Last week, Willie Brown pulled up to The Embarcadero near the western span of the Bay Bridge in a bike-drawn carriage holding a replica of a controversial piece of history.
“I was late because I forgot the goddamn sign,” he told The San Francisco Examiner, laughing. That sign was a smaller version of the two 6-by-2-foot green-and-white placards that read: “Willie L. Brown Jr. Bridge.”
But amid lighthearted jokes like that, Brown admitted that of the many honors he’s received in his storied career as a San Francisco mayor and California Assembly speaker, this is by far the biggest.
“I’ve never been recognized even close, in terms of importance and the symbolic part of it,” he said, making sure to reiterate that it was not his idea but that of the California chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“They didn’t tell me because I would have said, ‘Jerry will oppose it, it’s too controversial. Don’t do it. When I die you can do it,’” Brown said.
The Jerry he was referring to is Gov. Jerry Brown, who, among others, did oppose the renaming after Willie Brown.
“They went ahead and they did it anyway without my knowledge,” he said of the California NAACP. “And I got the call from the press asking me, ‘Are you engineering this thing of naming the bridge after you? The governor is opposed.’”
But Willie Brown appears to have no qualms with the fact that the California Senate approved the renaming, which becomes official today. And when national media asked him to compare the honor to the George Washington Bridge — the New York-New Jersey span that is the only one in U.S. more heavily trafficked than the Bay Bridge — Willie Brown said, “I then realized what an incredible thing this really is.
“This is extraordinary.”
The soon-to-be 80-year-old also said that Caltrans workers had gone to work on the placards before their bosses actually signed off on them, and presented the replica to him while he had lunch at Le Central restaurant late last month.
“They said, ‘We’re going to put them up but we recommend you keep them covered until noon on Tuesday, so that people won’t come looking for the sign,’” Willie Brown said. “And for fear that I might [uncover them], they wouldn’t tell me where. You know, it’s harder than hell to figure out on that damn bridge where the signs are!”
The sign on the upper deck heading west is positioned about 100 feet after vehicles emerge from the Yerba Buena Tunnel. On the lower deck, it’s just shy of the Sterling Street onramp. Both are on the right side of the roadway.
An unveiling ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. today on Treasure Island in which about 500 dignitaries — including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom but not Gov. Brown — are expected to attend.
Originally, the idea was to rename the entire Bay Bridge, both the eastern and western spans, after Willie Brown, said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. But state Assemblyman Isadore Hall, the Los Angeles Democrat who authored the renaming legislation, said just the western span would be enough, Huffman said.
“It was never just about [Willie] Brown. It was about black history and black people needing to be honored,” said Huffman, whose organization paid the $6,500 to create and install the two signs.
And although Willie Brown once proclaimed himself the “Ayatollah of the Assembly,” he brushed off any notion that such symbolism would be associated with his name on the western span.
“That was a throwaway funny line; it didn’t have anything to do with reality,” he said. “This is reality.”
Willie Lewis Brown Jr.
Born: March 20, 1934, in Mineola, Texas
Current residence: San Francisco
Political party: Democratic
41st mayor of San Francisco and city’s first black mayor: Jan. 8, 1996, to Jan. 8, 2004
58th speaker of the state Assembly: Dec. 2, 1980, to June 5, 1995 (under the current California term-limits law, no speaker will ever have a longer tenure)
State Assembly member:
District 13: 1992 to 1995
District 17: 1974 to 1992
District 18: 1965 to 1974