After a public vote that included City College of San Francisco and the surrounding neighborhood, Phelan Avenue’s contentious name will be replaced with that of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

The name change is an effort to strip away the legacy of former San Francisco Mayor James Duval Phelan from street signs in the area. Apart from his generous contribution to the arts, Phelan is remembered for anti-immigrant policies and racist election slogans in the early 1900s.

“It is always the right day to correct history,” said City College Chancellor Mark Rocha at a press conference held about the voting results Wednesday at City College’s Ocean Campus at 50 Phelan Ave. He added that Kahlo was a “pioneering feminist artist” who posed questions on issues of race, class, gender and social justice “way before it was common.”

SEE RELATED: Phelan Avenue poised to lose name over racist legacy

The proposed name change will head to the Board of Supervisors for approval this month. It will also need to run by various city departments, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the Department of Public Works, according to District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee, whose office spearheaded the voting process.

“It may take up to nine months to make it happen,” Yee told the San Francisco Examiner.

During a nearly two-week voting period that started Feb. 24, community members had the opportunity to choose from a total of five new names selected by the Phelan Renaming Committee, made up of neighborhood and City College representatives. They ultimately settled on “Frida Kahlo Way,” according to Yee.

Yee said that voter participation for the renaming effort was “not as high as I would have liked it” — some 30 people voted in an online process.

Other stakeholders included Archbishop Riordan High School and City College. Both institutions are located on Phelan Avenue, which runs for about four blocks from Ocean Avenue to Flood Avenue.

In February, the City College Board of Trustees passed a resolution in favor of renaming the street after Frida Kahlo. The college board’s input was counted as “a block of votes” for the entire school, said Yee.

According to Yee’s aide, Jarlene Choy, votes by Phelan Avenue residents carried the same weight as a single vote by City College at 40 percent of all votes. Votes by other residents in the area and by Riordan High School each counted as 10 percent of the total votes.

However according to Yee, Riordon did not place a vote.

A campaign to rename Phelan Avenue as Frida Kahlo Way dates back some three years at City College. Students and faculty there began seriously researching the name-changing process last spring, and their initiative coincided with efforts launched by Yee to bring a proposal before The City’s board of supervisors, he said.

“CCSF wanted [Frida Kahlo Way] from the beginning and I said ‘Time out, give other people a chance,’” he said. “We allowed that to happen.”

But the democratic process did not appease some Phelan Avenue residents, who said the name change would force them to navigate complicated city processes and paperwork.

“There’s always the issue that it is inconvenient for people to change their addresses,” said Yee. “I assured neighbors that this is not going to happen overnight.”

If approved by the Board of Supervisors, the street will be marked by both names for a period of five years to allow for transition, he said.

Yee said that he felt it was “time” for the name change.

“It’s really hard to defend the name when [the University of San Francisco] actually made a change in their building,” said Yee. Last Spring, student-led activism led to a name change of a building on the school’s campus that was also named after Phelan.

While Phelan Avenue was in fact named after Phelan’s father, banker and real estate investor James Phelan, Yee said that the association to his “racist son” was enough to warrant the name change.

A City College student representative on Wednesday echoed a need for the educational institution to align itself with a larger movement, both locally and nationally, to remove controversial memorials, symbols and namesakes.

“Phelan singled out certain races and honestly if I was there at that moment, he would single me out as well,” Tameem Tutakhil, president of the college’s Associated Student Council, who described himself as Middle Eastern.

For City College’s leadership, the street renaming appears to fit into a larger vision of transforming the college into an art and culture hub with the long planned construction of a $180 million Performing Arts and Education Center. Once built, the PAEC is poised to become the new home of the college’s coveted Diego Rivera “Pan American Unity” mural.

“Of course, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were married. So in a very real sense, these two people … are a part of the very DNA of our College and the city of San Francisco,” said Rocha.

Laura Waxmann
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Laura Waxmann

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