San Franciscans liked Willie Brown enough to vote him into the mayor’s office twice. But more than four dozen interviews in the Mission suggest that naming the western span of the Bay Bridge after Brown might be overextending the public’s good will.
“Why should we name the bridge after him?” said Bay Blend Coffee and Tea owner Nick Heydaria, 55. “They should call it ‘The People’s Bridge.’ It’s our bridge. Our taxes.”
While the state Senate is poised to approve a measure renaming the bridge as early as today, roughly half of the 57 people Mission Local interviewed over the last two days thought it was a bad idea, some suggested alternatives to Brown and others felt that regardless of what happened, the only name that would endure was “The Bay Bridge.”
Some, like 29-year-old Matthew Robinson, thought Brown lacked the stature for such an honor. “Willie Brown is no Martin Luther King,” Robinson said.
Miguel Federico had similar apprehensions: “He’s not like George Washington. What heroic thing has he done?”
The growing chorus of opposition, which includes Governor Jerry Brown and several newspaper editorial boards (including Willie Brown’s own editors at the San Francisco Chronicle), may not be enough to persuade legislators. Last month, the California State Assembly unanimously passed the resolution to rename the span in Brown’s honor.
But if that vote were taken outside of the Assembly rooms that Brown dominated for years, the outcome would be far from assured. Of the 57 people interviewed, only a dozen — 21 percent — were in favor of the proposal, and their responses failed to match the fervor of those on the opposing side.
“I support it,” said 60-year-old SFMTA employee Ozzy Lugo. “[Brown] gave minorities like myself jobs. Still, it’s always been known as ‘The Bay Bridge’ for the last 70-odd years.”
Lugo’s SFMTA colleague, Rey Galarce, was representative of many of those in favor of the proposal, who pointed to Brown’s prowess as a politician as a reason for their support. “Willie Brown’s name is synonymous with San Francisco and the state,” Galarce, 55, said. “It’s a political town and he knows how to get things done, like building the stadium. He’s got clout.”
Louis A., a docent at the Asian Art Museum downtown, who declined to give her last name, was perhaps Brown’s strongest ally. Brown, said the 20-year Mission resident, “was very important in not just getting us into our building, but during the financial problems a few years ago, he was very instrumental in making sure we were properly funded.”
But, for the most part, those interviewed were decidedly negative.
“Ugh. I can’t think of a worse candidate; he hasn’t done anything for the people of San Francisco,” said 60-year-old Kathleen Gross at 21st and Folsom streets.
And there was no generation gap. “This is a terrible idea,” said 29-year-old Dan Weiss as he stood on Valencia outside of Dog Eared Books.
Some Mission residents remembered the 1995 debate about changing Army Street to honor Cesar Chavez. The labor organizer and United Farm Workers’ founder, “touched more people,” said Cecilia Rispoli, a retiree who lives near Cesar Chavez.
Taxi driver Dean Hall called the Army-to-Cesar Chavez change “appropriate” because of Chavez’s ties to farm workers, a largely Hispanic constituency that’s reflective of the Mission. In his view, Brown is less deserving. “He’s not that important and he has kind of a sleazy reputation,” said Hall, 66.
Others took issue with renaming the bridge at all.
“What’s wrong with calling it ‘The Western Span of the Bay Bridge?’” said Bayan Jamay, 70. “I’m sick of everyone naming things. Next thing you know, it’s not even going to be called San Francisco anymore.”
In addition to those who disapproved of the measure, another group that outnumbered supporters was the nearly 30 percent who were indifferent or offered other suggestions. The latter included everyone from 1960’s radical political activist Angela Davis, to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, to former president and California governor Ronald Reagan.
But the alternative who received the most mentions was Emperor Norton, the late 19th-century San Francisco eccentric who, by
most accounts, was the first person to propose a bridge linking the city and East Bay. At press time, an online petition to rename the entire bridge in his honor had garnered more than 3,800 votes. Brown himself has come out publicly in favor of this option.
As unconventional a historical figure as Norton is, his legacy — unlike Brown’s — has been sealed by death. For some people, the idea of naming a structure after any living person was cause for concern.
“You should never name things after people who are still alive,” said Luis, who declined to give his last name, an employee at a coffee shop at the corner of Guerrero and 24th Street. “It brings bad luck. What if this guy goes crazy tomorrow and kills his grandchildren?”
It was also once a cause for concern for the Legislature, which has adopted policies in both the Assembly and Senate’s transportation committees that list rules for naming highways and structures after people. One rule that’s been broken in the proposed bridge renaming: the person being honored isn’t dead.
Another rule that will be broken should the measure pass: the renaming should be supported by community consensus.