Tag Archives: Mission

Changing Place Names to Change Historical Memory

Oakland-based graphic designer Kenji Liu has recently embarked on a project that puts him in a long line of artists and polititians who have changed place names in San Francisco. His Decolonized Area Rapid Transit (DART) map is based on the official San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station map. Liu has substituted the names of counties, bridges, transit stations and natural features that appear on the BART map with the names of local Native people and progressive political activists. In doing so, Liu has provided a vivid demonstration of the potential for using place names to invoke or erase local history. That same potential has also been revealed in battles over re-naming that have occurred repeatedly in San Francisco.

In the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, thousands of San Franciscans lost their homes and began a process of re-settling the city in new patterns of density and demographics. Three years after the disaster, a commission of the Board of Supervisors convened to address those population shifts by updating the names of the city’s streets and reducing the confusion of new place names. Many of the changes – such as eliminating the multiple use of the same name for different streets – provoked little or no controversy. However, upon proposing renaming streets of the Richmond and Sunset districts with names drawn from California’s Spanish past, some residents of those neighborhoods protested vociferiously. They denounced the prospect of becoming San Francisco’s “Spanish Town” so soon after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American war. While some concessions to residents were made by the Board of Supervisors, the use of Spanish names (such as Anza, Balboa, Cabrillo, Arguello, and Ortega) was nevertheless implemented for many of the streets.

Editorial, San Francisco Call, November 24, 1909, page 6.

Other street name changes have been less ambitious than those carried out by the 1909 commission. In 1988, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti successfully petitioned the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to change the names of twelve streets to commemorate local writers and artists. The new names included Jack Kerouac Alley, Isadora Duncan Alley, Dashiell Hammett Street, and Via Bufano.

Nick Jaina band performing in Jack Kerouac Alley. 2008 photo by Chantel Williams.

While Ferlinghetti’s changes highlighted the city’s artistic past, other San Francisco streets have been re-named to highlight the city’s political past. The Board of Supervisors voted in 1985 to change the name of Brenham Place, on the west side of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco Chinatown, to Walter U. Lum Place, in recognition of the Chinese American journalist, educator and civil rights activist. Another civil rights activist was acknowledged when the block of Polk Street in front of City Hall was renamed Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place in 1999 in honor the local African American publisher and physician. Similar changes have met with resistance, however.  When the Board of Supervisors changed the name of Army Street to César Chávez Street in 1995, some white residents of the street organized a citywide ballot proposition to reverse the change. Their efforts were defeated, and the street continues to be named after the famed Mexican American labor organizer.

Intersection of César Chávez Street and Mission Street. 2008 photo by Freya Gefn.

In addition to streets, the names of neighborhoods have also been the subject of proposed changes. In some cases, the proposals are perhaps only partly serious. JohnnyO, writer of the local blog Burrito Justice, has proposed the name La Lengua (Spanish for “the Tongue”) for a portion of the Mission District. In part, his writing about La Lengua helps to highlight the work of the San Francisco Association of Realtors to continually change neighborhood names in the hopes of increasing sales. Reverend Malcolm Byrd of the First A.M.E. Zion Church has addressed this issue in more earnest terms when he has decried realtors’ naming a portion of the Western Addition neighborhood “NOPA,” or “North of the Panhandle,” in an effort to erase the area’s African American history and population and make potential home sales more appealing to white buyers.

The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A.) also proposed a change of name of a San Francisco neighborhood when it lobbied Mayor Ed Lee in 2011 to change “The Tenderloin” to “The Tempeh District.” P.E.T.A. argued that the current name “echoes the violence and cruelty of the meat industry” and was inappropriate in a city with “some of the best vegan cuisine in the world.” The proposal met with some incredulity and was not pursued by either Mayor Lee or Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes the Tenderloin. As historian Peter Field notes on his walking tour, the name “Tenderloin” emerged in the nineteenth century out of the neighborhood’s role as a vice district. To change the name to “Tempeh” would risk losing a marker of that history.

Whether proposed name changes have been intended as official city policy (such as the work of the 1909 commission), or conspicuously unofficial (such as Kenji Liu’s DART map), or somewhere in between (such as the work of the San Francisco Association of Realtors), each example highlights the ways in which place names can function to highlight or obscure the site-specific history of San Francisco.

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San Francisco Palimpsest: Seals Stadium

Second Base, in Starbucks; 2010 photo by Todd Lappin

For scribes in medieval Europe, parchment on which writing appeared was sometimes scraped clean to create a new writing surface. Not infrequently, however, the old writing continued to show through, resulting in a palimpsest – i.e., layers of overlapping writing that suggested a parchment’s  history of uses.

Urban environments can be like palimpsests, in which the viewer can sometimes discern visual cues for successive uses of the same location over time.  And sometimes, a bit of historical investigation can help make the palimpsest of the San Francisco cityscape emerge.

Todd Lappin of Telstar Logistics recently collaborated with the blogger of Burrito Justice (who uses the moniker “johnny0”) to identify sites on Potrero Hill related to the location of the former Seals Stadium – San Francisco’s minor league baseball stadium from 1931 until 1959.

Lappin and johnny0 initially consulted Google Earth in an attempt to identify the exact location of the former baseball stadium.  Specifically, they used the historical map overlay – a feature introduced by Google in 2006 in which selected historical maps can be displayed, palimpsest-like, over contemporary maps. Currently, historical maps available for San Francisco on Google Earth include maps from 1946 – when Seals Stadium was still standing. Lappin and johnny0 discovered, however, that the historical overlay feature did not provide them with the degree of precision they wanted in superimposing 1946 map features over contemporary San Francisco.

This prompted them to turn to the fire insurance maps originally produced by the Sanborn Map Company of Pelham, New York. johnny0 had first encountered Sanborn maps of San Francisco on the SFGenealogy website.

Because Google Earth has a feature that allows users to overlay their own content on top of Google Earth maps, johnny0 and Lappin managed to superimpose a Sanborn map of Seals Stadium on top of a Google Earth map of Potrero Hill.

Satisfied with the precision of their palimpsest, Lappin went to Potrero Hill to mark the former locations of the four bases of Seals Stadium. Using blue tape, he marked the sites as they exist in the current shopping center on 16th Street: home base and first base inside an Office Depot store, and second and third base inside a Safeway grocery store.

Lappin and johnny0 posted reports of their investigation on the Burrito Justice and Laughing Squid blogs. As part of their posts, they included pictures they had taken of the current Potrero Hill site (including pictures of the sites identified as the former locations of the bases), as well as images taken from the online Historical Photograph Collection of the San Francisco History Center.

When I’d asked johnny0 and Lappin what had motivated their project, both of them spoke to the question of how changing urban landscapes impact the organization of community life. As Lapin put it,

“It’s fascinating to me to think that a place like that [Seals Stadium] can exist, but then disappear, leaving no trace.  It’s as if we didn’t have any ruins of Roman amphitheaters. That would be a tragedy, because it means we would never know about a telling aspect of their community life. The fact that so many people have no idea that there used to be a ballpark on the Safeway site feels much the same way to me. Only, it’s a sense of community life in the Mission that’s been lost.”

johnny0 pointed to future uses of this kind of work when he said,

“I think it’s extraordinarily valuable to have the historical perspective on how a neighborhood came to be… to enable the community to continue to grow.”

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