Justin Herman Plaza, located off the Embarcadero in front of the Ferry Building, is notable mostly for its dramatic, modernist fountain and the annual public Valentine’s Day pillow fight held there. Passing through the plaza, you might not guess it is the topic of a debate about history and housing in San Francisco. The time has come to change the name of Herman Plaza. To some San Franciscans, Herman’s name represents a painful time in history in which thousands of San Franciscans were evicted and displaced from their homes, and a thriving neighborhood was destroyed.
The plaza was named for Justin Herman, head of the San Francisco Redevelopment agency from 1959 to 1971, a government agency in charge of addressing urban issues. Herman’s redevelopment policies have had a significant impact in shaping modern San Francisco. Through redevelopment initiatives, Herman displaced thousands of majority black residents from the Fillmore neighborhood, a center of African-American culture in San Francisco. As more cities across the country examine public memorials to racist historic figures, San Francisco has similarly considered renaming the plaza. Last week, the SF Board of Supervisors voted on the issue, resulting in an inconclusive 3-3 tie. The decision will ultimately be up to the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.
Redevelopment policies became popular in the U.S. in the post-war period, branded as urban renewal. Seen as an antidote to rising urban decay, redevelopment often targeted low-income neighborhoods rife with social problems caused by a confluence of factors, including residential segregation. Rather than solving underlying social problems, public housing authorities and redevelopment agencies across the country opted to bulldoze low-income neighborhoods, displacing thousands. The former neighborhoods were often transformed into new apartment buildings or other types of more compact housing.
In San Francisco, the footprints of Herman and his predatory redevelopment agency are most commonly found downtown. Areas of SoMa, Mission Bay and South Beach were targeted by redevelopment. The agency evicted tenants, then razed housing in areas which were traditionally working class in order to build new developments, including Yerba Buena Gardens and the Moscone Center. In these areas, the city claimed property under eminent domain in order to redevelop it.
Herman’s legacy is most commonly known around the Fillmore. In the 1960s, the Redevelopment Agency set its destructive sights on the neighborhood, labeling it as a slum in need of revitalization. In reality, the Fillmore was a rich cultural center and home to many black San Franciscans, as well as a significant number of black-owned businesses. Most houses were San Francisco’s signature Victorians, ornate homes that would be valued in the millions today.
Despite fierce local opposition and a protracted court battle, Herman eventually gained approval for his plan to bulldoze the district and replace the existing housing stock with nondescript apartment buildings, many of which still exist in the Western Addition. This left around 4,000 black families without housing and destroyed 461 black-owned businesses. The Fillmore’s cultural heritage and the lives of thousands of black San Franciscans were altered forever. This outcome was a significant loss for the city as a whole.
City planner Chester Hartmann discusses Herman in his 1993 book City for Sale, writing “in the Western Addition housing projects and streets of the Mission barrio, he was the white devil.” Herman’s redevelopment initiatives often targeted areas populated by poor, non-white residents for displacement. Before the fierce opposition from the Fillmore redevelopment, Herman had intentions to redevelop the Mission and Chinatown — both important cultural centers and home to thousands of non-white San Franciscans, similar to the Fillmore. His legacy is one of institutionalized racism and suffering for non-white San Franciscans, and therefore, he should not be memorialized with a pleasant public space.
Herman later acknowledged that redevelopment may have outsized effects on vulnerable populations. In his own words, “without adequate housing for the poor, critics will rightly condemn urban renewal as a land-grab for the rich and a heartless push-out for the poor and non-whites.” However, Herman himself did not adequately develop housing for the poor; instead, he elected to evict and displace them. Whether or not he was aware of his impact, the end result is the same: mass displacement.
Featured Photo: Justin Herman Plaza is another quirky feature of San Francisco. However, its namesake has become a topic of controversy. Wikipedia commons, Pete Bobb.