Bill Mildenberger Jr., manager of the Nite Hawk Café & Lounge on N Interstate, was "completely shocked" when he first heard about the proposal to rename Interstate Avenue after César E. Chávez.
Having first heard the idea less than two months ago, he called around the city, and found out that officials were "going to try to deflect the effort to honor Chávez by renaming a school or a park—move the effort from Interstate to a different venue," Mildenberger says. He then went on vacation for a week.
When he returned, "the momentum had changed," he says, and the move to rename Interstate was moving forward. One possible reason? New Seasons Market—one of the biggest businesses on Interstate, with a store across the street from the Nite Hawk—threw its support behind the proposal in a July 19 letter to Mayor Tom Potter.
"New Seasons Market looks to its neighbors for guidance on questions such as this and it is my understanding that all the adjacent neighborhood associations have expressed their support for this proposal," CEO Brian Rohter wrote. "We would be very honored to tell our customers that they could find us at 6400 N César E. Chávez Boulevard, especially since we could also tell them that we're located at the corner of Rosa Parks [Way] and César E. Chávez Boulevard. What a great way for Portland to recognize these two outstanding American role models!"
"That's why this has gained the momentum," Mildenberger says. "Politically, New Seasons is in support of it." The Chávez committee, he says, had told Rohter that the neighborhood supported the idea, and "he took it at face value." Rohter declined to comment. Jose Romero, chair of the Chávez Committee, says Jose Romero, chair of the Chavéz committee, says Rohter's letter "is based on what we told him." .
The problem is, the neighborhood associations along Interstate have yet to throw their support behind the proposal. Of the three neighborhood associations that line Interstate—Kenton, Arbor Lodge, and Overlook—only one has weighed in so far, to a very limited degree. The board of the Kenton Neighborhood Association (KNA), speaking only for themselves, wrote a letter of support in July.
"It is with great pleasure that I write this letter on behalf of the board of the Kenton Neighborhood Association in support of the committee working to rename Interstate Ave. to César E. Chávez Blvd." wrote KNA board member Doretta Schrock—a woman who also sits on the Chávez committee.
Penny Schumacher, a Kenton resident, attended the September 12 KNA board meeting to inquire about the letter. "I just wanted to go to find out what really was behind it, and if they were willing to clarify that they weren't speaking for the neighborhood, they were only speaking for themselves," Schumacher says. "They weren't willing to do that."
KNA Chair Aaron Gray says the letter only represents how the board feels about the proposal. The board, however, will not be formally seeking the rest of Kenton's input. "The Kenton Neighborhood Association has decided not to try and support a full neighborhood process because our position is the city should be supporting a full neighborhood process," an effort that Gray says involves the expense of a mailed notification. He's been pointing any residents that call him about the issue toward forthcoming October forums the city and the Chávez committee are organizing.
Meanwhile, Overlook and Arbor Lodge's neighborhood associations are holding meetings on September 18 and 20 respectively, to decide whether or not to support the proposal. Word has gotten around those neighborhoods, and residents are anticipating packed meetings.
"No one supports it," says Mildenberger, who plans to attend the meetings. "Of all the businesses I've called—which I can't even count on my fingers and toes—one is in support, the rest aren't."
Schumacher and other neighbors say the majority of residents don't support the proposal either, and would rather see Chávez honored with a public building, or a new street. "For almost 100 years it's been Interstate," Schumacher says. "There's businesses named after it, we call it the Interstate Corridor, the MAX is named for it. It's a bigger thing than just changing the name, it's changing the whole community."
Rohter, at New Seasons, posted a note to the company's blog on September 5, tempering the store's support: "We think on issues like this our role is to support the desires of our neighbors who live in the community. If the neighborhood associations endorse this proposal we'll get behind it too. We hope they do, because we feel that local recognition for the great civil rights work that César Chávez did is overdue."
Mildenberger, for his part, says that if Arbor Lodge and Overlook decide to oppose the rename this week, he'll ask New Seasons to "please reverse your position and please do it in a public way, and we'll go from there." Meanwhile, Romero of the Chavéz committee says he hopes the opposite will happen—that the neighborhoods will sign on, and New Seasons will support the project. Plus, he says, Rohter "promised that when it was all said and done we're going to have a big party in his parking lot," Romero says.