In the winter of 2008, I was walking through an economically depressed neighborhood of Cleveland, one like many others in America decimated by the mounting recession. For millions of Americans, it seemed like overnight retirement savings vanished, stable jobs disappeared and filled houses emptied.
Tredging through the cold, snow-covered streets that day, I’ll never forget the abandoned houses pockmarking the blocks. One had huge letters painted on the front defensively proclaiming, “NO COPPER HERE.” Initially, I didn’t know what that meant; I later realized times were so desperate copper pipes were being stolen from abandoned homes.
It was a dark time for Cleveland, and an uncertain, unsettling one for our country.
But there’s a radically different memory seared in my mind from that day, one that still touches the nerves on the back of my neck with a powerful twinge of inspiration and hope.
Walking toward one home, I spotted two boys wrapped in puffy coats, maybe 10 years old, gleefully and repeatedly jumping off the porch onto the snow below. They didn’t notice me until I came within earshot and mentioned, “I’m here on behalf of Barack Obama.”
Their reaction was unforgettable. Their faces lit up in instant recognition and they called out repeatedly, “Barack Obama!” as they raced inside to tell their parents “who I was with.”
For these two boys, Barack Obama was unlike most presidential candidates in American history. That’s because both boys were black.
As Barack Obama’s presidency appears in our rear view mirror, I wonder what impact it had on them as they grew up, knowing an African American finally was president of our amazing nation.
Though Americans have varied, sometimes divisive opinions about President Obama, this isn’t in dispute: he was the first person of color in our history to be president. This wasn’t just a huge accomplishment for Barack Obama himself or the African-American community, it was a historic milestone for our entire country.
If racism is America’s original sin, then Barack Obama’s election was a crucial step toward recognizing, and striving to move beyond, this shameful part of our history.
But noting his successful election victories doesn’t even touch on the grace and integrity with which he led America as President through eight, scandal-free years, a Great Recession, ongoing wars and other incredible obstacles. Moreover, he implemented policies which many Californians support and from which we benefit.
For these reasons, I ask city leaders to honor Barack Obama’s historic presidency by naming a street after him.
Some may question: Do we name places after people while they’re alive? Actually, there is precedent in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
San Jose’s main airport (Norm Mineta), train station (Rod Diridon, Sr.) and convention center (Tom McEnery) are all named after local political figures who are still quite active. Additionally, “Ronald Reagan” was added to Washington National Airport six years before his death and Houston’s main airport is named after the 93-year-old President Bush. There are already a handful of American schools named after Barack Obama.
A proposal to name a street after someone is the easy part; just as important is finding the actual street to name. A few options to consider:
- As new development occurs in a city like San Jose, say north of San Pedro Square or near a future transit station, San Jose could name a new street after Barack Obama.
- Alternatively, we could keep the name of an existing street and add a second, commemorative name as other cities do, like New York.
- We could rename an existing street that has the same name as another street in the same city. In Downtown San Jose, Almaden Boulevard and Almaden Avenue are only two blocks apart. We shouldn’t have two streets with the same name, especially when they’re so close together.
It reminds me of the first time I drove through Atlanta, where there are two streets named Peachtree. Like the Almadens, the Peachtree streets run parallel through the city center, two blocks apart. I got disoriented and frustrated trying to navigate them. I’d hate for similar confusion and distress to occur for folks visiting San Jose.
The city has guidelines on how to rename an important, symbolic street—such as Almaden in downtown San Jose—after an important, symbolic president.
In these times, once again dark with uncertainty, people could use a small, meaningful step forward that honors our nation’s history and its first African-American president.
That’s why I started a petition to propel this initiative, with more than 500 signatures and counting. Yours is welcome, too.
Like those Cleveland boys exhilarated by Barack Obama’s candidacy, what if naming a street after President Obama offers similar hope, as well as civic pride, to not only people of color living in Silicon Valley, but all of our residents? That’s a small change a lot of us can believe in.
Alex Shoor is a San Jose resident and advocate for diverse, inclusive communities.