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San Francisco and the Bay Area News & History

Should memorials at S.F.’s Portsmouth Square be re...
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As a white male of a certain age and life experience, I confess and acknowledge that I have certain blind spots with regard to many things, including the sensitivities of others based on historical events. All of the statuary in Portsmouth Square could be considered racist or hateful, depending on one's perspective.

A sense of shared history is one of the components that contributes to social cohesion. I think that we need to tread very carefully and thoughtfully in any movement to extinguish history, lest we also extinguish society.

There is a word for this extinguishing, "memoricide". And I have more questions than answers.

"Memoricide is the destruction of the memory, extermination of the past of targeted people.[1] It also refers to destruction of the traces (such as religious buildings or schools) that might recall the former presence of those considered undesirable.[2]

Memoricide is used in support of ethnic cleansing.[3] Since memoricide refers to intentional attempts to erase human memory about something, it usually takes the form of destruction of physical property.[4] The term was coined by Croatian doctor Mirko Grmek in a text published in Le Figaro on 19 December 1991.[5]

By Carl Nolte Feb 17, 2024 - SF Chronicle

Portsmouth Square, a single small block in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, was once the center of the great city that grew up around it. Now it’s the center of a controversy that pits the past against the present.

The square is one of the smallest parks in the city — only 1.37 acres — and the oldest. It’s been a public park for 191 years, dating back to Mexican days. It’s what historian Philip Choy called both “the birthplace of San Francisco” and “the heart and soul of the immigrant Chinese community.”

And now the city has plans to rebuild the square to better reflect the modern reality of a city that is one-third Asian. “We want to see our history reflected in the living room of Chinatown,’’ Amy Zhou, a planner with the Chinatown Community Development Center, told the Chronicle earlier this month.

The $60 million plan would transform the square with a clubhouse, a performing arts stage and new artwork. But some of the ideas being considered call for the removal of some or all of the statues and memorials that celebrate San Francisco’s history. Some think that’s a mistake.

Portsmouth Square is where American San Francisco began. By the 1840s, the town had three settlements — a Spanish Mission near a lagoon in the present Mission District, a Presidio close to the entrance of the harbor and a settlement called Yerba Buena with a Mexican government customs house on a dusty plaza that is now Portsmouth Square. That was the town center, such as it was. Only about 200 people lived in Yerba Buena. But their world changed on July 9, 1846, in the first months of the Mexican-American War: Sailors and Marines from the U.S.S. Portsmouth first raised the American flag and Capt. John Montgomery posted a proclamation on the plaza claiming California as part of the United States.

The first thing the Americans did was to elect a Navy officer as alcalde, or mayor, replacing Francisco De Haro. Then they changed the name of Yerba Buena to San Francisco.

Gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills in 1848, but no one took it seriously until a businessman named Sam Brannan rode up and down Portsmouth Square brandishing a shining nugget. “GOLD!” he shouted “Gold from the American River!”

It set off a fabulous gold rush. The little town clustered around the plaza became an instant city. People came by the thousands from all over the world: from the United States, Europe, South America, Australia and China and built a new multicultural California, a legend even in our own time. “These Chinese turned the fables of Gum Saan (Gold Mountain) into reality,” Philip Choy wrote.

And now more change is coming. I took a couple of walks through Portsmouth Square to see what was there and listened to a public meeting later to hear what the planners had in mind.

Should memorials at S.F.’s Portsmouth Square be removed, replaced?


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