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San Francisco lawmaker moves to strip racist mayor’s name from street

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Onetime city leader made anti-immigrant and anti-Asian policies a centerpiece of his public life

CCSF’s Ocean campus.
Phelan Avenue chiefly services CCSF’s Ocean campus.
Photo by Shannon Badiee/Wikicommons

San Francisco supervisor Norman Yee thinks it’s time to rechristen Phelan Avenue, citing former mayor of San Francisco James D. Phelan’s anti-Asian politics during the early 20th century. But it turns out that the street in question is actually named for a different James Phelan, the father of the onetime mayor.

Phelan Avenue is a short roadway that runs north-south between Flood Avenue and Ocean Avenue, a few blocks west of Balboa Park. Neither the city’s largest nor most prominent thoroughfare, it’s the principle street servicing City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Avenue campus.

Supervisor Yee, whose district includes the Balboa Park and Ocean Avenue areas, explained to the San Francisco Examiner that having the Phelan name on a San Francisco street no longer seems appropriate.

Phelan, a native San Franciscan, served as mayor from 1897 to 1902 and went on to become the U.S. senator from California from 1915 to 1921. Phelan enjoyed a popular reputation during his own lifetime. (A 2017 op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News noted that Californians remembered Phelan for his dedication to the arts and philanthropy.)

Phelan Avenue in San Francisco. Image via Google Maps

He also made anti-immigrant and anti-Asian policies a centerpiece of his public life; in 1901, while still mayor, he penned a piece for the journal the North American Review titled “Why the Chinese Should Be Excluded”:

The Chinese, by putting a vastly inferior civilization in competition with our own, tend to destroy the population, on whom the perpetuity of free government depends.

Without homes and families; patronizing neither school, library, church nor theatre; lawbreakers, addicted to vicious habits; indifferent to sanitary regulations and breeding disease; taking no holidays, respecting no traditional anniversaries, but laboring incessantly, and subsisting on practically nothing for food and clothes, a condition to which they have been inured for centuries, they enter the lists against men who have been brought up by our civilization to family life and civic duty.

A campaign flier for Phelan’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate reelection bid.
Courtesy of MS&SB Collection

Note that Phelan Avenue is not named for James Phelan at all. Or rather, it’s named for a different James Phelan, the wealthy banker who was the racist mayor’s father. Himself an immigrant, the older Phelan came to the city in 1849, made a fortune in wheat and real estate, and founded the First National Bank of San Francisco.

Nevertheless, association with the onetime mayor—and the ease of confusing the two men—has generated criticism of the street name before. In 2000, former Supervisor Leslie Katz made an unsuccessful move to rename the street.

Yee has assembled a committee of neighborhood residents to come up with a new name, which he will submit to the Board of Supervisors in a few weeks.