Phelan Avenue poised to lose name over racist legacy

The name of former San Francisco Mayor James Duval Phelan could soon be erased from street signs near City College of San Francisco as part of a movement to remove monuments to historic figures now considered racist.

Over the next two weeks, community members and stakeholders including City College will get a chance to vote on potential new names for Phelan Avenue as part of an effort spearheaded by Supervisor Norman Yee.

Yee said that he learned about the Phelan family legacy a few years ago, including the “anti-immigrant policies” of the younger Phelan. A patron of the arts and music and a former U.S. Senator, Phelan is also remembered for opposing Asian immigration and for using the slogan “Keep California White” during his senatorial re-election campaign.

SEE RELATED: USF drops former SF mayor’s name from dorms over racist views

The street, which runs along two blocks of the City College campus and into a residential neighborhood, is actually named after Phelan’s father, banker and real estate investor James Phelan. But city and college stakeholders seem to agree that the family tie is enough to warrant its removal.

Yee said he had been contemplating a name change for Phelan Avenue for some time before learning that City College had also taken up the issue. While honoring the college’s efforts, he worked to make the process more democratic by opening up the name selection to the entire neighborhood.

Once a final name is chosen, Yee will bring the issue before The City’s Board of Supervisors.

The City College board on Thursday voted in favor of naming the street “Frida Kahlo Way,” after the renowned Mexican artist. Kahlo is featured in the Pan American Unity mural, painted by her husband Diego Rivera, which is on display at the City College campus.

Other options chosen by a Phelan Renaming Committee, made up of neighborhood and City College representatives, including African American dancer and writer Thelma Johnson Streat; Chinese American historian and community activist Him Mark Lai; the indigenous Muwekma Ohlone tribe that settled in the region; or simply “Freedom.”

City College English professor Alisa Messer said that the college started seriously researching the name change sometime last Spring.

“At a time when the country is rethinking who deserves to have statues and parks named after them,” said Messer, having a “street that an institution like City College is on named after someone whose family left a legacy of racism, doesn’t reflect [our] values.”

SEE RELATED: SF removes Justin Herman’s name from prominent public plaza

Last Spring, student advocacy also lead to the renaming of a University of San Francisco building that bore Phelan’s name.

Before the name change moves forward, residents on the remaining blocks of Phelan Avenue as well representatives from the Archbishop Riordan High School, located across the street from the college, will be given a chance to weigh in.

Not everyone is happy with the proposed change.

Bonnie White, a resident of Phelan Avenue, said that she found out about the proposed name change in December after receiving a letter from Yee’s office. In January, she attended a community meeting to oppose what she was told was a “done deal.”

“There is not a person on the street who can tell you who Phelan was,” said White, who added that she opposed the name change because “it will be a huge mess.”

“We are going to have to notify everyone we know, and change everything on our trust, it’s going to be a big headache,” said White, adding that while she plans to participate in the voting process, the neighbors “will get to choose what name they want, not whether or not they want the change.”

SEE RELATED: Mayor Farrell calls for removal of ‘Early Days’ statue

Jarlene Choy, a legislative aide to Yee, said that the supervisor’s office will work with residents to help them “navigate the paperwork” process, and added that it could take up to a year for the name change to be finalized.
“They have plenty of time,” she said.

The proposed name change is part of a larger movement, both locally and nationally, to remove controversial memorials and symbols including Confederate monuments. In San Francisco, a public plaza once named after San Francisco Redevelopment Agency head Justin Herman, who is remembered for destructive redevelopment policies in the largely black Western Addition, was rebranded as Embarcadero Plaza last November.

San Francisco education leaders have also called for the renaming of public schools named after slave owners, and the City earlier this year replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in an effort to recognize violence and discrimination against the country’s Native peoples.

The City is also working toward the removal of a statue entitled “Early Days” in the Pioneer Monument at the Civic Center, which depicts a Native American on the ground with a priest and a vaquero, or cowboy, standing over him. The statue is viewed by many advocates as racist and demeaning.

Laura Waxmann

Laura Waxmann covers education and community news for the San Francisco Examiner. Reach her at (415) 359-2730 and Follow Laura on Twitter: @laura_waxee

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Laura Waxmann

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