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Council And Citizens Split On Renaming Interstate Ave.

The question of re-naming one of Portland's major arteries may draw hundreds of people to a meeting Tuesday night.

City residents and elected officials are divided over whether to re-name North Interstate Avenue for the late Latino organizer, Cesar Chavez.

In light of tense and sometimes racially-charged meetings in recent weeks, some city leaders are now suggesting a new approach, as Rob Manning reports.

Portland Mayor Tom Potter opened a meeting at a North Portland grade school, by acknowledging the tension surrounding the proposal to re-name one of the major north-south routes in North Portland.

Tom Potter: “I can tell you that probably with 100 percent certainty, that you're either going to support it, or you're not. I don't think there's a lot of people in the middle on this.”

But Potter said with equal certainty, that when the issue comes before City Council, he'll vote to support it. North Portlander, Nate Waschull, was one of a number of people at the meeting who  agreed with the mayor.

Nate Waschull: “I am in support of this name change, and I support it on behalf of myself, and my family, and the young leaders of tomorrow, who will hold their heads high as they walk down Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, in their neighborhoods.”

Few opponents of the name change disagreed with recognizing Chavez in some way. Instead, skeptics like John Rowland questioned whether it was OK to change the name of Interstate — and do it, without discussing alternatives.

John Rowland: “It is not a very democratic process, when we are allowed to see a presentation that supports the name change, but no presentation at all that speaks about the history of Interstate Avenue, or the history of Portland, or any of the opposition.”

Organizer: “Hey! Hey!”

City staffers  running the meeting  had to repeatedly keep audience members from clapping or shouting.

Members  of the grassroots committee behind the name change answered questions — like whether they were open to alternatives, at this point.

Committee co-chair, Marta Guembes, said that after months of meetings, her group had chosen the right road.

Marta Guembes: “If we want to compromise, or move someplace other than Interstate - we're not compromising. We're really getting some really good support to change Interstate Avenue to Cesar Chavez.”

Organizer: “Just use your hands, please, no clapping…”

The issue, at this point, would come to a divided city council.

City commissioner Randy Leonard says members of the committee recommending the change, haven't been able to explain to him why Interstate is the best choice.  That's one reason he advocates starting over with a longer list of streets - including one in the heart of the city.

Randy Leonard: “On that list, I would include Southwest Broadway, from Union train station to Portland State, Division, 82nd Avenue, Capitol Highway, and Interstate, and actually have a truly community process, where we go out and have hearings in the neighborhoods that would be affected by the name change, and listen to what their concerns, or support, might be.”

Committee leaders say they've been saying all along that Interstate makes the most sense because it connects Latinos and other ethnic groups - much like the man, Cesar Chavez, did.

Commissioners Sam Adams and Erik Sten, along with Leonard, now comprise a three-member majority favoring a delay of any decision regarding new street names. Commissioner Sten says he agrees with opponents' concerns about process. But he's troubled by some of the things he's heard.

Erik Sten: “There's just no doubt, that in any city, but particularly in a white city like Portland, that race is a factor in this argument. I can't recall any issue in my 11 years in office, that we received so many overtly racist calls. Why don't you change a name in Mexico City; why don't you change a name in Woodburn; our neighborhood will become a ghetto with this name change.”

Last week, the mayor's office issued a letter calling for “mutual respect,” after committee members complained about racist comments. But Commissioner Leonard says the race issue has gone both ways. He says supporters of the name change have exaggerated the racist element, to discredit opponents who may simply object to changing the name of Interstate Avenue.

Randy Leonard: “You can't just go into a community meeting, and basically announce that this is the decision, and come on up and testify and if you're against this, you're probably harboring some racism in your heart, and expect a free-flowing discussion.”

Mayor Potter released another statement this week trying to calm divisions. In it, he clarifies that he doesn't believe opponents of the name change are racist.

So far, Potter has not indicated when he'll present the name change to city council. If the three dissenting commissioners get their way, any name change could be delayed for months.

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