"Emperor Norton Bridge" Turns 75

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The man, the bridge, the resolution...
Other than partially collapsing, falling apart, and swelling into a costly boondoggle, San Franciscans don't think much about the Bay Bridge. For 75 years now it's been an ugly duckling and an afterthought.

So most of us probably don't remember that our Board of Supervisors actually went on record favoring the bridge be rechristened after San Francisco's most famous lunatic.

In 2004, the board, by an 8-2 vote, passed a resolution "urging the California Department of Transportation and members of the California Assembly and Senate to name the new additions to the San Francisco Bay Bridge in honor of Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico."

As SF Weekly has written before, Joshua Abraham Norton (and, yes he was) is either a symbol of San Francisco's longtime laudable tolerance for eccentricity -- or our disturbing ability to ignore the loud, disruptive, and mentally ill. Or both.

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Norton was, by any definition, mentally ill. He did declare himself supreme ruler, issue decrees, and coin his own specie. But he was also a remarkably racially tolerant man for the 19th century. And his idea of erecting a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland turned out to be a winner.

The sole remaining member of the Board of Supervisors from the days of the Emperor Norton Bridge resolution is Sean Elsbernd. Along with Fiona Ma, he voted against it (Michela Alioto-Pier was absent). Asked why he showed no love for the emperor, Elsbernd laughed and uttered "Jesus Christ!

"I'm sure I voted against it because I thought it was silly, and the board has some more important things to worry about than Emperor Norton Bridges," he continued. "And I'm also sure I probably spent all of 30 seconds thinking about it and haven't thought about it since."

We'll let you guess what Elsbernd's response was when asked if the Department of Transportation, the state Assembly, and state Senate -- let alone the elected representatives of Oakland -- would come around to San Francisco's resolved position on renaming the bridge after Norton. Here's a hint: It wasn't "yes."

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Joe Eskenazi
Hail Norton!

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