Chavez Street: a Route to Discord in S.F.


Each morning, the young Latina women walk up the hill from the Mission district, past the orange-and-black signs that proclaim "Save Army Street," to care for the children and clean the houses of Noe Valley.

Crossing a great cultural divide, they leave the colorful barrio where Cesar Chavez is a hero and enter the tidy streets and Victorian homes where, these days, the name of the late farm worker leader is a nagging annoyance.

In death, just as in life, Chavez has become a symbol of growing Latino power--and something of a threat to those Californians who fear the world is changing too fast.

San Francisco prides itself on its tolerance and diversity, but this year's decision by the Board of Supervisors to change the name of Army Street to Cesar Chavez Street has turned surprisingly divisive. Longtime residents of mostly white Noe Valley--up in arms over the change--have placed an initiative on the city's Nov. 7 ballot that would erase Chavez's name from street signs along the three-mile roadway.

"People just want to hold on to something," observed Rick Stewart, a 27-year-old technology writer who moved to Cesar Chavez Street this summer. "A lot of white people here feel like they don't have much they can hold on to--even if it's just the name Army Street."

Linked by the controversial boulevard, the Mission district and Noe Valley sit side-by-side, strikingly different but economically intertwined. It's as if East Los Angeles and Santa Monica were jammed together, with the taquerias of Whittier Boulevard a 15-minute stroll from the Santa Monica Pier.

In San Francisco, a city without a majority ethnic group, the fight over Cesar Chavez Street is yet another fragment of the cultural clash that has swept California in recent months, from the battle over Proposition 187 to the rollback of affirmative action to the O.J. Simpson trial backlash.

For residents of the two neighborhoods, the name change is much more than a matter of nomenclature; it goes to the very root of who they are as people.

Latinos in the Mission district say it is important to commemorate their hero, a selfless man of nonviolence who founded the United Farm Workers union and used boycotts, fasts and civil disobedience to improve the lives of migrant laborers. Honoring Chavez--who died in 1993 at the age of 66--is also a way of recognizing the contributions of San Francisco's 100,000 Latinos, they say.

"The meaning of having Cesar Chavez Street is that it signifies we have a place here too," said Mission Street grocer Maria Payan in Spanish. "If they change it back now that they have already made the switch, it's like saying, 'You don't have a place here. You don't have any value here.' "

But to property manager Diane Withelder, a resident of the contested street active in the drive to restore its original name, imposing the sobriquet of Cesar Chavez is a personal affront.

"Army Street's part of my identity, my name and my address," she said. "And also I have nothing against the Army like a lot of the people seem to."

What's more, she contends, business people such as her will bear the burden of paying for the change, with new stationery and business cards that will add up to thousands of dollars.

"I'm not sure what the value is except to divide the community," Withelder said. "We were living harmoniously before. Now we're on two sides of the issue."

By any measure, Cesar Chavez Street is an unglamorous avenue to be the subject of all this wrangling.

Starting at a container shipping terminal on San Francisco Bay, it is a major artery that feeds warehouses and industrial firms, then passes within a block of the decaying Potrero Hill housing project where O.J. Simpson grew up.

When the street meets U.S. 101, it becomes a teeming six-lane thoroughfare serving as the gateway to the Mission district, passing crowded two-story homes, another bleak housing project and young Latino men gathered on street corners hoping for a day's work.

Among these laborers, the new name is very popular: "I like Cesar Chavez," says Carlos Sanchez, a husky 24-year-old Mexican immigrant standing on a sidewalk amid the exhaust of cars and buses. "He was a good man. Cesar Chavez is a good name for this street. I don't see why they want to change it."

From the Mission district flatlands, Cesar Chavez Street heads up the hill to Noe Valley, where for a few blocks it turns into a two-lane, tree-lined avenue of well-kept houses. Some of the city's old-line Irish American and Italian American families have dwelt here for decades.

Mary Corbin, for one, has lived on the street for half a century and refuses to use the new name. She feels so strongly she has put two "Save Army Street" placards in her front windows.

"It's been Army Street for 145 years," she said as she walked home from the corner store with a bag of groceries. "I'm not against change, but what are we going to do, change street names after everyone who comes along?"

Corbin rejects the notion that Chavez Street foes are motivated by bigotry. "I don't see it as a race thing," she says. "We can name a library or a park after him."

Like other Army Street fans, she contends that the name is a part of history--although its historic value is disputed. The street was named in 1851 by a wealthy developer who called parallel roads Navy and Clipper--all part of an apparent attempt to get the military to drain swamps on his vast holdings. Navy Street officially became 26th Street years ago.

In recent times, San Francisco has renamed more than a dozen streets after some of the city's literary and artistic figures, creating Mark Twain Plaza, Dashiell Hammett Street, Isadora Duncan Lane and Jack Kerouac Street, among others. Little opposition to the new names surfaced--indeed, some prompted civic celebration--but most of the artists' lanes are only a block long.

In adopting Cesar Chavez Street in January, the Board of Supervisors tried to appease opponents by continuing to recognize the Army name for five years, giving businesses a chance to use up their old stationery before ordering goods bearing the new appellation. And to ease the transition, all of the altered street signs bear the old title in small letters under the new.

Even so, San Francisco is having more trouble naming a street after Chavez than Los Angeles did. The city and county of Los Angeles turned a seven-mile stretch of Brooklyn Avenue on the Eastside into Avenida Cesar Chavez last year, and the protests of business owners have since faded away.

Now it remains to be seen whether San Franciscans--besides voting for a mayor--will side next month with the 18,000 people who signed the petitions to put Proposition O on the ballot and save Army Street. It will be a test for residents who value the city's historical roots but also respect its immigrant heritage.

Indeed, since the days of the Barbary Coast, San Francisco has been famous for its tolerance. In recent decades, it has accepted beatniks, hippies, gays and lesbians, and immigrants from all over the world.

When Californians last year voted 59% to 41% to approve Proposition 187 and deny public services to illegal immigrants, San Francisco opposed the measure 71% to 29%.

Today, San Francisco's population of 724,000 is 47% white, 28% Asian, 14% Latino and 11% black. More than 100 languages and dialects are spoken here, as Mayor Frank Jordan likes to point out, and the city is noted for such ethnic enclaves as Chinatown, North Beach and the Mission district.

Founded in 1776 five days before the United States, the Mission district is San Francisco's oldest neighborhood--and one that has witnessed constant change.

It sprang up near Mission Dolores, the sixth in the chain of missions founded by Father Junipero Serra, and by 1900 it was a posh district where wealthy residents built mansions and summer homes. The neighborhood survived the 1906 earthquake relatively unscathed, but homeless residents--many of them Irish American--poured in from other sections of the damaged city, dividing stately homes into flats and changing the district's character.

By the 1950s, Irish American residents began migrating to other neighborhoods--including Noe Valley--and Latino residents began arriving in large numbers from Mexico, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Today the Mission district is a lively, bustling place with scores of brightly painted murals, pan dulce in store windows and a new wave of immigrants: Asian Americans.

Neighboring Noe Valley--a small valley in the hills west of the Mission district--takes its name from Jose Noe, who got it in an 1845 Mexican land grant.

In recent years, the old Irish American and Italian American families have been joined by young doctors, lawyers and other professionals who favor Noe Valley's sunny weather as a place to raise families. The influx has been so great that some call it "Stroller Valley."

Notwithstanding an explosion of espresso shops, Noe Valley has tried to fight off big-city change, beating back rezoning that would have opened new commercial space and resisting chain outlets.

"I'll tell you what makes it special," said Harry Aleo, a Noe Valley realtor for 47 years. "It has its own kind of charm. It's like you're in a small town somewhere."

These days, the gray-haired realtor who favors plaid shirts is leading the fight against what he sees as the latest assault on Noe Valley. From his office on bustling 24th Street, he has circulated petitions, passed out leaflets and distributed the ubiquitous "Yes on O, Save Army Street" signs.

"Changing Army Street's name was strictly a political railroad job by the Board of Supervisors to satisfy special-interest groups," his leaflets assert.

But down the hill in the Mission district, Latinos feel their heritage has long been neglected by the rest of the city and see the effort to deny them Chavez Street as racist.

"I think the opposition has to do with race," said Francisco Herrera, catechism director at St. Peter's Church. "I don't think there would have been so much of a problem if they wanted to change it to John Wayne."

Martha Estrella, a lifelong Mission resident who teaches at the newly renamed Cesar Chavez Elementary School, agrees: "Racism is just ignorance," she says, "and people in Noe Valley are ignorant."

Standing beneath a huge mural of Chavez being painted on the school wall, the impassioned teacher says honoring the labor leader has great personal meaning. "He is a reflection of who I am," she says. "He is one of the few heroes that people have acknowledged outside the Latino community. He was a man of peace, of great virtue."

Like other Chavez supporters, she favors placing his name on a major roadway that extends far beyond the Mission because, in life, his reach was so great.

"It's important because Cesar Chavez helped many people, not just Latinos," she said. "For them [opponents] to put it on the ballot is so ludicrous. For what? A few people who don't want to change their business cards? It's so unusual for San Francisco to be acting like this."

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