Mayor Rahm Emanuel is undoubtedly trying to score points with black Chicagoans.
Hard to imagine that isn’t the case.
Is it still a good idea to honor Bishop Arthur Brazier, a civil rights and spiritual leader, community activist and overall force for good in a world that doesn’t have enough of them?
Emanuel this week proposed renaming Stony Island, from 56th to 130th streets, after Bishop Brazier, who died in 2010 at age 89. Brazier certainly deserves an honor.
Over a long life, Brazier never stopped fighting the good fight — his work covered it all: economic development, housing, education and spiritual uplift. As his son, who took over the mega church his father built at 63rd and Dorchester, explained to the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman, “He provided insight and development in housing, education, public safety, health and human services. His comprehensiveness is what the mayor and our community understood. He wasn’t just a person who ran a program, but understood the development and self-determination of a community.”
Brazier helped bring the Rev. Martin Luther King to Chicago in 1966, helped found the Woodlawn Organization in the ’60s to battle slumlords and beat back an encroaching University of Chicago, helped organize a boycott of the public schools over the concentration of black students in mobile classrooms, leading to the early resignation of school Supt. Ben Willis, and became a powerful, enduring voice that politicians all the way up to President Barack Obama relied on.
Over 48 years, he built a congregation at the Apostolic Church of God of more than 20,000 members and helped rebuild the section of Woodlawn near the church. He also developed affordable housing and consulted with community groups across the country on housing and commercial redevelopment and, in recent years, instrumental in starting the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community.
He was also a charming and lovely man who more Chicagoans should know about.
Undoubtedly, Emanuel singled out Brazier because he deserved an honor but also because Emanuel isn’t nearly as popular among blacks as he was on election day. A teachers strike, a spike in crime and 50 school closings haven’t earned him many friends. Honoring Brazier also is a nod to some blacks that have stood with Emanuel.
But we don’t really care — Brazier earned this honor.
The question, then, is this the right one?
Giving up the name Stony Island, which is a few blocks from Brazier’s church, isn’t a no-brainer. Stony is one of those iconic street names with richness and character, one that tells us something about the city. Changing South Park Way to Martin Luther King Drive was not only the right thing, it also didn’t represent much of a loss. Nothing special about South Park.
But the history of the city resides in street names like Stony Island. When all of Chicago was a lake, a limestone ridge protruded above the water line for a short stretch of the street that became Stony Island.
Like State Street, once the main route south through the state of Illinois, hence the name, or Vincennes Avenue, once an Indian trail that stretched between Chicago and Vincennes, Ind., Stony Island means something. These tidbits, by the way, come from “Streetwise Chicago,” a history of Chicago street names by Editorial Page Editor Tom McNamee and former Sun-Times Editor Don Hayner.
Before the City Council votes next month to rename 174 blocks of Stony Island, it’s worth considering an alternative, perhaps renaming a block that is more tightly connected to Brazier’s home base in Woodlawn. Maybe a stretch of Dorchester in Woodlawn? Maybe a smaller portion of Stony Island or 63rd Street?
Brazier made his mark on Chicago.
Brazier is worth honoring.
It’s worth noting one reason why it’s happening. But that’s doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.