Congo Street in the Sunnyside neighborhood runs nine blocks, from Circular Avenue to Bosworth Street, from the edge of the I-280 freeway to the edge of Glen Canyon Park. It makes the ‘C’ in the short run of alphabetical street names that begins with Acadia Street on the east and ends with Hamburg Street on the west (changed to Ridgewood Avenue in 1927).
The name has been a mystery of sorts to many. A scooter messenger I once knew who liked to contemplate the city’s enigmas used to find himself pleasantly puzzled when stopped at Congo on his way out Monterey Boulevard. If you live in the neighborhood, it’s easy for the name to become part of the furniture—used but not noticed.
Unlike the picturesque set of river-themed street names in a Sacramento suburb, where ‘Congo’ sits next to ‘Klamath’ and ‘Nile,’ Sunnyside’s Congo seems without meaningful context, being next to streets named Detroit and Baden. How it came to be the choice of the Sunnyside Land Company when the district was laid out in 1891 is the story of idealized capitalist aspirations that would soon meet the realities of imperialist atrocities against indigenous peoples in the heart of Africa.
In the two decades following the naming of the street in Sunnyside, the Congo in Africa was the site of a genocide of staggering proportions. Many people have told the story; this article highlights only some of it, including a few heroes of humanitarian reform of the time who should be better known, as well as an African American poet who evoked the Congo throughout his long working life.
And the Congo has resonance in the immediate present: the recent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement in Belgium may finally knock the villain responsible for the atrocities, King Leopold II, off his plinth. Better a century too late than never.
Blood on his hands. Many statues King Leopold II were defaced and removed during Black Lives Matter protests in Belgium, June 2020. The (UK) Independent.
One of many statues King Leopold II , being removed from its public location in Brussels, Belgium, June 2020. Reuters.
Statue of King Leopold II in Brussels, Belgium, smeared with red paint during the Black Lives Matter protests. in June 2020. Photo: John Thys. Getty Images.
One of Sunnyside’s shortest streets is Acadia–the ‘A’ in the brief set of alphabetized north-south streets. The name reaches deep into history, like many of the somewhat obscure choices made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891 when the district was laid out–such as Congo, Gennessee, and Detroit. Like those names, Acadia touches on the history of colonization and land appropriation.
Also like some of the neighborhood’s other streets, it suffered from misspelling over the years. ‘Arcadia’ was the name in directories and on maps for a time. It was a natural mistake; Arcadia, meaning a place of rural contentment, is the English version of the French word l’Acadie. The name originated in ancient Greece, referring to an isolated place there where the people lived in pastoral simplicity.
An International Atrocity
To start with, the political history: L’Acadie (anglicized to Acadia) was the name of the place where French pioneers explored and later colonists settled in eastern Canada—areas that are now called New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.