It was hard to miss the sense of calm that settled over San Francisco on Thursday after the city's Recreation and Parks Commission voted to remove controversial urban planner Justin Herman's name from the public plaza at the end of Market Street.

Sure, a controversy quickly erupted over whether the four to three vote was recorded properly with only six commissioners actually casting ballots. The vote was invalidated pending an expected re-vote next month, but the point is that San Francisco knows how to change history without rioting by right-wing extremists.

It's the city that does things right - or would that be left?

Who was Herman?

Herman headed the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in the 1960s and led the drive to redevelop the then-vibrant Fillmore District by tearing down city blocks of apartment buildings and displacing Japanese- and African-Amerian residents. The cleared properties remained vacant for years and San Francisco's relatively small black population never fully recovered from the forced displacements.

Herman's role in the destruction of the old Fillmore District is behind the current push to rename the plaza. San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin has proposed temporarily changing the open space between Market Street and the waterfront to Embaradero Plaza until a permanent name can be chosen.


But how significant is it? Does anyone actually know the name of this plaza? Almost everybody just calls the waterfront area "the Embarcadero," co-opting the Spanish word for jetty. Embarcadero is the name on street signs for the waterfront boulevard that replaced the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway after the elevated roadway was torn down in 1991.

Likewise, nobody uses the name of the hugely popular city plaza at Market and Fifth streets, either, choosing to call the area "Powell" after the Powell Street BART station and cable car-lined road that emanates from it. That plaza is officially Halllidie Plaza after Andrew Hallidie, inventor of the cable car.

Not that abandoning the names of prominent squares is unheard of in San Francisco - probably no ordinary residents remember long-gone Marshall Square, which used to be on Market Street across from old City Hall.

Marshall Square was named for carpenter James Marshall, whose discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma set off the California Gold Rush of 1849.

But there's no denying that what is still called Justin Herman Plaza is a beautiful urban open space. It stretches from the end of the Embarcadero BART Station and the Hyatt Regency Hotel to the iconic Ferry Building and is home to the relentlessly maligned Vaillancourt Fountain, a giant work of city-commissioned public art, whatever the area ends up getting named.