The City Council voted Wednesday to rename 39th Avenue as Cesar Chavez Boulevard after a two-year debate that brought charges of racism and government heavy-handedness, and groans from residents who wanted the late Hispanic labor leader honored elsewhere.
There are about 650 homes and many small businesses along the street that runs seven miles through areas ranging from blue-collar neighborhoods to the busy Hollywood district and the posh Laurelhurst area, none heavily Hispanic.
A city survey showed 39th Avenue residents who responded to a poll opposed the renaming 694-91.
Wednesday’s 5-0 council vote may leave bruises on largely white Portland, but the tone was less anti-immigrant than when a 2007 attempt to rename multiethnic and blue-collar Interstate Avenue was scrapped. Property owners there said, among less polite things, that it would cost them heavily to change stationery, advertising and more. A poll there turned up opposition roughly equal to the dissent along 39th.
But Hispanics are easily Portland’s fastest-growing minority, and nothing had been named after their heroes until now. About 25 other cities have streets named after Chavez, and eight states mark his birthday as a holiday.
The city planning commission had voted 7-1 in favor of renaming 39th Avenue. “We have to make decisions that will hurt people emotionally,” commissioner Lai-Lani Ovalles said at the time.
In 1989, Portland renamed Union Avenue after Martin Luther King Jr. after a racially tinged debate. It remains Union Avenue today in some more traditional minds.
More recently and with less fuss, the city renamed a street Rosa Parks Parkway.
The attempt to rename Interstate Avenue, championed by former Mayor Tom Potter, ran into other trouble when it end-ran the process for doing so.
To launch the process, Portland now requires the signatures of 75 percent of the affected residents, which would have been at least difficult on 39th Avenue, or signatures of 2,500 residents citywide, rarely a problem in a town plump with activists.
Lai-Lani Ovalles joined the Planning Commission in July 2008. She works with the Native American Youth and Family Center as the Indigenous Organizing Coordinator. She coordinates Native professional development, leadership initiatives and networking events, as well as the Native Leaders Roundtable. Lai-Lani believes in the power of culture, creativity and indigenous knowledge to guide in the creation of a just and peaceful world.