Renaming a couple of New Orleans streets in honor of black pastors might seem a fair exchange, given that Confederates retain a prominent place in the grid.
And if, as some opponents of the name changes averred, this is an offense against the principle of church-and-state separation, it is hardly a precedent.
We have, for instance, not only a Palmer Park but a Palmer Avenue. They commemorate the Rev. Benjamin Palmer, a Presbyterian minister who delivered a stemwinding sermon on Thanksgiving in 1860 that is credited with hastening Louisiana’s secession. Palmer, who believed slavery was ordained in the Bible, was much admired by Robert E. Lee, whose statue will evidently forever dominate the cityscape.
It should perhaps therefore be no big deal for the City Council to recognize the various good works performed by the late preachers Robert C. Blakes Sr. and John Raphael Jr. But no issue in recent memory has provoked such acrimonious discord on the council as preceded the 4-3 vote to ignore various rules by renaming part of Carondelet Street for Blakes and part of LaSalle Street for Raphael.
The row on the council was mainly about political protocol. LaToya Cantrell, who represents the district where the streets are located, took umbrage because at-large councilman Jason Williams left her out of the loop when he filed the ordinance to change the names. While it is a shame that Cantrell got her feelings hurt, and polite convention is not to be despised, the genesis of the ordinance is of strictly limited interest to the public. The important question is whether this is a good idea; Cantrell, in fact, had a better one.
This is no disrespect to our honorees. Blakes, a prominent proponent of faith-healing on TV, styled himself “Prophet,” and Kenner’s Pontchartrain Center was packed to the rafters for his funeral in 2013. Raphael, who ran New Hope Baptist Church and distributed those “Thou Shalt Not Kill” signs you see in front yards all over town, died the same year at his home in Harvey.
Living in the ’burbs evidently did not diminish their philanthropic activities in New Orleans or make them less deserving of posthumous honors. But these honors are clearly not posthumous enough. The rules say you gotta be five years a goner before they can put your name on a street sign, presumably so that the council can take a more detached view of your life’s work.
LaSalle and Carondelet streets are named for players too ancient to require reassessment. In fact, LaSalle does not figure in the history of New Orleans at all, on account of it did not exist when he died in 1687, having claimed the entire Mississippi basin for France. Carondelet, governor of Louisiana when it was a Spanish colony in the late 18th century, did draw up regulations governing the welfare of slaves but exempted the ships that brought them here from import duties.
Recency is by no means the council’s only offense against the rules. They also ban the renaming of a street’s intermediate section. But that is what is happening here. Carondelet will be interrupted to accommodate 53 new addresses, LaSalle 116. It is a recipe for confusion that could have unfortunate implications for the emergency services.
The rules also ban titles and abbreviations in street names, which must not be of excessive length. With “Robert C. Blakes Sr. Drive,” the council has hit the trifecta.
The City Planning Commission had voted in favor of the changes, rejecting its staff’s recommendation, on grounds that the rules should be broken for exceptional people. But anyone subject to these rules will presumably be an exceptional person, else the name change would not have been proposed in the first place.
Cantrell, who originally embraced the plan, decided it would be less disruptive to honor Raphael and Blakes by giving them second billing on the street signs whilst retaining LaSalle and Carondelet as the official names. That is common practice in Chicago, and seemed a perfect solution, providing a permanent and public tribute within the municipal rules.
But fans of Raphael and Blakes regarded it as a slap in the face. It wasn’t enough either for Mayor Mitch Landrieu because he had made a campaign promise to give the late pastors a few blocks all to themselves.
So Cantrell was blindsided by the Williams ordinance, and such acerbities ensued that Council President Stacy Head was obliged to plead for “some semblance of decorum.” This was no way to honor the memory of Raphael and Blakes, but at least it was enough to make Palmer turn in his grave.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.