The Austin Chronicle

Street Wise

Steeped in History

By Mike Clark-Madison, September 11, 1998, News

photograph by Michelle Dapra

This may be tasteless talk about a dying woman, but to mince words hardly seems appropriate to Dorothy Turner's legacy. Yet Rosewood Avenue too has a legacy, and it's been nearly lost in the fog these last few weeks, though a handful of genuine Eastsiders — most quite old, and given the circumstances all quite brave — came down to council chambers to suggest that, whatever one thinks of Sister Turner, her claims and charms are not so great as to justify overwriting Austin's cultural history.

"Rosewood" is, of course, just the name of a tree, applied to a street that was laid out but unnamed during the Republic era, called by many local names for decades, formally named Chincapin (also a tree, a pin oak) in 1884, re-named Rosewood in 1886, but not actually re-labeled until 1906, when the current name first appears in city directories. In 19th-century Austin, the naming of streets was a much more fluid affair than it is today, with streets having multiple names, or none at all, and with names being assigned and changed by property owners and city officials whenever inspiration struck. The "tree streets" of downtown are the most obvious examples, their botanical names remaining in use long after they were numbered (during Reconstruction) and still well-known to Austinites today.

Though Rosewood Avenue is often understood today as the Main Street of Black Austin, it was never the commercial strip that East 11th and 12th streets were. Before the de jure segregation of the 1926 city plan, it was, rather, the boulevard leading into and through what was originally a white, then mixed, then black, but always (relative to the context) somewhat "upscale" residential area, up to and then beyond Boggy Creek, interspersed with important civic institutions. The significance of the name "Rosewood" is twofold — in addition to the people, places and events that shared a Rosewood Avenue address (including, in practical if not official terms, the old Anderson High School), there is the string of East Austin landmarks that share the avenue's name. You have the Rosewood Projects, the park, the recreation center, the health clinic, the old shopping center (now home to the Central City Entertainment Center), and the church, as well as businesses past and present like the Rosewood Emporium and Rosewood Barbeque.

This makes Rosewood Avenue a special case among Austin's landmark streets. On the one hand, "Rosewood" does not refer to a physical place, in the way that Webberville, Montopolis, Pecan Springs and Govalle were/are actual places on a map. But nor is it any longer purely generic, like First or 19th or 26th streets, all since re-named; or Redwood Avenue, re-christened in 1994 to honor longtime St. James' Baptist pastor E.M. Franklin. (Not that generic names are all fair game; imagine the reaction if Sixth Street were re-named, or avenues A through H in Hyde Park.) Though "Rosewood" is not the name of a neighborhood, in either a strict historical nor a contemporary political sense, we all know where "Rosewood" is, that it encompasses more than just the avenue, and that much of East Austin's social history took place there.

If Rosewood Avenue were re-named, since it is the source of the name, what happens to that place and that history? They'd be obscured by the quite different history of Dorothy Turner; they might even come to bear Dorothy Turner's name, just as we now have — after only four years, and thanks in part to neighborhood planning, a neighborhood bearing Cesar Chavez's name. (The latter might seem less weird to you than it does to this reporter, who hails from a California farm town where Chavez was no empyrean symbol of ethnic pride, but a real player in the trenches of local life.)

This may not happen, given the entrenchment of the name "Rosewood," but then what would the point be? It hasn't been all that long since Ed Bluestein got his name above the lights, and already most Austinites have no clue who he is. Were Turner, say, the pastor of a church (as was Franklin) or the head of a school (as was Dean Page Keeton) that dominated life on the street in question, we'd be talking a different language, since that institution would constantly remind us of her identity and legacy, and she'd be more than just a name on the traffic report. But simply being a local political celebrity, no matter what one's merits in that role, should not give one the power to remake other people's history and memory, and an entire city's geography, in your own image — especially since that image will fade long before the street signs.

The cynicism and narcissism of the Mitchell Mob's campaign to control East Austin's future by hijacking and erasing its past — which started a long time ago — rather than the accumulated political baggage of Sister Turner, is what should have decided this issue. But one can hardly gainsay the Mitchellites' notion that, as a city, we've been cavalier about changing our street names.

Indeed, Mitchell himself is responsible, at least mechanically, for the re-naming of 26th Street for Keeton, done on his last day in office under his sponsorship and on his motion, without any public hearing or advance warning to the more than 100 property owners on the street. This move will eventually cost the city close to $150,000, though most of that is due not to the street signs, but the highway signs on I-35, for which the city will have to reimburse the state. Not to disparage Dean Keeton, but his service was to the university, not the city (unless we are to assume that siring another local political celeb, Carole Keeton Rylander, is a "public service"), and UT has plenty of streets, buildings, and landmarks that it could re-name without costing us a dime.

For Mitchell and his friends — having availed themselves of a public-input protocol that Mitchell ignored in the Keeton case — to turn around now and chastise the "insensitivity" of the City Council is, to say the least, mighty dubious. Naturally, the Keeton example is not one which Turner's partisans have called up; they prefer, rather, to evoke the knock-down arguments that surrounded the 1975 re-naming of 19th Street for Martin Luther King.

This one got the city hauled into court by angry 19th Street property owners, and it led to a 1976 Texas Supreme Court ruling that re-naming streets was not an "administrative action," but lawmaking that had to be done by ordinance and in public, with hearings and notification to property owners, and that could be repealed by citizen petition. The resulting city policy set the stage for both Mitchell's petition (with 900 signatures, though of whom hasn't been reported) for the name change, and the council's rejection of it, citing concerns of Rosewood Avenue property owners. (The current policy, however, gives a free pass when councilmembers want to re-name a street, which is how Dean Keeton ended up above the traffic lights, though if the property owners on the former 26th Street were suitably outraged, they could have petitioned for reconsideration.)

Susan Richardson, in her recent editorial, conjured up the memory of the MLK affair's signal contribution to local cultural history: the death of longtime Eastside leader J.J. Seabrook (who today has a street, and a park, and a neighborhood named after him) from a heart attack suffered as he implored the council to re-name 19th Street. Typically, the Statesman fudges the facts to suit its purpose, implying that Seabrook's conflict was with the City Council itself, which in reality under Mayor Jeff Friedman was more than happy to honor MLK, and not mentioning that it was plain old citizens who made MLK a battlefield.

But Richardson's metaphorical point is well taken: This is a big deal. Every changed street name changes our history and reduces our collective memory, which is already scarce enough in this City of Tomorrow. Once we've set the precedent that our history can be changed at will, to honor not just heroes of humanity like MLK but local figures of mixed import, without regard to impact, then changing it to honor whomever yells the loudest is as suitable a goal as any. If re-naming Rosewood Avenue is a fit memorial to Dorothy Turner, then what she stands for is not activism but nihilism. She's not the only one.

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