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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Crenshaw Blvd. Has Arrived at a Crossroads

June 21, 2003|Ralph E. Shaffer | Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona. E-mail: reshaffer@csu pomona.edu.

There may be good reasons why Crenshaw Boulevard should remain Crenshaw, but history is on the side of those who would rename it for Tom Bradley.

The current controversy echoes similar debates over changing city street names, a touchy subject that goes back well over a century.

Samuel Mathes, an early editor of The Times, raised the subject in 1882, charging that the old Spanish street names were too hard to pronounce and urging that "good old American names" be substituted.

Actually, by that time most of the original Spanish street names had been Anglicized. By the end of that decade even some of the Anglicized names had disappeared.

Calle de la Eternidad became Eternity, then was changed to Buena Vista and later became North Broadway. Calle de las Chapules became Grasshopper, then Pearl and finally Figueroa.

Even many "good old American names" placed on streets during the subdivision boom of the 1880s did not long survive. Maj. Horace Bell complained bitterly when Georgia Bell Street, named for his wife, was changed to Nevada.

Rather than face the wrath of publisher Bell, the City Council gave in and renamed it Georgia Street.

A century later, one former street name reappeared on city maps when Chavez again became the name of a major thoroughfare. However, it honored Cesar Chavez instead of early L.A. resident Julian Chavez.

The new Chavez supplanted the historic name of Brooklyn Avenue, not North Main and Albion streets, which had been imposed on the old Chavez Street. Some maps still show a half-block-long, dead-end remnant of the old Chavez. Long abandoned, it serves as a parking lot off Main just west of the river.

Not to fret, for the earlier Chavez was commemorated in later years by Chavez Ravine Drive and Place.

No doubt the debate over Crenshaw will soon spill into the letters column of The Times, where another street-renaming issue wound up in 1886.

At issue was a name change for High Street, located a few blocks north of the Plaza downtown. It would recognize Don Antonio Cuyas, a native of Spain who had arrived in Los Angeles in 1869 and was then a professor of languages and the original operator of Pico House.

An alternative proposal would have honored James Walters, proprietor of the International Hotel. A change seemed justified because of confusion caused by the name of another street, New High, which actually crossed High Street.

The debate that erupted when critics objected that Cuyas was too hard to pronounce recalled Mathes' plea for "good old American names."

Although the Board of Public Works recommended that Cuyas become the new name for High Street, the council renamed the street Walters. The honor, however, was fleeting.

Amid numerous street name changes in 1890 that ignored pleas to let the old names remain, the council changed the name again, to Ord, commemorating Lt. Edward Ord, who had drawn the official pueblo map of Los Angeles in 1849.

Crenshaw may soon go the way of Santa Barbara Street, Brooklyn and Grasshopper. At least Bradley is a "good old American name."

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