What's in a name? | January 15, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - January 15, 2010

What's in a name?

In Palo Alto, criteria for renaming landmarks are subject to interpretation

by Gennady Sheyner

Bart Lytton was a self-proclaimed narcissist, a millionaire banker, an acknowledged Communist and a flamboyant Democratic fundraiser who threw parties for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

His real name wasn't even Lytton. Born Bernard Shulman, he took on the name Bart Lytton (or "Black Bart" to his adversaries) during his time as a young, ambitious writer, presumably to imitate a Victorian author.

Lytton was born in Pennsylvania, worked as a writer in New York and rose to prominence as a financier in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. But it's in Palo Alto where his name rings the most bells.

At one point, he founded Lytton Savings and Loan, a bank that had a branch on University Avenue. In the early 1960s, a few years before his financial empire collapsed, he built a private plaza at University and Emerson Street with the intention of having it house his art collection.

Lytton probably would have dissolved into historic obscurity over the past half century if not for the prominent plaza, which changed ownership several times before the city bought it in 1975. Lytton Plaza has served as Palo Alto's most prominent hub for ideological radicals, peaceful protesters, scruffy skateboarders and small-time pot dealers. More people associate the plaza with Vietnam War protests, rock music or their first joints than with a high-rolling banker who, according to Time magazine, once said, "The day I turn mellow, I hope they melt me."

That is, until now. In recent weeks, the ghost of Bart Lytton has reappeared in City Hall during discussions of the newly renovated plaza. City officials and members of the downtown community are now leading a push to rename Lytton Plaza after the Thoits family — prominent property owners, business people and civic volunteers who have made Palo Alto their home since 1893.

The move has raised the question, though, of how the city handles the renaming of its landmarks. Throughout Palo Alto, open spaces and buildings have received the moniker of figures who range from local school leaders to nationally respected icons. The current renaming policy, initiated in December 1983, specifies that the honorees should have made substantial contributions in any one of three areas: to the protection of the city's natural/cultural resources; to the betterment of the specific facility or park; or to the advancement of other types of recreational opportunities in Palo Alto.

Those criteria, as the Lytton Plaza debate has shown, have numerous interpretations, however. And while the process for proposing a name change is also spelled out in the city's policy, even that's had a history of being forgotten in the mad rush to rename a landmark.

The group Friends of Lytton Plaza, which helped fund the plaza's recent renovation, has made it clear that they're not necessarily friends of Bart Lytton. Developer Chop Keenan, member of the Friends group, filed the official application to rename the plaza after the Thoitses.

Other business owners and friends of the Thoits family have joined the Friends' renaming movement.

"This is about honoring a Thoits family that has been avidly involved in the growth and success of Palo Alto for as long as any of us can remember," said Duncan Matteson, a friend and business associate of Warren Thoits, a popular lawyer, banker and developer who died last October at the age of 87.

So far, the city has been more than receptive to the request from the Friends group. The city's Parks and Recreation Commission expressed tentative support for the renaming of the plaza, as has staff from the Community Services Department and members of the Palo Alto Historical Association. The City Council initiated the renaming process at its Jan. 11 meeting, though it has yet to officially sign off on the new name.

But others argue that the name "Lytton Plaza" is fine the way it is. Bart Lytton may not have been a saint, critics say, but residents associate his plaza with free speech, tolerance and diversity.

Former City Council member Emily Renzel (of Palo Alto's "Emily Renzel Wetlands") was among those who urged the council Monday night not to rename Lytton Plaza. Renzel, a longtime environmentalist who volunteered for U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey back when the congressman's headquarters was near the plaza, said she had cared for the plaza for more than a year after it was left vacant. The historical significance of Lytton Plaza is reason enough to preserve its original name, she told the council.

"Lytton Plaza was an important historical location for free speech in Palo Alto, and it's well-known for that," Renzel said. "It seems to me, it should take a pretty strong momentum to change the name given the important historic events that occurred there."

Still others said they have no problem with the city rechristening Lytton Plaza, but they called for the City Council to consider other names. Police critic Aram James said the new plaza should be named after an internationally renowned figure — someone who could serve as a role model for the city's youth.

"We're an international city and our youth deserve to have some role models," James told the council. "I'd really like to see that park renamed for someone like Malcolm X or Cesar Chavez.

"That would start to mitigate some of the long history of racism that the city has unfortunately been too well-known for."

Council watchdog Herb Borock also criticized the city's plan to rename the plaza after the Thoits family — on procedural grounds. On Dec. 15, it was Borock who prevented the Parks and Recreation Commission from prematurely voting on the renaming proposal. The commission was discussing the idea even though the City Council had never initiated the renaming process — a clear violation of the city's process for renaming public parks. After Borock pointed out the procedural violation, the commission opted to continue the discussion at a later date, after it gets the go-ahead from the council.

Borock also argued Monday that naming the plaza after the Thoits family is akin to the city selling the plaza's naming rights to business interests — a process that carries with it a different protocol.

"There needs to be compelling reason to make the change," Borock said, citing the policy directive that discourages renaming, "and there has been no compelling reason."

Historically, there's nothing new about rich and powerful interests designating the names of local streets and landmarks.

City Historian Steve Staiger noted that for most of Palo Alto's history, the city had no policies in place for naming its streets, leaving these decisions to developers. Some of the city's older streets bear the names of classical authors with no connection to Palo Alto (including Tennyson, Lowell and Coleridge avenues in Old Palo Alto). Other street names are even more arbitrary. Kenneth Drive is named after a local architect, while Donald Drive is named after a developer's son.

The system became formalized in 1983 when Palo Alto adopted new policies for naming public lands and facilities. (It was subsequently revised in 2004 and 2008.) Under the current rules, residents can suggest new names for parks and facilities — names that are then reviewed by appropriate local commissions and the City Council. New street names, meanwhile, have to be approved by the Planning and Community Environment Department.

Most of the city's naming (and renaming) efforts have strived to honor Palo Alto residents who made significant contributions to the community. Gunn High School, for example, is named after Henry M. Gunn, the well-respected superintendent of Palo Alto's school district in the 1950s. Greer and Seale parks are both named after the city's early settlers, while the Lucie Stern Community Center bears the name of the woman who helped found and support many of the city's most cherished recreational programs.

The Emily Renzel Wetlands and the Enid Pearson Arastradero Preserve are both named after former city leaders who have made significant contributions to local parklands and conservation.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King are notable exceptions, though the City Council emphasized their connections to Stanford University (Dr. King's papers are managed by a Stanford professor) when it changed the name of Civic Center Plaza to King Plaza three years ago.

There are other exceptions, including the vague and all-inclusive "Heritage Park" and the melodious "Castilleja School" (named for the Spanish translation of the Indian paintbrush plant).

But most local facilities bear the names of notable Palo Altans who worked to make Palo Alto better. Next month, the City Council is scheduled to continue this tradition by voting on the naming of a small plaza near the High Street garage in honor of Anna Zschokke, founder of Palo Alto's school district. Because the plaza currently has no name (and thus, unlike Lytton Plaza, isn't being renamed), it has followed a different process. The City Council wasn't required to initiate the naming process, said Greg Betts, interim director of the Community Services Department.

By the lofty standards of other notable namesakes, Bart Lytton is neither very local nor particularly beloved. He gave the city a treasured plaza, but he did it inadvertently and only after Lytton Savings and Loan Bank went bust and he had to sell his holdings. Palo Alto only acquired the plaza after Lytton sold it to a different bank, which then sold it to the city.

"You look at the names of other parks — they're all named after people who have done something for Palo Alto," Staiger said. "Bart Lytton really didn't. That's one of the reasons why the Historical Association was prepared to support the name change."

The Thoits family, by contrast, has been rooted in Palo Alto since 1893, the year Edward K. Thoits moved to the city and opened a shoe store kitty corner from where Lytton Plaza currently stands. His sons, Willis and Edward C., later took over the store and began investing in commercial real estate around town. Edward C. also served on the Palo Alto City Council for more than 40 years.

Willis Thoits' youngest son, Warren, graduated from Stanford Law School and co-founded the local firm Thoits, Love, Hershberger & McLean. Warren also co-founded the Mid-Peninsula Bank and took part in a myriad of local civic organizations. He won the city's Tall Tree Award in 2001.

Several speakers argued at this week's council meeting that the family's long history of civic accomplishments and contributions to local causes should warrant the city's recognition. Roger Smith, a member of the Friends of Lytton Plaza, disputed claims that the group is trying to "buy" the name for a member of the business community. The city should rename the plaza after the Thoits family to recognize the family's many contributions to Palo Alto, he said.

"There's no one, in my opinion, who has done more for downtown Palo Alto than the Thoits family," Smith said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.


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