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What does it take to name a street after Cesar Chavez?

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This small sign designates Commerce Street as Cesar Chavez Memorial Way; now imagine it as an official green sign hanging over a traffic light.

On March 26 at noon the annual Cesar Chavez March will start at 1321 El Paso and wind down Commerce Street, as it has since 1997. But next year, marchers hope that Commerce Street will bear the name of the Latino labor rights leader and hero who died in 1993.

Small brown-and-white signs indicate Commerce is also known as Cesar Chavez Memorial Way, but that is only an honorary designation, not an official street name; activists see that designation as a token gesture intended to appease them, rather than pay genuine tribute to Chavez. (East Houston Street has an honorary designation as Rosa Parks Way.)

Six years after the first attempt to rename Commerce Street, a coalition of labor groups, academia, students, business owners, and residents are rekindling the idea. The United Farm Workers and other organizations floated the proposal in 1999, but it failed to gain traction after letters opposing the change appeared in the Express-News, says the UFW's Rebecca Flores.

"A lot of racism crept up," Flores says. "And the City leadership thought that was the will of the people."

The name game

Cesar Chavez Boulevard has a better ring to it than many of the 7,139 area street names that have been reserved through the U.S. Postal Service. Some are so dreadful you'd be ashamed to address an envelope.

Are you afraid to drive by Ambush Point? Then stroll down Clairvoyant Drive and you'll know ahead of time if someone is lying in wait. Concepción Way could be a version of lovers' lane, or depending on your viewpoint, an extension of Doggie Trail.

Foe Lane is nowhere near Grass Fight, and we wish Hallelujah Drive intersected with Halo Circle. Someone with a sweet tooth chose Pecan Pie, Pecan Shell, and French Toast, while a different predilection inspired Gin View Lane.

It's hard to imagine an Eskimo Forest, since there are few trees near the Arctic Circle; certain homebuilders have bulldozed dozens of trees in San Antonio subdivisions; perhaps this street lies within a Pulte Development.

Expect to hear a symphony of car alarms, barking dogs, and thumping car stereos along Ruidoso Chase; ruidoso translates to "noisy" in Spanish.

Ex-Spurs are honored at the former Kelly Air Force Base: Steve Kerr, Steve Smith, and Malik Rose drives. And you know you're in the service when the streets start sounding like a drill sergeant: Fort Sam Houston and Brooks Air Force Base have reserved Selfless Court, Incentive and Initiative roads, and Flight Nurse.

And in the just plain weird department: Nolichucky, Rosin Jaw Drive, and Big Mouth Way.

By Lisa Sorg
The coalition has contacted the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and City officials, all of whom seem receptive to renaming a street, Flores says. However, coalition member Eric Lane explains that if there is strong opposition to renaming Commerce Street, then Airport Boulevard might be an alternative. "So many hearts are set on Commerce Street," Lane says, "but we have to be ready with other options. The beauty of Airport Boulevard is that the name means nothing. There aren't many businesses, it's highly visible, and international in scope."

Renaming a street requires clearing many bureaucratic hurdles:

Applicants must pay a $250 non-refundable fee to the Street Name Change Coordinator in the Development Services Center.

Copies of the request are sent to the U.S. Post Office, City Public Works, the Historic Design and Review Commission, and the fire and police departments. Bexar Metro 9-1-1 and City Public Service receive courtesy letters.

If the postal service approves the request, Development Services sends a letter to the applicant advising them of the cost of replacing the signs and asking them to pay. City Council can also vote to foot the bill with discretionary funds.

Thirty days after receiving the request, the City holds a public hearing, coordinated through the Council District through which the street runs. Notices are sent to all property owners, residences, and businesses affected by the change.

A Committee comprised of the directors of public works and development services, the Council representative, the Assistant City Attorney, and a community representative listens to testimony.

If approved, the street is renamed. If denied, the sign replacement cost is refunded to the applicant.

Debbie Allen, who works in the City's GIS Department, which handles renaming streets, says the cost to replace a corner sign is $58 and $80 for a hanging one, such as those over traffic signals. Last year, Allen says her department received six requests to rename streets; it granted one. The U.S. Post Office also must approve requests; it rejects suggested names often because they resemble existing street names.

If the proposal to rename Commerce Street were approved, the City's Public Works department would be responsible for replacing the 175 signs that mark the 14-mile thoroughfare. According to Monica Ramos, Public Works spokesperson, the replacements would cost about $25,000; the money would come from the City's General Fund.

San Antonio lags behind several cities, including Austin, San Francisco, and Pontiac, Michigan, which have renamed major thoroughfares after Chavez. "What is the political fallout on doing this?" asks Flores. "I don't understand it. But when they `the letter-writers` say we should name the Produce Market after him, you know where that's coming from."

By Lisa Sorg


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