November 13, 2008

City Votes to Dually Name State St. For MLK After Four-Year Debate

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The City of Ithaca’s Board of Public Works unanimously passed a resolution yesterday that dually designates State Street, one of the city’s major thoroughfares, as Martin Luther King Jr. Street, ending a nearly five-year long contentious debate over the street’s renaming.
The double name will become effective on Jan. 19, as part of the city’s annual celebration of King’s birthday. Residences and businesses will have the option of retaining their State Street mailing address or adopting a new Martin Luther King Jr. Street address.
Caleb Thompson, who was part of a group that supported the dual designation, expressed his pleasure with the board’s decision.[img_assist|nid=33564|title=What’s in a name|desc=At the Ithaca Board of Public Works meeting last night in City Hall, attendees debated whether State Street should be renamed.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“It’s so great that we get to change the cultural landscape in Ithaca where so many of the streets are named after white people,” he said. “Some people have used the argument that we’re taking away history. For me, I think we’re making history.”
Rebecca Elgie, who also worked to change the street’s name, said she was proud of the message the street would send to those visiting Ithaca.
“I feel this is a wonderful symbol going through the heart of our city and it’s something that people will definitely see as they come through our city,” she said.
In 2004, a group of Ithaca School District students first proposed to rename State Street after King. The proposal sparked impassioned reactions on both sides of the issue.
Advocates of renaming the street said that it would honor the legacy of King, promote social equality and serve as a powerful symbol against racism.
Some residents objected to the proposal, citing the historical value of the street name. Some owners of State Street businesses were opposed to the renaming because of the financial cost involved with changing addresses.
The Board of Public Works rejected the original proposal and the city sought a compromise in creating a dual-designation for the street.
Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, a City of Ithaca resident, said yesterday that the dual designation is one small step toward social justice in Ithaca.
“Martin Luther King Jr. spent a lot of time walking streets and walking with people who needed support,” she said. “Street names are something we pay attention to and it’s a great way to honor his legacy.”
While the board’s unanimous decision was met with a small round of applause inside City Hall, several residents spoke out in opposition to the name change. They said that simply modifying the name of a street was an inadequate tribute and celebration of King.
Fay Gougakis, who is a State Street resident and community activist, said her primary objection against the dual designation was the public safety problems that may result from confusion.
Gougakis also said that the dual designation of the street would cause further division in the community if residents have to choose between using State Street or Martin Luther King Street. She expressed fear that those who choose to retain their State Street address would be viewed as racist or not supporting King’s legacy.
Gougakis said that she felt very vulnerable coming forward in opposition to the proposal because the debate had been somewhat framed as an issue of race, with those opposed to the proposal being accused of racism.
“It’s very hard for me to say this because no one wants to say anything bad about Martin Luther King. We all love him,” she said. “It’s not that I’m doing this easily or happily.”
“There is racism out there, but you want to clarify when it is really happening versus when it’s not happening,” Gougakis added.
The board also discussed the potential administrative and public safety issues involved with having a street with two official names yesterday.
The board added a provision to the final resolution that instructs City agencies and departments who rely on property address databases to make address changes on a case-by-case basis.
Ithaca Fire Chief Brian Wilbur said that the Tompkins County computerized 911-dispatch system does not have the capability to recognize more than one street name per address. He explained that the City of Ithaca does not have jurisdiction over the training of 911 dispatchers in the county-operated emergency call center.
“It could create a period of confusion” between a distressed 911 caller and a dispatcher, Wilbur said.
Board member Raymond Schlather said that the re-designation of the street should still occur in spite of any potential logistical issues.
“We need to take the energy to make the systematic changes [in City agencies needed to re-designate State Street] even if it takes extra time and a little extra money,” he said.
The dual designation of State Street is part of the city’s Martin Luther King Freedom Walk initiative, which will highlight historical sites throughout Ithaca, including Alpha Phi Alpha at Cornell, which was the first African-American fraternity in the country.