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Petition demands Justin Herman Plaza be renamed

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Herman’s hand flattening Fillmore haunts his legacy

Justin Herman Plaza with the Ferry Building clock tower in the background. Sue Stokes

A petition demanding that the city rename the Embarcadero’s Justin Herman Plaza picked up more than 9,500 signatures in the last two weeks, within striking distance of its 10,000 signature goal.

Petition author Julie Mastrine takes umbrage with a public space honoring Herman, the head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1959 until his death in 1971, because of his hand in flattening the Fillmore during the 1960s.

She writes:

He was responsible for bulldozing much of the historically Black neighborhood, the Fillmore District, causing mass displacement of thousands of Black residents.

Herman made sure hundreds of beautiful Victorian homes and businesses were demolished. To make way to widen Geary Blvd., he evicted 461 Black-owned businesses and over 4,000 Black families.

In his 1993 book City For Sale, urban planner Chester Hartman (a former faculty member of both UC Berkeley and Harvard) credits Herman for expanding the power and influence of the Redevelopment Agency, taking it from a small group of 60 city employees to a team of more than 460.

But Hartman also notes that revilement of Herman goes back even to the director’s own lifetime:

In the downtown high-rise office buildings, banks, and City Hall he was Saint Justin, while in the Western Addition housing projects and streets of the Mission barrio he was the white devil.

Thomas Fleming, editor of San Francisco’s Sun Reporter newspaper, called Herman the “arch-villain of black depopulation” in a 1965 article.

Indeed, even Herman himself warned in 1960 that "without adequate housing for the poor, critics will rightly condemn urban renewal as a land-grab for the rich and a heartless push-out for the poor and nonwhites."

But if that was something that kept him up at night, his actual redevelopment of the Fillmore did a remarkably poor job of accounting for it. San Francisco author Paul T. Miller wrote in his 2008 dissertation to Temple University:

According to the Redevelopment Agency's own statistics, 2,009 new housing units were 254 constructed in the [Fillmore], an area that formerly housed over 8,000 people. [...]

Herman admitted that of the 4,000 households displaced in 255 phase A-1, only one family moved back.

Note that of the thousands who signed Mastrine’s petition, only 172 are from San Francisco.

But Mastrine points out that San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin was the latest City Hall honcho to vouch for a rechristening, telling the San Francisco Chronicle in May, “I would welcome a public conversation about changing the name.”

The petition does not directly address what the new name of the plaza should be but does say, “Some have suggested renaming it after poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, San Francisco’s first black female streetcar operator.”