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Lawmakers consider taking racist ex-mayor’s family name off SF street

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Phelan Way may soon commemorate artist Frida Kahlo instead

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

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Land Use Committee will consider today whether or not to change the name of Phelan Avenue to Frida Kahlo Way, an attempt disassociate the city from the racist policies of 19th century mayor and senator James D. Phelan.

Phelan Avenue is not actually named for Mayor Phelan but rather for his father, James Phelan Senior, an immigrant banker, forty-niner, and real estate investor.

Even so, association with the Phelan family rubs people the wrong way, notably trustees at City College San Francisco (whose campus Phelan Avenue principally serves) and Supervisor Norman Yee, himself a former CCSF instructor.

The text of the committee resolution notes:

Phelan Ave was named in approximately 1906 after James Phelan, the father of James Duval Phelan. James Duval Phelan served as the Mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902 and [...] served as a U.S. Senator from 1915 to 1921.

Phelan supported racist, xenophobic and anti-immigration policie. Phelan supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924, which halted immigration from China and Japan to the United States.

Phelan ran unsuccessfully for a second term and during this senatorial campaign using anti-Asian rhetoric, such as “Keep California White” and “Save Our State from Oriental Aggression.”

The legislation also notes that the nearby CCSF Ocean Campus was once called the Phelan Campus but changed its name for precisely this same reason.

City Hall has attempted to change the street name before, most recently in 2000. The current bid came after a citizens’ committee, prompted by Yee, produced a recommendation in April that the city rename the street for 20th century artist Frida Kahlo instead.

If the committee approves the change, the full board follows suit, and the mayor (whoever that turns out to be) signs off, the switch would take more than five years, with signage indicating both the new and old names in place for the duration to prevent the confusion of a long-extant street name suddenly disappearing.

In a May letter to the Board of Supervisors, the Department of Public Works notes:

The fronting property owners along Phelan Ave were contacted and given the opportunity to comment on the proposed name change. Out of the 23 fronting property owners seven responded to our inquiry.

All seven responses were against the street name change. The objections to the name change were less than 50 percent of the fronting property owners, which allows Public Works to recommend moving forward with the proposed name change.

Kahlo in 1937.
Photo by Toni Frissell/Wikicommons