What’s in a Street Name – Dear Chavez

chavezI don’t usually post requests, I ask that people making requests post to the comments section on a related story or the “say hey page.” However, a good friend of mine asked that I help spread the word about a racist storm brewing in her home town Portland Oregon. She sits on a street naming committee which is trying to name a Portland street after famed organizer Cesar Chavez. The committee surveyed several Portland streets and decided on one that has traditionally had mixed use – businesses, schools, rental properties and home ownership, low end markets and motels and national grocery chains, commercial and residential road use. The area is also mutli-cultural with longstanding ethnic white communities, black communities, largely unacknowledged Asian communities, and slightly more recently but growing more steadily than any other population: Chican@ communities. Finally, it is an area that the city has poured considerable improvement money into without causing massive gentrification so far. The street they want to rename, Interstate Ave, also has the distinction of not being named after a Portland historical figure like other streets they considered.

The group had the go ahead from the city and only had the last hurtle of community forums before the street name change went into effect. The forums took, and are taking, place at a local area Middle School with a large Chican@ and African American, as well as notable sized Asian and white, student population.

At the first meeting, the following comments were made (based on friend’s report):

  • “Why not name one of the parks you people have overrun after him and leave our street alone?!”
  • “You could name Sauvie’s Island Rd after him, then when kids go to the pumpkin patch in October they will already be thinking about all those illegal immigrant farm workers anyway.”
  • “This is our [white] neighborhood and you [people of color] need to get the hell out or maybe we will rename you.”

The initial meeting was so contentious that the committee called every cultural activists (white and people of color) that they knew to come out for the next meeting. The main committee members arrived together for fear of arriving alone. And non-violent strategies, such as singing, locking arms and sitting quietly, etc. were discussed and practiced before hand. My friend, who is a longstanding resident of NE Portland and white, was horrified by the level of hatred in the atmosphere of the meeting and said it reminded her of the 1980s when apparently Oregon was to be one of three states, including Washington and Idaho, in the new Aryan nation.
Despite the committee and its supporters efforts, similar racist comments and threats were made. Legitimate concerns about money spent on revitalizing the area under its old name and the cost to near failing businesses to change street signs and advertising were clearly outweighed by the racist comments and the racialized way in which many of the more legitimate arguments were expressed. The neighborhood itself seems to have polarized, and, according to friends who work in the area, the neo-nazi presence is on the rise. These issues are breaking just as a neo-nazi reunion concernt was scheduled to take place in Oregon and then lost its venue (after people arrived).

The local news is reporting the incidents as wrongs on both sides claiming:

Historic Businesses on the Avenue would are unwilling or unable to change their signs while supporters are unwilling to compromise on the alternatives which includes parks, alternative streets, and other options.

While the real cost to businesses with below median income generation to change their street signs and adverts is serious and an important part of the discussion, apparently, the racism with which these other options were put forward has no bearing.

The most recent attack on the street name change has come from the Polish community who claim to have “settled” the Interstate neighborhood. They have put forth two demands: 1. no name change or 2. change the name to a Polish Nobel Prize winner’s name (from Poland with no American roots). They point to the existence of a historic church and library in the neighborhood as their proof. Yet the problem is not their claim to the neighborhood but rather exclusive claim. Interstate runs through historic black neighborhoods, business districts, and growing Chican@ neighborhoods. It also runs through areas where several Asian American ethnic groups live and do business and have done for longer than many other communities. No one of these communities has anymore right than any other, more importantly if we want to talk about historic ownership then the street should be named after Chief Joseph or some other leader chosen by the indigenous groups who really settled the area.

The street name issue has been bolstered by other fights in the Portland area over street names. Residents in N. Portland were non-plussed when one of the streets in their area was renamed for Rose Parks and Klan rallied took place in the state capital over a proposed MLK Jr street name there. The Chavez name change seems to have attracted all the disgruntled supremacists from these other lost battles as well as conservative elements in the neighborhood with their own long and sometimes violent racial histories. Worse the canceled neo-nazi concert may provide those with hate group affiliation more power and likelihood of violence in the next scheduled meetings.

So, in accordance with my friend’s request, I am asking my Portland readers (and you know you are out there) to spread the word about the next street change meeting. Please come out and support a non-violent atmosphere and a counter voice to the racism that has dominated these meetings.

The Meeting will be held at:

Oct 9, 2007
6:30 pm
6031 N. Montana
Portland OR

If you are not a Portland resident or you cannot attend this or the other scheduled meetings, you can still sign the petition: here

If you want to read up on some of the more level headed arguments (ie racism free or at least free of racial references) on both sides follow the links below:

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Street Name – Dear Chavez

  1. Just by way of encouragement: quite a few years ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors renamed a major thoroughfare after Cesar Chavez. Opponents got a measure onto the city ballot to reverse the name change but the voters upheld it, and it’s Cesar Chavez Boulevard to this day. (Getting the State Division of Highways to change the off-ramp signage took a while, but they complied eventually.)

  2. I think most major cities have a Chavez Avenue these days. I have certainly driven in many states with them in my travels. I think my friend is right to see more than a street name in this fight.

  3. Absolutely. I mentioned the San Francisco experience as a piece of evidence that while the racists and xenophobes may have high visibility, they aren’t necessarily able to prevail in a test at the polls. I suspect the level of white racism and nativism have increased since we had our Chavez renaming struggle, but I think it’s worth going to the voters and battling it out.

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