should be honoring.”

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