Sí Se Puede: Let’s Rename South Van Ness Avenue for Dolores Huerta

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Dolores Huerta, formed the first farmworkers union with Cesar Chavez in 1962.

Like a lot of other streets — Geary, Bryant, McCoppin, Bartlett — Van Ness Avenue is named for a 19th century mayor of San Francisco. James Van Ness was the seventh head of the city government, but he served for only a year and a week, from July 1856 until July 1857, making him a decidedly minor figure for such a major thoroughfare. 

Van Ness Avenue south at Eddy Street, with Auto Row well established in this 1929 photo.

He’s so honored because he created the Van Ness Ordinance, which reverted all lands west of Larkin Street and southwest of what is now Ninth Street — originally Johnston Street, according to circa-1854 maps — to their original deed-holders. This opened the city up for development beyond what was then the boundary of its built-up area, but it also spurred a number of lawsuits, since people held fraudulent titles to the various parcels. 

James Van Ness

In other words, Mayor Van Ness was a legitimate figure from San Francisco history, but not a particularly brilliant or beloved one. Now, there’s a MoveOn petition addressed to the current Mayor and Board of Supervisors to rename South Van Ness Avenue in honor of someone slightly more deserving, union leader and civil rights pioneer Dolores Huerta. The creator of the phase “Sí Se Puede!,” or “Yes, we can!,” Huerta co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Cesar Chavez, an organization that merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to become the United Farm Workers (UFW) after a 1965 grape-pickers’ strike in the Central Valley town of Delano.

“Strike!” Dolores Huerta during the Delano grape strike, 1965


For decades, the UFW has fought for the rights of the low-wage, largely Latinx community of workers who comprise the backbone of the West’s agricultural labor force — many of whom haven’t always had access to basic sanitation while working long hours outside. Huerta turns 90 on April 10 — which California has recognized as Dolores Huerta Day since 2018 — and this proposal would be a fitting tribute to a pioneering advocate and mother of 11 who has been active in the struggles for workers’ rights, womens’ rights, and immigrants’ rights for decades. She was the first Latina in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and she’s still active at 89, telling KCRW that her biggest hope these days is that America updates its educational curriculum to include a more honest reckoning with the history of slavery and the nation’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples.

Dolores & Cesar South Van Ness runs through the Mission, right into Cesar Chavez Street. It’s perfectly positioned for this renaming.

If successful, the MoveOn petition would also create a junction between Dolores Huerta Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street at the southern end of the Mission. Talk about intersectionality!

Dolores Huerta 1984

Let’s face it: South Van Ness is nobody’s favorite street. In spite of Whiz Burger, Los Yaquis, the building where Cate Blanchett stayed in Blue Jasmine, and a gas station with a Krispy Krunchy Chicken inside, it’s still a quasi-expressway lacking the activity of Mission or the tree-lined charm of lower Folsom Street. It could use a little love.

Dolores Huerta attends the Women’s March at Sundance Film Festival, 2017

And, as historian blogger Burrito Justice discovered, it wasn’t even always called South Van Ness Avenue, either. It was originally an extension of Howard Street. So sign the petition and let’s get it renamed once again, for a truly deserving American.

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Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane (they/them) is the Communications Manager for San Francisco Pride and a former editor of SF Weekly.