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César Chávez takes one last march along Grand River Avenue
When a city names a street after a person, there are two options: pick a national icon who never came within miles of the place, like George Washington, or a person of local importance whose name means nothing to out-of-town visitors, like Lansing Mayor Silas Main (not even the namesake of Main Street, by the way).
The proposed renaming of Grand River Avenue in north Lansing for labor leader César Chávez, approved by the Memorial Review Board and on City Council’s plate on Oct. 23, is a double bulls-eye. Chávez is a national icon, on par with Martin Luther King, but he also visited Lansing many times and marched along the very stretch of road proposed for renaming.
It seems like a slam-dunk, but it’s not.
Grand River also runs through the heart of what is now called Old Town, the resurgent district of shops and galleries that has carved out its own identity within north Lansing and become a major point of pride for the city. The Old Town Commercial Association has dropped its early opposition to the renaming — see related story — but many individual businesses are still opposed and more could emerge.
The proposal calls for renaming Grand River from the point where it splits from Oakland Avenue on the east end, as it threads through north Lansing and Old Town to its western terminus at Pine Street, near the old School for the Blind. The stretch is now called East Grand River east of Washington Avenue and West Grand River to the west.
It runs through the heart of Lansing’s Latino barrio, where migrant workers came by the thousands to work sugar beet, onion and vegetable fields, found jobs in factories, settled and many still live, along with their children and grandchildren.
Eggs and hot sauce
César Chávez visited Michigan so many times, organizing rallies for migrant workers’ rights and lobbying the state Legislature, that Lansing Mayor David Hollister gave him a Michigan flag and passed a resolution giving him honorary status as a citizen of Michigan.
“We had a special relationship with Chávez,” Hollister said. “He stopped at Cristo Rey [Community Center] almost every time he came to Michigan.”
Delma Lopez, a cofounder of Cristo Rey Community Center in 1968, lived in the neighborhood 60 years before her death Sept. 10.
She cooked Chávez a breakfast of scrambled eggs with “a little bit of hot sauce” and flour tortillas on one of his visits. “He wouldn’t eat a steak,” Lopez recalled in a 2012 interview with City Pulse. (Chávez was a vegetarian.) “He was very quiet, not talkative. To us he was special, but he never showed off.”
Hollister said Chávez had “that magnetic personality that made you feel like a special person.”
“He was always humble, mingled among the crowd, talked with the waitstaff as comfortably as he would with a legislator,” Hollister said.
Al Salas, a former migrant worker, is the owner of Lansing Athletics and a longtime Latino community leader. He doesn’t want his kids and grandkids to break their backs over a hoe for six months out of the year, be sprayed with pesticides, squat in a ditch to relieve themselves or shuttle back and forth to crude migrant camps, as he did, but he wants them to remember how Chávez helped migrants from Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Latin countries fight for better working conditions and cultivate a community.
“We’re not trying to take Old Town back,” Salas said. “We can live together. We just want a little bit of our history not to be forgotten.”
Naming Grand River Avenue after César Chávez is more than a call for recognition of a man and a group of people. For many in Lasing’s Latino community, it is also a wrapping up of some unfinished business.
Among the more unusual artifacts in MSU’s César Chávez collection is a dinged-up but official, green César Chávez Avenue sign taken down from Grand Avenue after an ugly citywide fight over the street name in 1995.
Diana Rivera is the subject librarian for the collection, a trove of thousands of books and other materials related to Latino culture, art and history.
The sign was an attention magnet when Rivera worked a tent at a North Lansing festival honoring Chávez. “People would come up to it and touch it, like it was a holy relic,” she said.
On March 14, 1994, the Lansing City Council voted to rename Grand Avenue as César Chávez Avenue.
Grand Avenue, a symbolic connector from the power corridors of downtown Lansing to the north Lansing barrio, seemed a good choice at the time. As a bonus, there were relatively few business owners along the avenue. But one of them was attorney Fred Stackable, who led an aggressive charge to oppose and repeal the change.
Tim Barron, morning radio host at Q106- FM, hosted on-air visits from Stackable and supported him on the air. When a syndicated comedy skit offering Mexicans for sale to do listeners’ menial chores ran on Barron’s show, Latinos and allies were incensed.
In June 1995, after some ugly backlash on op-ed pages and local talk radio, the change was reversed by city referendum.
“The way it came down was more based on hate,” Lansing School Board Trustee Guillermo Lopez, an at-large City Council candidate this year, recalled at a July town hall meeting in Lansing. “The Q106 situation, raffling off a Mexican — ‘bring a Mexican in a truck with lice and disinfectant.’” The signs came down, but the ones that were salvaged have become emblems of pride in the Latino community. They are also hard reminders that that civil rights victories, both symbolic and substantive, are reversible, from public recognition on a street pole to basic voting rights.
“It was a kick in the stomach,” Rivera recalled. She said that many opponents of the Grand Avenue name change were merely upset with the City Council’s decision process, but “there were quite a few who thought it had to do with race.”
Rudy Reyes, a longtime community service chairman for UAW Local 602, recalled the Grand Avenue debacle in comments to City Council Sept. 11.
“I love my Lansing, but I’m 67 years old and we’ve been here before,” he said.
Reyes recalled Stackable’s petition drive, the heartbreak of the election, and the sight of the signs coming down.
“We’re called minorities for a reason,” Reyes said. “We’re not the majority. We lost our street.”
The Grand Avenue reversal reminded Reyes of the Latino community’s premature joy over Lansing’s passage of a Sanctuary City resolution in April of this year, only to rescind it a week later. “Wow, celebration!” Reyes said, throwing up his hands. “A week later, it was gone.”
“We need to get back to the history of how it happened,” Lopez said at the July town hall. “It wasn’t a pretty picture. We need to do this to get away from that negative history.”
In a fistful of letters to the City Council, several business owners in the area predict financial disaster if the change from Grand River to César Chávez Avenue is approved. Aura Ozburn, owner of October Moon, said it would cost her business $15,000. Several others feared four-figure hits.
But Elisabeth Weston, director of the nonprofit EC3 Educational Child Care Center at 1715 Malcolm X St., had a different experience when parts of Main Street were renamed after the civil rights leader (and one-time Lansing resident) in 2010.
“The budgetary impact was pretty much exactly nothing,” she said. “We spent more on postage to protest City Council than we spent accommodating the street name change.”
Even then, print on demand was already taking over from pre-printed stacks of letterheads and other printed materials. “What supply we had, we used up, and when we needed to make more, we made more,” she said. “The postal services honored the old address. They still deliver mail that’s addressed to Main Street. It’s just fine.”
Phasing in the change from Grand River to César Chávez Avenue would help ease the burden. In March 1994, the name “Logan” was dropped from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard after a five-year period of dual signs. Responding to businesses’ worries about expensive licensing updates, Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar said she has contacted the five relevant department heads and found that “in most cases, not only is there no cost, the businesses may not have to do anything to update licensing.”
Other opponents of the name change have taken a different tack. Building restorer and history buff Dale Schrader, who is president of Preservation Lansing, told the City Council Sept. 11 that Grand River Avenue is a historic name, like Route 66, signifying “Michigan’s Main Street,” a trunk line created in the mid-1920s for newfangled automobiles that ran from Grand Circus Park in Detroit across the state clear to Muskegon. It now ends in Lowell, near Grand Rapids.
In Lansing, Grand River was routed, in part, along Franklin Avenue, now the heart of Old Town, and other existing streets.
“North Lansing Against the World” was already a tagline for the area, and some residents objected when Franklin became Grand River in 1925 to conform to the state-spanning plan.
Others, especially service station owners, looked forward to more business from the trunk line. The area is still dotted with century-old service stations, one of them refurbished and owned by Schrader.
Schrader also told City Council the Chávez renaming would create the only gap in Grand River’s 175-mile run, but there is one already — where the stretch of Grand River Avenue most well known to outof-towners, the main drag north of MSU, reaches the Frandor Shopping Center as it goes west.
“It just kind of ends there and becomes Oakland for no apparent reason,” Schrader admitted. “It’s already confusing.”
Said Hollister: “You’ve got East Grand River, North Grand River, Grand River all coming together in Old Town area, so honoring Grand River is kind of a bogus argu ment,”
Wife vs. girlfriend
On Sept. 13, 2010, the Lansing City Council passed a resolution for an honorary street with dual signs honoring Chávez on East Grand River, from Oakland to Washington, and named the plaza at Turner and East Grand River after Chávez.
But honorary street signs can come off as a slight as well as an honor, depending on your perspective. Larry Hutchinson, a primary candidate for 4th Ward City Council this fall, drew laughter at the July 24 town hall when he summed it up as “the difference between being a girlfriend and a wife.”
“Are we going to make this legitimate?” Hutchinson said.
Kathie Dunbar, sitting nearby and waiting to speak, typed “César Chávez Avenue Lansing” into Google and found another limitation to honorary names.
“The dot was moving all over downtown,” she said. “Like it was bouncing back and forth, trying to find it.”
More important, several speakers have pointed out to City Council in public comment over the past several weeks, the timing could not be better to “make it legitimate.”
In 2017, many members of Lansing’s immigrant community feel a vulnerability that harks back to the days when Chávez marched peacefully to protest abysmal working and living conditions.
There are widespread fears of ICE roundups, deportations and open hostility fueled in large part by the presidency of Donald Trump.
Lansing has not been immune to a resurgence of resentment expressed, both inside and outside the law, by emboldened Trump supporters. An undocumented immigrant said he was assaulted on July 5 near the corner of Denver and Cedar streets in Lansing.
Officers found the victim with obvious signs of assault and police are investigating the incident as a hate crime.
The victim told City Pulse two white assailants made reference to Trump and stapled a note on his stomach that said, “Go back to Mexico, wetback.”
Nobody thinks that permanently naming an important street after Chávez would make all of this go away. On the contrary, if Council approves the change, another ugly referendum like that of 1994 could follow, with the lighter fluid of social media fueling the fire instead of talk radio.
Or it could just slip through quietly, a long-awaited, crimson thread of recognition in the multi-hued fabric of Lansing to behold and enjoy.
In his comments to the City Council Sept. 11, Rudy Reyes wearily explained that he, his dad and two uncles put in a combined 150 years at General Motors.
“I’m 67, my grandma was here, my parents were here, my kids and I have grandkids that live here,” Reyes said. “At what point are you going to acknowledge that we didn’t just get off a bus and get here?”