It's 2017, and Phoenix still has a street that’s named for a racial slur.
The word "squaw" has been used to demean Native American woman for generations — basically, ever since white people showed up. In 2003, Squaw Peak was re-named Piestewa Peak in honor of Lori Piestewa, a Hopi woman who was killed in combat during the Iraq War. But the name of the road at the base of the mountain is still named Squaw Peak Drive.
Mayor Greg Stanton wants to change that. But a majority of people who live on the street — most of whom are white — don’t. An unofficial petition delivered to the city by residents of Squaw Peak Drive indicates that 16 out of roughly 20 homeowners are opposed to renaming the street.
Tuesday, the Phoenix City Council passed a new policy that would make it possible for the city to go ahead and change the name anyway. Previously, city policy required the majority of homeowners to consent to name changes. Under the new policy, the city can move forward with renaming a street if the council agrees that its name is “derogatory or offensive.”
Also possibly up for a name change is Robert E. Lee Street in north Phoenix near Bell Road and Tatum Boulevard, which was given its current name in 1961. (More on that history here.)
Suggesting that a street’s name could be changed to something that’s not outrageously racist has a tendency to make white people collectively lose their shit. In Hollywood, Florida, white supremacists recently showed up outside the city hall and started chanting “Trump! Trump!” because a group of protesters had the audacity to point out that naming a street after a KKK Grand Wizard was perhaps not the best choice.
None of those histrionics were on display at the Phoenix City Council’s policy session Tuesday. Instead, a series of speakers — mostly black and Native American — took turns speaking in favor of the proposal for more than an hour.
"I think about how that word was used to my mother, and to me, and it is never a compliment," Patty Talahongva said. "Phoenix is located in the home of Hohokam Indians — how many names do we have to honor those original residents?"
"It’s time to be sensitive to communities that did not have a voice at the time that the streets were named," Roy Tatem of the East Valley NAACP added. "If we proposed a Nat Turner Boulevard, I know that this room would be packed in opposition. Some would say he was a freedom fighter. Some would say he was a murderer. We feel the same way about people who fought for the Confederacy."
Three council members — Thelda Williams, Sal DiCiccio, and Jim Waring — acknowledged that the name Squaw Peak Drive was offensive, but nonetheless voted against giving the City Council the authority to change it.
Williams claimed the policy would “take people’s rights away” and “lead to a distrust of government.”
DiCiccio described changing offensive street names without homeowners' consent as "an 'if you don't like, we're going to cram it down your throat' kind of thing."
"They're nice people, they're good people, they work hard, they've been demonized and now they've got their backs up," he said, noting that he himself found the name Squaw Peak offensive.
"If I was African-American, I'd probably find Robert E. Lee Street offensive, too," he added.
Waring argued that street signs are expensive (debatable — the cost to update signage is estimated to be in the range of $2,000) and that residents would have to go to the DMV to change their addresses (not true, according to the city manager, who pointed out that the process can be completed online.)
“If we [the council] vote on this, we don’t have to pay anything, we don’t have to stand in line,” Waring said. “Someone else is going to have to carry that burden.”
Michael Nowakowski initially voted no, citing the provision added during the meeting that requires any name changes be "cost neutral" — meaning that the city would reimburse residents for the cost of a new driver's license, for instance.
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"If, in the future, there's 300 streets [needing to be renamed,] where's that funding coming from?" he asked. "I can’t vote in good conscience for giving a blank check to our staff without knowing what the cost is going to be."
A few minutes later, he changed his vote to yes, on the condition that city staff provide a cost analysis for each proposed name change.
Mayor Stanton framed the decision as a matter of doing the right thing, pointing out that offensive street names affect more people than just those who live on the street in question.
"We want to send a message about our values as our city, which means not having street signs — paid for by taxpayers — that demean our residents," he said.