Since his death in 1993, Chávez’s name has proliferated as a symbol of the labor movement. Nationwide, numerous streets are named after him, including major thoroughfares in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin; eight states have holidays in his honor. Until 1983, Oregon was home to Colegio César Chávez, a four-year bilingual university in Mount Angel. Eugene has a César Chávez Elementary School; Woodburn has a middle school library; Oregon State University even has a cultural center. Surely, Portland can manage a street.
On the surface, Interstate seems like the ideal place to memorialize Chávez: In all but one of the street’s surrounding neighborhoods, the Latino share of the population tops the city average, reaching as high as 17 percent in some areas (between 1990 and 2000, the number of Latinos in North Portland roughly doubled). But César E. Chávez Blvd should do more than merely recognize Portland’s Latinos; it should connect them to the rest of the city. As Alderman puts it, "We need to create public spaces that don’t just make us comfortable. It’s important that these streets challenge and penetrate old boundaries."
The right street, according to Alderman, is one that creates a bridge between neighborhoods with different economic and racial makeups—Broadway, for instance, which runs from Northeast Portland all the way through downtown and into the Southwest Hills. With such a street, the honoree is recalled daily by the whole population, regardless of race or class, and cross-cultural dialogue is fostered. The wrong street is one restricted to a poor or minority community, where it reinforces old lines of segregation.
Street names tell us what’s historically important to a city.
Interstate Ave never leaves North Portland, an area that despite its current boom has long been one of the city’s poorest. The street once served as the western boundary of Portland’s "red-lined" area, the only portion of the city where real estate agents were allowed to sell homes to blacks. From 1916 to 1966, Interstate served as the main arterial connecting Oregon and Washington, until the construction of I-5 through Portland rendered the road obsolete. The motels that once served as clean, hospitable lodging for vacationing motorists degenerated into flophouses. While the opening of the $320 million MAX Yellow Line has helped the neighborhood revitalize, home values and household incomes along the Interstate corridor still fall far short of the city average.
Any street that truly seeks to break through Portland’s economic, racial and cultural barriers must span what many people consider the city’s most profound class boundary: the Willamette River. Property values and census data prove what Portlanders instinctively know: Districts on the west side of the river are whiter and richer than those on the east side. Renaming Interstate, or any other eastside street, after a figure like Chávez will only reinforce that divide.
Portland has made that mistake before. Like Interstate, Rosa Parks Way is confined to North Portland. So are Vancouver Ave and Williams Ave, which a 1980 proposal suggesting renaming in honor of Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, respectively. (The proposal was shot down for lack of neighborhood support.) MLK Jr Blvd was a crime-ridden road when it was changed from Union Ave in 1989, and until recently it simply connected one poor, minority neighborhood to another.
In some ways, with these precedents, the city has painted itself into a corner with regard to Interstate: Opposing a street for Chávez will leave politicians wide open to accusation of favoring one minority over another. Since the change has the mayor’s, as well as several city councilors’, support, it seems likely that the change will happen, despite strident opposition from many of Interstate’s neighborhood associations. But if Portland doesn’t attach Chávez’s name to a street that both literally and symbolically breaches the gap between poor, minority neighborhoods and their richer, whiter counterparts, the street won’t change attitudes; it’ll just change names.