The recent, ill-advised decision to rename parts of two New Orleans streets puts Jack Maguire in mind of a similar idea rejected 20 years ago.
Then-City Councilman Joe Giarrusso wanted to change Poydras Street to Victor H. Schiro Avenue in honor of the 1960s mayor. But Schiro’s widow, Sunny, and Maguire, his director of public relations at City Hall, were against removing a historic name from the street plan. Giarrusso then proposed renaming just a section of Poydras for Schiro, but was told that would have caused confusion.
That point also was made when the City Council was debating whether to rename a few blocks in the middle of La Salle and Carondelet streets after a couple of recently deceased local pastors. But, to the chagrin of the emergency services, the council bowed to the wishes of the grieving congregations.
The case for honoring Schiro was stronger, since most any mayor plays a significant role in the city’s progress and Poydras was transformed into a major artery thanks largely to his efforts. It was narrow and nondescript when he took over, but he pushed through a bond issue to widen it and clear the way for commercial development.
Julien Poydras, poet, philanthropist and delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Territory of Orleans before Louisiana became a state, is thus more prominently honored on the city grid than Carondelet, the Spanish governor, La Salle the French explorer, or any other figure in local history.
Maguire wants more recognitions for Schiro, who remained his friend until he died in 1992. Maguire feels that Schiro has been neglected because he came between two mayors — Chep Morrison and Moon Landrieu — who had more charisma and became media darlings. Ed Haas, a history professor at Wright University in Ohio, who specializes in Louisiana, makes a decent fist of giving Schiro his due in a new book.
It is called “Victor H. Schiro: New Orleans in Transition, 1961 — 1970.” The H stands for Hugo –— Schiro’s father was evidently of literary bent.
A way with words was not Mayor Schiro’s forte, however. His most celebrated gaffe, uttered during Hurricane Betsy, was, “Don’t believe any false rumors unless they come from me,” but he also once remarked, Haas relates, “That’s the way the cookie bounces.”
Any politician is wise to cultivate the art of flattery, and Schiro gave it his best short when called upon to introduce Gov. John McKeithen and his wife at a public meeting. “Just look at that lovely Mrs. McKeithen,” Schiro gushed. “Every wrinkle on her face is glowing.”
Integration was a relatively peaceful process in New Orleans, thanks largely, Haas says, to Schiro’s deft behind-the-scenes efforts to smooth ruffled feathers and preach the supremacy of federal law. But nobody could call Schiro a civil rights trailblazer. He first won election with a naked appeal to the segregationists, as, perhaps, was necessary in those days. But there can be no forgiving him and his police chief — the future councilman Giarrusso — for one of the most iconic images from the dying days of Jim Crow.
That was in 1963, when the Rev. Avery Alexander led a sit-in at the whites-only cafeteria in the basement at City Hall. Cops grabbed Alexander by the ankles and dragged him up to the paddy wagon, his head bumping on every step.
Italians were no strangers to the sting of discrimination in New Orleans, and Haas recounts that it was directed at Schiro too. George Healy, then-editor of the Times-Picayune, traditional organ of Uptown reactionaries, upbraided Maguire, when he took up for Schiro. “No Dago is good enough to be mayor of my town,” Healy said.
In fact, not only was Robert Maestri mayor before Morrison, but he has a street named after him. The federal appeals court in New Orleans is on South Maestri Place.
Schiro evidently will never be so honored, but does get credit in Haas’s book for organizing federal relief after Betsy and paving the way for the flood insurance program.
He also came up with the ideas for a jazz festival and, in 1965, announced plans for an “all weather sports arena” in New Orleans East.
The NFL awarded a franchise to New Orleans a year later, and the domed stadium plan was shifted, adding more luster to the name of Poydras.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.