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SF removes Justin Herman’s name from prominent public plaza

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Fountains flow at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco on Tuesday, Sept.19, 2017. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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This time it’s official: Don’t call it Justin Herman Plaza anymore.

It’s now the Embarcadero Plaza after the Recreation and Park Commission voted 4-to-2 Thursday to strip Justin Herman’s name off the plaza, which is at the foot of Market Street.

The commission had voted last month on the name removal, but the vote was taken incorrectly since one member’s vote was counted even though they were absent, which isn’t legal.

SEE RELATED: Renaming Justin Herman Plaza part of effort to correct decades of community damage

At Thursday’s re-do there were some noticeable differences. Rec and Park Commissioner Larry Mazzola, Jr., who had voted for the name removal last month, was absent from the meeting.

And Rec and Park Commissioner Kat Anderson, who is running in the District 2 race for a seat on the Board of Supervisors next year, switched her opposition vote from last month.

“I’ve gone through a month-long discernment on this issue,” Anderson said, noting that she has had further discussions with those supporting a name change, which persuaded her to vote in support this time.

Rec and Park commissioners Allen Low, Eric McDonnell and Tom Harrison joined Anderson to support the name removal. Commissioners Mark Buell and Gloria Bonilla opposed the name change.

The vote comes as community leaders and elected officials across the nation have considered removing names and monuments honoring the Confederacy in an effort to combat racism, though the movement extends beyond the Confederacy.

Last year, Matt Haney, then school board president and a current District 6 Board of Supervisors candidate, proposed renaming George Washington High School because Washington was a slave owner.

The Arts Commission voted in October to consider removing the 1894 Pioneer Monument located outside of the Main Public Library on Fulton Street. The work includes three statues, called the “Early Days,” depicting a Native American, a mission padre and a vaquero representing a period of California history “from a Euro-American point of view,” according to Arts Commission documents.

For years, the depiction of the Native American, who is on the ground before a towering mission padre, was criticized by Native American residents “as a symbolization of the degradation and genocide of Native Americans.”

Herman was executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and oversaw “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” projects in the Western Addition during his tenure from 1959 to 1971, according to a resolution introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin and approved unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors in September urging the name removal.

“In 1970, Herman said, ‘This land is too valuable to permit poor people to park on it,’ to give credibility to this ‘urban renewal’ project that sought to buy up buildings and evict people who were poor, old, black and brown,” the resolution reads.

Some opposed the name removal, arguing that Herman was being unfairly demonized and blamed for redevelopment when in fact the agency’s plans were supported by the mayors and Board of Supervisors at that time. They also argued it overlooked his positive contributions to The City.

Last month, Buell, who was hired by Herman as his personal assistant in 1969 and opposed the name removal, listed some of Herman’s accomplishments he should be praised for, such as support of hiring locally and requiring large developers to contribute to public art and overseeing the construction of thousands of units of affordable housing.

While the name removal is symbolic, The City continues to try and right the wrongs of those who were pushed out of the Fillmore and Bayview during the redevelopment era. These residents are entitled to certificates of preference, giving them a priority in housing lotteries to move into below market rate homes.

The next step for the Embarcadero Plaza is to decide who to the name it after. There are a number of suggestions.

One San Rafael resident wrote to the board suggesting renaming the plaza after Philip Alexander Bell, a black editor and journalist who moved to San Francisco in 1860 where he co-edited the black newspaper The Pacific Appeal, and later founded and edited The San Francisco Elevator.

Others have launched a petition to name the plaza after black photographer David Johnson, who documented the Fillmore prior to the redevelopment era in the 1940s and 1950s.

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