Will a School District be Named for Joe?

The Dixie School District is replacing a name associated with slavery with one associated with higher callings. Would 'Joseph Eichler' be a good fit? This is Miller Creek Middle School, with mid-century modern styling. Photos by Dave Weinstein

There’s an Eichler Street in Sacramento – named after developer Joe Eichler, who built houses nearby – though not on that street. Hayward too has an Eichler Street – filled with industrial warehouses, not tract homes, and not apparently named after Joe.

We’ve never seen an Eichler Library or an Eichler Theater named for the nation’s most notable builder of modern tract homes. Even Joe’s former office in Palo Alto is not called the 'Eichler Building.'

Shouldn’t some public facility be named after this progressive icon? Some people in San Rafael thought so, when they suggested that a cluster of elementary and middle schools be renamed 'Joseph Eichler School District.'

It has a ring, doesn’t it?

Eichler very likely built more houses than any other individual builder within the territory of the school district. There are more than 1,000 Eichler homes in the area, which include tracts in San Rafael's Terra Linda, Marinwood, and Upper Lucas Valley.

If you’ve been following the increasing tendency to remove the names of offensive people or historical references from colleges, schools, and other public places, and to remove offensive or purportedly offensive murals or statues from public squares or schools, then you know the saga of the Dixie School District in San Rafael, which serves 1,750 kids from kindergarten to eighth grade.

The Old Dixie Schoolhouse from 1864 is one of the oldest buildings in Marin, a one-room school today preserved as a museum and event venue.

It’s one of the oldest school districts in the state, dating back to 1864, the height of the Civil War, and it’s said that its founder, James Miller, named the school 'Dixie' as a poke-in-the-eye gesture towards the pro-Union populace that dominated Marin at the time.

Earlier this year the district board decided the name had to go, after an outcry from the current populace. Also being renamed is Dixie Elementary School. Defenders of keeping the name argued, among other things, that 'Dixie' came not from the slave-holding Confederacy, but from Marie Dixie, a Miwok woman. The issue proved deeply divisive.

Less divisive, at least so far, has been the question of what to rename the school district. Only five members of the public attended a recent meeting of the District Naming Advisory Committee – one of them a child and another a reporter.

Only one member of the public spoke – to propose naming the district 'Miller Creek.' At least two members of the committee also liked that name, arguing that the district already has a school by that name, and a creek as well, which runs past hundreds of Eichler homes.

But the committee rejected the name after member Jonathan Eldridge called James Miller “a man who did rather reprehensible things,” including forcing Native Americans to be indentured servants.

Why drop a name that connotes slaveholding for another that does the same?

The committee’s main charge that afternoon was to winnow through seven names that had already been drawn from 100 names submitted by the public, and backed by public comments sent via email, or dropped in drop boxes, or shared at a community meeting.

Jason Lewis, a member of the public, suggests that the committee consider naming the district 'Miller Creek.'

The list included 'Acorn Valley' and 'Laurel Creek' (even though it was pointed out that nowhere in Marin do such places exist),  Josephine Leary School District (named for a longtime teacher), and Kenne School District, using a Miwok word for “one.”

According to criteria created by the school district, the new name “should be inspirational, lasting, inclusive, and local, and correspond to one or more of the following categories:

a. Deceased individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the community.

b. Geographical area or geographical features in which district is located.

c. Reflective of the values of our schools/community.”

Why Eichler? This comes from the naming committee’s report:

“Joseph Eichler (1900-1974) is known for his iconic and innovative mid-century homes, which comprise the most notable architectural style within the school district’s boundaries. Eichler is considered a social visionary, with one of his stated aims being to construct inclusive and diverse planned communities. He established a non-discrimination policy well before related laws were passed. At a time when racism and housing discrimination was the norm in many neighborhoods -- including in Marin County -- he resigned from the National Association of Home Builders when they refused to support a non-discrimination policy.

The committee tabulated their rankings of the various proposed names before voting to reject 'Joseph Eichler' and one other name.

“Even prior to this, Eichler helped to integrate Terra Linda by selling a home to Dr. Granville and Maude Coggs. (Dr. Coggs was a prominent physician.)

“Nearby residents were very disturbed at the prospect of a black family moving into the area and, as local resident Elaine Bachelder recalls, ‘the whole area was just torn apart’ by the controversy. Contrary to the expressed fears, prices in the Eichler subdivisions continued to rise, unaffected by the inclusion of minority residents or the controversy. The bold, unapologetic approach Eichler took in response to the Terra Linda controversy was indicative of the Eichler ethic, which led to further change in Terra Linda in 1962, when Marin County finally passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing.

“The most striking idea behind Eichler’s homes and his values was the willingness to challenge convention by creating an unprecedented type of home backed by similarly unprecedented values that had a major impact on our local community. This commitment to the values of inclusion, diversity, and creativity in the service of community match well with the aspirational goals of the district mission and vision.”

Committee member Jane Jewell said the name 'Eichler' was popular in her neighborhood, “because of the story of the doctor.”

Still, the committee dropped the name from the list it will submit to the school board. That doesn’t mean there won’t be an Eichler district, as the board can do as it will despite committee recommendations.

Eichler homes fill several rambling neighborhoods within the boundary of the Dixie School District, including this one in Upper Lucas Valley.

Why drop Joe?

“I live in an Eichler home and I think he’s great,” committee member Joy Dahlgren said. “But not everybody in the district lives in an Eichler house, and I think it is not very inclusive for that reason."

Darcie Case said, “I think it would be good to stay away from naming it for a person.”

“‘Joseph Eichler,’ ” Jim Linford mused. “It might be a little pedantic, somehow.”

“He’s an absolutely admirable figure, but how much of that is going to get through to the kids?” Linford asked.

“When I think about Joseph Eichler,” said  Shahrazad Vakharia, “all I think about is houses.”

The school board is expected to make its decision by July or early August.

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