“I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams"
Colin Kaepernick’s name on a 49ers jersey
“Words to Action"
These words became more than the graphics printed on T-shirts at a public ceremony last Saturday morning. Worn by 6-year-old Yeji Johnson, 7-year-old Ben Johnson, 6-year-old Aden Francique and his 10-year-old sister Alexandra, they acted as simple yet powerful symbols of the importance of the newly unveiled Barack Obama Boulevard in Downtown San Jose.
The four youth joined around 150 others Aug. 21 to name the 4,300-foot boulevard at the confluence of the SAP Center, Google's upcoming Downtown West development and the soon-to-be expanded Diridon Station, which will attract thousands of eyes to the minted street signs.
Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director of San Jose State University’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change, said she brought her children and their friends to recognize Obama’s accomplishments and historical importance first-hand.
“We thought it was an opportunity to educate our kids, help them understand the importance of civic engagement and know that they can perhaps fulfill one of these great things one day,” Carter-Francique says. “Especially when we’re dealing with this tumultuous time with race relations in our country and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, I want to continue to help them know our history. It’s part of their legacy.”
That legacy is multifaceted; her family was invited by Mary Ann Noel, one of the Barack Obama Boulevard committee members, whose husband helped organize the 1968 Olympic podium protest, alongside Dr. Harry Edwards—the man who helped catalyze the very department she now leads.
Streets as Symbols
Noel was pleased with Saturday’s multi-generational and multi-cultural turnout, following years of work organizing, securing and financing a street worthy of Obama’s name.
“We brought family, friends, children and everybody together to honor President Obama,” says Noel, who has spent 50 years in education. “It was just such a nice kickoff, because that's what he was all about: community and diversity. We had a really great time delivering that message, and honoring leaders in the community who were there for us.”
In addition to fellow committee members like Hellen Sims, NAACP Silicon Valley vice president, and Milan Balinton, executive director of San Jose’s African American Community Services Agency, Noel tipped her hat to the hundreds of coalitions, neighbors and community members who propelled the idea across the finish line, transforming Obama’s slogan of “Yes We Can” to “Yes We Did.”
But what’s so important about a street name?
“It's living history, it will always be there,” Noel says, adding that the signs will live on beyond the many seniors involved in organizing. “Every time you drive past it, you're reminded of this person's contribution to our history, impact on our lives and values they left behind.”
That was exactly what Alex Shoor was hoping to accomplish, first proposing the idea in an August 2017 issue of Metro.
“I’m continually thinking about the young people who may come upon the street and be inspired by it,” Shoor says, “and for me that's what it's really about.”
After tedious work informing local businesses, raising thousands of dollars to cover city fees, getting green lights from emergency services and (unanimous) approval from the San Jose City Council in January 2021, Barack Obama Boulevard came to fruition exactly four years later. Shoor said the timing and location, created from portions of Bird Avenue, South Montgomery Street and Autumn Street, couldn’t be better.
“It's a street in a neighborhood that's going to change and transform,” Shoor says. “Hopefully progress is going to happen for San Jose on Barack Obama Boulevard, and for many of us, that's exactly what he symbolized.
As executive director of community engagement nonprofit Catalyze SV, Shoor sees the renaming as a shining example of public policy: real progress emerging from experimentation.
“Creating a new street name is ultimately a symbol,” Shoor says, reminiscing on the endeavors' genesis in a coffee shop conversation. “I hope people feel both empowered to dig deeper into the history and legacy of our community, the good and the bad, and I hope that people feel more empowered as community advocates to be able to make changes in this community.”
The Way to San Jose
Barack Obama Boulevard joins thousands of streets in U.S. cities named after prominent historical figures.
To the inquisitive eye, navigating around San Jose is a history lesson in and of itself. On top of common Bay Area trees, landmarks and buildings, the streets also honor several pioneers, settlers, missions, land owners, religious leaders and inventors—a permanent encoding of the city’s culture and geography:
Curtner, Gish, Hedding. Julian, Leigh, Mission, Montgomery. Naglee. Newhall. Sunol. Taylor. Winchester, Woz, Zanker.
Renaming any throughway is a tedious, multi-faceted process. San Jose’s policy for renaming streets dates back to 1972, and purposefully enforces a “heavy burden and strict criteria” to combat potential disruption to existing businesses, the post office and the public, as well as avoid removing significant names of historical meaning.
While Barack Obama Boulevard was eventually streamlined as a minor right-of-way, the people with the most access and power to classify streets in 2021 are often real estate developers constructing new paths.
Recent examples are Chastain Way and Wondo Way, immortalizing the local soccer phenoms around the Earthquakes’ 2015 stadium. But as both the real estate and development industry heavily skew white and male, who has the access and power to name the newest streets in a city as diverse as San Jose?
The answer may lie just a mile southwest of Barack Obama Boulevard, where a proposed residential complex in Downtown San Jose called “The Ohlone" is named after the people aboriginal to the San Francisco Bay Area.
While blueprints slowly mosey through City Hall, two slivers of pavement around the San Carlos Street property—Van Every Way and Swenson Drive—have already memorialized its developers.