San Francisco Street Name Saga: From Racist Connotations to Frida Kahlo

"This is a whole movement. It is a response to an anti-immigrant time,” says Leslie Simon, who pushed for the change

A San Francisco street named for a man whose son almost a century ago campaigned to "keep California white" could soon be changed to honor one of the most famous Latina artists who ever lived.

Phelan Avenue, a four-block street that runs through one of the campuses of the City College of San Francisco, is likely to be named after Mexican artist and activist Frida Kahlo following a community-led effort to acknowledge the racist connotations of the street's name. 

“This is a whole movement. It is a response to an anti-immigrant time,” said Leslie Simon, an interdisciplinary instructor at CCSF who led the resolution to rename the avenue where the college has its main address.

Phelan Avenue was named for 19th-century banker James Phelan, but Simon said his son, former San Francisco mayor and one-term U.S. Senator James D. Phelan, disgraced the family name with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Phelan ran a “save our state from oriental aggression” senate re-election campaign in the 1920s, according to a campaign poster cited by Curbed San Francisco. The poster also used the phrase "keep California white."

Phelan lost his bid for re-election.

Simon said that Phelan’s “xenophobic” message “reflects the politics of the time” and that it's time for the figures that we give honorary status should reflect the politics of the time.

Her sentiment parallels debates going on in the rest of California and across the country over whether streets, schools and monuments should continue to stand if they reflect discriminatory and offensive attitudes of the past. Many cities took down monuments that honored Confederate soldiers after violence broke out at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.

“The national political climate has created more attention, but it did not get me motivated to do this,” said city and county Supervisor Norman Yee, who has also championed the name change. “It is now easier for people to understand why we are doing this.

CCSF’s Board of Trustees said in February, when it first voted on the change, that removing the name from the city's heritage is a way to stand up against these times of “heightened xenophobia and racism.”

The school is already undergoing a wider transformation.

Phelan Avenue is the main street of the Ocean campus of City College (Simon said it used to be referred to as the Phelan campus) and the school plans to have its new Performing Arts and Educational Center adjacent to the street. The building, according to the school, will be the home to Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s "Pan American Unity Mural."

“Renaming Phelan Avenue Frida Kahlo Way not only honors an internationally renowned woman artist of color,” said the school board's resolution, “but also will call attention to the bond between the great muralist and the great painter when tour guides say ‘Take Frida Kahlo Way to the Diego Rivera mural.'”

Simon said that Kahlo “is a great symbol of rebirth." Her life and legacy would help bring up the student body’s morale after the CCSF’s accreditation was recently fully restored.

“This is symbolic of our regrowth,” she added.

The name change was the subject of a series of votes starting in February, when the CCSF board resolved to change the street's name to Frida Kahlo Way. 

But they don't have the power to change street names; the city does. So Yee put together a committee made up of multiple community constituencies to come to a democratic agreement on the new name. 

Residents of Phelan Avenue and one business located there voted throughout March on five possible names for the street, including Friday Kahlo Way, though the current name wasn't an option. The final results were released on Wednesday, with Frida Kahlo Way coming out on top. 

However, Simon said there was some resistance among the street's residents about swapping the name. She said that while the student body and “their representatives are very excited about it,” residents of Phelan Avenue thought it was unnecessary to change their addresses. 

“I went door to door … and they basically say, ‘I don’t want to change the name,’” Simon said. She added that some residents seemed less resistant when she explained to them that they would have about five years to get the paperwork done.

A high school and a kindergarten are located on the street. They didn't respond to requests for comment. 

The County board's vote to change the name has yet to be scheduled. It could take up to a year to see the Frida Kahlo Way street sign erected, Yee said.

Four other names were considered for the street along with Kahlo's: Muwekma Ohlone, a tribe comprised of all of the known surviving American Indian lineages aboriginal to the San Francisco Bay Region; African-American dancer and writer Thelma Johnson Streat; Chinese-American historian and community leader Him Mark Lai and freedom, as in the American value.

Yee added Lai's name because he was born to Chinese parents in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the same neighborhood in which Phelan used slurs to campaign to expel Chinese Americans after the earthquake of 1906.

“It’s symbolic to at least have the name there,” Yee said. “It’s a step toward educating people about the accomplishments of the people of the Asian American community."

Contact Us