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Wednesday, June 23,2010

Si se puede, maybe

Lansing not doing well on its second try to name a street after Cesar Chavez

by Gretchen Cochran

An effort to name a segment of Grand River Avenue in Old Town after the Cesar Chavez appears to be stuck for the moment.


Dueling Facebook pages give some clues as to why. But nearly everyone polled said they wanted to find some way to honor the late founder of the United Farm Workers’ union — if not a street, then perhaps a public gathering place in Old Town, or even the new Lansing City Market.


The Lansing for Cesar E. Chavez Committee set out nearly a year ago to re-name a 2.8 mile stretch of Grand River Avenue between Oakland Avenue and Pine Street for the activist. But the Old Town Commercial Association opposes the street name change.


The OTCA executive committee and the Chavez committee met June 16 to seek a compromise but the OTCA would not budge.


“We’re waiting now to hear back from the Chavez committee,” said Brittney Hoszkiw, executive director of the OTCA. The committee is scheduled to meet again June 27.


“I just don’t know what to expect,” Elva Reyes, the Chavez spokeswoman, said of her board.


Fourth
Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko tried in May to bridge the developing
crack between the two groups by hosting a gathering at Perspective 2 in
Old Town.


“Lansing’s
history is starting to repeat itself,” she said sadly, referring when
in 1995 citizens voted to rescind the Chavez name for Grand Avenue only
a year after the Council had approved it.


“It
was devastating,” said Reyes. “It left a black cloud over our
community. First we were feeling embraced, then we were rejected.”


Now
15 years later, the Latino group hoped the climate would be better, so
members began talking with business owners along Grand River Avenue.
Then in December, Lansing City Council passed a new ordinance
simplifying the process. A group or person can change a street name by
filing an application and paying for postage to notify the affected.
The application would go to the city’s Memorial Review Board. But if
the body does not act within 90 days, the application goes to Council.
Council holds a public hearing and then make a decision.


“The
Memorial Review Board has not had a quorum for a couple of years,” City
Clerk Chris Swope said. Some say the board has not had a quorum because
there have been no nominations. Though, at Monday’s Council meeting,
Maria Starr was a new appointee.


The
Chavez proposal could be referred to Council at its first meeting in
July. Council must hold a public hearing within 60 days. After that,
Council may make a decision.


First
Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt, who represents Old Town, did not return a
phone call seeking comment. But Yorko (after the street crosses the
Grand River, it enters into the Fourth Ward) expressed concern for both
sides. Her preference would be for the street to have both names, as
was the case during a transition between Logan Street and MartinLuther King Jr. Boulevard.


But the two sides are not listening to one another, so there is an assumption of disrespect, she said.


Summer Schriner, 31, proprietor of Grace, said the Old Town store owners felt blindsided.


“Businesses
are hanging on by the skin of their teeth,” she said, noting the
expense of reprinting business cards, stationery and other materials.


Regarding
Yorko’s street signs with both names, Schriner said she thought Old
Town could do better. She liked the idea of renaming the parking area
now called Lot 56 in which various festivals take place.


“We can find something positive,” Schriner said.


If
Facebook is a barometer, Chavez Avenue is in trouble. On June 21, 700
people “liked” the Michigan for Preserving Grand River Avenue page
compared with 160 for Lansing Citizens in Favor of a Cesar Chavez
Avenue in Old Town. On the other hand, Reyes says she has nearly 500
letters or signatures of support for the street name change.


But
there is another idea.


Buried in the discussion pages of the Preserving
Grand River Avenue site is a comment from Liz Homer, former curator of
the Turner Dodge House. She took part in the nationwide grape and
lettuce boycotts led by Chavez in the 1960s.


“As
an activist volunteer weekly going around to markets checking and
reporting on the origin of their grapes and lettuce for the boycott
committee, somehow I think Chavez should be remembered for that — for
his fight on behalf of agricultural farm workers.


“The
Lansing City Market fits in with what he stood for…(Imagine) a memorial
set up in a way to remind all those entering, including the school
children, of this history and the deeds of Chavez and the farm workers
involved in bringing the agricultural products to them.”


Market
manager John Hooper said he had not heard of the idea but would be open
to a discussion, particularly the naming of the outdoor pavilion
between the market and the river.


In his letter of support for the street name change, Pablo’s Panaderia owner Pablo Maldonado referred to Chavez’ history.


“Americans
today continue to eat healthier fruits and vegetables because of his
efforts to reduce the use of high level toxic pesticides in our food
sources, that I use daily in my restaurant,” Maldonado wrote.


The
issue is a sensitive one, particularly when an Arizona “copycat”
immigration law is before the Michigan legislature that would
particularly affect Latino migrant farm workers. Reyes had already been
to see House Speaker Andy Dillon seeking his opposition.


“We
want everyone to know this is so much bigger than the street,” Reyes
said. “It would be an acknowledgement we worked here, lived here and we
died here.”

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