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Holding Serve 

City officials reflect on the decision to rename the Boulevard after Richmond-born tennis great Arthur Ashe.

click to enlarge Protesters bearing Confederate flags, who regularly rally in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, gather on what is now known as Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

Scott Elmquist

Protesters bearing Confederate flags, who regularly rally in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, gather on what is now known as Arthur Ashe Boulevard. 

The debate over whether to remove the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue is still alive and well, but some city officials have looked elsewhere to shed light on Richmond's complex history. In this case, it's an actual crossroad.

At last week's City Council meeting, eight council members voted to rename the Boulevard, which stretches from Hermitage Road to Byrd Park, crossing over Monument Avenue in the Museum District, after legendary tennis player and political activist Arthur Ashe, an African-American and Richmond native.

"I'm still disappointed that the City Council did not vote to ask the Commonwealth for the authority to remove the monuments, and I still think that's something they should do," says Mayor Levar Stoney. "But this is one step in the right direction."

click to enlarge Arthur Ashe
  • Arthur Ashe

Ashe, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia a few months before his 50th birthday in 1993, is memorialized throughout the city by an athletic center, an elementary school and a bronze statue on Monument Avenue. His story is one of fierce determination: A child of the Jim Crow era, he grew up to become the first black man to win singles tennis titles at the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the Australian Open, and to be ranked No. 1 in the world.

During the segregated 1940s and 1950s, Ashe was barred from whites-only tennis courts at Byrd Park. The poetic symbolism of christening a street that ends just before that same facility in the name of a man who wasn't welcome there isn't lost on those who pushed for the change.

"Richmond has a history of excluding people," Stoney says. "I think moving forward we have to design a city that includes the stories of all our people. I think it is appropriate that we show the world the sort of new direction the city of Richmond is heading in."

Some of those opposed to the plan criticize what looks like a hefty price tag, arguing that the money should go toward less symbolic improvements, like fixing potholes and addressing the city's dire education needs. It was previously reported that Richmond will foot a portion of an overall bill of about $330,000, split between the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the City of Richmond. Second District City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, who represents most of the 2.4-mile stretch in question and has championed the effort since last year, says the impact on the city's finances will be minimal — roughly $30,000 from the transportation budget, thus making the education argument moot.

"We're talking $30,000 out of an $800 million city budget, and it's part of the transportation budget anyway," Gray says. "And what's a better way to promote education than memorializing a great Richmonder with street signage and place-making? That goes further education-wise with that $30,000 than anything we could put into the school system."

VDOT spokesman Bob Spieldenner says the agency already was planning to replace highway signs around the city because it's "time for an upgrade to make them brighter, safer and easier to read." Whether the new name change will impact the department's overall budget for that project is still unclear, he says.

Critics at last week's City Council meeting accused Gray of not following the proper renaming protocol, which involves community engagement prior to presenting a proposal for a vote. First District City Councilman Andreas Addison voted in favor of the renaming, but says he was concerned at the amount of frustration expressed by constituents, and he wanted them to feel heard.

"I think nobody on the street asked for the name to be changed," Addison says. "Sometimes it's more about making sure people can be part of the process and voice their concern, and we weren't hearing that our residents were heard fully."

According to Scott's Addition Boulevard Association President Trevor Dickerson, Gray brought the idea to him last summer. She and Ashe's nephew, David Harris Jr., presented the notion at the association's August meeting and were met with overwhelming support and a few questions about the business cost of changing an address. Dickerson says the association's board voted unanimously in favor of the change, and invited Museum District Association representatives to a meeting for an open discussion.

"Their ask was that we work with Kim and the rest of the City Council to pump the brakes and see if there was a way we could kind of give the issue more thought and slow it down," says Dickerson, adding that his group primarily represents business owners, while the Museum District Association is made up of more residents. "We heard their concerns, but on our part, we decided to stay steadfast in our decision to unanimously support it."

Dickerson says the criticism he heard was primarily about the process, but he "didn't hear a lot of solutions" being proposed. The Museum District group did not return calls for comment.

Prior to the City Council meeting, Addison says he spoke with Gray and learned more about the months leading up to that evening. He says he believes constituents received valid responses to their objections — he just wasn't part of those conversations. The nine-person body is structured such that council members are all free to introduce legislation at their will, and he says he understands why Gray spearheaded the project without directly involving him or 5th District Councilman Parker Agelasto. But he would have appreciated clearer documentation and communication about the effort, he says.

"This is a very unique conversation, because the stretch of road is shared by three council members," Addison says. "And if you asked each of the three of us what the best path forward is, you'd probably get three different answers."

Ultimately, Addison says he voted in favor of the proposal because of Ashe's story.

"It's a way of celebrating what he overcame and the successes of his career and life, putting him back where he couldn't be before," Addison says of the tennis great and global humanitarian. He notes that a New York Times alert he received after the vote really drove home the gravity of the decision, which came at a time when the nation's eyes are on Virginia as it grapples with its complicated racial history on the state level.

"I get New York Times alerts all the time, but very rarely about a vote I just made."

It will be at least a few months before signs go up marking the street's new name. Addison says as far as he's concerned, what used to be Boulevard is now Arthur Ashe Boulevard, with or without the new signs.

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