TWO WEEKS AGO, Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Sam Adams quietly convened a meeting with top-level city staff.
On the agenda: Reviving the effort to name a street for civil rights and labor leader César E. Chávez—a project that took several contentious turns last year, after members of Portland's Latino community initiated the project.
The original proposal—to rename Interstate Avenue for Chávez—drew neighborhood protests, racist comments (and accusations of racism) from all corners of the city, and ended with an ill-conceived last-ditch effort to swap the rename to 4th Avenue (through Chinatown). Ultimately, the city council squashed the whole project, sending it back to the César E. Chávez Boulevard committee. The council suggested the committee bring forth another proposal later—following the process laid out in the city code. Committee members like Marta Guembes responded by standing up in city council chambers and turning their backs on the council.
Six months later, it appears all sides have cooled off, and the committee and the city may be working together to honor Chávez in some way. "It's a collaborative effort right now," says Maria Lisa Johnson, director of the city's new Office of Human Relations. Guembes agrees: "You have to start a new conversation. So it's a different year, and a new conversation."
On June 12 in the mayor's office, commissioners' chiefs of staff, Johnson, and policy advisors from Adams' and Potter's offices met up with folks from the committee to have that new conversation, about "how we might be able to do this before Potter leaves office" in December, according to one staffer who attended the meeting.
"The interest of everyone in the room was to provide the best opportunity for the committee to go forward," explains Adams' Senior Policy Analyst Shoshanah Oppenheim. "The sense was, the code"—which outlines a process of signature gathering and vetting by the Portland Planning Commission and a panel of historians, among other things—"provides a tool to get to the end."
It's unclear which street the committee may set its sights on—or how many they may propose as rename candidates. According to Oppenheim, the code "doesn't specify what's in a [rename] application," indicating that the committee may be "putting an application forward with as many as three or more streets" and would gather signatures toward the entire effort.
According to Commissioner Nick Fish, it's possible the panel of historians would ultimately choose the street best suited to a rename, and send it to the city council for approval. Meanwhile, the city just reformatted the archaic rename application, which until now has only been available in hard-copy format from the Portland Department of Transportation (PDOT). It's now available via email, but PDOT's Kurt Krueger says the committee hasn't requested one yet.
Guembes says the committee is meeting regularly to decide what they'd like to do, before meeting with the city again. "We're looking through the code, and will be following what we need to follow." Guembes says she and others involved in the original effort "learned from it," and she's optimistic about this renewed effort. "I think it's going to be good."
Johnson, who was involved in the original committee's efforts, said it's too early to say what role the city's new Office of Human Relations will have in the process. "The group is currently in conversation with city folks. Yes, we will play a role, and that will be determined in the next few weeks," she says.