Gene Parks is going to get a street in Madison named for him after all.
It will not please the woman who phoned me last month with a list of all Gene's shortcomings. But it pleases me. In fact, when the sign goes up on Gene Parks Place, I might volunteer to go over and tell the new residents a little about the guy their street is named after.
Early last month I wrote a column about the ambitious redevelopment of the Allied Drive neighborhood, which will include new low-income housing as well as owner-occupied townhouses, duplexes and single-family homes.
It is being overseen by the Madison Community Development Authority (CDA), and the CDA is responsible for naming the six new streets in the Allied neighborhood that are part of the redevelopment.
CDA chairman Stuart Levitan and neighborhood alderman Brian Solomon spent a lot of time ruminating and talking to residents about what street names might be appropriate. The plan was to name three streets after significant figures in Madison history. The other three would be named not for individuals but speak to the neighborhood's anticipated renaissance - Revival Ridge, for example.
When I spoke to Levitan on July 8, he described how they had come up with the three individuals who would be honored with street names. Certain people weren't eligible simply because their names were too long - Dimetra Shivers, for instance, the late jazz singer who helped found the Madison chapter of the NAACP. Madison Times publisher Betty Franklin-Hammonds fell into this category as well.
The ordinance states: "New street names shall be no longer than 17 character spaces including the postal-approved abbreviated suffix." Spaces between names count toward the 17, as well.
The three individuals the CDA decided to honor with street names in Allied were Mike McKinney, the NBC-15 anchor and community activist who died in 2006 after a long fight with cancer; Percy Julian Jr., a pioneering Madison civil rights attorney who died earlier this year; and Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter and activist with no connection to the city who nevertheless helped the gender and ethnic balance of the street names.
The other three street names originally decided upon by the CDA were Revival Ridge, Diversity Drive and Dunn's Marsh Terrace.
At the time Levitan told me: "It breaks my heart not to name one for Gene Parks."
In my column the next day, I noted that Parks would have been a bold - perhaps controversial - choice, but an excellent one, too.
Parks, who died in 2005 at 57, was a public figure in Madison from his junior year in high school on. In that year, 1963, Parks, a junior at La Follette (he and his twin sister were the first blacks to attend the school), wrote an impassioned letter to the editor of the State Journal on the subject of racism and civil rights.
Gene wrote that he might leave the country if the situation didn't improve. There was an outpouring of support, Gene's photograph appeared in the paper, and a short time later he was elected president of the Wisconsin Association of Student Councils.
Parks won election to the City Council while he was attending UW-Madison and his political future seemed bright. But as the years passed, there were election losses, firings, lawsuits - Gene's star seemed to dim. He did not go quietly. He held jobs in the fire department and as city affirmative action officer and from those outposts he pointed out cracks in Madison's self-satisfied liberal veneer. He was often loud. He was often angry. He was always passionate and that, in the end, is why he deserves to be remembered. Gene Parks cared very much about this city, and it cost him a lot.
When I suggested in print that maybe Parks should have a street in Allied named for him, the reaction was interesting. Several readers concurred, while a few others, perhaps remembering times Gene was not at his best, expressed outrage. I remember one woman being particularly indignant. While she spoke I thought of Nelson Algren, the Chicago author who in "City on the Make" said you earned the right to criticize a city by first proving you loved it. Gene did that.
Well, as Yogi Berra said, it's not over until it's over. And the CDA had a change of heart and decided to name a street for Gene Parks after all. I was disappointed at first to learn that Gene would get his street at the expense of Percy Julian, who while not nearly as visible as Parks, was instrumental in taking newly passed civil rights laws and turning them into effective tools for social justice.
In the end, the bureaucracy, of all things, saved the day. It turned out that there was already at Diversity Road in Madison, and so the city decreed that having a Diversity Drive in Allied was unacceptable. Last week, the CDA officially named the six new streets: Revival Ridge; Dunn's Marsh Terrace; Frida Kahlo Crest; Mike McKinney Court; Percy Julian Way; and, yes, Gene Parks Place.
I hope the residents on Gene Parks Place enjoy a conversation.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.