Forget the Willie Brown Bay Bridge

Pub date September 3, 2013

EDITORIAL As the California Legislature prepares to wrap up before fall recess, a resolution is working its way through the approval process to rename the western span of the Bay Bridge the “Willie L. Brown Jr. Bridge.”

Brown, who formerly served as mayor of San Francisco and speaker of the California Assembly, is known for boasting about his hobnobbing with the rich and famous in his San Francisco Chronicle column, “Willie’s World.” But to longtime progressive San Franciscans who spent decades trying to stem the tide of gentrification, he was the powerful figure that rolled out the welcome mat for high-end developers and corporate interests, whose interests in San Francisco revolved around profit alone.

As mayor, Brown presided over land-use policies that resulted in high-end developments at a time when evictions were rampant, a trend that rings familiar in today’s tech-saturated San Francisco. Once, when pressed on the idea that his approach was making the city increasingly unaffordable, Brown’s famous retort was: “If you don’t make $50,000 a year in San Francisco, then you shouldn’t live here.”

It’s not just Brown’s insensitivity to struggling tenants, deep ties to corporate interests and high-end real-estate developers, or continued behind-the-scenes influence in San Francisco politics that cause us to squirm when we think about the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge bearing this politician’s name. There’s also the key question of whether Bay Area residents actually want to see this happen — and, given Brown’s historic role as a divisive figure, the idea that there is universal support for such an idea is laughable.

A legislative analysis presented to the Assembly Committee on Transportation a few weeks ago noted that lawmakers actually came up with ground rules for big decisions like whether a bridge ought to be named after someone, to “promote fairness.” The rules stipulate that such a proposal “must reflect a community consensus” — and guess what? Even Brown’s editors over at the Chronicle issued a June editorial opposing the idea.

Not only that, but proposals like this are only supposed to come from representatives of the district where the thing being renamed is located — yet this scheme came from Assemblymember Isadore Hall, a Democrat from Compton. But despite clear failure to adhere to these basic rules, only a single committee member voted against naming the bridge after Brown.

Interestingly enough, the bill even includes a request for Caltrans to determine the cost of posting signs commemorating Brown, which would evidently be funded by donations from unspecified private sources.

If the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is going to be named after anyone, we agree that the honor should be reserved for beloved 19th-century San Francisco eccentric Joshua Abraham Norton, the Scotsman who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States in 1859 and printed his own currency.

So far, a petition calling on Gov. Jerry Brown to name it the Emperor Norton Bay Bridge has garnered 1,800 signatures. “He was a champion of racial and religious unity, an advocate for women’s suffrage [and] a defender of the people,” the petition notes. That sounds more like something motorists can be proud of when they drive back and forth across the bay.