In a symbol of the South's struggle to cope with fast-changing demographics, the Dallas City Council is now back-tracking on a decision to allow residents to vote on a new name for Industrial Boulevard, a street running through the heart of the major Trinity River Project.

Why? Because out of 20,594 votes cast by email, phone and fax in the council-sponsored poll, over 52% said they wanted to call the road "Cesar Chavez Boulevard," in honor of the legendary farm labor activist. "Riverfront Boulevard" was a distant second at 19%.

Latino council members -- as well many residents in the city which is 43% Hispanic -- quickly applauded the vote:


"I think this, by far, demonstrates what people want in the community," said Dallas City Council member Steve Salazar.

But other city leaders -- mostly white -- quickly down-played the poll as "not scientific" and voiced their distaste for the Cesar Chavez name.

Dallas mayor Tom Leppert insisted his opposition wasn't because of race: "I don't like to see us name things for people." But Marisa Trevino of Latina Lista notes that the city has already named part of the project after somebody (who is white):

[O]ne name has already been bestowed on a major architectural feat to be featured in the Trinity River area - a beautiful bridge designed by renowned architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava. The bridge's name will be the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.

Council member Jerry Allen -- also white -- took another line of attack, suggesting Cesar Chavez was a fine street name, but just not for a street so prominent:


City council member Jerry Allen said that the Cesar Chavez name can be used elsewhere. "There's plenty of streets out there to do," he explained.

It's an old argument. As the New York Times reported in 2004, efforts to name streets after Martin Luther King, Jr. are often shot down if they're in areas city leaders deem too economically valuable, and often up in more disadvantaged neighborhoods:


Derek Alderman, a geography professor at East Carolina University who has studied the politics of naming streets for Dr. King, said at least 650 streets have been given his name in at least 41 states, often not without controversy.

Most of the streets are in the South, in places where the population is at least 30 percent black. Georgia, Dr. King's birthplace, has the most, Dr. Alderman said. Many run mostly through black neighborhoods, he said, often because efforts to name a central thoroughfare for Dr. King fail.

"The second choices are often not the most prominent, the most healthy streets," Dr. Alderman said.

The Dallas City Council has postponed a final decision until August 5.

For more on Derek Alderman's fascinating research into the politics of naming streets after MLK, look here.