The Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee enjoyed a moment of levity Monday in a meeting that was otherwise concerned with lightning rod issues such as the future of the Castro Theatre and the redevelopment of Downtown office space into housing.
The agenda item in question? The renaming of the stretch of Commercial Street between Kearny and Montgomery streets after San Francisco royalty: Emperor Norton.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced the motion and spoke highly of the eccentric 19th century personality and influential businessman who has become a symbol of our city.
“He was an early advocate for equality, for minorities, for extending the vote to women,” Peskin said. "When he died, upwards of 10,000 San Franciscans lined the streets to pay homage to him at his funeral.”
Given that Norton—who was born Joshua Abraham Norton in 1818—lived in the Eureka Lodgings on the block for more than 15 years, the choice of Commercial Street is a fitting one.
Joseph Amster, dressed as the Emperor himself, took to the podium in support of the measure.
“It is a right and fitting thing to do,” said Amster, who has long carried on Norton’s legacy by adopting his personality and leading well-publicized local walking tours in his honor.
“Norton represents inclusion, acceptance and justice for the downtrodden,” Amster said. “He’s in our city’s DNA.” Like a phoenix rising from the ashes—the symbol of San Francisco—Norton rose from nothing to reinvent himself.
It’s not the first effort to name something after Norton. The Emperor Norton Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to carrying on the eccentric San Franciscan’s legacy, was originally founded as the Emperor’s Bridge Campaign, a grassroots movement to lobby for the renaming of a stretch of the Bay Bridge after Norton.
The Emperor was the first one to suggest creating a span to connect San Francisco and Oakland, but the Western span ended up being named in honor of former Mayor Willie Brown.
The organization has since been advocating for renaming the Ferry Building's clock tower after Norton—but its leadership would also be happy with a street.
“We want to reshape the idea that he’s just a lovable kook in a funny hat,” said John Lumea, who started the nonprofit in 2013. “He defended the rights of marginalized people, whether Chinese, Black, Native American.”
Lumea has made it part of his life’s work to study and honor the Emperor, having written over 150 articles about him in the past 10 years. It's yet more evidence of the ongoing fascination with Norton and his legacy.
“We accepted him as the Emperor, because he identified as the Emperor,” Amster said. Our city acknowledged him for who he wanted to be, and people continue to adore him. When the motion passed with a positive recommendation to rename the street, the otherwise staid crowd in the meeting hall broke into spirited applause, as if they were clapping for the Emperor himself.
The resolution will head to the Board of Supervisors meeting on April 11 where it is expected to pass readily, with Mayor London Breed’s signoff the last step in the process to formalize it by April 21.
Assuming all goes according to plan, the Emperor will be in good company: Leidesdorff Street is just around the corner.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at [email protected]