The Case for the Willie Brown Bridge

Scott Lucas | September 9, 2013 | Story Politics

We can count on one finger the number of times that we can remember the ultra-left Bay Guardian agreeing with the centrist editorial page of the Chronicle. And they both came out on the same side as the relatively apolitical SFist. What was the issue that made for this, the strangest of bedfellows? That the Giants have been having an awful year? That the N Judah train can get a little crowded? That our summer sure was cold this year? Not even close. The one issue that cut across all political boundaries was this—that the Western span of the Bay Bridge* should not be named after our former Mayor, Willie Brown.

And they all might be correct. However, there's a pretty strong contrarian case to be made that Da Mayor should, in fact, get his name on Da Span. Here's why.

He actually did have an impressive career. As the longest-serving Speaker of the Assembly, Brown was so powerful that opponents were forced to pass term limits to get rid of the Ayatollah of the Assembly. Way back in 1975, he sponsored a bill that legalized homosexuality in the state. As Mayor, Brown successfully mediated the 1997 BART strike, restored City Hall and the Ferry Building, opened Mission Bay to new construction including the UCSF campus, and brought the Giants to their new stadium. Whether you love or hate it, the Brown mayorship was when the real battle between the progressives in the neighborhoods and the downtown was fought—and downtown won.

It doesn't matter that he isn't dead. Though it's true that, per the policy of the Senate Committee charged with voting on the naming, the person honored must be deceased, that didn't stop Sacramento from putting Congressman George Miller's name on the Benicia Bridge or former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris's on the Oakland State Building.

He's the face of the City. In what other city in America can a poor kid from Texas who loves to play dress-up become the most powerful man in town? He was in The Godfather Part Three for crying out loud.

The delayed Bridge is better than a rushed one. We've been over this before. Public works plans, like the newly-opened Eastern span of the Bridge*, almost always come in late and over budget. Sure Brown was instrumental in holding up the construction of the span. But the placement he fought for keeps Treasure Island as a viable site for development and gives a great view of the City.

Emperor Norton is dead old white man—and an unelected aristocrat. The leading alternative for the Bridge's name is Emperor Joshua Norton, a beloved eccentric from way back in the day. But this is America—we're a democracy. By our count, Brown won at least 17 elections, losing only in one—his first. Plus, doesn't Norton's "Protector of Mexico" title feel awfully colonialist?

We already have a Golden Gate—why not a Brown Bridge? Patterns are good. People like patterns.

You could argue about it forever. Look, we're not crazy. We know that Brown has amassed a huge contingent of critics, from progressive neighborhood activists to anti-corruption watchdogs to conservative die-hards. But above anything else, San Francisco is a city that loves a good political argument. With his name on the Bridge you could launch into one every time you drove into the East Bay. Just imagine taking a date to a hot spot in Oakland, and turning to him or her and asking, "So, about Willie Brown." If that's not the perfect start to a hot night on the town, we don't know what is.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately referred to the new, eastern section of the Bridge as the one that would be potentially renamed. This is incorrect. It is the western span that would be renamed if the bill were passed. We regret the error.

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Scott Lucas at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Scott Lucas on Twitter @ScottLucas86


Photography by: