San Francisco was once a labor town, where people like Harry Bridges went to war with the U.S. government and the captains of industry in order to fight for workers’ rights. In 1934, during the West Coast waterfront strike, police officers shot and killed two protesters at the corner of Steuart and Mission streets — two people who were simply asking for higher wages, fair working conditions and a better sense of equality. Some things don’t change.
I was thinking about this a few months ago as I stood in the hot sun in Justin Herman Plaza, just skipping distance from where those two strikers were killed. It was May Day, and the irony wasn’t lost on me that we were organizing a demonstration for the working people of the Bay Area, many of whom are people of color, while standing in a plaza named after the man who oversaw the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. The agency and its “redevelopment” forced thousands of working-class, mostly black San Franciscans out of their homes and businesses in the name of progress. Unfortunately, “progress” is almost always defined by those who stand to gain the most from it.
Time is funny like that. It sands down the sharp edges of history so that the past is bite-sized, precious and easy to digest. It numbs the meaning of historical events so completely that people don’t realize the statues, plaques and plazas they pass each day are celebrating battles they’ve lost.
Such is the case with Justin Herman Plaza. I’ve been to dozens of protests and demonstrations that either began or took place there, and all of them were advocating for things that Herman’s legacy stands against. I don’t recall if I learned about Herman in David Talbot’s “Season of the Witch” or Gary Kamiya’s “Cool Gray City of Love” or both. But as head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1959 until his death in 1971, Herman evicted 461 black-owned businesses and more than 4,000 black families, all in the name of “progress,” which, in this case, meant developing land “too valuable to permit poor people to park on it” and widening Geary Boulevard.
Considering I don’t recall which book I learned about Herman from, it’s obvious that I didn’t magically retain that quote or those statistics. The quote is something Herman said in 1970; it was used in a July 25 resolution by the Board of Supervisors asking Rec and Parks to rename the plaza. The numbers come from a petition started by Julie Mastrine to do the same. All of the supervisors signed the resolution, and at the time of writing this, the petition had 11,273 signatures.
If some southern cities are finally getting it together and taking down confederate flags and statues of confederate heroes, certainly San Francisco should be able to scrub a racist’s name off of a public plaza.
The question, of course, becomes: “Well, what should we rename it?”
Many have suggested Maya Angelou, who, besides being a poet and activist, was also San Francisco’s first black female streetcar driver. Others have suggested photographer David Johnson, Ansel Adams’ first black student, who lovingly documented the Fillmore District at its peak — just before Herman’s bulldozers moved in. (There’s currently a petition on Change.org to name the plaza after Johnson.)
The only place Herman’s name should be is at the bottom of a urinal in the Fillmore Center, but renaming the plaza won’t change what Herman did or bring back all those black families and business that were chased out using eminent domain.
Yes, change the name. It would be wonderful to honor Angelou or Johnson, but what’s more important is figuring out how to keep the few black families that are still in San Francisco here.
The 1970 census said San Francisco was 13.4 percent African-American. Today, it’s thought to be as low as 3 percent. The development happening in the Bayview-Hunters Point will likely make that number even lower. I’d like to know what the Board of Supervisors and the citizenry of San Francisco can do about that.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.