Page One

Which Way to Cesar Chavez?

Tuesday April 15, 2003

City Council’s effort to rename a major Berkeley street in honor of labor leader Cesar Chavez may be headed for a bump in the road.  

At its meeting April 8, the council unanimously approved the creation of a council subcommittee to study which major street, or streets, would be a good candidate for a possible name change. 

So far, possibilities include Ashby and University avenues and Gilman and Sacramento streets. One proposal would change two streets — Gilman and Sacramento, which nearly connect in northwest Berkeley — into one continuous Cesar Chavez Street, which would give the street a prized freeway sign. 

Depending on which street, or streets, is chosen, the proposal will likely meet with some opposition because of the potentially high cost to tax payers for changing the name during a budget crunch. It also might upset small business owners who would have to pay for new stationery and possibly lose business because of customer confusion. 

Once a street is chosen, the Council will vote on the proposal and the name change would likely occur within a few years. 

Sacramento Street appears to have the most support for the name change. The street has few businesses and connects with Market Street in Oakland, which is also being considered for a change to Cesar Chavez Street, according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington. 

Frederico Chavez, a nephew of Cesar Chavez who lives in Berkeley, said Sacramento Street is an excellent choice because it was the unofficial color barrier in Berkeley from the 1930s through the 1950s. “People of color in Berkeley knew not to go east of Sacramento Street,” he said. 

Worthington said there is a symbolic advantage to Sacramento Street.  

“It runs parallel with Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, which seems appropriate,” he said.  

The last major street to have its name changed in Berkeley was Grove Street, which is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. The change, which occurred in the mid-1980s, was also controversial. 

The cost to change a street name runs anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000, according to a public works spokesman. He said changing the name of a street that intersects with a freeway, such as Ashby and University avenues and Gilman Street, could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more because of the expense of changing freeway signs. 

Worthington argued that Cesar Chavez had a huge and lasting impact on the labor movement and deserves to be honored with a street in the city.  

“We would like to honor the Latino community and Cesar Chavez for his fight to establish social justice and labor reform,” said Worthington, who sponsored the recommendation. “Besides that, he spent a lot of time in Berkeley. He came here often to raise money, organize and also relax.” 

Business owners and managers said they have nothing against Cesar Chavez, but are concerned because they will have to spend money to change stationery, business cards, advertising and Web sites. They will also have to take time to notify vendors, clients and customers.  

“I’m sure the owner would be opposed,” said Gerald Acree, manager of Westbrae Nursery. “The nursery has been here since 1911 and we’re known as Westbrae on Gilman.” 

Toots Sweets Fine Desserts manager Catherine Avila said the bakery, located at 1277 Gilman St., has also long been associated with Gilman Street, and a change could cause confusion for new customers not familiar with the area.  

“It would be a big hassle,” Avila said. “Right now we are getting ready to send out a $700 mailer that will be useless if the street name is changed.” 

Councilmember Betty Olds said she has doubts about changing Gilman Street’s name because of the hardship it would work on small businesses.  

“I don’t think Mr. Chavez would want to hurt small businesses. They have a tough enough time as it is,” she said. “I think Sacramento Street would be better, but the best thing would be to put the name change on the ballot. Why should the council decide this?” 

Frederico Chavez said there have been negotiations with several print shops that are willing to help small businesses with price breaks. “We are sensitive to the concerns of small businesses and we understand that there should be a reasonable amount of time that the new name is present along with the old for a transition period,” he said. 

In 1995 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously changed Army Street to Cesar Chavez Street, touching off a citywide controversy.  

The supervisors didn’t take into account the attachment longtime city residents had to the name Army Street, and more important, they didn’t consider the cost of changing the freeway signage where Cesar Chavez Street intersects with Highway 101. 

Within weeks of their decision, the board was hit with a petition with over 18,000 signatures calling for a ballot measure and a Caltrans estimate of just under $1 million to change the freeway signs. The measure was finally approved by voters and the street name was changed. But resentment lingers in some Mission District neighborhoods nearly eight years later. 

Worthington said the council is aware of what happened in San Francisco and intends to avoid a similar situation.  

“Instead, we want to meet and have community input so it’s not a surprise to people like it was in San Francisco,” he said.