Aug. 24 2017 11:31 AM

Backers of naming Grand River Ave. after Cesar Chavez win a round

It was July 30, 1973, when César E. Chávez visited Lansing’s Cristo Rey Community Center to support a grape and lettuce boycott. Chávez’s grassroots activism resonated with migrant farm workers across North America, and Lansing was no different. Latin and Hispanic workers in Lansing saw Chávez as simple and direct, but also very powerful.

Those sentiments inspired the Hispanic community to seek approval to rename Grand Avenue after him. The City Council approved the change in 1994, but a year later voters reversed the decision.

Advocates tried in 2010 to reach a more limited goal: renaming a portion of Grand River Avenue running through Old Town after him. They had to settle for the parking lot at Grand River and Turner Street being renamed César Chávez Plaza.

Now, in a debate that echoes the fight seven years ago, advocates are trying again to rename Old Town’s portion of Grand River Avenue after him. And they’ve won round one.

Last week, the Lansing Memorial Review Board recommended the change to the City Council, despite strong opposition from the Old Town business community. The council must act before the end of November.

The application drafted by the Lansing for César E. Chávez Committee requests that East Grand River Avenue from Oakland Avenue to Washington Avenue and West Grand River Avenue from Washington to Pine Street be officially renamed César E. Chávez Avenue.

The address change would affect around 150 Lansing residents and many local businesses. It would also require the replacement of 30 street signs on Grand River.

The application states these costs can be reasonably absorbed by the committee’s own fundraising or by the city itself.

Councilwoman Jody Washington, who represents much of Old Town, backed the change at the Memorial Review Board meeting.

“I found it insulting that the Latino community was only given a parking lot to honor such a great man.” Washington said.

César E. Chávez Avenue has found support from other significant backers, including the president of Michigan’s AFL-CIO, Ron Bieber. Bieber and a former mayor of Lansing, Tony Benavides, have written to the City Council urging it to support the name change. It’s unclear, though, where At-Large Kathie Dunbar stands. She may be important because the proposal is likely to end up in the committee she chairs, Public Service. Dunbar did not return repeated phone calls.

The Old Town Commercial Association opposes César E. Chávez Avenue, as it did seven years ago. The OTCA decried the name change in a strongly worded press release, citing a financial burden on local businesses and a perceived erasure of Old Town’s current culture.

“Grand River already has its own history and heritage, the association’s executive director, Vanessa Shafer, wrote in a letter to the Memorial Review Board. “We do not believe we should cover it up to honor another history and heritage.

“Old Town and Grand River Avenue have a rich and diverse history that includes Native Americans, Germans, the Latino community, the LGBTQ community, artists, the Jewish community and more,” her letter said.

The OTCA estimates a name change would cost up to 75 different local businesses anywhere from $500 to $3,500 each.

“It’s basically the fact that every business is going to have to reprint business cards, reprint stationery, update websites,” Shafer said. “And some of the businesses on that street have liquor licenses and other licensing through the city and state that will all have to be redone. Those costs add up quickly.”

How much? “Just the cost involved, just for my business, is going to average about $15,000 for an address change, Aura Osburn, owner of October Moon, 119 E. Grand River Ave., told the Memorial Review Board.

The Lansing for César E. Chávez Committee plans to enlist help from City Council to address the financial burden on local businesses. “We’re going to speak to City Council.” Chairman Enrique Mendoza said. “We’re going to find out how they were able to resolve the renaming of Logan to Martin Luther King Jr.”

Boulevard. Logan Street was named for Civil War Gen. John A. Logan. After King’s assassination, efforts to change the name of Logan to honor King were unsuccessful, but King’s name was approved as a second name for the street, and eventually Logan was dropped.

The OTCA suggests circumventing the burden on local businesses by honoring Chávez with an archway at César E. Chávez Plaza. This was idea was originally suggested in 2010, but failed to come to fruition.

“We would love to make the archway happen. We have the resources to do it if we work together. We have been pleading for the two groups to again come together to figure out how we can work together as a community to not have a negative impact on the businesses.” Jamie Shriner-Hooper, president of the OTCA’s board, said.

The Lansing for César E. Chávez Committee says an archway is not a true compromise.

“We want to have the street officially renamed, and they’re saying we want to work with you,” said Ignacio Andrade, a member of the Lansing for César E. Chávez Committee.

“So we said OK, are you going to help us support that? They said no, we’re not going to support that.

“At this point in time, our main goal is to get the street renamed. You say you want to work with us, that means you’ll help us achieve that goal.”