Street dreams: Barack Obama Boulevard symbolizes the legacy of the 44th president



“I am the wildest dreams of my ancestor”

Colin Kaepernick’s name on a 49ers jersey

“From words to action”

Those words became more than the graphics printed on T-shirts at a public ceremony last Saturday morning. Worn by Yeji Johnson, 6, Ben Johnson, 7, Aden Francique, 6, and her sister Alexandra, 10, they acted as simple but powerful symbols of the importance of the newly unveiled Barack. Obama Boulevard in downtown San José.

The four young people joined about 150 others on August 21 to name the 4,300-foot boulevard at the confluence of the SAP Center, the next development of Google Downtown West, and the soon-to-be-expanded Diridon station which will attract thousands of eye-catching billboards. signage.

(Left to right) Ben Johnson, Alexandra Francique, Aden Francique and Yeji Johnson played games to pass the time before Barack Obama Boulevard behind them was unveiled in downtown San Jose. Photo by Katie Lauer

Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University, said she brought her children and their friends to recognize Obama’s achievements and historical significance.

“We thought this was an opportunity to educate our children, to help them understand the importance of civic engagement and to know that they might be able to accomplish one of these great things someday.” said Carter-Francique. “Especially when we face this tumultuous time with race relations in our country and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, I want to continue to help them learn about our history. It is part of their heritage.

This heritage is multifaceted; her family were invited by Mary Ann Noel, one of the Barack Obama Boulevard committee members, whose husband helped organize the 1968 Olympic podium protest, alongside Dr Harry Edwards, the man who helped to catalyze the very department she now heads.

The streets as symbols

Noel was pleased with Saturday’s multigenerational and multicultural participation, after years of working to organize, secure and fund a street worthy of Obama’s name.

“We have brought together family, friends, kids and everyone to honor President Obama,” says Noel, who spent 50 years in education. “It was just a good kickoff, because that’s what it was: community and diversity. We had a great time carrying this message and honoring the community leaders who were there for us. “

In addition to other committee members like Hellen Sims, vice president of the NAACP Silicon Valley, and Milan Balinton, executive director of the African American Community Services Agency in San Jose, Noel took his hat off to the hundreds of coalitions, neighbors and community members who propelled the idea across the finish line, turning Obama’s slogan “Yes We Can” into “Yes We Did”.

But what is so important about a street name?

“It’s a living story, it will always be there,” Noel says, adding that the signs will live beyond the many Elders involved in the organization. “Every time you walk by, you are reminded of this person’s contribution to our history, their impact on our lives, and the values ​​they left behind.”

That’s exactly what Alex Shoor hoped to accomplish, when he first came up with the idea in an August 2017 issue of Metro.

“I keep thinking about young people who might come to the streets and be inspired by it,” says Shoor, “and for me that’s what it is.”

Community members were the first to walk down Barack Obama Boulevard on Saturday morning. Photo by Katie Lauer

After tedious work to educate local businesses, raise thousands of dollars to cover city costs, get the nod from emergency services and (unanimous) approval from San Jose City Council in January 2021, the boulevard Barack Obama materialized exactly four years later. Shoor said the timing and location, created from portions of Bird Avenue, South Montgomery Street and Autumn Street, couldn’t be better.

“It’s a street in a neighborhood that is going to change and transform,” says Shoor. “I’m hoping for some progress to happen for San Jose on Barack Obama Boulevard, and for many of us, that’s exactly what he stood for.

As executive director of the non-profit community engagement association Catalyze SV, Shoor sees the name change as a shining example of public policy: real progress emerging from experimentation.

“Creating a new street name is ultimately a symbol,” says Shoor, recalling the genesis of the efforts in a conversation at a cafe. “I hope people feel both empowered to delve deeper into the history and legacy of our community, good and bad, and I hope people feel more empowered as community advocates. to be able to make changes in this community. “

The way to San José

Barack Obama Boulevard joins thousands of streets of American cities named after historical figures.

For the curious eye, sailing around San José is a history lesson in itself. In addition to the trees, monuments and common buildings of the Bay Area, the streets also honor several pioneers, settlers, missions, landowners, religious leaders and inventors, a permanent encoding of the culture and geography of the city. :

Curtner, Gish, Hedding. Julian, Leigh, Mission, Montgomery. Naglee. Newhall. Sunol. Taylor. Winchester, Woz, Zanker.

Renaming a passage is a tedious and multifaceted process. San José’s policy for renaming streets dates back to 1972 and deliberately applies a “heavy onus and strict criteria” to combat potential disruption to existing businesses, the post office, and the public, as well as to avoid the removal of services. important names with historical significance.

While Barack Obama Boulevard has ultimately been rationalized as a minor right-of-way, the people with the most access and power to classify streets in 2021 are often real estate developers building new paths.

Recent examples are Chastain Way and Wondo Way, immortalizing local football phenomena around the stadium of the 2015 earthquakes. But as the real estate and development industry is heavily biased between whites and men, which has the access and the power to name the newest streets in a city as diverse as San José?

The answer may be found just a mile southwest of Barack Obama Boulevard, where a residential development project in downtown San Jose called “The Ohlone” is named after the natives of the Bay Area. of San Francisco.

As plans slowly scroll through City Hall, two sidewalk fragments around the San Carlos Street property – Van Every Way and Swenson Drive – have already commemorated its developers.


Kevin E. Boling

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