Activists, Officials Clash Over Cesar Chavez Street

Latino activists believe that a Dallas street meant to be the gateway to a glittering waterfront development should be renamed in honor of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.

But officials in the ninth-largest U.S. city have other ideas — and a dispute has arisen over whether race has played a role in the decision-making process.

Chavez was labor leader who organized mostly Hispanic farmworkers. He was the favorite among residents asked to come up with a new name for Industrial Boulevard, a dull strip lined with liquor stores and bail bond offices

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert said the survey wasn't binding, but Cesar Chavez Task Force leader Alberto Ruiz believes the city would have accepted had the choice been someone other than Chavez.

"If the results would have come back for Stevie Ray Vaughan, it would have gone through," Ruiz said of the white Texas guitar legend, whose name was not on the survey.

Some question whether Chavez, who rallied fieldhands over low wages and exploitation, is relevant to Dallas history. Others say his name doesn't fit the marketing plan behind the surrounding $2 billion Trinity River sector revitalization.

Developers envision Industrial, a gritty three-mile strip, becoming a destination of condominiums and upscale shopping.

"We were trying to create a marketing scheme for that entire street given its location to the Trinity," Leppert said. "That still makes sense."

Leppert said he wants to find another street to honor Chavez. Latino leaders say they won't compromise.

Ruiz and his supporters accuse Dallas leaders of brushing off the results of the survey, which cost the city $20,000 and came back with Chavez as the 2-to-1 favorite. A key city planning commission vote on the renaming is expected in mid-November.

Ruiz, who calls the Chavez campaign a symbolic community battle in a city that is 43 percent Hispanic, now has his group going door-to-door on Industrial trying to shore up support ahead of the vote.

Leppert, a first-term mayor and former CEO of construction giant Turner Corp., said the city will find a street to honor Chavez — just not Industrial, where the top destinations now are mostly auto scrap yards and the county criminal courthouse.

Industrial's rough reputation is supposed to soften under the Trinity River Corridor Project, the largest public works project in Dallas history. Areas of blight and neglect are planned to become lush parks and urban trails, and the street — whatever its name — will be a key gateway.

Michael Phillips, who wrote about the city's racial roots in "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001," said the renaming fight is important to minorities in a city where a busy downtown freeway is named after R.L. Thornton, a former Dallas mayor and Klansman.

"That's just like a thumb in the eyes of blacks and Latinos if they're getting turned down with the proposal to name a major thoroughfare after Cesar Chavez," Phillips said.

Other Chavez backers have suffered similar defeat. A push in Portland, Oregon, to name a street after Chavez fell apart last year after being met with fierce community opposition.