THE BITTER THREE-YEAR FIGHT over a simple street name finally concluded last week with the installation of Portland's first César E. Chávez Blvd street sign along SE 39th.
The city's effort to rename a major Portland street after the famous activist and farm worker crumbled in controversy during 2007 after a push to rename Interstate Avenue spurred allegations of racism against opponents. The rename process kicked off for a second time last winter, this time with a professional consultant and eyes on 39th Avenue.
"Symbols are important and changing symbols is always controversial," Mayor Sam Adams told the large, mostly Latino crowd attending a ceremony held at Central Christian Church on Friday, January 29. The mayor thanked the "scrappy group of applicants" for their part in the rename, while paying tribute to the "honest opinions" of the most recent rename opposition group, Save 39th Avenue.
Just six months ago, Save 39th Avenue's members were questioning the immigration status of rename petitioners and investigating city street-renaming code. But on the day the long-debated new name actually unveiled, opposition leader and 39th Avenue neighbor William Schneider was on hand quoting Chávez.
"I fought fiercely to keep the street named the way it has been for 102 years. There was a lot of bitterness, but the healing has begun," Schneider told the crowd.
After city council approved the name change last July, Schneider says members of the city and Latino community approached him.
"After a lot of prayer and a lot of discussions with a lot of good people, I've decided it's time to end the street fight on 39th Avenue," he said.
Lead pro-Chávez advocate Marta Guembes was equally dramatic. "It has been a very, very hard three years. Today is a day for celebration, but we have to recognize that we worked through a lot of racism and hardships," said Guembes, nearly coming to tears.
City Council allocated $150,000 for the rename process, including $35,000 for a consultant.
As the street transitions to the new name, the 39th Avenue and César E. Chávez Blvd signs will coexist peacefully for the next five years.