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By Any Other Name: How to Rename a Park in San Francisco

Written by Han LiPublished May. 28, 2022 • 10:00am
Visitacion Valley Playground in San Francisco on Thursday, May 19, 2022. The playground is being re-named "Yik Oi Huang Peace and Friendship Park". | Courtesy Jim Watkins

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Rechristening public spaces often stems from controversy over the namesake. In recent years—driven by mass demonstrations for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police—those controversies have largely centered on streets, schools and plazas paying homage to historical figures who espoused racist views or fought to uphold slavery.

A few years ago, San Francisco reckoned with the troubling legacy of Julius Kahn—a congressman associated with extending the Chinese Exclusion Act in the first half of the 20th century—by striking his name from a Presidio playground.

More recently, the city renamed a park to memorialize the Chinese American victim of a high-profile assault. Visitacion Valley Playground—in a mid-May vote by the SF Recreation and Park Commission—became Yik Oi Huang Peace and Friendship Park to honor the octogenarian who died a year after being brutally attacked on the site in 2019.

Whether to remove the memory of troubling historical figures or to turn a place of tragedy into a symbol of hope, San Francisco has seen some storied renaming efforts lately.

But both renamings culminated in years of work, and grassroots activism with a vote by government leaders. Here’s a look at what it takes to pull it off.

What’s the Standard For a Name Change? 

It’s pretty high.

According to the city’s policy, which it adopted in 1981, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission must not change the name of any park or park facility unless there are “extraordinary circumstances of city or national interest” that would justify the change.

On May 19 this year, the commission decided that the fatal beating of Yik Oi Huang—which happened on the cusp of a nationwide surge in reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans—met that threshold.

Huang, who’s a victim of a fatal assault that happened in the park, passed away in early 2020. Since then, the local community members have organized together and showed unity for the renaming as a memorial for the crime victim.

Ronald Colthirst, a staff member of a community center in Visitacion Valley, came up with the renaming idea after attending an event to commemorate Huang in 2020 because, he said, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

What Does It Take to Convince Decision-makers?

A whole lot of activism and a fair amount of public pressure. 

Community members from diverse backgrounds, including Colthirst and Sasanna Yee, the granddaughter of Huang, formed the “Yik Oi Huang Peace & Friendship Park Organizing Committee” in the months after Huang’s death to lead the campaign. 

See Also

“Yik Oi Huang Peace & Friendship Park Organizing Committee” members posed for a photo with the Recreation and Park Department officials after the renaming proposal was approved on May 19, 2022. | Han Li

During the pandemic, the group held online and outdoor meetings and gathered over 2,000 online and 350 in-person signatures for the petition. Dozens of English and Chinese speakers spoke up at park commission meetings advocating for the new name. 

The committee’s work got the attention of city leaders, including Mayor London Breed and the district supervisor Shamann Walton, who wound up backing the effort.

Ultimately, of course, it’s up to the parks commission, a seven-member body appointed by the mayor that meets once a month.

When the Huang renaming came up for a vote recently, Commissioner Joseph Hallisy, applauded the work volunteers put into the effort. 

“It’s very difficult to bring something in front of the commission for a name change,” he acknowledged, “there’s a number of boxes to be checked, and you check them all.”

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Han Li can be reached at [email protected]


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