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November 28th, 2007 HENRY STERN | News Stories
 

Pity Hall

A little historical balm for City Council if it’s feeling like idiot council after the ChÁvez fiasco.

     
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IMAGE: Dennis Culver

After City Council gave up on the entire César Chávez street-naming Whac-a-Mole game, Commissioner Randy Leonard called the affair a divisive process with “no parallel.”

Believe it or not, he’s wrong.

Sure, the process was more gloppy than a Frito pie: After ducking the effort to rename North Interstate Avenue for the farm labor hero, rolling Mayor Tom Potter in the process, the council chose instead to rename Southwest 4th Avenue. And then changed its mind again after Chinatown businesses raised a stink (funny, we kind of liked the United Nations-ish appeal of having a hum bao at the the Republic Cafe on César Chávez Boulevard).

“This was really a disaster,’’ says ex-Mayor Vera Katz. “When they mentioned 4th Avenue, I was yelling at them on the TV, ‘You idiots, that’s Chinatown.’”

It’s unusual for the council to waste so much time—and goodwill—on a peripheral issue that it never even resolved.

But Leonard—who was a history major at Portland State University—needs a little historical perspective before calling this flap unprecedented.

With the help of former city Auditor Jewel Lansing’s Portland: People, Politics and Power, 1851-2001, Portland State University history grad student Felicia Williams and council veterans, we offer the following:

FLAP: In 1857, Councilman Peter Hardenburg used “improper language and expressions.” The council president demanded Hardenburg leave chambers.

FALLOUT: The rest of the council later voted to expel Hardenburg permanently. If you’re going to leave the chambers, at least do so of your own volition while calling yourself “irrelevant,” as Mayor Tom Potter did in anger at an Oct. 25 session about the Chávez renaming.

FLAP: The 1950 election of city Commissioner Jake Bennett, “a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, an avid prohibitionist and all-around gadfly.”

FALLOUT: As Lansing writes, “Council sessions often fell into disorder as Bennett shouted at the other commissioners” and the mayor had to adjourn meetings for tempers to cool down.

FLAP: Beginning in 1986, Skanner publisher Bernie Foster led an effort to rename a street after Martin Luther King Jr. Nothing happened for a couple of years. Then white supremacists beat Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw to death in 1988; seven months later, Union Avenue was finally renamed for MLK.

FALLOUT: By early 1990, a citizens’ group had gathered 60,000 signatures opposing the rename. The council agreed to refer the issue to voters, but was bitch-slapped by a Multnomah County Circuit Court, which ruled that the street name change was an “administrative” matter and could not be overturned by voters.

FLAP: In January 2003, the council failed to pass a resolution that opposed a pre-emptive unilateral military strike against Iraq.

FALLOUT: Dozens of other American cities had already done so; the lack of the symbolic stand managed to piss off every activist in “The People’s Republic of Portland.” Commissioner Jim Francesconi’s vote against it—after explaining his peace bona fides—helped him lose the mayor’s race the next year.

FLAP: The 10-year fight to build a Holocaust memorial in Washington Park.

FALLOUT: Neighborhood groups complained right up until council unanimously approved the memorial in October 2003. But council moved past their opposition, which ranged from the procedural to the unsettlingly ahistoric notion that Portland parks shouldn’t commemorate “dead Europeans.” Some even argued that the memorial would attract terrorists. The council refused to bend, but did so as a group, unlike the Chávez debacle, in which commissioners never seemed to work together. Commissioner Erik Sten, who was on council then and now, contrasts that unanimity with the current council: “I’ve never seen a mayor say, ‘I know this is a complete disaster, but I’m not going to do anything about it.’’’

FLAP: Led by Commissoner Dan Saltzman, the council moved to cover the reservoirs at Mount Tabor as an anti-terrorism measure.

FALLOUT: Waves of community uproar over the idea forced the plan to be rethought and ultimately killed in 2004. Former Mayor Vera Katz remembers this as perhaps the nastiest battle of her tenure. Saltzman made nice with opponents of reservoir capping, and easily won re-election in 2006. BTW, he was one of the leaders behind the 4th Avenue rename that ended up having the shelf life of Oregon’s football championship hopes.

FLAP: How could Leonard forget the tram? As the project budget nearly quadrupled, city commissioners tripped over themselves pointing to the other guy as the culprit. Add that to the neighborhood anger over the project, and the council became nasty and brutish.

FALLOUT: Early on, the Tram cars, dubbed “Walt” and “Jean,” become highly visible symbols for every critic of Portland’s political priorities. Today, however, it seems that much of the animosity has gone in the face of the tram’s overwhelming popularity. How about naming one of the cars “César” and the other “Chávez”?

Reporter Corey Pein contributed to this report.


FACT: According to Lansing’s book, the council during World War I changed the names of Germanic-sounding streets—all in Southeast Portland—so that Frankfurt became Lafayette, Bismarck became Bush (maybe that one needs renaming now) and Karl became Haig.
 
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