Name change eyed for SF park due to late mayor's support of gay bar raids

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 1, 2023
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A person walks along a path at George Christopher Playground in San Francisco's Diamond Heights neighborhood. Photo: Christopher Robledo
A person walks along a path at George Christopher Playground in San Francisco's Diamond Heights neighborhood. Photo: Christopher Robledo

A gay member of an advisory body for San Francisco's recreation and park department plans to call on the agency to rechristen a public playground named after the late mayor George Christopher due to his support of police raids on gay bars in the city during his administration in the late 1950s.

Ken Maley, who represents the city's third supervisorial district on the Park, Recreation, and Open Space Advisory Committee, or PROSAC, announced at the oversight panel's January 10 meeting his intention to seek a new name for George Christopher Playground in the Diamond Heights neighborhood. It is part of the city's eighth supervisorial district that has long included the LGBTQ Castro district within its boundaries.

Maley told the Bay Area Reporter last week that he is working on bringing a more formal request to the committee, perhaps as soon as March. It meets the first Tuesday of each month, and were it to recommend the park site be renamed, then the city's recreation and park commission would take up the request.

"I have begun to investigate with the rec and park department about renaming that park," said Maley, 77, who has lived in San Francisco since 1964. "I think it is a shame to have a park, particularly any park in the city and particularly in District 8, that is named after George Christopher."

He came to that conclusion after writing about the history of gay bars in the city's North Beach district starting in the 1930s through the 1960s for a neighborhood publication last year. In it, Maley noted that Christopher's inauguration as mayor in 1956 brought about a new crackdown on venues that catered to gay and lesbian patrons.

Just the year prior state lawmakers had created the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, known as the ABC, in order to get around a California Supreme Court ruling in 1951 that had affirmed the right for gay people to gather in public. The decision came in Stoumen v. Reilly, brought by Sol Stoumen, the straight owner of the Black Cat bar in North Beach that catered to gays and lesbians.

Upset over the suspension of his liquor license, Stoumen sued a statewide tax board in order to have it be reinstated. His legal victory brought a brief period of relief for operators of gay and lesbian bars until the ABC ushered in a new era of raids on such establishments. The ABC made it illegal for people of the same sex to dance, hold hands, or kiss in bars, and in the city would work in tandem with the San Francisco Police Department to arrest patrons of such "illegal acts."

An effort is being eyed to change the name of George Christopher Playground in the city's Diamond Heights neighborhood. Photo: Christopher Robledo  

Hostile environment for queers
The ABC and the election in 1955 of Christopher as mayor, the last Republican to lead San Francisco, "transformed the organization of policing in San Francisco, responding indirectly to civic concerns about liquor-related crime and homosexuality," wrote Maley in the Spring 2022 edition of The Semaphore published by the Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood association. "Mayor Christopher's reorganization of the SFPD, in line with the ABC, 'declared war on homosexual bars in San Francisco,' reviving wartime anti-homosexual campaigns."

"The basic thing is that Christopher, in his two terms, really was a rabid homophobe about gay bars and gay people," Maley told the B.A.R.

He cited Nan Alamilla Boyd's 2003 book "Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965" as a source. Boyd noted that Christopher's "war on vice" began immediately with his sacking of the city's police chief and installing first Frank Ahern in the job then Tom Cahill after Ahern died.

Due to Christopher's election as mayor, noted Boyd, "the city of San Francisco became an increasingly hostile environment for queers."

Nonetheless, it did not deter San Francisco officials from naming the public playground after Christopher seven years after he left office. The park was dedicated on April 7, 1971 with then-mayor Joseph L. Alioto presiding and Christopher in attendance, and underwent a $5.2 million renovation completed 50 years later.

The 6.8-acre park site includes picnic areas, baseball and tennis courts, a public bathroom, and a clubhouse for a nursery school. Accessed from Diamond Heights Boulevard, it sits atop a hillside with trail connections into the city's Glen Canyon Park. Christopher, a Greek immigrant, had owned a successful dairy business and would graze his cows by the parkland.

He won election as a city supervisor in 1945 and easily won a second term. After losing his 1951 mayoral bid, he ran again four years later and won. As mayor, Christopher lured the New York Giants baseball team to town and oversaw the construction of Candlestick Park for the team.

He later lost bids in the 1960s for lieutenant governor, U.S. Senate, and to be his party's gubernatorial candidate. Instead, GOP voters chose Ronald Reagan, who went on to win the 1966 race, launching his political career and eventual election as president.

Christopher died September 14, 2000 at the age of 92. The San Francisco Chronicle's news obituary made no mention of his campaign against gay bars, and instead quoted another Greek former mayor of the city, Art Agnos, saying that Christopher had "told the police, who were harassing gay people, to leave them alone. He was not a liberal in any sense of the word, but he was very strong on civil rights. He was one of my early role models."

Newly-appointed PROSAC member from District 3 Therese Oxford, whose first meeting was in January, told the B.A.R. that she had looked up Christopher online after hearing Maley bring up the notion of renaming the playground. She didn't know much about him or his record, and what she found raised questions for her on why the decision had been made to honor him with the park naming.

An advocate for greening the city by planting a more diverse canopy of street trees and wanting more greenspaces in her part of the city, Oxford said she looks forward to learning more about Christopher before making a decision about the park name.

"I am curious as to why he got named in the first place. What's the force that was behind that? There must have been a reason, but when I Googled it, I couldn't find it," she said.

Tamara Barak Aparton, a spokesperson for rec and park, said the final decision on park site names is up to the seven members of the city's recreation and park commission. It adopted a policy in 1981 laying out the process for naming park sites.

According to it, existing place names are considered "to have historic significance." It will only consider changing the name of an existing facility, "particularly one whose name has city or national significance," if there are "extraordinary circumstances" for doing so and a new facility can't be "so designated."

It further states that existing park names will be modified "only with the greatest reluctance and only to commemorate a person or persons who have made major, overriding contributions to the park, and whose distinctions are as yet unrecognized."

The policy also says a park is not to be named after a person until two years after their death, "except in an extraordinary case of overwhelming city-wide civic importance."

Maley said he doesn't have a person in mind to rename the park site in honor of, though he suggested perhaps a lesbian owner of one of the North Beach gay bars would be an appropriate honoree.

"It may be premature to think about a subsequent name," he said.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman told the B.A.R. no one had discussed renaming Christopher playground with him and was unaware such a proposal has been broached until asked about it by a reporter. Mindful of the complaints voiced in 2021 that public input had been lacking when the city's public school district convened an advisory group tasked with selecting school sites to rename, Mandelman stressed the need for a well researched, community process around the name of the park.

"The idea requires a fair amount of socialization, I think," said Mandelman, who is in the process of naming two of his constituents as members of the parks advisory committee. "We are changing the names of all sorts of parks. It is certainly open for conversation."

As for Christopher, Mandelman said he did not know much about his mayoral record.

"I am not familiar with George Christopher's time as mayor. What are his alleged sins?" asked Mandelman. "I look forward to learning more about George Christopher's history. We will see where this goes."

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