Street Smart

César’s Way

Changing N Interstate Ave’s name doesn’t do justice to César E. Chávez.

By Ethan Smith May 19, 2009 Published in the November 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

Street sign qeuice

IN A CITY as progressive as ours, the urge to embrace diversity comes naturally. So it’s no surprise that barely a year after Rosa Parks Way supplanted N Portland Blvd, there’s a movement afoot to rechristen N Interstate Ave as César E. Chávez Blvd. The proposal, brought to City Council by local Latino activists in September, offers a chance not only to honor a great labor leader, but to acknowledge and celebrate the city’s growing Latino population as well. It also presents Portland with an opportunity to get it completely wrong.

At public hearings held in North Portland in the fall, attendees heard a lot about the cost the proposed name change would impose on small businesses and the city. But these cash concerns ignore larger and more important questions: Should Portland name a street after Chávez in the first place? And is Interstate the right street?

Honorary streets are more than just memorials, says Derek Alderman, a professor at East Carolina University who has written extensively about the renaming of streets after Martin Luther King Jr. These streets symbolize what’s historically important to a city. Many Portland streets commemorate founders like John Couch and Asa Lovejoy, the loser of the coin toss that famously gave the city its name. That’s fine, except that the faces behind those early street namings are predominantly white. No street was named in honor of Beatrice Morrow Cannady, a civil rights activist who used her position as publisher of The Advocate in the 1920s and ‘30s to campaign for equal rights for the city’s African-Americans.

Portland can acknowledge the bias of its past and demonstrate its level of tolerance by renaming some streets after members of the communities it has historically ignored. Chávez represents one such group. "It’s a way to acknowledge Portland’s Latino community," says José Romero, who is leading the César E. Chávez Boulevard Committee’s push. "We’re here, and we have our customs, our culture. And we want to use them, and César, to connect with the greater community."

Born in Arizona in 1927, Chávez led a tenacious, nonviolent crusade for the rights of farmworkers that has earned him a place in the pantheon of American heroes. He founded the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers union) in 1962 and spent most of his life campaigning across the country, including several trips to Oregon. Chávez regularly consulted with Oregon’s farm and nursery workers union, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, and in 1971 he lent his support to the fight against Oregon legislation that would have prohibited farmworkers from striking and negotiating with farmers over pesticide exposure. Today, in a state where more than 98 percent of farmworkers are Latino, and in a city where Latinos make up the largest minority at roughly 8 percent of the population, Chávez’s significance cannot be ignored, says Romero.

Since his death in 1993, Chávez’s name has proliferated as a symbol of the labor movement. Nationwide, numerous streets are named after him, including major thoroughfares in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin; eight states have holidays in his honor. Until 1983, Oregon was home to Colegio César Chávez, a four-year bilingual university in Mount Angel. Eugene has a César Chávez Elementary School; Woodburn has a middle school library; Oregon State University even has a cultural center. Surely, Portland can manage a street.

On the surface, Interstate seems like the ideal place to memorialize Chávez: In all but one of the street’s surrounding neighborhoods, the Latino share of the population tops the city average, reaching as high as 17 percent in some areas (between 1990 and 2000, the number of Latinos in North Portland roughly doubled). But César E. Chávez Blvd should do more than merely recognize Portland’s Latinos; it should connect them to the rest of the city. As Alderman puts it, "We need to create public spaces that don’t just make us comfortable. It’s important that these streets challenge and penetrate old boundaries."

The right street, according to Alderman, is one that creates a bridge between neighborhoods with different economic and racial makeups—Broadway, for instance, which runs from Northeast Portland all the way through downtown and into the Southwest Hills. With such a street, the honoree is recalled daily by the whole population, regardless of race or class, and cross-cultural dialogue is fostered. The wrong street is one restricted to a poor or minority community, where it reinforces old lines of segregation.

Interstate Ave never leaves North Portland, an area that despite its current boom has long been one of the city’s poorest. The street once served as the western boundary of Portland’s "red-lined" area, the only portion of the city where real estate agents were allowed to sell homes to blacks. From 1916 to 1966, Interstate served as the main arterial connecting Oregon and Washington, until the construction of I-5 through Portland rendered the road obsolete. The motels that once served as clean, hospitable lodging for vacationing motorists degenerated into flophouses. While the opening of the $320 million MAX Yellow Line has helped the neighborhood revitalize, home values and household incomes along the Interstate corridor still fall far short of the city average.

Any street that truly seeks to break through Portland’s economic, racial and cultural barriers must span what many people consider the city’s most profound class boundary: the Willamette River. Property values and census data prove what Portlanders instinctively know: Districts on the west side of the river are whiter and richer than those on the east side. Renaming Interstate, or any other eastside street, after a figure like Chávez will only reinforce that divide.

Portland has made that mistake before. Like Interstate, Rosa Parks Way is confined to North Portland. So are Vancouver Ave and Williams Ave, which a 1980 proposal suggesting renaming in honor of Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, respectively. (The proposal was shot down for lack of neighborhood support.) MLK Jr Blvd was a crime-ridden road when it was changed from Union Ave in 1989, and until recently it simply connected one poor, minority neighborhood to another.

In some ways, with these precedents, the city has painted itself into a corner with regard to Interstate: Opposing a street for Chávez will leave politicians wide open to accusation of favoring one minority over another. Since the change has the mayor’s, as well as several city councilors’, support, it seems likely that the change will happen, despite strident opposition from many of Interstate’s neighborhood associations. But if Portland doesn’t attach Chávez’s name to a street that both literally and symbolically breaches the gap between poor, minority neighborhoods and their richer, whiter counterparts, the street won’t change attitudes; it’ll just change names.

Filed under