Photo: Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune
Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced a plan to rename the entirety of Stony Island Avenue, which runs from 56th Street south to the Calumet River, for Bishop Arthur Brazier, a Woodlawn community leader and activist who passed away in 2010. Brazier, who led the massive congregation at the Apostolic Church of God starting in the ’60s and once brought Dr. Martin Luther King to Chicago for a civil rights rally at Soldier Field, seems a worthy candidate for the dedication, and ABC Chicago has reported that City Council is showing support for the idea. But whether the proposal is Emanuel’s overdue dedication to a local leader or a political ploy to curry favor with the black community (or both) there’s no guarantee it will succeed.
Renaming the street — rather than giving it an honorary title — would require replacing street signs and printing new road maps, as well as navigating some confusion at the post office as residents and businesses along the road adjusted to the change. Those costs, combined with the political brokering necessary to pick an appropriate honoree, make an official change a rare occurence in Chicago. The last time a street was officially renamed was in 1968, when then-Mayor Richard J. Daley approved a push to name the former South Park Way to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
At the time, Daley was accused of political pandering, choosing a South Side street for the dedication in the hopes of endearing himself to black voters ahead of that year’s Democratic National Convention, according to a biography of the former mayor. Sound familiar? Regardless, the plan got council approval, and Chicago joined the hundreds of American cities with roads named after King.
Stony Island Avenue was the subject of another renaming proposal in 1989, when the Committee on Streets and Alleys debated naming it in honor of former Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Like Brazier, Muhammad was a leader of the black community in Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune archives, 15 black aldermen sponsored the push to name Stony Island in his honor.
But Muhammad, whose platform included racial purity rhetoric, proved too polarizing a figure, and the plan died. Aldermen took it as a blow to the black population, and 8th Ward representative Keith Caldwell told the Tribune, “Every time there is a lifting of the black community, there is a gathering of eagles to hit it down. I’m getting damn tired of it."
Brazier, a friend of the Obamas and community organizer even after his prostate cancer diagnosis, seems a much more sympathetic figure than Muhammad. Still, Emanuel’s politicking may not pay off, in which case Stony Island will be stuck with a name backstory about as boring as they come: “Stony Island Ave., 1600 E 5600 to 13000 S. Named by subdividers due to being near the lake makes it look like an island and it had stoney soil.”