July 27, 2017 (sfgate.com)
For decades, Justin Herman Plaza has been a place where protesters gather to march up Market Street, an open space for skateboarders to grind and BMX riders to do flips, the site of mass pillow fights on Valentine’s Day and where Cal football fans rally before the Big Game against Stanford.
Now the plaza is subject of something less physical — its very name.
This week, Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a resolution recommending that the Recreation and Park Department strip mid-century redevelopment czar Justin Herman’s name from the plaza, temporarily renaming it Embarcadero Plaza while city policy makers come up with a new moniker.
Herman, who died of a heart attack in 1971, was a driving force behind the redevelopment that displaced thousands of residents — mainly African Americans and Japanese Americans — from 60 city blocks of the Western Addition and Fillmore district in the 1960s. His policies also moved mostly poor people from parts of Chinatown and South of Market.
Peskin said that Herman, who presided over the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1959 to 1971, “personified a dark chapter in modern San Francisco history.”
“This is a public admission that the city made mistakes” in its urban renewal policies of the 1950s and 1960s, Peskin said. “This is a cathartic and important first step in a two-step process.”
While the renaming seems to have broad political support — all 10 of Peskin’s colleagues co-sponsored the ordinance at Tuesday’s board meeting — the effort will inevitably prompt a re-examination not just of Herman’s role in the city history, but also a debate over whose name the space should bear.
“When you name a street or a monument or a park after a person, you are making a statement about what the community values,” said Rachel Brahinsky, a professor of urban studies at the University of San Francisco who has studied Herman’s legacy. “It’s a way of deciding which side of history the city wants to uphold.”
Even before Peskin’s resolution there were campaigns to rename the space after another person. One group wants to call it Maya Angelou Memorial Plaza, after the late poet who spent her formative years in San Francisco and was the city’s first African American street car conductor.
A competing faction wants it to be called David Johnson Plaza, after the 90-year-old African American photographer and community activist known for his black-and-white photographs that captured the Fillmore district before parts of it were bulldozed.
Ironically, one public official who will play a role in the renaming process worked as a special assistant to Herman in the late 1960s. Recreation and Park Commission President Mark Buell did stints in Herman’s office in 1966 and ’67 and again in 1970, after returning from the Vietnam War.
Buell would support renaming the plaza, even though he says Herman was a complicated leader who did a lot of good for the city. He said that removal of thousands of families and destruction of Victorian buildings in the Western Addition was wrong, even if many of the units were dilapidated and owned by predatory slumlords.
“I would be the first to say it was a flawed approach,” Buell said. “The flaw was the cultural disruption of the community, that part of the fabric of the city.”
He said that Herman was “a product of his time.” The urban renewal program Herman oversaw — similar to what Robert Moses carried out in New York — was driven by federal government programs offering two-thirds of the funding to rebuild “deteriorating communities.” That enticement led to the destruction and rebuilding of big chunks of many cities.
Buell also cited Herman’s positive accomplishments: He was ahead of his time in hiring a diverse workforce. He personally paid for Bayview leader Eloise Westbrook to go to Washington, D.C., to lobby for increased funds for public housing in a San Francisco that — even in the 1960s — was far too expensive for many people. He also battled hotel owners over the Yerba Buena redevelopment and pushed for integrated affordable housing in Diamond Heights.
Buell also said Herman wasn’t operating in isolation — he carried out his duties under three mayors, who had ideas of their own.
“There is a lot of blame to go around,” Buell said.
San Francisco resident Julie Mastrine, a performance artist who has spent a lot of time at Justin Herman Plaza, has gathered more than 11,000 signatures to rename the plaza. At first she said that she thought Angelou would be an appropriate namesake but became more of a Johnson partisan after learning more about the photographer.
Either way, she wants it changed. “It upset me that this place I enjoy so much is named after someone I don’t think should be honored in this way,” she said.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s wife, writer Jacqueline Sue, put together a package of information about her husband and has been lobbying members of the Board of Supervisors. Johnson, who was originally from Jacksonville, Fla., turns 91 next Thursday. He came to San Francisco after serving in the Navy to study with Ansel Adams and in 1971 sued the San Francisco school district over desegregation enforcement.
He said he gets a kick from the idea the plaza might one day bear his name.
“I think it’s a splendid idea,” Johnson said. “If it’s going to happen, it’s good that it’s happening now. Not next year or five years from now.
“I never met Mr. Herman,” Johnson said. “But I met a lot of the results of his work. Many of my friends lived in those fantastic, beautiful Victorians in the Fillmore. That entire area got wiped out.”
David Glassberg, a University of Massachusetts history professor, said naming public spaces after individuals “calls attention to places and keeps the memory alive of people who otherwise might be forgotten.”
At the same time, he said, there is a logic to naming parks or plaza after “something that makes it easier to find.”
“Embarcadero Plaza is not a bad name,” he said.