Casting aside the name of the city's little-known founder and giving what many agree is an overdue nod to the city's large Latino population, the Long Beach City Council has named a new 11-acre park on the west side after farm labor leader Cesar Chavez.
The naming of Cesar Chavez Park came on a 7-2 vote Tuesday night, ending a bitter fight that dramatized the growing pains of one of the state's most ethnically diverse cities.
Four often emotional hearings had been held over the naming of the park between Golden Avenue and the Long Beach Freeway, the city's first new park in more than 20 years. Those opposed to naming it after Chavez were called racists. They in turn portrayed Chavez Park supporters as outsiders with little stake in the community.
The sides were divided so bitterly that an early proposal to name it Cesar Chavez Unity Park was dropped.
A telephone poll published Tuesday by the Long Beach Press-Telegram showed that 81% of respondents opposed naming the park after Chavez. Countering the poll, Raymond Chavarria, head of the Citywide Coalition for Cesar Chavez Park, collected petitions with 2,500 signatures in support of the name Chavez.
Chavarria and more than 200 people supporting the Chavez name packed the council chamber, greatly outnumbering a dozen or so opponents, who argued the park should be named after William E. Willmore, credited by many as the founder of Long Beach.
When the votes were tallied, Chavez and the city's Latino community had a big win, something of a rarity in this city of 430,000.
"This was the right thing to do," said City Councilwoman Jenny Oropeza, the chief sponsor of the Chavez Park name.
Conservative City Councilman Jerry Shultz, who last year inflamed political tensions in the city by delivering an anti-gay speech during a debate over a proposed domestic partnership ordinance, told other council members Tuesday night that Long Beach has to recognize its ethnic diversity.
"With the influx of new people to our city over the years, we have to respect that different ethnic groups will have their heroes as well," said Shultz.
"It's clear that Cesar Chavez is a hero not only to the Hispanic community but to many across this city," he said.
City Councilman Mike Donelon, another aye vote, said naming the park after Chavez reflects a city that "has changed dramatically" in recent years.
"It is one of the most diverse communities in California," said Donelon. "We need to look forward, not backward."
A year-old demographic breakdown by city planners shows that 39% of Long Beach is white, 29% Latino, 15% African American, 16% Asian and Pacific Islander, and less than 1% Native Americans and other groups. Those numbers represent a significant drop in the white population since 1990, and corresponding increases in Latino, African American and Asian populations. More Cambodians live in Long Beach than in any other city in the United States.
Underscoring tensions over the park name is a belief by many in the Latino community that they have relatively little say in setting city policy.
While some city agencies have kept pace with the changing demographics--the city library has a large collection of books published in Khmer, the language spoken by Cambodians--changes have been much slower in the political arena.
Oropeza, whose 1st Council District is 60.5% Latino, was the first Latino ever elected to the city's governing body when she won her seat in 1994. She was also the first Latino member of the Long Beach Board of Education, the post she left when she joined the City Council.
Despite the changes in neighborhoods, the City Council still reflects what a city study several years ago described as "a fairly homogeneous, middle-class, white population" that dominated Long Beach into the 1980s, when the population began dramatically changing. Seven of the council's nine members are white men.
Minority leaders say that the city's affluent east side still gets the lion's share of city services, as opposed to the west, where most Latinos live. Not counting beaches and golf courses, there are 366 acres of parks on the west side, compared to 1,015 on the east, according to an analysis by Oropeza's office. The new park is scheduled to open in 1999.