San Francisco moves to change name of a plaza

Justin Herman Plaza. Some San Francisco residents want to change its name.

Tourist area is named after a former city official who pushed blacks out of the city

By Frederick H. Lowe

SAN FRANCISCO — Aaron Peskin, a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, has introduced a resolution that if approved would rename Justin Herman Plaza because it honors a former city official who oversaw the bulldozing of a black neighborhood, forcing residents off their valuable land and out of the city.

Peskin’s proclamation urges the Recreation and Parks Commission to remove Herman’s name from the plaza, which is located at the Embarcadero and Market Street, and rename it Embarcadero Plaza until commission members can agree on naming it after a more “a suitable honoree.” If everything goes smoothly, the plaza should have a new name by late September or early October.

San Francisco’s black population is one of the smallest of any major U.S. city. In 1990, 78,931 African Americans lived in the City by the Bay, reported the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2010, the black population had declined to 50, 768, a 35.7 percent drop. Blacks now comprise just 6.3 percent of the city’s population of 805,235.

There are many reasons for the San Francisco’s declining black population. One reason is that San Francisco is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States, largely because of its high housing costs.

Herman, who was executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority from 1959 to 1971 when he died of a heart attack, pushed black families out of the city.

He oversaw the razing of the Western Addition, a black neighborhood that included Fillmore Street, often referred to as the “Harlem of the West” because it was home to jazz clubs that featured the genre’s greatest performers of the era, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and others.  In 2006, Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts published a colorful history of the area, titled “Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era.”

Aaron Peskin, a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors

According to Peskin’s resolution, Herman oversaw the second phase of the redevelopment of the Western Addition that displaced 4,000 residents, small businesses and bull-dozed 60 square blocks in the city.

In 1970, Herman was quoted as saying “the land was too valuable to permit poor people to park on it.”

Peskin told the San Francisco Chronicle that Herman’s tenure at the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency “personified a dark chapter in the city’s history.”

African Americans have lived in San Francisco since the Gold Rush of 1849, but the greatest growth of the black population occurred during World War II, when black men and women, mostly from Texas and Louisiana, were recruited to work at Bay area shipyards.

To support and justify his efforts, Herman used the California Redevelopment Act of 1945 that allowed cities and counties to create redevelopment areas to combat “urban blight,” defined by residents’ income, dilapidated buildings and the size of the non-white population.

“To combat urban blight, the redevelopment agencies promoted urban renewal which assumed that the method to improve a neighborhood was to destroy it and accumulated properties through eminent domain. These misguided development projects, referred to as slum removal, did not recognize and value the existing vibrant neighborhoods—mostly low-income–and of people of color being destroyed,” Peskin wrote in his resolution.

Herman and other city officials called it urban renewal. Blacks, however, labeled it “Negro Removal.”

Poet Maya Angelou’s name has been suggested for the plaza

In the 1963 documentary film “Take This Hammer,” novelist James Baldwin visited San Francisco and interviewed angry black people about their disappearing neighborhoods.

All 10 of Peskin’s colleagues co-sponsored the resolution to rename the plaza.

Supporters of the name change have suggested that the plaza should be named after poet Maya Angelou  or David Johnson, a local photographer who took black and white photos of the Fillmore District before it was bulldozed.

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