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Another petition aims to rename Justin Herman Plaza yet again

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Fillmore photographer David Johnson’s name is being tossed around as a possible replacement

The twisted duct fountain at Justin Herman Plaza. Photo by Michael Warwick

San Francisco City Hall finally took a concrete step toward changing the name of the Embarcadero’s Justin Herman Plaza in late July when the entire Board of Supervisors signed onto a resolution asking the Recreation and Parks Department to rechristen the space.

The resolution echoed familiar criticisms that Herman’s work as Director of Redevelopment in the mid-20th century displaced thousands of mostly poor and black San Franciscans. And that a plaza in his honor doesn’t do justice to the city’s sensibilities.

The legislation reads in part:

In 1970, Herman said “This land is too valuable to permit poor people to park on it”; to give credibility to this “urban renewal” project that sought to buy up buildings and evict people who were poor, old, black and brown.

[...] If the plaza on The Embarcadero be named for a honored resident, that this person should embody San Francisco values of equity, inclusion and forward thinking.

Courtesy Rec & Park

That Herman quote is sometimes cited in reference to the destruction of Manilatown (which actually happened years after his death), although the original attribution seems to be a comment talking about SoMa and Yerba Buena.

In any case, the supervisors suggest simply calling the space “Embarcadero Plaza” until the city settles on a better name. Previously, an oft-cited petition suggested renaming the plaza for poet Maya Angelou.

A later petition, however, floats a different name: local photographer David Johnson, noted for his work during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as well as his many photographs of the Fillmore neighborhood before redevelopment destroyed it.

The petition, authored by retired UC Medical Center employee Barbara Thompson, calls Johnson a “cultural icon” and notes that he’s still an “active civil rights personality” at the age of 91.

Johnson’s website says of his work:

Included in Johnson’s artistic vision was his desire to depict people positively in the presence of discrimination, thus capturing the emotions of the Civil Rights movement. His most published works are his images of ordinary African Americans, children and adults, going about the mundane routines, rites and rituals.

After about two months the petition is still 47 names short of its goal of 500. There’s no indication what city honchos might prefer as a plaza name—or indeed, if the renaming actually will take place.

Largely unmentioned in all of this talk about the plaza is the plaza space itself. For the curious, an exhibition of the works of its designer, Lawrence Halprin, has been on display at the Palace of Fine Arts since May and is set to close September 4.

Halprin, it turns out, also pitched in designs for Ghiradelli Square, Levi’s Plaza, United Nations Plaza (he loved those red bricks, it seems), and perhaps most importantly Stern Grove. Given all that, naming something after him might be in order one of these days.