Don’t be afraid, it’s just a street name change

Don’t be afraid, it’s just a street name change

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You’d think Chicago never renamed a street before.

An ordinance changing “Lake Shore Drive” to “Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable Drive” was introduced in the Chicago City Council in 2019. The idea flared up again in December, sparked heated debate and finally seems to be inching toward fruition, despite opposition from the mayor and general foot-dragging reluctance of those who hate to see anything changed.

Which includes myself. All things being equal, I’d stay with “Lake Shore Drive.” Name changes trip me up. I find myself cycling through the history of the names of Sox park —”I never want to go to Comiskey … er U.S. Cellular, I mean Guaranteed Rate Field.” Far easier to stick with one name, like “Wrigley Field.”

Which used to “Weeghman Park.”

The best argument for keeping “Lake Shore Drive” is that it’s a world famous street and Chicago doesn’t have many and should keep what few we’ve got. New York isn’t getting rid of Broadway.

That said — and here’s my superpower — I also realize it isn’t all about me, or even about global branding. I can prefer it not be done and still be OK with someone doing it. Because there are good reasons for changing the name.

And no, it isn’t about honoring DuSable.

“The name of the street isn’t about people they’re named for,” said Bill Savage, a Northwestern professor whose next book, “The City Logical,” is about Chicago streets. “It’s about making people who live here now remember them.”

What the change would do is color the image of the city, both for residents and outsiders, bringing it more in line with the people who actually live here, turning from whatever emotions might be plucked by the words “Lake Shore Drive” — that song, the Beavis and Butt-head chuckle at its abbreviation. (“Heh heh heh, LSD, it’s the name!”) — to the range of feeling encapsulated by “DuSable Drive.”

History has decided DuSable was a handsome, bearded man, based on the bust that I paused to admire Saturday night on a crowded, diverse Michigan Avenue.

Which used to be Pine Street. What bugs me about the debate, more than ooo-scary change, is the notion that this is all somehow new.

“It would be the second street renamed in the city of Chicago,” The Defender suggested last December. “Journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells Drive was the city’s first street renamed.”

I hate to snicker at The Defender, now a shell of a husk of an echo of its former greatness. But that’s just silly. Street names change continually throughout the history of the city. The streets were a hodgepodge and had to be ironed out, otherwise there was utter confusion — a Michigan Street, Michigan Avenue and Michigan Boulevard. North Lincoln Avenue and North Lincoln Street intersected at Grace.

Chicago changed 540 street names in 1913 alone, some fought tooth and nail because ethnic pride is interwoven with street names.

When Mike Royko led an effort in 1981 to name a stretch of Evergreen Avenue after his friend Nelson Algren, residents of Wicker Park rebelled. The Polish community —Christopher Columbus advocates take note — didn’t like seeing themselves lumped with the hookers and heroin addicts slouching through Algren’s fiction, so it quashed the proposal. That debacle led to the very Chicago dodge of those brown “honorary” street signs, the street name version of a small plastic participation trophy.

Lightfoot, with business interests buzzing in her ear, keeps trying to slap DuSable’s name on some bench on the Riverwalk. But the prominence of what is being renamed is very important, as the Jane Byrne Interchange reminds us. That’s practically mockery.

Notice that while John F. Kennedy’s name was applied to the Northwest Expressway, Martin Luther King had to settle for South Park Way.

The naming of King Drive is the most eloquent argument for re-naming LSD for DuSable. Ald. Leon Despres (5th) proposed naming the Civic Center for King, but that idea was stillborn. King Drive had to be on the South Side, where the white power structure believed Dr. King and everybody like him belonged.

“The symbolism of naming King Drive and making it a South Side street in ‘their’ neighborhood is a commonplace across the United States,” Savage said. “DuSable Drive would be the entire city, from Hollywood to 67th Street. DuSable founded the whole city, to the extent that anybody did. DuSable Drive is something that white affluent neighborhoods would have in them. That is the point.”

Anyone grief-stricken over the prospect of losing “Lake Shore Drive,” remember: It isn’t the name that makes it iconic, it’s the road. The blue line of Lake Michigan to the east, the high rises and park to the west, the totem pole, that beach house that looks like a little tug boat. Navy Pier. The view of the city, a jeweled thumb jutting into the lake. You could call it the Rod Blagojevich’s Hair Gel Thruway and it would still be wonderful, still be famous.

“The street itself does not change,” agreed Savage. “The symbolic association changes, every time somebody thinks, ‘I’m on DuSable Drive,’ the founder of our city is in their consciousness as never before.”

The city is always about who belongs where, who’s allowed where, who is comfortable where, and part of that is what its streets are called. If Chicago wants to chip away at our richly deserved reputation as the most segregated city in America, changing one prominent street name might be a good place to start.

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