The Bay Area loves rainbows, whether we're talking about the ones that appear in the sky with semi regularity, due to San Francisco's rainy-and-then-sunny climate, or the symbolic ones that represent gay rights. The tunnel that connects San Francisco to Marin County, which has a gorgeous ROYGBIV palette painted on its arch, is no exception. As someone who grew up in Marin and has thus driven through that tunnel more times than she could possibly count, I'm here to say that I never once heard it called by its official name--Waldo Tunnel, named not for Where's Waldo but for a politician named William Waldo--because we always called it the Rainbow Tunnel.
But this doesn't matter now, as the tunnel has just been renamed in honor of the late, great comedian and actor Robin Williams, who lived in the Bay Area for years.
Locals Always Loved Mork
As a Marin-ite, I felt proud of the fact that an actor like Williams chose the Bay Area as his home. This was before Sean Penn and Robin Wright were a) married and b) took up residence in Marin--when the most exciting celebrities we could name as locals were Huey Lewis and Peter Coyote. I remember that it felt like an award had been bestowed on the city when they chose to make Mrs. Doubtfire in San Francisco: we treated the house where it was shot like it was some sort of historical monument.
All of this is to say that my first reaction when I saw a photo of the RWT (that's Robin Williams Tunnel to you non locals, even though I just made that abbreviation up and we're all allowed to use it) was: hooray! Good on you Julie Wainwright (the woman who championed and oversaw this change). Then I reconsidered.
People's Perceptions Change
I'm certainly not the first to point out that the way the public looks at any somewhat controversial issue alters over time and there are arguably fewer issues more controversial than suicide and addiction (when Williams killed himself, it was after a stint at Hazelden, a move his publicist said was made as form of relapse prevention).
No one can argue that what Williams contributed to the entertainment world was massive. What can be argued is that there are people, oftentimes people with great influence over our cultural perceptions, that choose to brush our more uncomfortable issues under, say, a tunnel. And this can cause a once celebrated person to be dissected long after he or she is gone.
Consider the plans to rename North Aberdeen Bridge in Aberdeen, Washington Kurt Cobain Bridge back in 2011--a plan that was slashed by local officials. "Is this the legacy we want to leave to our children?" pastor Don Eden supposedly asked when talking about Cobain's drug use and suicide, on KXRO Radio.
Cobain Wasn't the Only One
While Cobain was widely associated with drug use and Williams was not, they both struggled with addiction; additionally, there have been other controversial figures who had streets and monuments named after them before their public perception changed.
For every JFK Airport that's been immune to perception change (though let's be honest, being a hound dog politician only became a problem from Gary Hart on), there's a Sir Henry Havelock Street, which was meant to honor a man who was well-known during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and whose posthumous perception shift meant that the West London street named after him had to be renamed. Clearly killing innocent protestors and killing yourself are part of a different league in terms of scandal severity. Still, there's no predicting how societal perception will change.
Then Again, We're Growing More Aware All The Time
Of course, the Golden State is a liberal haven and so if there's any place that's likely to remain open-minded, Cali may be the one (then again, Washington state isn't exactly known for its conservatism). Still, I'd hate to see Williams torn apart one day because some close-minded folks get the megaphone.
Yes, we are growing increasingly open-minded when it comes to addiction and mental illness. This is our mission over here at AfterParty and there are oh so many wonderful people out there with the same one. And luckily many out there know that the best way to help make that happen is by calling out the fact that those we value most--celebrities--are among the sufferers.