Two city-sponsored forums on a proposal to rename North Interstate Avenue for César E. Chávez haven't even happened yet, but already Mayor Tom Potter is chastising neighbors for what he calls a lack of respect during discussions over the idea.
"César E. Chávez's work was rooted in his belief in peaceful and nonviolent action," Potter wrote in an open letter on September 26. "Unfortunately, this same legacy of respect was not present last week during a neighborhood discussion of a street commemoration in his name."
Potter was referring to a meeting of the Overlook Neighborhood Association, held September 18 at the Kaiser Town Hall on Interstate. There, the Chávez committee presented their proposal, and Overlook's neighbors had a chance to comment before voting on a motion to support it (the motion later failed).
Indeed, the meeting was heated. Neighbors are upset that the committee is presenting the rename idea to the community after securing the support of the mayor and most of the city commissioners, making it appear to be a "done deal" where neighbors' input doesn't matter. Others simply don't want the change, regardless of the process.
Several questions about the proposal weren't answered at the Overlook meeting, like why a street is the venue the committee chose to honor Chávez, and if there's a plan to mitigate "the economic impact on the businesses and homeowners along Interstate."
Chávez committee co-chair Jose Romero addressed the mitigation question, saying "not knowing what it's going to cost, the city says they will work things out over a period of years." His response prompted laughter throughout the crowded room. Moments later, committee co-chair Marta Guembes told the audience: "This is not easy for me as a Latina to be here with all you guys. I brought my children because I wanted them to see what a neighborhood association means, and I'm going to ask you kindly to be respectful. Don't laugh at us."
"People were angry," Guembes told the Mercury on Tuesday. "People made fun of us, they laughed. When I was walking out, a man told me, 'you fucking bitch.' There was anger; people were making fun of us. It was horrible. It was the worst experience that I've had in Portland."
She adds: "That was disrespectful, that was racist how we were treated. A lot of people who were in there were not racist, but there were some people who were. I want to make it very clear."
The day after the Overlook meeting, one neighbor in attendance sent an apology to the Chávez committee, via the city: "I do apologize for the anger in the room. It was not intended to be directed to you. I felt that the anger was intended for the city council and mayor who treat North Portland as an unwanted stepchild."
Guembes likens an apology like that to the cycle of domestic violence: "They feel awful, but it's the domestic violence cycle. There was violence, we got beat up with hate. And then there's a honeymoon—'We didn't mean to, I'm sorry, you're very good people.'"
Potter's staff heard about the tense meeting, and the mayor's spokesperson attended a second neighborhood meeting in Arbor Lodge on September 20. "We got a lot of feedback from the Overlook meeting," John Doussard says. "In the wake of the Overlook meeting, I wanted to hear Arbor Lodge first hand. I did not hear anything racist, though I know there were some folks who felt they heard some inappropriate comments. It was the kind of conversation you expect to hear when there are passionate people on both sides."
The mayor's letter, he says, was intended to "make sure that all future conversation had a civil tone and a respectful tone and that all people had a chance to be heard," adding that the mayor's staff "learned a lot of lessons from the Overlook meeting."
The official comment period isn't over, but dozens of comments have already landed at the mayor's office. The vast majority of them—all but eight so far—are opposed to the name change. Most civilly cite reasons like a lack of process ("stop using bully tactics and follow the law"), expense to businesses and taxpayers ("there are so many issues in this city that could desperately use that money"), or Interstate's historical connotations ("Interstate was the gateway to Oregon from Washington before I-5 was built") as reasons for opposing the change.
Several comments, though, are jarring, saying things like "this renaming of streets in North Portland reinforces the negative image this part of town has," "it's obvious that this is a 'knee-jerk' reaction to the Del Monte raids where a bunch of illegal immigrants were tossed back to Mexico," and "Portland is predominantly a white populated city, so why are you doing this?"
Still others have reacted to Potter's open letter: "Please don't ignore us and our opinions because of a few individuals who choose to make this a racial issue," one neighbor wrote. Another added: "Shame on you for setting the Chávez committee up to take your hits."