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Chavez Street: a Route to Discord in S.F.


SAN FRANCISCO — Each morning, the young Latina women walk up the hill from the Mission district, past the orange-and-black signs that proclaim "Save Army Street," to care for the children and clean the houses of Noe Valley.

Crossing a great cultural divide, they leave the colorful barrio where Cesar Chavez is a hero and enter the tidy streets and Victorian homes where, these days, the name of the late farm worker leader is a nagging annoyance.

In death, just as in life, Chavez has become a symbol of growing Latino power--and something of a threat to those Californians who fear the world is changing too fast.

San Francisco prides itself on its tolerance and diversity, but this year's decision by the Board of Supervisors to change the name of Army Street to Cesar Chavez Street has turned surprisingly divisive. Longtime residents of mostly white Noe Valley--up in arms over the change--have placed an initiative on the city's Nov. 7 ballot that would erase Chavez's name from street signs along the three-mile roadway.

"People just want to hold on to something," observed Rick Stewart, a 27-year-old technology writer who moved to Cesar Chavez Street this summer. "A lot of white people here feel like they don't have much they can hold on to--even if it's just the name Army Street."

Linked by the controversial boulevard, the Mission district and Noe Valley sit side-by-side, strikingly different but economically intertwined. It's as if East Los Angeles and Santa Monica were jammed together, with the taquerias of Whittier Boulevard a 15-minute stroll from the Santa Monica Pier.

In San Francisco, a city without a majority ethnic group, the fight over Cesar Chavez Street is yet another fragment of the cultural clash that has swept California in recent months, from the battle over Proposition 187 to the rollback of affirmative action to the O.J. Simpson trial backlash.

For residents of the two neighborhoods, the name change is much more than a matter of nomenclature; it goes to the very root of who they are as people.

Latinos in the Mission district say it is important to commemorate their hero, a selfless man of nonviolence who founded the United Farm Workers union and used boycotts, fasts and civil disobedience to improve the lives of migrant laborers. Honoring Chavez--who died in 1993 at the age of 66--is also a way of recognizing the contributions of San Francisco's 100,000 Latinos, they say.

"The meaning of having Cesar Chavez Street is that it signifies we have a place here too," said Mission Street grocer Maria Payan in Spanish. "If they change it back now that they have already made the switch, it's like saying, 'You don't have a place here. You don't have any value here.' "

But to property manager Diane Withelder, a resident of the contested street active in the drive to restore its original name, imposing the sobriquet of Cesar Chavez is a personal affront.

"Army Street's part of my identity, my name and my address," she said. "And also I have nothing against the Army like a lot of the people seem to."

What's more, she contends, business people such as her will bear the burden of paying for the change, with new stationery and business cards that will add up to thousands of dollars.

"I'm not sure what the value is except to divide the community," Withelder said. "We were living harmoniously before. Now we're on two sides of the issue."

By any measure, Cesar Chavez Street is an unglamorous avenue to be the subject of all this wrangling.

Starting at a container shipping terminal on San Francisco Bay, it is a major artery that feeds warehouses and industrial firms, then passes within a block of the decaying Potrero Hill housing project where O.J. Simpson grew up.

When the street meets U.S. 101, it becomes a teeming six-lane thoroughfare serving as the gateway to the Mission district, passing crowded two-story homes, another bleak housing project and young Latino men gathered on street corners hoping for a day's work.

Among these laborers, the new name is very popular: "I like Cesar Chavez," says Carlos Sanchez, a husky 24-year-old Mexican immigrant standing on a sidewalk amid the exhaust of cars and buses. "He was a good man. Cesar Chavez is a good name for this street. I don't see why they want to change it."

From the Mission district flatlands, Cesar Chavez Street heads up the hill to Noe Valley, where for a few blocks it turns into a two-lane, tree-lined avenue of well-kept houses. Some of the city's old-line Irish American and Italian American families have dwelt here for decades.

Mary Corbin, for one, has lived on the street for half a century and refuses to use the new name. She feels so strongly she has put two "Save Army Street" placards in her front windows.

"It's been Army Street for 145 years," she said as she walked home from the corner store with a bag of groceries. "I'm not against change, but what are we going to do, change street names after everyone who comes along?"

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