Public sentiment divided on renaming the Boulevard for Arthur Ashe

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 10/11/2018, 6 a.m.
Call it a preview of the coming fireworks over a proposal to rename the historic West End street now simply ...
David Harris Jr., a nephew of Arthur Ashe Jr., speaks at Tuesday’s public hearing on renaming the Boulevard for his famous late uncle. Mr. Harris started this latest renaming initiative, the third since Mr. Ashe’s death in 1993. Photo by Sandra Sellars Richmond Free Press

Call it a preview of the coming fireworks over a proposal to rename the historic West End street now simply known as the Boulevard in honor of Arthur Ashe Jr., the late great Richmond-born tennis star and humanitarian.

On Tuesday, just a week before the proposal by 2nd District City Councilwoman Kim B. Gray is scheduled to come before a City Council committee, more than 150 people attended a public hearing on the issue at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The museum at 200 N. Boulevard would be impacted by such a change.

More than 35 people spoke at the session moderated by David Bailey of Virginia Capitol Connections.

To many, renaming the street for Arthur Ashe is a progressive idea that would show the city has evolved since the era of racial segregation when Mr. Ashe was barred from playing on the Byrd Park tennis courts and forced to leave his birthplace to pursue a sport in which he rose to become the greatest African-American male player in history.

“To me, this is a great opportunity for the city to show our growth and expansion,” said David Harris Jr., a nephew of Mr. Ashe, who got the ball rolling during the summer.

This is the third attempt to rename the street for Mr. Ashe, who died 25 years ago.

But to Christopher Small, a Realtor who makes his home on the Boulevard, the proposal is a bad idea, no matter how worthy Mr. Ashe is and how far it shows the city has changed.

“There are 367 parcels of property up North and South Boulevard,” said Mr. Small, a former president of the Boulevard Association, expressing the viewpoint of many residents and property owners.

“Those 367 parcels generate more than $300 million of tax revenue a year. The City of Richmond owes us to hear our thoughts first,” Mr. Small said. “A name change should come from within the neighborhood, not be forced upon it.”

Other Boulevard residents, who argued that the name change would make it harder to get mail or pizza deliveries, urged Ms. Gray to consider alternatives.

“The Boulevard is the Boulevard and it shouldn’t be changed,” said Edward Lacey, a property owner and developer.

“Boulevard is home. It is the Boulevard, simple and elegant,” another speaker said. “One suggestion is to rename the Downtown Expressway — it’s larger and more visible for all to see.”

Others, including Jerome Legions, president of the Carver Civic Association, called for Ms. Gray to drop the Boulevard idea and consider renaming Belvidere Street as Arthur Ashe Way to provide a fresh view of that thoroughfare.

The public comment hearing — rescheduled from September because of Hurricane Florence — came a day after City Council voted 6-3 to kill a resolution that would have called on the General Assembly to allow Richmond to determine the fate of the city’s most notable symbols of racist hate, the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.

Ms. Gray, who voted with the opposition on the statue proposal, said after the 90-minute public hearing that she was delighted at the turnout and the variety of comments. But she said she did not hear anything that would lead her to drop the proposal.