Cars line up on a narrow streets. Barriers are up for construction work and a building is under construction in the background.
The city is narrowing down potential names for a reconfigured two-block portion of Shattuck Avenue, currently under construction. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Time will tell whether avocado toast has staying power on local café menus.

But three separate people hoped the controversial delicacy could forever be engraved on a street sign in downtown Berkeley.

A “naming advisory committee” did not end up including Avocado Toast on its shortlist of possible new names for two blocks of Shattuck Avenue, however. Nor did it pick, out of 916 public submissions, the clever “Wrong Way” or the collegiate “Bears Boulevard” or the oddly personal “Fuck Jessica” and “I Love Theo.”

Instead, the committee has whittled down the whopper of a list to 10 names of mostly prominent, late local figures: Anna Saylor, Julia Morgan, Kala Bagai, Maggie Gee, William Byron Rumford, Freedom, Ohlone, Old Station, Sanctuary and Sitha Vemireddy. The final list includes the names of several women and Asian Americans, two groups underrepresented in street names throughout Berkeley.

The rare opportunity to name a “new” street comes as Berkeley is finishing up work on a major reconfiguration project. The portion of Shattuck that was split into two one-way streets, between University Avenue and Allston Way, is being divided into a west-side two-way thoroughfare that will keep the original name, and a two-block, northbound street with wider sidewalks and a new moniker. Name suggestions for that two-block stretch (between University and Center Street) were collected on a public chalkboard and online. After the Public Works Commission further narrows the list at its meeting Thursday, the public will get another chance to weigh in, on the Berkeley Considers platform. Then the City Council will get the final say in March.

“The goal of this is to increase civic pride and enthusiasm for major changes taking place in downtown,” said Kieron Slaughter, community development project coordinator for the city, in a phone interview. “It’s an opportunity to have a person, movement, something that’s typically not recognized in city infrastructure. It’s rare that you get to name a street without taking something away.”

Slaughter also brought the naming project to a fourth grade classroom at Berkeley Arts Magnet, where his kids go, to engage them with the civic process. A local Cub Scout troop got to participate too. (Among the kids’ choices: Coyote, Scout Street, Old Towne Road.)

A UC Berkeley graduate student adds a suggestion to the naming wall in downtown Berkeley in October. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The naming advisory committee was made up of representatives from business, tourism, university and historical groups. Their discussion delved into the philosophical and practical issues around selecting a new street name, Slaughter said.

“Should it be really hyper-local? Is it easily spell-able? There was some really good discussion about the pros and cons of choosing a name that may resemble other Berkeley infrastructure like a park or a greenway. And there was lots of discussion about whether the name should be about what used to be there,” he said.

The shortlist

Five names received unanimous support from the committee: Anna Saylor, Julia Morgan, Kala Bagai, Maggie Gee and William Byron Rumford.

Saylor was a Berkeley librarian-turned-State-Assemblywoman, who, along with three others in 1918, was one of the first women elected to the state legislature. She led the effort that abolished the death penalty for minors in California, and established both psychiatric clinics in prisons and juvenile detention centers so kids wouldn’t be sent to adult jails, according to the Sacramento Bee.

Morgan was the influential architect who graduated from UC Berkeley and built hundreds of buildings locally — including the Berkeley City Club — and throughout California, especially after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She was the first licensed female architect in the state and is best known for her role designing the Hearst Castle.

Bagai was an immigrant from India (present-day Pakistan), who faced extraordinary racism when she and her husband bought a house in Berkeley shortly after they came in 1915. She was forced out of the city, and her family suffered further oppression and tragedy over the years, but her resilience, warmth and community-building in Southern California earned Bagai the nickname “Mother India.” Bagai alone received 195 of the 916 public name submissions; Berkeley residents have led a campaign to get her name attached to the street.

Kala Bagai, shown here with a child in an old newspaper clipping, received by far the most votes out of all the public name submissions for the new two-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue. Photo: Courtesy Anirvan Chatterjee

Gee was a Berkeley native and pioneering female pilot. She flew in the women’s civilian air force in World War II — one of two Chinese Americans in the organization — before returning to get her degree in physics from UC Berkeley and finishing her career at the Lawrence Livermore Lab. There has been an effort to get the Oakland International Airport renamed after Gee.

Rumford was the first black person elected to state office in California, in 1948, and is best known for his Fair Housing Act, outlawing housing discrimination. Before that, while already working in local and state politics, Rumford owned a pharmacy in Berkeley, which became an informal political headquarters itself.

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The other five names under consideration received support from some committee members. Those included Freedom, and Ohlone (“or an appropriate indigenous name related to the Berkeley area after consultation with leaders of local Native peoples and Muwekma Ohlone Tribe representatives,” the committee wrote).

Old Station is also proposed, referring to the site’s past as a Central Pacific Railroad station.

Also on the list is Sanctuary, likely in reference to Berkeley’s legacy as a the first “sanctuary city,” initially for Vietnam War draft resisters, and now for immigrants and refugees.

The last name on the list is Sitha Vemireddy, the teenage girl who died from carbon monoxide poisoning after major Berkeley landlord Lakireddy Bali Reddy smuggled her into the U.S. and forced her into sexual slavery, part of a widespread human trafficking ring he ran. The Berkeley High Jacket broke the story in 1999.

Slaughter said the City Council will ultimately receive a report with the full 916-name list, the shortlists from the naming committee and the Public Works Commission, and the public input from the upcoming Berkeley Considers query. The council could theoretically forgo the input and pick an entirely new name, but it is likely officials will choose from the suggestions on the final lists.

Slaughter said there is no estimated cost associated with the name change, which is just a piece of the $10.3 million reconfiguration project slated to end this summer.

But he said the cost of curing the headaches induced by having a Shattuck Avenue, Shattuck Square, Berkeley Square and Berkeley Way all in the same vicinity is priceless.

“It’s been so confusing over the years for delivery drivers,” he said. “Even if they had the right address, mapping companies and other entities have been mislabeling for years, sending people to Berkeley Way instead of Berkeley Square.”

Plus, he said, if you asked 100 random Berkeley residents to distinguish between Shattuck Square and Berkeley Square, you probably wouldn’t have much success.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...