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New street name celebrated as a victory over city’s racist past

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Supervisor Norman Yee said not everyone was on board with renaming Phelan Avenue to Frida Kahlo Way. “The neighbors are still upset with me,” Yee told The Examiner. (Laura Waxmann/S.F. Examiner)

The street at the edge of City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus has carried the name Frida Kahlo Way since mid-November, but college and city leaders on Friday celebrated it as a victory in a larger movement to remove racist legacies off buildings and public spaces.

Formerly named after banker James Phelan, Phelan Avenue drew objections from the college community and Supervisor Norman Yee — who spearheaded the renaming effort — due to the anti-immigration policies of his son, former San Francisco Mayor James Duval Phelan.

“He ran his senatorial campaign on the theme ‘Keep California white’ and ‘Save our state from Oriental invasion’ — that was his platform,” said Yee, at a press conference held inside of City College’s Diego Riviera Theater, named after Kahlo’s husband.

Standing in front of Rivera’s Pan American Mural, which depicts Kahlo with paint brush and easel in hand, Yee was joined by City College leaders to memorialize a more than a year-long effort to replace Phelan’s name on street signs near the college with that of the Mexican painter.

While The City’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution backing the rechristening this summer, not everyone in the community was on board, admitted Yee.

“The neighbors are still upset with me,” Yee told the San Francisco Examiner. “But I hope that as time goes on they will embrace it.”

While some nearby residents may have been inconvenienced by the name change, college leaders insist names matter.

“To name this street in honor of Frida Kahlo is an act of self-respect and self-empowerment that lifts the street name out of the realm of politics and into the inspiring world of art,” City College Chancellor Mark Rocha said.

The younger Phelan served as San Francisco mayor from 1897 to 1902 and as a U.S. Senator from 1915 through 1921.

Phelan is remembered for supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, to end Chinese and Japanese immigration, as well as opposing interracial marriage.

In contrast, Kahlo — whether in her role as an artist, an activist, a feminist, a disabled woman of color or a queer icon — still serves as a role model for many long after her death in 1952.

“I also work at the queer resource center on campus, and she is a figure that many students who were taking art classes here were looking up to— seeing as she was a queer person of color and also an activist,” said Angelica Campos, Vice President of Associated Students. “Our modern society holds the value of a man’s name above renowned historical and powerful female figures.”

As an Chinese-American woman and leader of an educational institution that survived a recent accreditation crisis that nearly threatened to shut its doors, City College Trustee Ivy Lee said that the renaming was significant to her on “many levels”

“To me Frida Kahlo represents resilience because even with a broken body he spirit was never broken,” said Lee. “I think there is nothing that is a better example of this college and communities of color in this city than for Frida Kahlo to represent the same kind of resilience that City College has been through —We have been broken but we have come back and we have never given up.”

Yee said that the street’s renaming is in line with other efforts to turn a new page on historically racist leaders and legacies, including legislation by Board of Supervisors President Malia Cohen to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day and Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s resolution removing former redevelopment agency director Justin Herman’s name from a waterfront plaza last year.

“Since Trump has been elected his administration has been spewing racist speech and anti immigrant policies… That have led to increase of intolerance hate crimes and act of violence in immigrant communities,” said Yee. “As a response immigrant communities have mobilized to stand together even stronger today.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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