New Names Proposed for Julius Kahn Playground

By Thomas K. Pendergast

Efforts to rename the Julius Kahn Playground on the southern edge of the Presidio have produced two contenders for the new name, but at least one person thinks there should be more input from local residents before a final decision is made. 

Now under consideration are: The West Pacific Playground, named after West Pacific Avenue, the street in Pacific Heights where the 12-acre playground is located; and the Presidio Wall Playground, named after the wall surrounding the part of the Presidio where the playground sits.

Julius Kahn sign

A search is on for a new name for a popular neighborhood park that bears the name of a controversial public figure. Photo by Michael Durand.

“Today we are closing a chapter of demagoguery, exclusion, bigotry and racial purity, reaffirming our core value that our parks and open spaces are places of inclusion and acceptance and embracing the rich diversity of San Francisco,” said Anupam Dhillion, an attorney with the firm Perkins Coie, who has been working pro bono on the issue, when he addressed a meeting of the Pacific Heights Association of Neighbors (PHAN) in mid-August.

Congressman Julius Kahn represented San Francisco in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1899 to 1903 and from 1905 until his death in 1924. The film American Jerusalem describes him as “among the most influential Jews in San Francisco – as well as national – civic life, from the middle of the 19th century into the 1930s.”

This is why the playground was named after him in 1926.

His advocacy of making the Chinese Exclusion Act “permanent,” however, is now taking that honor away from his legacy.

First enacted in 1882, it excluded Chinese laborers from entering the United States, the first time in history that a specific ethnic group was barred from entering the country.

The Congressional records show Kahn read excerpts from an 1852 travel log that stated the Chinese people were “morally, the most debased people on the face of the earth.” He also claimed that they “resorted to trickery and duplicity to circumvent our laws;” that their daily intercourse with the Caucasian has “not materially changed their customs or habits;” and furthermore that “gambling and sensuality are the great vices of the Chinese, while murderous assaults, robberies, kidnapping and blackmail are frequent occurrences.”

Beyond Chinese exclusion, he also attempted to exclude other Asians from entering the United States, like claiming that the Japanese would never be loyal to this country, but instead would stay loyal to the “Mikado” or emperor. He also made racially disparaging remarks about Filipinos and Indians when seeking to keep them from immigrating, according to Dhillion.      

In 2018 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution directing the SF Recreation and Park Commission, the body that governs the Recreation and Park Department, to rename the playground.

More recently, PHAN has voted on suggestions from among its membership.

Charlie Ferguson, PHAN president, said they started in early June with 12 suggested names collected from its membership, which were later winnowed down to three. Then they took a vote and the third name, the Rhoda Goldman Playground, after the benefactor who funded the current playground clubhouse, came up short.

“This is a neighborhood that is devoted to families and children, and it became clear to me … watching what was eliminated and what rose to the top … that, because this is a playground for children it should not get itself involved in large controversies,” Ferguson said. “A playground should remain mainly a playground, without controversy associated. And for that reason the names that may sound rather blah rose to the top.”

Matt Rhoa, however, had a problem with the process, perhaps not so much as the name change itself. He noted that people from the Richmond District and the Presidio also use the park but apparently they were not given the opportunity to give input on the new name.

“Why wasn’t this something discussed with all of the neighborhoods around the Presidio and within the Presidio? Were those people given an opportunity to participate in those meetings?” Rhoa asked. 

“Those were meetings of our association. Those are our meetings. So we voted on what we were going to suggest to the recreation department,” Ferguson responded. He also explained that PHAN did not take a position on whether the park should be stripped of the name Julius Kahn. They decided to remain neutral about that.

“We didn’t feel it was important for us to get involved in a decision that was at the Board of Supervisors’ level about whether or not we’re going to remove the name,” he said. “And then after it was removed they contacted us and said ‘can you get your group together and get some names going here so we have some names to work with?’”

Recreation and Park Commission Vice President Allan Low said the name change must still go before the SF Recreation and Park Commission.

“There will be another opportunity to make public comment then. Anybody who lives in San Francisco can comment,” Low said.

“So, just to clarify, is there an opportunity for others to suggest names or is it already down to these two?” Rhoa responded.

“Certainly, this is not intended to be a closed process. As this process moves forward it will go before the Recreation and Park Commission’s Operations Committee,” Low said. “That’s an opportunity to suggest names, comment on the process. Then that will move forward to the full commission, another opportunity.”


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