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Bay Bridge? Willie Brown Bridge? Fight Over Span’s Name Erupts

| September 13, 2013
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The western span of the Bay Bridge, which the Legislature has voted to rename after former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. (Lois Elling/ Flickr)

The western span of the Bay Bridge, which the Legislature has voted to rename after former Assembly speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. (Lois Elling/ Flickr)

Well, one San Franciscan loves the renaming of the Bay Bridge’s western span for Willie Brown, former Assembly speaker, former mayor, newspaper pundit and best connected of lawyers.

After the state Senate passed the renaming resolution yesterday, reporters asked Brown if he was happy with the change. “You kidding me? You no longer can call me Willie. You’ve got to call me ‘The Bridge!’ ” He said just thinking about driving across the renamed bridge is “a wonderful experience,” but he added that naming the bridge after him will have a wider meaning.

“I think it will be a guidepost for lots of young people in the state of California,” Brown said. “After all, this is the only thing that any of us know of any real significance universal that’s named after a person of color. There is nothing else universal. There are schools, there are roadways, there are a whole lot of other things. But this is California, and to have an African American adorn any instrument in California for the first time in the history of this state is unusually significant.”

You no longer can call me Willie. You’ve got to call me ‘The Bridge!’

That’s Brown’s take, but so far, he doesn’t have a lot of company (outside of the legislators who hatched the plan) in cheering for the Willie Brown Bridge. Gov. Jerry Brown let the Legislature know earlier in the week he didn’t like the idea (though he couldn’t stop it since the renaming was a resolution, not a proposed law). The San Francisco Chronicle, which runs Willie Brown’s Sunday column, editorialized against it. Some members of the city’s Board of Supervisors, past and present, turned thumbs-down on the idea.

And if you think that’s just a bunch of local politicos and establishment types leveraging their collective envy or resentment against Willie Brown, check out KQED’s “Forum.” The show ran a half-hour segment yesterday asking whether the bridge should be renamed for the former mayor. Virtually no one had a good word to say for the idea, and after the show, a show intern was busy policing some of the nastier comments that listeners had posted to the “Forum” site. Here’s the show’s audio:

Still unknown: Whether the renaming will ever take practical effect. Some are suggesting that Gov. Brown could somehow stop Caltrans from spending money to put up signs for Speaker/Mayor Brown on the bridge (it seems like you’d need an electron microscope to find that line item in the Caltrans budget). And some are actually taking action to stop the renaming from going forward.

San Francisco disability rights activist and good government advocate Bob Planthold has gone to court to keep the Bay Bridge the Bay Bridge. The suit (appended at the end of this post), which names the state and a host of legislative committees and individual lawmakers, essentially says the Legislature rammed through the renaming resolution against the will of local residents, violating their due process rights.

Planthold’s suit also notes the bridge has already been renamed once: in 1986, for Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph (though weirdly, the lawsuit refers to the late mayor as “James ‘Sunny’ Rudolph”).

And the lawsuit brings up an alternative idea for renaming the bridge — one proposed a while back and which, ironically, is gaining new support because of the whole Willie Brown Bridge stink. “There is … an active effort to re-designate the Bay Bridge for Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton … widely credited as first conceiving of the Bay Bridge in a series of proclamations in 1872.”

Here’s more on that “active effort”: a Change.org petition to the state. Several thousand people have signed up so far.

Update: KQED’s Mina Kim spoke with Corey Cook, who teaches politics at the University of San Francisco, about the plan. Cook said that while most people acknowledge Willie Brown’s importance in California politics and history, the reason it’s rubbing so many the wrong way comes down to: “Why this landmark, why at this time?”

Cook noted that although Gov. Brown could try to block Caltrans funding for erecting new signs on the bridge, the renaming resolution passed with huge majorities. If the governor tries to block the signs, “presumably the Legislature could then pass a veto-proof law saying Caltrans will put up these signs,” Cook said.

Listen to the full Cook interview:

And here’s Planthold’s lawsuit:

Bob Planthold v. State of California et al., San Francisco, Jerry Brown, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.
  • guest

    Gosh, what a stupid NAME for the Bridge. Name it after some natural event, such as, fish, mountains, sunsets, etc. and not make another politically BAD statement. What is this, some knee jerk reaction to all the bad behavior going on in Oakland.

    Give the BRIDGE a easy going natural name and not make it an embarrassment.

    • saucetin

      Nominated: “Yerba Buena Bridge”. It rolls easily off the tongue. Brown’s nearly as bad as naming it for the Cosco Busan ship that cracked against it in the fog.

    • bigbird

      holy whoa whoa whoa! is this really a passed law by the legislature?? i can probably think of a more stupid thing to put their time and effort into, maybe, but i know i can think of many better names, and many, many more deserving persons to consider. even a politician, but why a politician?? ironic that he was at least partially responsible for the escalating costs of the other half of the bridge.
      save the BAY BRIDGE.

  • guest

    Politicians are not GREAT men. Too bad they aren’t aware of this

  • saucetin

    Ketchican Bridge to Nowhere,
    meet SF’s “The Bridge to No1!”

  • JackJack

    My sincere thanks to Mr. Bob Planthold for showing respect for all of the workers who died building the OAKLAND BAY BRIDGE, not a memorial to Willie Brown who would tarnish the memory of those brave men.

  • JE

    The nerve of Willie Brown. He demanded it be named after himself, and now, so he could gloat over it. He said:

    “You really ought to say, ‘Thank you’ to people whom you think have done
    something, if you’re so inclined. And I’d be damned if you can hear
    dead.”