Street smarts: City committee revamps honorary street name policy

In June, two blocks of 16th Street in Washington, D.C., were renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. PC: Wikipedia User BDWARD3 In June, two blocks of 16th Street in Washington, D.C., were renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. PC: Wikipedia User BDWARD3

Want to take a walk down Black History Pathway? Or maybe Waneeshee Way? Or even Tony Bennett Drive? Soon, you might be able to. These are among the honorary street names that area residents have submitted to the city in recent months.

After debating the issue late into the night during several meetings, Charlottesville City Council decided in September to send nearly a dozen honorary street name proposals to the Historic Resources Committee, seeking guidance on the evaluation process.

During its November 13 virtual meeting, the committee decided to completely revamp the honorary street naming policy before tackling the applications.

Until recently, the city rarely received new street name proposals. But around the country, people and governments have sought to commemorate the year’s events by redesignating their physical environment. In Washington, D.C., for example, two blocks of 16th Street were transformed into Black Lives Matter Plaza, with huge yellow letters painted on the pavement.

Charlottesville currently has a dozen honorary street names. Recent designations include Heather Heyer Way, honoring the victim of the 2017 white supremacist attack, and Winneba Way, named for our sister city in Ghana.

“Up until now this process has been very ad hoc,” said committee member Phil Varner. “We’re really trying to nail down [how] exactly should we do this…what exactly are the policy criteria, and what does the application actually look like for it [and] mean?”

Under the current policy, proposals are limited to individuals, organizations, entities, events, or something of local significance. While the committee agreed to keep these broad categories, it suggested that some honorary streets could be temporary, while others could be permanent, depending on the will of the nominator.

“Especially in a small city like this, [rotating] can be beneficial if there are this many people that should be honored,” said member Sally Duncan.

Committee member Jalane Schmidt expressed concern over the sunset period, and how it may lead to individuals “who’ve been excluded from conventional historical narratives” to only be recognized for a few years, while many city streets have had the names of racists for over a century.

After member Dede Smith pointed out that the city’s current honorary markers offer no information about who or what they’re named after, committee chair Rachel Lloyd suggested the creation of a website with a detailed history about each street name, as well as including them on the updated historic walking tour.

Smith also stressed the importance of street names being near the geographic location of the person or thing they are honoring. For instance, a portion of Avon Street is currently named after the late Franklin Delano Gibson, a celebrated philanthropist who owned a grocery store on the street for more than 40 years.

That won’t always be possible, though. “Because one of the reasons we’re doing this is out of equity concerns, there may be people who aren’t permanently associated with a distinct geography,” said co-chair Genevieve Keller. “We would need to memorialize and honor them anyway [and] find the most appropriate place.”

While some preferred that the street proposals be submitted by city residents, people who live on the street, or family members of the individual being honored, the committee decided to leave the applications open to anyone in the larger Charlottesville area.

However, a public notice will be sent to residents living on the streets with name proposals, so they can provide input on the decision.

The committee also decided to scrap the 500-word essay on the current application, and replace it with a series of short, direct questions about the street proposal.

After deciding on the policy changes, the committee briefly discussed the applications submitted to the city over the summer. Several seek to honor notable Black figures, like activist Wyatt Johnson and enslaved laborer Henry Martin, and historical events, like the razing of Vinegar Hill, while other proposals cover a variety of categories, including two in honor of UVA men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett.

In September, before turning to the HRC, City Council approved two of the original 13 applications. One renames a section of Grady Avenue after the late Reverend C.H. Brown, who built 12th Street’s Holy Temple Church of God In Christ in 1947. Behind the church, Brown also constructed several homes, helping the area to become a thriving Black neighborhood.

The other approved request honors the ongoing movement against police violence and systemic racism, recognizing Market Street between First Street Northeast and Ninth Street Northeast as Black Lives Matter Boulevard. It was proposed by community activist Don Gathers.

At its next meeting, the committee will officially vote on the naming policy changes, and decide which of the remaining 11 applications it should recommend for council’s approval, using the newly established guidelines.

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