SAN DIEGO — In a decision that some predict could send racial shock waves throughout the city, San Diegans voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to strip the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way from a major downtown thoroughfare and reinstate the name of Market Street.
By approving Proposition F, which calls for the name change, voters nullified a 1986 City Council decision to honor the slain civil rights leader and handed political victory to a group of downtown merchants who forced the issue at the ballot box because they said the council vote was taken without proper public notice.
Tod Firotto, president of the Keep Market Street Committee, the group that sponsored the initiative, said he was "overwhelmed" by the outcome and added that it showed voters believed the name change had nothing to do with racism.
Stressed Historic Name
Firotto said his group "conscientiously and consciously" avoided discussion that would pit "black versus white," concentrating instead on the historic significance of the Market Street name.
The vote "may turn out to be an even bigger statement regarding the city's demand for representative government," he said.
Mayor Maureen O'Connor agreed, adding that her recent campaign forays into shopping centers showed the King name losing big.
"It was very clear that the proposition was going to pass because people disagreed with the process used and they also wanted to protect the tradition of Market Street," said O'Connor, honorary co-chairman of the Keep Martin Luther King Way--No on F Committee.
Swift Replacement Urged
O'Connor said she will urge her council colleagues to act swiftly to find another street or something else to name for King.
Michel Anderson, O'Connor's pro-King co-chair, agreed.
"It should be something bigger, better and grander than a 6 1/2-mile stretch of thoroughfare where there are private property owners.
"I think whatever is selected now should be completely within the public domain, and I think it should be something like the convention center," he said.
In removing King's name from the street, San Diego now becomes the second U.S. city in which voters have revoked a memorial to the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Last month, voters in Anchorage, Alaska, removed King's name from a new performing arts center. In addition, a King holiday was discontinued for some state workers in Arizona.
Local black leaders have warned that repealing the name of King Way would offend the minority community and besmirch San Diego's national reputation just three months before the city plays host to the highly publicized Super Bowl XXII.
They predicted that the initiative would cause San Diego to suffer the same kind of economic backlash as Arizona, where the governor earlier this year rescinded an administrative holiday honoring King for executive branch employees. In response, dozens of convention groups canceled their plans to gather in Phoenix, costing that city at least $25 million in tourist money, according to tourism officials there.
Dire Predictions 'Mistaken'
San Diego tourism officials, however, have downplayed that possibility, and the merchants supporting the Market Street name said such dire predictions are mistaken.
The merchants emphasized that their campaign to repeal King Way was not a slap to the memory of the slain civil rights worker but was motivated by several other reasons--such as confusion for customers and hassles with listings in the yellow pages.
But the main thrust of their argument, Firotto said, has been the historic significance of the Market Street name, which has designated the 6 1/2-mile stretch of center city roadway since 1915.
The street in question begins at the bay and moves due east, where it is straddled by the promising signs of downtown redevelopment before it proceeds through some of the more impoverished neighborhoods of the city. According to the 1980 census, the median income in census tracts along King Way is $11,294--about $500 less than the city's median income.
Neighborhoods touching King Way are also heavily minority. Residents in the adjacent census tracts are 41% black, compared to the city's average of 8.8%.
The street became the compromise candidate as a memorial to King after council members agreed in principle to name something after him to coincide with the first federal holiday bearing his name.
First Idea Shot Down
At first, then-City Manager Sylvester Murray suggested changing the name of a five-mile stretch of Euclid Avenue and 54th Street, but the idea triggered an angry, vocal protest by residents along that route. Under pressure, the City Council chose Market Street during an April, 1986, public hearing.
That action, however, upset merchants along the western end of Market Street, who complained that the decision was made without proper public notice. Council members declined to reconsider the vote, and the merchants countered by collecting more than 80,000 signatures to put the matter on the ballot as a citizens' initiative.