Petition to name Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton gains 1,000 signatures

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San Francisco freelance writer John Lumea disagrees with California state legislators who want to name the western span of the Bay Bridge after former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

Nothing personal against Brown, says Lumea. He just believes that honor belongs instead to 19th century San Francisco eccentric Joshua Abraham Norton (1819-1880), the Scotsman who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States in 1859 and printed his own currency.

Lumea has drafted and launched a Change.org petition asking the California Legislature to rename the iconic thoroughfare “The Emperor Norton Bay Bridge.” The petition cleared its initial goal of 1,000 signatures on Aug. 12. The Bay Bridge, the petition argues, fulfills Emperor Norton’s “140-year-old vision” of a bridge from San Francisco to Oakland “that has shaped the lives of generations.”

In 1872 Emperor Norton famously proclaimed the need for a suspension bridge between San Francisco, Goat Island (now Yerba Buena), and Oakland. While the Bay Bridge matches the literal proclamation, it also matches Emperor Norton’s social vision for the area, according to Lumea. 

“Emperor Norton was an early visionary of a regional economy,” said Lumea, “and a herald of the whole idea of a Bay Area as a region that shares ideas and relationships beyond economics.” A harbinger of Bay Area progressivism, Emperor Norton also used his local notoriety to advocate on behalf of women’s suffrage and the rights of marginalized populations. 

Past attempts to commemorate Emperor Norton’s special relationship to the Bay Bridge never got off the ground. In 2004, former San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a resolution to name the entire Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton, but the Board of Supervisors passed a modified version to dedicate just the new additions to the bridge. To date, Oakland and Alameda haven’t obliged.

This June, California State Assembly members had a completely different public figure in mind for the bridge’s name, and introduced a resolution to name the western span of the Bay Bridge after the former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. In answer to that proposal, an online petition surfaced in July calling for state legislators to name that span of the Bay Bridge after Emperor Norton instead.

Less than two weeks ago, Lumea’s petition took things a step further, calling on the Legislature and the Governor to name the entire bridge after Emperor Norton.

“As for Willie Brown,” said Lumea, “surely any number of buildings in California could be used for his honor.”