Street Fight

Led by feisty traditionalists, San Franciscans to Save Army Street push for a vote on renaming the thoroughfare

Cheers went up along what used to be called Army Street April 1, when the old signs on the thoroughfare came down and new ones bearing the name of Cesar Chavez appeared. Supporters of the rechristening, who a few months earlier had won the votes of all 11 supervisors to authorize the change, gathered for an unveiling ceremony in which the late founder of the United Farm Workers was honored. Amid applause and huzzahs from the 250 or so assembled, Supervisor Tom Ammiano dubbed the event a "reclaiming."

The upbeat mood continued the following day, when volunteers planted nearly a hundred trees along the street, marking the symbolic rebirth of an artery that runs, in part, through the Mission District, home of many of Chavez' followers.

But not everyone who lives and works on the street or in the adjoining neighborhoods joined the celebration. Many rejected the switch, noting the expense (altering addresses on forms and documents was costly, they argued, to say nothing of changing street signs), as well as the way the name change came about (the supervisors gave opponents' arguments little heed, they claimed, bowing instead to pressure from special interests).

Harry J. Aleo was among the disgruntled. Watching city workers replace the old signs, the Noe Valley businessman felt "mad as hell." The board had acted with stunning speed, he surmised, railroading through an act of "political demagoguery." Indignant at what he considered cavalier treatment of longtime residents, Aleo joined several like-minded individuals and created San Franciscans to Save Army Street. Their goal is simple: collect enough signatures to qualify for a ballot initiative and let voters decide in November whether to keep the name the street has had for the last 140 years.

Aleo, Save Army Street's co-chairman (with Winchell T. Hayward, a retired electrical engineer and 42-year city resident), operates the grass-roots, all-volunteer initiative drive from his heart-of-Noe office on 24th Street, which he has occupied since 1947. Twin Peaks Properties' time-warp storefront is a curiosity, even in the bordering-on-arch quaintness of the area. The windows are a monument to long-gone Noe Valley (a poster advertises a seven-room home for $35,000, circa 1950), as well as old sports heroes and patriotic bric-a-brac.

When he's not engaged in real estate transactions (or talking about race horses), Aleo stops to explain the initiative to people wandering in, answering questions and offering opinions. "There should be no place in San Francisco for their sort of political arrogance," he is fond of saying about the supervisors. "Sign the petition, and don't forget to vote in November."

Aleo, a dapper, gray-haired man in his 70s, can't help wondering what has become of the city he was born and raised in. "I've lived in Noe Valley since I was 2. I was born in the Mission, where my parents had a grocery store. My mother, who's 95, still lives up on 24th Street," he declares, nodding toward Twin Peaks.

The way Aleo sees it, San Francisco is under attack by change-obsessed newcomers who too easily discount the city's heritage. "I have a deep concern for the tradition and history of the city," he explains, noting that Army Street has a special connotation for those who've ever been in the armed forces; he himself served during World War II "in General Patton's Third Army. I was in the Battle of the Bulge." Predictably, a number of veterans' groups have fallen in on the Save Army Street side.

Although the street theater has mostly avoided name-calling (not counting Supervisor Ammiano's allusions to apartheid when someone suggested renaming only half of the avenue), the issue of saving Army Street vs. honoring Chavez skirts sensitive topics like race, community pride, and how San Francisco honors heroes. Aleo concurs that it's a touchy matter, but that still doesn't sway him. "I'd be against it even if they renamed Army after my hero, Joe DiMaggio," Aleo says, pointing to a picture of the baseball great hanging in his office.

Aleo and his group wish that those who wanted to honor Chavez had given more serious consideration to the new library or Dolores Park as alternatives. Though Frank Mart’n del Campo, one of the organizers of the pro-Chavez Street coalition, agrees that those suggestions were made, he says they were "merely suggestions, a kind of NIMBY response." He notes his group pushed for renaming Army Street precisely because of its highway exit signs and prominence in a neighborhood in need of role models: "We look at what it costs to incarcerate two youths for one year -- $60,000 -- and we feel that the name change is justified if it helps give those kids something they can be proud of."

Eva Royale, another in the pro-Chavez group, notes that though some opponents "have a problem with the name Cesar Chavez, it's not necessarily all race-related." Many people, she acknowledges, worry about the effect on their property values; others "just don't like the idea of change."

Beyond the issues of how best to honor Chavez and nostalgia about historic place names lies a deep-seated mistrust of the current Board of Supervisors. Claiming they "railroaded the renaming through, kowtowing to a group of special interests," Aleo recounts how he organized opposition last fall to renaming 24th Street (put forth by then-Supervisor Bill Maher, who boasted of his ties to the late Chavez). "That proposal died in committee," Aleo explains -- underscoring the dismay he felt when, in mid-November, residents and businesses along Army received notice in the mail of a public hearing Dec. 15 to reconsider renaming their street.

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