The first 95% of Tuesday's CHCA meeting was everything one would expect, a State-of-Crow-Hill, complete with frequent and well-deserved applause. The CHCA has, by all measures, had a good summer in their 25th year: after a great event celebrating the Crown Heights Oral History Project in June, they created a lovely new community garden, helped sponsor the Franklin Avenue Kids Day in July, and just completed the spectacular mural project on Franklin and Eastern Parkway (update on that construction project: Eli Mazon, the discount store maven who owns the lot, has offers on the table from Walgreen's, CVS, and Medgar Evers College, but the financing isn't there right now for completion and none of them are offering enough to buy the lot outright - so it sounds like the mural will be up for awhile). Councilwoman Tish James, who co-sponsored the mural project, showed up to thank everyone for their hard work, and a few announcements were made:
- Tonight is the LAST night of Jazz at Ronald McNair Park (Classon and Eastern) from 6-9pm
- On Saturday, there will be a vigil for Jasmine Herron, the young woman who was killed biking at Washington and Atlantic on the 15th. The vigil will last from 8-9pm.
- Habitat for Humanity is building 100 affordable homes for purchase in Bed-Stuy, and are hoping to sell them to local Brooklyn residents (2% fixed mortgages).
The meeting ran an hour, they took a few questions, and things were about to wrap up, when an older man rose to introduce himself and invite everyone to attend the Panamanian Independence celebrations on October 9th, which will include their traditional parade up Franklin and finish with a street festival on Lincoln Place. Heads nodded in approval, and then he added that the Panamanian community is currently trying to get Franklin Avenue co-named "Panama Way," and asked for our support.
Now, I've always lauded the Crow Hill crowd for their openness and welcoming attitude, particularly to those of us who are relatively new to the neighborhood and could be dismissed as self-interested gentrifyers, but suffice to say that many of the folks in the meeting were distinctly and uniquely displeased by this co-naming suggestion. Much muttering ensued, and after one Crow Hill leader expressed concern that the name would be changed entirely and added "after all the work we've done for the past 25 years, I would not like to see that name changed," another woman rose to ask (well, to demand, really) why the Avenue should be co-named in the first place. The Panamanian man replied with a well-rehearsed history: Panamanians began coming to Brooklyn during the building of the Panama canal (as a result, he said, "we were always bilingual"), and New York remains the largest concentration of Panamanians outside of Panama in the world. They had settled on Franklin by 1930 - "before the Jamaicans, before the Guyanese" - and by the 1960s, they owned a wide variety of local businesses and were the majority on the Avenue. Many have left for the suburbs in recent years, he added, but "if you talk to someone in Panama about the United States, they say they want to come to Franklin Avenue." Panamanian businesses, social clubs, and churches persist on Franklin, particularly north of Park Place, and even those who have moved away come back on the weekends to see friends and attend services. As for the co-naming of the NYC street, he said that all three Community Boards had approved the proposal (Boards 3, 8, and 9) and that the City Department of Transportation was holding up the final approval on the grounds that streets cannot be named after other countries (if this was the reason they gave, it is patently false: Mulberry Street in Manhattan is also "Little Italy Way" or something to that effect, and west 46th near Times Square is "Little Brazil").
The meeting broke up without resolution, but the genuine frustration that both sides felt lingered. At the root of this issue are the well-worn questions of neighborhood ownership and entitlement that typically crop up on Franklin in the context of gentrification (earlier in the night, a local historian and high school teacher had expressed concern that the mural project did not celebrate local history, particularly because "our neighborhood is under attack from gentrification"). Claims to public space are rooted in shared, performed histories, and both the Panamanians and the self-identified Crow Hill Community, which is predominantly African-American and West Indian, can make compelling cases. For those unfamiliar with the term, "Crow Hill" has a murky history as a name for the area, but one commonly-cited explanation is that it arose because Crown Heights, and specifically Weeksville, was an antebellum settlement of free blacks. I'm sure, though they've never talked about it in a meeting, that the residents who consider themselves part of this community would much prefer to see Franklin Avenue co-named or re-named Crow Hill Avenue.
How do we, as a whole community, navigate these competing claims? Localities celebrate local history all the time with plaques, landmark signs (13 homes on Park Place will likely be landmarked this fall thanks to the efforts of the CHCA), and the like, but when it comes to street names, solutions are less obvious. Chicago solves this problem with as many "honorary" renamings as residents ask for, which can lead to fairly ridiculous signage (one stretch of Devon Avenue in Chicago goes from Golda Meir Way to Jawaharlal Nehru Way to Muhammed Iqbal Way in three blocks), but in NYC, from what I understand, only one honorary co-name is posted per street. It would be easy for me to just say "hey, let's leave it Franklin and celebrate our history in other ways," but that would ignore the fact that the name Franklin itself reflects a very traditional, white, male, political history that is stamped across our street grid (and many other places) without apology or reflection. To some extent, "Franklin" has been appropriated by those who live there now - the Pana Store sells red-and-white "Franklin Ave" shirts and I've heard teens holler "Franklin Crew" at others leaving Jackie Robinson Middle School - which suggests that origins and history aren't everything, even if they lend significant power to groups making claims to space.
So I don't know how to answer this, and I certainly don't blame anyone for being frustrated about it. Street names might seem trivial, but when neighborhood boundaries and ownership are contested, as they are in northwest Crown Heights, these things matter. Should we back the Panamanian community in seeking a co-name? Should an alternative be proposed? Should we leave it Franklin and continue to celebrate this guy (who once worried about the "darkening" of "superior" Americans . . . and he was referring to Germans, though he had little love for any other race)? This isn't rhetorical - let's hear it.