Goodbye Phelan Avenue, Hello Frida Kahlo Way

Pending board approval, a public vote will swap a racist legacy for an inclusive one.

A street sign for Phelan Avenue is shown at City College of San Francisco’s ocean campus on Tuesday, February 20th, 2018. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A street by the City College of San Francisco holding the name of a viciously anti-immigrant mayor from the early 1900s has been cast aside by a public vote in favor of Frida Kahlo Way.

As racist legacies are further scrutinized around the country, San Francisco has been looking at its own. Supervisor Norman Yee picked up on Phelan Avenue — technically named after former Mayor James Duval Phelan’s father — and set off the public process for a potential renaming of the street.

Frida Kahlo ended up on the shortlist of the Phelan Renaming Committee and garnered the most amount of votes, which Yee’s office announced on Wednesday. The City College Board of Trustees voted to rename it Frida Kahlo Way in February but city departments and the Board of Supervisors will take up the renaming in the coming months.

“Given the current Trump administration’s racist and bigoted rhetoric, it is more important than ever for San Francisco to continue to be an inclusive and tolerant community which respects all of our diverse ethnic communities,” Yee says in a statement. “As a community, we need to reckon with the racist legacy of our country’s past and rewrite our future.”

Without a doubt, Phelan contributed much to San Francisco and is considered one of its founding fathers as mayor from 1897-1902. But his infamous 1920 Senate reelection campaign and talk of “Yellow Peril” was merely rhetoric representing his deep anti-immigrant policies.

Phelan attempted to remove Chinese immigrants from present-day Chinatown as the city rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and prevent Japanese farmers from owning or leasing land long-term with the California Alien Land Law of 1913. He was also behind the Japanese Exclusion League of California and lobbied to ban new immigrants from Japan and East Asia through the Immigration Act of 1924.

Though it was roughly 100 years ago that Phelan led the anti-Asian racism charge, the history is still felt by some families today, like Yee’s.

“As a third-generation native San Franciscan and Chinese American, I remember the discrimination that my grandparents and parents faced as they struggled to build a new life here in America,” Yee says. “My father was a ‘paper son’ and I am old enough to remember the racism that I also personally experienced growing up here.”

Phelan Avenue runs through the outer edge of City College and Archbishop Riordan High School, which were stakeholders in the process. Yee previously said that his office would help assist residents through the address change, should the Board of Supervisors approve it.

The University of San Francisco also addressed the legacy in May by renaming Phelan Hall after Burl A. Toler, the first African American official in the National Football League. But the former mayor’s name is still honored with street names and libraries in California.

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