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Frida Kahlo Way selected for City College street

by Alex Madison

A painting of Frida Kahlo sits in the window of Pixie Hall Studios in Noe Valley. Photo: Rick Gerharter
A painting of Frida Kahlo sits in the window of Pixie Hall Studios in Noe Valley. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Frida Kahlo Way may be the new name of Phelan Avenue, a three-block street that runs through City College of San Francisco's Ocean campus, by the end of the year.

San Francisco Supervisor Norman Yee, who represents the area, announced April 4 that the renaming committee, which included Phelan Avenue residents, voted in favor of naming the street after the famous bisexual Mexican artist, who died in 1954.

James Duval Phelan is a former United States senator and San Francisco mayor whose legacy is fraught with racism and xenophobia. His famous campaign slogan, "Keep California White," was used during his senatorial re-election campaign in 1920 to further anti-immigration in California, particularly of Asian people.

Although the street is technically named after James Duval Phelan's banker father, James Phelan, the association was enough to prompt its removal by Yee, who has been working for more than a year to get it changed.

"The significance of this is that the street is right in front of City College, where thousands of students walk through every day," Yee said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "To leave the name there is saying our current values and culture supports that view."

Yee now plans to introduce a resolution to change the street name, at which point San Francisco Public Works will circulate it among various city departments for review, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. It will then head to the supervisors' land use and transportation committee before going to the full board for approval.

Yee said the process can take anywhere from six to nine months. Once approved, Frida Kahlo Way will appear alongside Phelan Avenue on all street signs for five years, ensuring the street residents have enough time to make changes. Yee said some residents voiced concern over the inconvenience of the street rename, but many are still on board for the Phelan removal.

Residents had the chance to vote for four names, including Freedom Way, after African-American dancer and writer Thelma Johnson Streat; Chinese-American historian and community activist Him Mark Lai; and Muwekma Ohlone, an indigenous tribe from the Bay Area.

Longtime City College interdisciplinary instructor Leslie Simon was actually the first to suggest Frida Kahlo Way. The City College board voted on the change and submitted its official street name nomination to Yee in February. The trustees do not have the power to change the street name, which is the official address of City College's main campus.

Currently, the campus is home to the "Pan American Unity" mural, painted by Kahlo's husband and hugely influential Mexican artist, Diego Rivera. He died in 1957.

When the B.A.R. spoke with gay City College trustees Tom Temprano and Rafael Mandelman, they talked about the college's opportunity to honor Kahlo, who was largely overshadowed by her husband during their lives, and the importance of choosing a figure who represents the values of the college of inclusion and equality.

"What something is named matters," Temprano said. "For community members to see Frida Kahlo Way speaks to our values as a college and is representative of folks of color, LGBT members, the Latino community, and artists."

He and Mandelman both said it was the college's duty to take a stand against people, living or dead, whose mission it was to silence and exclude minorities. City College has an international student body, largely made up of minorities.

"To have a name historically tied to racism on that road is inappropriate at an institution that is so important to communities of color," said Mandelman, who is running for District 8 supervisor against Jeff Sheehy, a gay, HIV-positive man who was appointed to the seat by the late mayor Ed Lee.

As previously reported by the B.A.R., in 2014, San Francisco honored the late transgender icon Vicki Marlane by naming a block of Turk Street in the Tenderloin neighborhood after her. This was the first time the city named a street after a trans person.

In 2016, the 100 block of Taylor Street was renamed Gene Compton's Cafeteria Way, after a restaurant that served as a hangout for transgender and queer people in the 1960s. Police raided it in 1966 in what is known as the Compton's Cafeteria riot, preceding the more famous Stonewall riots in New York City.

A plaque honoring Kahlo is part of the Rainbow Honor Walk in the Castro.

The City College street renaming is just the latest instance of the city working to remove monuments and other items named after racists or that contain racist elements. Earlier this year the historic preservation and arts commissions voted to remove "Early Days," a statue near Civic Center Plaza that's widely viewed as racist for its depiction of a missionary and a vaquero standing over a nearly naked American Indian.

It is also part of a nationwide, ongoing movement to replace names and monuments of people who no longer represent the values of today's society. A woman died last August during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, protesting plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

For Yee and City College faculty and staff, the renaming is a symbol of progress, a continued push for inclusion, and the reflection of a more accepting society.

"Society is not stagnant. We change all the time and we should reflect the values we hold today," Yee said.

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