There are two distinct facets to the ongoing controversy surrounding renaming of streets in Alexandria and, as with many issues, the fault line is as much about process as substance.
The substance is straightforward: Naming streets and schools after Confederate leaders, or erecting statues in their honor, took place mostly during the Jim Crow era, often 50 years or more after the end of the Civil War. This commemoration was by and large a segregationist statement rather than homage to a beloved figure. As a letter writer points out on the next page, this practice was odious.
What these names mean in 2023 is more nuanced.
To many, the names are an affront; they’re a poke in the eye each time they’re seen. They’re a reminder of a particularly foul chapter of American history, and for some, the enslavement of their ancestors.
To many others, particularly those who live on the streets, the names are simply their place of residence. For these people, removing the names would be a major inconvenience, yes, but also jarring in an emotional way that may not be easily apparent.
Someone who has lived on Rucker Place for 20 years, for example, likely has part of their identity wrapped up in where they live that is separate from any original intent associated with the naming of that street. For many of these residents, an initiative led by those who don’t live on the street – or worse, don’t even live in Alexandria – is an affront as much as an inconvenience.
The process fault line – another angry wound that Alexandria’s current leaders keep gouging – is that resident input from those directly impacted is increasingly ignored.
Only two current members of City Council, Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor John Chapman, were on that body when the issue of renaming Alexandria’s Confederate-associated streets first arose back in 2016. At the public hearing on Sept. 17, 2016, council voted to remove the name Jefferson Davis from the Alexandria portion of Route 1, and to also ask Virginia’s General Assembly for permission to remove the Appomattox statue from the intersection of Washington and Prince streets. Council decided to leave the city’s existing street renaming process – which required 75% of the residents on a given street to petition for change – in place. Changes were to be considered one-by-one.
Apparently dismayed by the slow pace of name change requests, in 2021 the city initiated a pilot program whereby only 25% of residents on a street needed to petition for a name change, with up to three names allowed to be changed per year.
It would appear that activists, some of whom have admitted to living outside of Alexandria, have been unable to muster even that low threshold of one in four residents favoring the renaming of their street. Otherwise, why would Mayor Justin Wilson have advocated last month for Alexandria to simply change three streets a year by decree, without following either the long-established or recently revised processes for street name changes?
Confederate names are offensive. So is a city that repeatedly disregards the clear wishes of residents who are most impacted by unwanted, top-down initiatives. From development special use permits to small area plans to street renaming, the theme is the same: if leaders can’t get what they want under existing rules – which were arrived at following processes that relied on resident input – no problem, they’ll just change the rules.
This short-sighted approach promises “wins” that elected officials can tout to outsiders, while also guaranteeing further erosion in the trust of those they actually govern.