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Photograph by Dan Pulcrano

Street Fight

A proposal to rebrand King Road after Martin Luther King Jr. has sparked a debate in east San Jose, where mistrust of City Hall runs high

By Allie Gottlieb

A LAS VEGAS couple's proposal to rename San Jose's King Road after civil rights leader Martin Luther King has begun to stir up a ruckus in the East Side neighborhood, which has large Latino and Asian populations, and a handful of blacks.

The emerging controversy has struck a nerve because of what some community members see as city hall's cavalier attitude towards residents and businesses on the neglected street, coming, as it is, on the heels of the city's efforts to redevelop the Tropicana Shopping Center over the objections of the center's owners and tenants.

Compounding the issue is the perceived slight of east San Jose's own homegrown national hero, the late Cesar Chavez. Though no city streets are named after him, (though a downtown park is), the Mexican rights and farm labor organizer once lived a few blocks from King Road. He organized meetings and rallies on the street, and for many Latino residents, King Road and Chavez share cultural and historical significance. For them, to rename King Road would disrespect Chavez. Unless, of course, the new name were Cesar Chavez Road.

Of course, the issue doesn't divide neatly along ethnic lines and is unlikely to spark a race war. It's not about people being for or against Martin Luther King Jr. That became clear during discussions with people in the neighborhood--regular folks, not activists--who would be directly affected were the name to change. Most hardly knew about the proposal. Some Latinos were for it; some African Americans were against it; a young Vietnamese-American woman couldn't care less. In conversations in stores and parking lots, no one came forward to strongly champion the rebranding and there was no sign of community consensus during a short journalistic swing through the neighborhood.

"It's a beautiful name," said Salvador Rodriguez, who came from Guanajuato, Mexico, and works at Joyeria del Sol, a jewelry shop on South King. Rodriguez described Martin Luther King Jr. in Spanish. "King was muy valiente," he said in Spanish. "He gave his life so that many people could live better."

A 46-year-old man buying two black angel fish for his daughter from the Vietnamese-owned Flower Horn Aquarium down the street said he didn't like the proposal. Giving only his first name, John, he mentioned the Tropicana Shopping Center imbroglio and complained that city redevelopment maneuvers are hurting, not helping the neighborhood. "You've already got one up in Oakland," he said about MLK as a street name. John suggested that naming the street for local orchardists, such as the Lester family, would be a better idea, since "agriculture is what brought up this valley."

"I don't really like the idea," said Edwin Foy, who has spent his 35 years in the low-income neighborhood. "I mean, I'm black and everything, but I grew up around here with it as King. I feel strongly about Martin Luther King. But I also feel strongly about the name of the street. It's always been there. It's fine just to leave it as it is."

Darnell Travit, also black, lives on South King and has since 1972. "I think it's good," he said at first about the name change. "But to be honest with you, writing it out is going to be so long. You got South King. You got North King. King is simple. It's easy. I'm used to South King. I'd prefer that they'd keep it the same."

The whole initiative started when, Fredella Stewart, Santa Teresa High School's former principal, and her husband, Ken, petitioned the city to change the name of King Road. King Road was named after some Virginian farmer named Andrew Lewis King who moved here in 1851 for the gold. The road runs from the south side of Berryessa Road through four City Council districts until it turns into Silver Creek Road at Aborn. The Stewarts contacted 63 percent of the people with King Road addresses (674 out of 1,057) and convinced 88 percent of them to sign the petition. They make the case that San Jose is the 11th largest city in the country and the only one out of the largest dozen without a street named after the civil rights leader. (San Jose's recently rebuilt main library, however, is.) Plus, the Stewarts point out, the neighborhood is racially diverse. More than 80 percent of the area is Latino or Asian; less than 4 percent is black.

The population, however, apparently doesn't include the Stewarts. When a call was placed to Fredella Stewart at her old job, a Santa Teresa High School official said that she and her husband had retired and moved to Las Vegas.

"The proposal should be supported by the majority of the people," said Councilmember Chuck Reed, into whose district King Road pokes slightly. "That's why I voted against renaming of the airport [to Norman Y. Mineta International Airport]. I don't know what they have in the way of support. I'm looking for a lot of support."

Whether or not the Stewarts remain in touch with San Jose, the city is taking their proposal seriously and ushering it through the system. But officials won't reveal their hand on what to expect from the process.

The proposal was originally scheduled to go before the City Council on Oct. 28. But community members complained that they weren't invited to participate. City Planning Project Manager Mike Mena said the proposal is currently being reviewed by the Planning Department and the Historic Landmarks Commission (because Andrew Lewis King is a historic figure). He estimated that it will go before the City Council in late November.

"We're going to do what we always do," said Councilmember Terry Gregory, whose district encompasses much of King. He said the entire council will weigh all the facts and community opinions once they become part of the record.

The planning department isn't yet willing to say how much it will cost to change signs despite having received an early estimate from the Department of Transportation. (Officials might be afraid it'll make them look bad when the costs end up growing, as they often do.) But opponents to the change are throwing around a $150,000 figure while arguing that the Stewarts' pledge to cover the cost will fall short.

Meanwhile, some community members contend that the city botched the notification process. The city alerted the polyglot community to the September public hearing with a notice that was all in English. "The King Road community, especially the elderly, feel that the lack of notification and lack of information in Spanish is 'insensitive' and 'disrespectful' to the community," reads a Sept. 20 letter to the City Council and other officials from community members Monique Ruiz and Olga Burch.

In response to the critics angered by the lack of public outreach before the September meeting, the planning department scheduled two more community meetings. One is on Monday, Oct. 20, at the Silicon Valley Workforce Investment Center on Story Road, and the other is on Thursday, Nov. 6, at Leninger Center in Kelly Park on Center Road. Both start at 6:30pm.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the October 16-22, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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