The other day I was casually doomscrolling Facebook when my thumb landed on a New Yorker article about the San Francisco Board of Education renaming 44 public schools that honor historical figures with ties to slavery, racism, oppression or the subjugation of human beings.
The article includes an interview with the president of the board, Gabriela Lopez, who defends the decision by emphasizing that the list of schools is merely a work in progress and their main objective is to create an open dialogue about the complicated history of the U.S. Her delivery was muddled, though. Any valid point she made was lost in a word salad of regurgitated sound bites and the critical tone of the interviewer, whose disdain for the panel that selected the problematic names, which did not include a historian or anyone to provide accurate research, was palpable throughout the article.
Since the Board of Education still hasn’t determined when kids will be able to return to classes, it’s hard not to agree with detractors that the announcement comes off as a tone-deaf display of extreme cancel culture.
When the story first came out at the end of January, it set off a firestorm of vitriol on Facebook groups devoted to San Francisco, where members, outraged over the proposed changes, called it an attack on the history of The City, as well as their personal histories.
While there has been no discussion on whether the streets that commemorate these newly vilified figures will also be renamed, it makes you wonder, what good is changing the names on schools when the offensive nomenclatures are still being advertised on street signs all over The City?
On streets like Lincoln Way, that runs along the park from Arguello to the Great Highway. Or Webster Street, which stretches halfway across The City from The Mint to the Marina. Washington would have to go too. Not to mention all the other streets whose namesakes are guilty of oppression. Of course, Jackson Street would have to be at the top of the list.
This wouldn’t be the first time San Francisco went through a major name change.
In 1909, a panel was assembled to deal with the confusing street names that were hastily conceived during the boom years that followed the Gold Rush as The City grew faster than they could think of what to name all the new thoroughfares.
Which is how San Francisco ended up with three sets of numbered streets.
The people of San Francisco vehemently protested the suggested changes.
Residents in the Richmond and Sunset districts were especially outraged to have their streets named after Spanish generals and explorers. They argued that it would lead to the areas being referred to as “Spanish Town.” Since the Spanish-American war had just ended a decade earlier, with the U.S. victory memorialized in the center of Union Square by the Dewey Monument, it only makes sense that they wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with Spain.
In the burgeoning southern part of The City, local officials fought tooth and nail to ensure the names aligned with their Christianity and Irish heritage, rejecting any name that didn’t meet their criteria.
Eventually, compromises were reached, and the streets were given names they considered respectable and honorable. For the time period.
Since then, our criteria for what’s respectable and honorable has changed.
The history of San Francisco is one of constant transformation from its humble origins as Yerba Buena to a boom town during the Gold Rush to a pile of rubble to the financial center of the West and a glistening metropolis admired worldwide.
Along the way, names have come and gone. Whether on buildings, bridges or streets. Some born out of prejudice. Like in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1907 when Japan Street in the Excelsior was changed to Avalon Avenue. Around the same time, China Street had been renamed to avoid negative attitudes of the time.
Recently, Phelan Avenue became Frida Kahlo Way. Before that, Justin Herman Plaza was renamed Embarcadero Plaza.
In the 1990s, Army Street was widened and rechristened Cesar Chavez, in honor of the civil rights leader and the changing demographics in the Mission.
Change is usually met with resistance. But perhaps with an open dialogue, compromises can be reached again this time. Maybe they’ll even that satisfy a diverse population like that of San Francisco.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver, currently on hiatus due to COVID restrictions.