For about five years I lived on a quiet street in Berkeley called Capistrano Avenue. I was never comfortable with having to give, as my address, the name of one of the greatest Jew-haters in history, Giovanni da Capistrano.

I call Capistrano a Jew-hater, not an antisemite. Antisemitism is a 19th-century term describing those who hate Jews as a race (or as a people, if one prefers to limit race to its modern American meaning, based on skin color). Giovanni da Capistrano (or John of Capistrano) was a 15th-century Franciscan friar and inquisitor who traveled around Europe preaching against all heresy, but especially Judaism. His hatred, then, was of Jews as a religious group, and he welcomed their conversion. But when that didn’t happen he encouraged states to expel Jews, and mobs to attack and kill them. He presided over several mass burnings of Jews.

Why, then, would a famously liberal city like Berkeley name a street for such a personage?

Well, it didn’t. The name appears on a 1909 map of the newly subdivided village of Thousand Oaks, in an area that had been a refugee camp for survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and lay outside the city limits of Berkeley and Albany. Here is an extract from the map:

Note that the streets of the subdivisions don’t seem as yet to connect with those of either Berkeley (below) or Albany (to the left), though some of the streets that are meant to do so already bear the names of the corresponding urban streets, such as Portland Avenue and Colusa Avenue. The present layout can be seen in this map extract (from Google Maps):

Otherwise, there seems to be a strong preference (presumably on the part of the developers) for naming streets for place names in California that are also Spanish names of Catholic saints: Santa Rosa, San Luis, San Miguel, San Juan, San Diego. But there also a couple streets bearing the Spanish names of famous medieval preaching friars — Vicente (Ferrer) and Domingo — without specifying their eventual sainthood.

After incorporation into Berkeley, Vicente was renamed Vincente, perhaps to avoid confusion with Vicente Road, which is in Oakland but is served by the Berkeley post office. Other streets were also renamed because of conflict with existing street names elsewhere in Berkeley: as can be seen by comparing the maps, San Luis became Menlo Place, and San Diego became Santa Clara. Lastly, Escondido Avenue became Thousand Oaks Boulevard.

Capistrano was, of course, sanctified, and the city of San Juan Capistrano in southern California was named for the mission founded there in his name. Whether the street is named for the city (which is often called simply Capistrano, as in the song When the swallows return to Capistrano) or directly for Giovanni is unclear, since both possibilities are present in the naming scheme. Either way, the name goes back to the Jew-hating preacher; I don’t think that the village of Capestrano where he was born, in southern Italy, has any importance on its own. And I find it strange that Berkeley not only did not change the name of street (as it did with others) when it annexed the area, but still has not done so.

I now live in El Cerrito, about a mile north of the county line seen in the 1909 map, on a street named for a 19th-century naval commander who was also a Democratic senator. I am comfortable here.


One Response to “Capistrano”

  1. KJV and ST | Coby Lubliner's Blog Says:

    […] concern mainly the person’s significance to its agenda. John of Capistrano, as I have written here, was one of history’s great Jew-haters. No, what bothers me is the fact that in British […]

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