The Word on the Street : Tribute: Most people say Los Angeles should honor the late Cesar Chavez. But many are not sure renaming stretches of historic roads for him is the way to go about it.
Renaming seven miles of roadway on Los Angeles’ Eastside to honor Cesar Chavez “is the least we can do” for a man who spent his life working for others, said David Martinez, a colleague of the late union leader.
But Dean Zellman, who runs a business on the street that would become Avenida Cesar E. Chavez, contends that the city has chosen one of the city’s most historical streets--Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights--and would be wiping away the memories of the many Jews who lived there years ago and of the many Latinos who connect with the busy commercial strip today.
“Change 1st Street. Change 4th Street. There are many parks,” Zellman said. “Mr. Chavez must be honored, but not at the expense of others’ heritage.”
There was little disagreement at a public hearing held by city and county officials Monday that Chavez deserves a prominent tribute in the state’s largest city. But the proposed renaming of a commercial strip that runs from Downtown through Boyle Heights and unincorporated East Los Angeles to Monterey Park has drawn mixed reviews.
Put forth by several Latino politicians, the plan would rename portions of Brooklyn Avenue, Macy Street and Sunset Boulevard in honor of the former United Farm Workers leader who died April 22.
The busy commercial route was chosen for its symbolic value, backers say. Starting at Olvera Street, the city’s birthplace, the street would extend to East Los Angeles College.
The route links the political turf of Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is sponsoring the change in the County Board of Supervisors, and Councilman Richard Alatorre, the city’s chief sponsor. A small stretch of Sunset Boulevard was added so Councilman Mike Hernandez’s district would be included.
“It’s important that we recognize a leader like Cesar Chavez, who preached nonviolence and raised the whole nation’s conscience dealing with farm workers,” said Robert Alaniz, Molina’s spokesman. “Change is never easy and some people don’t cope well with change.”
Citing concerns ranging from the economic to the historical, hundreds of opponents of the name change have circulated petitions attempting to block the move. They showed up in force at Monday’s hearing but were outnumbered by members of the United Farm Workers and other supporters.
Some critics complain about the cost of changing stationary and the confusion that the new name would cause, while others say Brooklyn Avenue is a part of the city’s past that ought to be preserved.
“It would devastate me,” said Manny Zellman, 74, whose grandfather opened a men’s store on Brooklyn in 1921. “This name Brooklyn Avenue is a part of our lives here. Chavez is a great man and he did a lot for Mexicans and farm workers, but Brooklyn Avenue is part of history.”
The street was once the commercial and social center of the city’s Jewish community and today fills the same role for the Latinos of Boyle Heights. The only remaining synagogue is shuttered because of earthquake damage and covered with graffiti. The delicatessens and bakeries of years past have been replaced with carnicerias and panaderias.
Zorina Castanon, 20, is part of the street’s new generation. She said she appreciates the work Chavez has done for fellow Latinos. Still, she would rather see a memorial somewhere else.
“Brooklyn Avenue is Boyle Heights,” she said. “You just can’t change that.”
There are similar complaints along the short stretch of Sunset, where business owners complain that they would lose their prestigious addresses.
“It is a street that is known throughout the world and the mere mention of that street connotes prestige and familiarity,” attorney Everett L. Spriggs, whose firm has offices on Sunset, wrote to the city. “There is probably no street in Los Angeles that is better known.”
Despite the criticism, supporters of the plan intend to push ahead. The proposal, approved by the Monterey Park City Council, has received a tentative go-ahead from the County Board of Supervisors and City Council. Official votes from both bodies are expected in the next two weeks.
Supporters say Chavez deserves a major tribute for work that went far beyond the Latinos of the fields. Groups supporting the change include Mothers of East Los Angeles, various labor unions and Amnesty International.
The supporters contend that street name changes often prompt cries of outrage, citing protests in 1982 when Santa Barbara Avenue became Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
In that case, opponents fought the change all the way to the California Supreme Court, but it occurred anyway and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, one of the city’s longest street names, caught on.
Many of the arguments this time are the same ones heard during the earlier debate: the cost of printing stationary and new advertisements, and the confusion customers will face.
“Street name changes confuse the customer, upset our advertising budget and have in the past adversely affected our gross sales,” said Tom Grossman, director of real estate for National Dollar Stores, which has a store on Brooklyn.
For Sergio Rodriguez, 65, the change is personal. He took over Cohen’s Dress Shop in 1967 and promised the previous owner he would keep the name. The street out front will remain the same in his mind as well, regardless of what the politicians say.
“There are certain things you just can’t do,” he said, surveying the busy street during the lunch hour. “It’s not a matter of being Jewish or being Latino. It’s a matter of Brooklyn Avenue being Brooklyn Avenue.”
A proposal to create Avenida Cesar Chevez by renaming parts of several streets has drawn opposition. The portion in question runs from Figueroa Street through Boyle Heights and unincorporated East Los Angeles to Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park.