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Why get so tongue-tied over street's new name?

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By JAN GLIDEWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2000


Strange thing about changing street names when race is involved.

Suddenly it's a big deal.

When Pasco County commissioners caved in two weeks ago -- in reaction to what were obviously racist concerns -- and refused to add Calle de Milagros (Street of Miracles) to the name of Lock Street, they were, alas, only following tradition.

Forget that the predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American (there are some Anglo and African-American members) Teen Dream Team is the first major force to work toward improving Tommytown in decades.

Some have brown skin; some speak in accents; they are different from some other residents of the poverty-stricken area -- and nobody is going to change, or even alter, a street name to honor their accomplishments.

I was around when it was proposed to rename part of Seventh Street in Dade City (a main thoroughfare) to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. There were suddenly all kinds of reasons why the name "Seventh" had great historical significance and why society as we knew it would crumble if the renaming took place.

My favorite explanation came from business owners who said they had major capital investments in letterhead stationery and would have to order new statements and envelopes if the renaming took place -- as if there were no postal service grace period in such matters.

Strangely, none of them had a problem 10 years later when they made every single residence and business in town change addresses to five-digit numbers designed to fit on the 911 grid.

Good thing; I was afraid they would be checking to make sure all of the paramedics were white.

Some of the more honest objectors in the King renaming spat would admit, far, far off the record, that they simply didn't want to rename the street because King was black and because out-of-town customers might think they were in "that kind" of a neighborhood.

The name was finally given to a less visible street.

I wanted to check with the youth gang Lock Street Gang and its ladies auxiliary (their name and spelling, not mine, Lock Street Hores) to see if the renaming would have created a letterhead problem, but they, mostly due to the efforts of the Teen Dream Team, aren't as much in evidence as they used to be.

And so now comes Calle De Milagros.

Why, nobody would be able to pronounce the street name, objectors whined.

Hey, sparky? It's CALL-YAY DAY MEE-LAH-GROSE. Tough huh?

I remember hearing the same argument in Miami when they wanted to rename Eighth Street, also known as the Tamiami Trail, to Calle Ocho.

People who had no problem pronouncing "Tamiami" suddenly became all tongue-tied at the prospect of Calle, which has fewer syllables.

The other, and more clearly racist, objection to Calle de Milagros, was that it would turn Tommytown into a "little Mexico."

And it should be noted that the movement wasn't to change the name completely, only to offer Calle de Milagros as a second name for the street. Margarita Romo of Farmworkers Self Help, a farm workers advocacy and neighborhood improvement organization, was fully aware that Lock is the name of a pioneer Dade City family and wanting to preserve the historic nature of the name.

Bottom line?

The Teen Dream Team has worked miracles in Tommytown, pulling more than 33 tons of trash out of the city in one cleanup weekend. They have gotten entities no less lofty than the Dade City Rotary Club and Pasco County Sheriff Lee Cannon involved in the project.

Every day that a kid from Tommytown manages to avoid the kind of trouble that walks some of the streets there is a miracle.

Maybe some day it won't matter what color the people working the miracles are . . . and the renaming of a street in their honor won't be such a big deal.

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