Friday, February 27, 2009

What's In a Name?

Nationally and locally, we are mired in tough economic times. For most of us, it's a day-to-day slog just to keep our heads above water. Recently, the governor has suggested that schoolteachers could teach a few days for free. The state is facing its highest unemployment rate in more than two decades. Tri-Met is considering cutting vital bus lines that people depend on. School districts might shorten the school year. The book-loving community of Portland recently lost Twenty-Third Avenue Books -- an institution in Northwest Portland for almost 30 years -- to this economic struggle. These are merely a handful of examples. Yet in the midst of this economic hardship, some think the City of Portland can afford $150,000 to change the name of a major city street (Broadway, Grand, or 39th). And the $150,000 is only the cost to the city; it doesn't take into account the costs to individual businesses and even home owners on the impacted street to change stationery, business cards, ads, menus, brochures, websites, signage, and even the business names themselves (as in the case of Broadway Books, Broadway Floral, or Broadway Grill, to name just a few of the many examples).

I have no quarrel with honoring Cesar Chavez - the importance of his work as a labor leader and civil rights activist is not what I question. But I do question whether this is an appropriate time economically to be thinking about such a change. I believe even Mr. Chavez would be scratching his head asking "don't we have better things to spend our time and money on right now?" Perhaps there might be a better naming option, such as a park or building or statue or even farmer's market, rather than a street, given the number of people affected by a street name change and the massive costs involved. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 80 parks, squares, schools, streets, or libraries in this country currently named to honor this important man. And that's great. But do we really need another street, especially in these challenging economic times?

Broadway is one of the oldest streets in Portland. Northeast Broadway forms one border of the Registered Historic District of Irvington, and the downtown Broadway theater district has played a significant role in the city’s history. I'd hate to see us abandon our historical and cultural heritage by erasing a street name that has been such a significant part of Portland's history. I'm sure people living and working on the other streets under consideration could make similar arguments. Some might accuse me of racism. But I can assure you that if someone were to propose renaming Broadway after, say, Eleanor Roosevelt or F. Scott Fitzgerald – two Americans I also greatly admire – or even after my own grandparents, my response would be the same: definitely not now; probably never.

The final decision hasn't yet been made. Public hearings to discuss the historic significance of the three streets under consideration will be held soon (March 23rd for Grand, March 30th for Broadway, and April 6th for 39th) at locations to be announced. There has been no announcement of public opportunities to discuss the costs involved or the appropriateness of taking on such costs at this time, but we can only presume that there will be such opportunities. I encourage you to voice your feelings on this issue. And I hope that the dialogue can remain civil, respectful, and thoughtful.

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