Naked City

Council Watch: Every Rosewood Has Its Thorn

Naked City
By Doug Potter

We have a Martin Luther King and a Cesar Chavez. Do we need a Dorothy Turner? The debate over whether to rename Rosewood Avenue for the controversial Eastside activist -- voted down unanimously at a packed council meeting in 1998 -- is back this week, with a few new twists.

The motion, sponsored by Council Member Danny Thomas, also proposes rechristening Hargraves Street for the late Velma Roberts, founder of the Black Citizens' Task Force that Turner headed for nearly 25 years.

The name change would be unusual not only because of its controversial subject, but because Turner, who has cancer, is still alive and kicking. (At council meeting last August, Turner was lively enough to bop a fellow speaker with a rolled-up council agenda.) "Council Member Thomas believes that people should have their roses while they're alive," says his aide Linda Dailey.

Thomas' motion would also waive almost all of the public process involved in changing a street name, including a petition and fee filed by property owners, extensive public notice, and two public hearings. Thomas' office says they have petitions on file from a majority of property owners on both streets, and Thomas wants to avoid charging petitioners the same fee twice. Besides, we had a public hearing on this three years ago. Doesn't that count?

Council aides, however, say they've been inundated with irate phone calls from Eastside residents who thought the issue was long dead. "We're hearing from people whose first notice of this was a story in the newspaper and they're not thrilled," one aide said.

Unorthodox process isn't likely to be the only stumbling block in Thomas' (and Turner's) way; nothing has changed drastically since the name change -- originally brought to council by petitioners -- was voted down in 1998. Supporters of the change still tout Turner's contributions to civil rights in Austin over the last three decades, crediting her for pushing the city to hire more women and minorities in key positions. To supporters, she is a figure of near-mythic proportions.

But at the 1998 hearing, a small contingent of Eastside residents, all older than Turner's supporters by a decade or three, turned out to oppose the name change. Nothing against Turner, they said, but the historical associations of the name Rosewood -- along with East 11th and 12th streets a longtime hub of East Austin civic life -- have at least as much claim on the collective memory of East Austin as any individual's activism. "Rosewood has a tradition, a history," said one speaker. "All our businesses were up and down there, our churches are there. I think I would fight and help to name any other street except that one."

Council members said at the time that it was this contingent -- many of whom were too old or frail to stick it out through the entire late-night meeting, but registered their protest in phone calls and letters -- that they had in mind when they voted down the name change. But clearly, a good part of the council's previous mulishness over making the change stems from their reluctance to name a street after a woman whose modus operandi is to publicly browbeat her opponents, including council members, into acquiescence.

This time around, at least one council member's office claims it's been swamped with "tons of phone calls and e-mails from people who are opposed to the change." Others claim the split is closer to 50-50, with responses "very heated on both sides."

In the wake of the last hearing, which ran until nearly midnight, Turner's supporters stayed true to her blunt-instrument methods, calling the council's vote a blatant act of racism. The invective isn't likely to be any more restrained this time around, and city insiders are bracing themselves for a long night.

The prize for stating the obvious goes to a speaker at the last public hearing, who observed that "this fight today is not really about a street."

In case the motion fails -- as it well may -- Thomas attached an addendum to the agenda that would change the name of the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex to the Dorothy Turner Millennium Youth Center.

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Rosewood Ave., Dorothy Turner, Velma Roberts, Danny Thomas, Linda Dailey

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