Decision nears on name for park at the foot of King Street

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Waterfront Park has for years been the name of the existing park along The Strand. During the naming process for the new park at the base of King Street, the Alexandria City Council Naming Committee will discuss whether to combine the two parks into one park with one name. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

The months-long debate over naming the park at the foot of King Street is slated for resolution in December.

After an extensive public input process, the Alexandria City Council Naming Committee is scheduled to consider community feedback at its 7:30 p.m. meeting tonight and to choose a name to recommend to city council, City Spokesman Craig Fifer said. From there, the recommendation is expected to go before council for a first reading at the Dec. 11 legislative meeting and a final vote at the Dec. 15 public hearing.

The naming process for the park has been a source of frustration, contention, FOIA requests and heated discussions since March, when City Manager Mark Jinks instructed city staff to refer to the space with generic placeholder name King Street Park at the Waterfront.

Before then, the park had been commonly referred to as Fitzgerald Square, in recognition of Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald, an Irish immigrant, Revolutionary War veteran and former Alexandria mayor. The Irish groups who had advocated for that name, primarily the Ballyshaners and the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, found out that it was no longer being used on St. Patrick’s Day.

City Spokesman Craig Fifer said staff had stopped calling the space Fitzgerald Square because there had not been an official naming process. That official naming process launched at a meeting on Sept. 12. Since then, there have been several meetings, an online survey and a public hearing before the naming committee, which is composed of Councilors Tim Lovain and Del Pepper.

The online survey, which accepted name suggestions from Oct. 9 to Nov. 16, gathered 1,443 responses. Of those, 47 percent submitted variations of the name Fitzgerald, and 10 percent proposed variations of Waterfront. The only other names submitted by at least 1 percent of respondents were variations of Kerry Donley, King Street, Old Town, Parky McParkface and Pat Troy.

Throughout the process, members of Irish organizations have been vocal about the injustice of “stripping” the Fitzgerald name from the park in the first place.

“Multiple city waterfront plans were approved with Fitzgerald on it,” Terry Riley, president of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians said. “… We’re not coming out of left field. We’re just trying to hold the city to the promise that it made, and instead, one individual, unelected, pulls the name. We read about it in a WTOP article on St. Patrick’s Day.”

In the form of survey responses and online petitions, Riley and his colleagues have continued to advocate for Fitzgerald and the necessity of honoring his contributions to Alexandria and the waterfront.

On the other side, many have spoken out against the Fitzgerald name because of slavery implications.

In September, historian Maddy McCoy of the Slavery Inventory Database shared a document with Jinks that listed the names of “enslaved individuals owned by John Fitzgerald at the time of his death.” The document lists 46 names. Jinks shared the information with council, the naming committee and invested stakeholders, including the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. (The 46 names were printed in a letter to the editor, “John Fitzgerald did own slaves,” in the Nov. 8 Alexandria Times.) Concerns about Fitzgerald owning slaves were first raised early last year. Fifer has repeatedly stated that the slavery concerns and Jinks’ decision to stop calling the park Fitzgerald were unrelated.

Discussions about the name change, the process and Fitzgerald’s connection to slavery led Bernadette Troy, wife to the late Pat Troy, to submit multiple FOIA requests seeking a variety of city records related to the park name. Riley, who helped with the requests and has been the key communicator with the city, said the city estimated that the information would cost $4,000.

Fifer said the price was so high because of the breadth of information in the request. He said that he has repeatedly tried to meet with Riley in order to get him the information he seeks without the steep charge.

“We have repeatedly answered the same questions and have repeatedly attempted to arrange a conversation with Mr. Riley so we can provide relevant records while reducing the cost to the requesters and to taxpayers,” Fifer said in an email.

At the naming committee hearing on Nov. 15, of the approximately 70 people who attended, 19 spoke, with nine in favor of Fitzgerald and 10 against, according to a naming committee public input report.

Many of those who spoke suggested alternative names, some that honored Irish heritage without using the name of a slaveholder.

“The issue here for me isn’t whether or not Irish labor should be honored in our city,” resident Sandy Marks said. “Of course it should. The issue for me is whether or not we should use this one man’s name to represent that Irish labor.”

Councilor John Chapman attended the hearing and spoke about the benefits of a neutral or geographical name.

“It’s a multipronged history,” Chapman said. “You had folks that owned boats and you had folks that worked on those boats, you had folks that built those boats. You had enslaved people that were owned by other people as well. And I think it’s valuable to be able to have all of those stories told in that manner and not just have parts of our open space selected for certain people. So that’s why I didn’t push for naming it after an African American or John Fitzgerald or anyone else. I think it needs to be a blank surface for everybody to have their story told.”

Discussion at the naming committee meeting will be based on public input received thus far, and no additional public input will be accepted or considered at the meeting. If the committee adopts a recommendation, the webpage for the park, www.alexandriava.gov/89727, will be updated on Friday, Fifer said.

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