A Thorn in Their Side

Written by: 
Aubrey Freedman

The next time you head down to The Embarcadero you may notice that Justin Herman Plaza will now be called Embarcadero Plaza.  While San Francisco activists have no Confederate statutes to dismantle, the desire to “clean house” in a historical sense is sweeping the country, and San Francisco officials don’t want to be left in the dust.  In July Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a resolution proposing to temporarily rename the plaza, citing Herman’s role in the displacement of minority residents, until a new replacement name can be decided on.  The rest of the Board of Supervisors quickly supported the resolution by voting unanimously to rename the plaza.  The late poet Maya Angelou, who was the first black female streetcar operator in San Francisco, is the name mentioned most often as the likeliest candidate to have the plaza named after her.

Justin Herman certainly earned a place in San Francisco history, and it’s easy to see why current government officials are anxious to distance themselves from his legacy.  He was the person most responsible for the Western Addition redevelopment fiasco that decimated the predominately black neighborhood.  Herman was appointed Executive Director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in 1959 and stayed in that position until his death in 1971.  Herman had extensive experience working with the federal government and knew all the tricks to leverage more federal funding for redevelopment.  While the Fillmore was declared “blight” in 1948, and the first phase began in 1956, it was Justin Herman who really got the (wrecking) ball rolling in 1964.  He expanded the redevelopment area to 60 square blocks using the government’s power of eminent domain to purchase Victorian homes and buy out local businesses.  According to city records, 883 businesses and 4,729 households were forced out of the area, and 2,500 Victorian homes were bulldozed in one of the largest urban renewal projects in the western half of the United States.  Employees of the agency went door to door in the Western Addition and gave the head of each household a certificate of preference that stated they would be given preference for future housing built in the area.  However, in what reminds us of a similar travesty in the Kelo case in Connecticut 12 years ago, broken promises resulted in large patches of the Western Addition lying vacant for years and, in some cases, decades, so the certificates of preference became worthless.  The cost of all this turmoil:  $50 million.  And all this time Herman was building a little kingdom of his own at City Hall as the number of bureaucrats working for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency mushroomed from 60 before he took office to 462 after his death.  Is it any wonder that Herman has fallen from grace as we look back?

Unfortunately renaming the plaza will remove this piece of shameful San Francisco history from current and future generations’ opportunity to learn about the mistakes of the past.  With his name gone, there will be no reminder of the misery he created and why government shouldn’t be in the housing business in the first place.  Just because a piece of history is unsettling—even embarrassing—is that a good reason to pretend it didn’t happen?  Are today’s members of the Board of Supervisors learning from the mistakes of the past?  Judging from the number of schemes they support—from “affordable” housing to rent control to inclusionary housing requirements to zoning restrictions to a million and one developer requirements and fees—it looks like the current batch of supervisors is doing a better job of driving poor folks away from The City than Justin Herman ever did.  The African American community in particular has fared extremely poorly under current San Francisco housing policies, with the percentage of blacks in San Francisco dropping from 13.4% in 1970 to 6.5% in 2005 to 5% (or less) today.  Rather than passing symbolic resolutions trying to erase the memory of previous shameful governmental programs, the Board of Supervisors should recognize that “redevelopment” was nothing more than corruption, cronyism, and property rights abuse.  Another lesson to be gleamed from the entire program should be for residents to be wary of government promises to “be taken care of.”  Furthermore, one person alone could not have caused all this harm by himself, as there were plenty of other government officials who were also complicit in the whole misadventure.  Scapegoating serves no purpose and can never change the past.  Move on—and remember that past.