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A Street By Any Other Name

Portland Boulevard Recently Changed to Rosa Parks Way. Interstate Might Change to César E. Chávez Boulevard. But are these Noble Gestures Violating Public Process?

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Early on Sunday morning, July 15, an Oregon Department of Transportation crew pulled over on I-5 near Exit 304, and swapped out the giant Portland Boulevard exit sign with a new one—Rosa Parks Way. It was the boldest manifestation yet of city council's vote last fall to rename Portland Boulevard for the civil rights movement icon—a vote that sidestepped the usual process for changing a street name.

The freeway signs capped several months of change, beginning with a ceremony last December, when a street sign at the corner of Portland Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was topped with a new, shiny green NE Rosa Parks Way sign. City Commissioner Dan Saltzman—flanked by representatives of Portland's African American community, including those from the Albina Ministerial Alliance, which championed the idea—was on hand to talk about why he led the city council to rename our city's eponymous street.

Saltzman got the idea to change the street's name at Cornerstone Community Church on NE Killingsworth in January 2006. Pastor B.E. Johnson "admonished me to consider two things," Saltzman explained at a April 2006 public hearing about the name change. "One was to make sure that we were doing right by African American youth in our city... The other message was we should consider renaming Portland Boulevard in honor of Rosa Parks."

Less than a year after Saltzman first heard Johnson's proposal, the street was renamed. But the name change—however noble—has been met with plenty of criticism. Over on Mayor Tom Potter's blog, all but one comment questioned the proposal. Tracy Weber, who lives on Rosa Parks Way, gathered signatures to protest the change this past spring, after she noticed the new street signs in late January. Protesters attended the renaming ceremony to complain that they hadn't been heard.

Weber, the woman who gathered signatures in protest of the change—she also happens to be my neighbor, since I moved to NE Portland a month ago—calls the change tokenism, as part of the "stampede to honor Rosa Parks" after her death. And the change happened fast: "Almost no one I knew heard about it," she says, pointing out that only 30 to 50 people attended the April 2006 public hearing, depending on which report you read. Weber didn't find out about the swap until she saw the new street signs on her block, this past January, when it was "over and done with." Residents got a note on March 23, 2007 about the change (there was also a letter sent in December 2006, but Weber says she and several other neighbors didn't get it).

It's no wonder residents were blindsided by the change: Saltzman circumvented city code to ram the idea through.

The city code has an entire section dedicated to renaming streets. There are two ways to do it: a long, involved citizen-initiated process, or a quick city council vote that can only be used in limited circumstances.

The citizen-initiated process involves filing an application with the city, gathering 2,500 signatures (or signatures from 75 percent of the street's property owners), assembling a biography of the honoree, paying a fee to notify neighbors, running the idea past a panel of historians, going before the city's planning commission, and—finally—swaying the city council.

Additionally, there are criteria for who a street can be renamed after. It must be a real, "prominent" person who has made a "significant, positive contribution to the United States of America and/or the local community." The person has to have been deceased for at least five years.

The other way to change a street name is via a city council vote. But according to city code, the council is only allowed to change a street name to "to correct errors in street names, or to eliminate confusion." In fact, the city code is very clear that the council cannot take it upon themselves to rename a street to honor a person: "Renaming of a street by the city under provisions of this paragraph shall not be undertaken to rename a street after a person."

But that's just what the city council, at Saltzman's behest, did on October 25, 2006—the one-year anniversary of Parks' death.

How did the council circumvent the street renaming process? They simply voted to waive the "Renaming Street" chapter of city code.

"There are good reasons for making exceptions to the rule," Commissioner Sam Adams said at the October 18 city council meeting where city commissioners initially voted on the proposal, pointing out that Bill Naito had only been dead for two months when Front Street was renamed for him in 1996.

At the same meeting, Saltzman made it clear that he wanted to fast track the Rosa Parks change. "Frankly, I think it would be fitting for us to act today in time for the one-year anniversary of her death. "It's the right location and it's the right time."

To be sure, process for process' sake is pointless. But waiving the official process entirely has consequences, leaving citizens in the dark on a change that will impact their lives—whether by confusing those who try to navigate the street (Google Maps is currently erroneous) or forcing those who live on the street to change their address as if they've moved.

"I was under the impression that our laws had to be followed by everyone, especially those that make the laws," Weber says. "They honored the mother of civil rights by taking away our rights."

Saltzman's chief of staff, Brendan Finn, says residents of Portland Boulevard were notified of the proposal in time to comment on it. "We wanted to hear from folks, their questions and concerns," he says. But ultimately, the city council made a judgment call. "We could have put [the Albina Ministerial Alliance] through the formality of having them collect signatures, but council had to make that call. Do we go through those procedures or is this just a good idea?" Finn explains. "It was a no-brainer to honor Rosa Parks in that way. That was the rationale. Is that right for every other street naming? I think council will have to decide that on a case-by-case basis."

At the same meeting where Adams signed off on an "exception," and Saltzman called for quick action, Mayor Potter hinted that he would support future street renaming.

"We're not done with the naming process in Portland. And we've got a lot of streets that I have no idea, other than perhaps they formed one of the states of the union, as to why they were named," he said, perhaps referring to streets like Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, and Montana, all near N Mississippi.

Which brings us to N Interstate—a main thoroughfare in North Portland. A committee of Latino residents would like to have it renamed for farm labor activist César E. Chávez, and have tapped Potter's office for assistance. So far, the committee has called on local neighborhood associations and businesses, but they haven't filed an application with the city to kick off the formal street renaming process. Will Interstate be renamed in the same way Portland Boulevard was—by a city council member who wants to make an "exception" to city code? Or will citizens—the residents around Interstate, and the city at large—have a meaningful chance to debate the proposal's merits?

José Romero, co-chair of the Chávez committee, had "heard there were some shortcuts taken with the other renaming," and stresses that his group wants to "get everybody on board, hopefully. We want to do it right, and we don't want to take any shortcuts. We believe in what we're doing, and we want to be sure that everyone has a time to hear and learn and get the information and make an informed decision."

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