After B.A.R. inquiry, SF removes Lech Walesa street name

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday July 7, 2023
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The new temporary signs for Dr. Tom Waddell Place show the late gay activist's name, left, at the Van Ness end of the alley, and with tape covering former Polish president Lech Walesa's name at the Polk Street end. Photos: Matthew S. Bajko
The new temporary signs for Dr. Tom Waddell Place show the late gay activist's name, left, at the Van Ness end of the alley, and with tape covering former Polish president Lech Walesa's name at the Polk Street end. Photos: Matthew S. Bajko

Back in 2014, San Francisco officials approved renaming an alley near City Hall as Dr. Tom Waddell Place instead of Lech Walesa Street due to the former Polish president's homophobic and transphobic comments. Under the city's rules regarding street name changes, the signs for the alleyway that runs between Van Ness Avenue and Polk Street had to contain both names for five years before Walesa's could be permanently removed.

Thus, in 2019, the city's transportation agency could have erected new signage bearing solely Dr. Tom Waddell Place, which honors the Olympic athlete and founder of the Gay Games who died of AIDS-related complications in 1987. An LGBTQ-focused health clinic named for him had been located by the Polk end of the alleyway but was renamed in 2013 the Tom Waddell Urban Health Center when it was combined with another health clinic and relocated to a nearby location on Golden Gate Avenue.

The dual street name signage, though, had remained in place. A reporter for the Bay Area Reporter noticed that Walesa's name could still be found on the signs when walking by the alleyway in June to attend a news conference at City Hall.

It prompted an inquiry with both San Francisco Public Works and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on if the signs would be changed. Section 701 of the city's Public Works Code specifies "once the street name has been officially changed, the street signs must contain both names for a 5-year period."

Yet public works spokesperson Rachel Gordon told the B.A.R. that the agency isn't responsible for switching out the street signs. She also clarified that the five years requirement is "a minimum to satisfy state rules; there is no maximum" for having both street names remain on the signage.

"While Public Works is involved in the process of ushering through a street-name change, once that process is done, the SFMTA has jurisdiction over street signs," wrote Gordon in an emailed reply.

In response to the B.A.R.'s questions about the street signs, SFMTA deputy spokesperson Stephen Chun informed the B.A.R. in mid-June that the agency would begin the process to install new street signs for Dr. Tom Waddell Place.

"Thank you for bringing this to our attention, our sign shop crews will remove the small parenthetical reference to the former street name as their scheduling allows; you may see some temporary signage/coverings," Chun wrote in a June 21 email.

Within days the words "Lech Walesa" had been taped over on the street sign at the alleyway's Polk Street side. At the Van Ness end, a new sign was installed that simply reads Dr. Tom Waddell Place.

It currently sits atop a wooden pole that has a hose wrapped around it that runs along a wood beam affixed to it and the fencing for a new affordable housing project being built adjacent to the alleyway. Dubbed The Kelsey Civic Center, the 112-unit development will have an address of 240 Van Ness Avenue.

In a July 6 emailed reply to additional questions from the B.A.R., Chun wrote that the new permanent street signs for Dr. Tom Waddell Place should be installed by the "end of the month, materials and scheduling permitting." The two signs are estimated to cost around $330 for the SFMTA to produce.

In June, the street sign for Dr. Tom Waddell Place still included former Polish president Lech Walesa's name in smaller type underneath. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

Apparently, the agency had erected new signs for the alleyway with both men's names on them in January last year for a cost of $310.26, Chun told the B.A.R. As for why those signs didn't drop Walesa's name since the five-year mark for doing so had long since expired, Chun chalked it up to needing a better record-keeping system.

"Generally, we replace signs due to maintenance needs. We are in the process of adopting new asset tracking system at the Sign Shop that can flag specific signs for future replacement dates," he wrote.

In 2013, former supervisor Jane Kim first proposed changing the name of the alleyway, as the area back then was included in her 6th supervisorial district. Kim, having recently returned from Ibiza, Spain, told the B.A.R. July 10 that she still fondly recalls visiting with the staff and patients of the Waddell clinic during her time in office.

"To be able to honor that street with naming it for Tom Waddell, who founded the gay Olympics and served as a health professional to the underserved during his career, is so important," said Kim, now the state director for Working Families California, which helps to elect progressive candidates seeking public office.

She noted that who gets honored by cities with street names and public artworks has become even more of an issue in recent years, especially following the Black Lives Matter protests. Kim told the B.A.R. she remains proud of having helped bring about such an honor for Waddell.

"Here in San Francisco I have been honored to have been an ally of and partnered with the LGBTQ community to honor those who we should honor. We should respect their service and continue to emulate them," said Kim.

As the B.A.R. noted back then, the city's earlier decision in 1986 to drop the name Ivy for Lech Walesa Street three years after Walesa received the Nobel Peace Prize proved also controversial. Although Walesa was heralded for founding the Solidarity union and leading the battle for democracy against the then-Soviet Union, activists from Queer Nation's affiliated group Queer Planet in August 1990 attempted to tear down the Walesa street sign because of homophobic comments he made that spring.

As reported then by the Los Angeles Times, Walesa had prompted widespread outrage with his saying that he would "eliminate" homosexuals from Polish society if elected the country's president. Calls at the time for gay supervisor Harry Britt, who passed away in 2020, and his board colleagues to once again rename the San Francisco street had fizzled.

Similarly, the Board of Supervisors ignored a demand in 2021 made by Robert BiedroĊ„, a Polish member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, to see the alleyway revert to being named in honor of Walesa. Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman had told the B.A.R. at the time that he saw no reason for doing so.

Asked last month about the street signage still referring to Walesa, Mandelman told the B.A.R. he was unaware that the signage had yet to be replaced.

"We should put up the Tom Waddell signs," said Mandelman.

As for Kim, she told the B.A.R. she stands by her initial decision to seek to rename the alleyway.

"I want to acknowledge that the challenges of naming streets after humans is that they are a mixed bag. Lech Walesa, certainly, is well known as a revered labor leader internationally. But when he came out with his anti-LGBT comments, it didn't make sense to honor this non-San Franciscan who was attacking members of our inclusive community," said Kim. "I stand by our decision to rename that alley and do it with Tom Waddell's name, who, again, used his talents to serve the underserved."

UPDATED 7/10/23 with comments from Jane Kim.

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