The request to put up a pair of familiar brown street signs on North Clark Street in Rogers Park sailed through the Chicago City Council, joining the 1,500 other honorary roadways aldermen have approved for 50 years.
This one, however, didn’t end up a feel-good move, like bestowing the sobriquet “Frank Sinatra Way” on a stretch of Grand Avenue in a traditionally Italian neighborhood or proclaiming a couple blocks of Campbell Avenue in North Center the “DeVry Institute of Technology Court.”
Instead, the decision to add former Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman to the rolls of people and institutions who enjoy a sliver of recognition along the city’s streets led to an international diplomatic dust-up, a lawsuit and a long-standing South Asian political feud playing out on the Far North Side.
When 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore backed the street naming on behalf of a group of residents including one who donated $1,000 to his campaign fund, he thought he was engaging in the kind of retail politics that’s a Chicago alderman’s stock in trade. But as he planned a September sign-unveiling ceremony, Moore said he got a call from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office. The US State Department had been contacted by the Bangladeshi ambassador to the United States, who objected to the honor.
Ambassador Mohammad Ziauddin said Rahman is unfit for the honorary street sign, citing what he said was complicity in the 1975 assassination of Bangladeshi President Sheikh Mujib Rahman and members of his family during a coup, and his subsequent treatment of political opponents while running the country until his own assassination in 1982 in the small, densely populated country bordered by eastern India, Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal.
Today, Bangladesh’s prime minister is Sheikh Hasina. She’s the daughter of Sheikh Mujib Rahman, the assassinated president. And it is Bangladesh’s official governmental position to oppose the Chicago recognition for Ziaur Rahman, Ziauddin said.
“We believe the United States has a very strong record on the rule of law, human rights and good governance,” Ziauddin said. “(Ziaur) Rahman ruled Bangladesh as a tyrant and an oppressor, and this honor stands in opposition to those values.”
Moore, though, went ahead and put up the signs on the 6600 and 6800 blocks of North Clark despite the State Department request. The alderman, known for bringing up international issues at the City Council, said he did some research and found there’s a long history of alleged wrongdoing on both sides of the political divide in Bangladesh.
“Bangladeshi politics is pretty rough and tumble,” Moore said. On balance, he decided, Ziaur Rahman seemed like “one of the good guys.”
Moore got on the phone and broke the news to Ambassador Ziauddin. “I told him, in the nicest way possible, that I was personally a little upset when the airport in this nation’s capital was named to honor Ronald Reagan, but I got over it,” Moore said. “I explained that this wasn’t the renaming of a major downtown street, it was an honorary sign in sort of a remote part of the city.”
Besides, Moore noted, since 1997 part of Devon Avenue in the 50th Ward has had the honorary name “Sheikh Mujib Way” in honor of Sheikh Mujib Rahman. “So the other side has its recognition,” the alderman said.
Moore’s decision to press forward landed the city in court.
A group of Bangladeshi citizens sued, seeking to have the Ziaur Rahman sign pulled down on the grounds he does not deserve the honor. Their lawyer, Al-Haroon Husain, dismissed Moore’s argument that he’s equalizing the Bangladeshi political calculus on Chicago streets. “You should consider the merits of the individual, whether that person deserves to be honored in this way,” Husain said. “It shouldn’t be a question based on political party.”
And for some in Rogers Park, seeing Ziaur Rahman so honored is offensive, Husain said.
“There’s a large Bangladeshi community in that part of the city,” the lawyer said. “It would be like a Russian walking down the street and being confronted with ‘Honorary Joseph Stalin Way.’ You don’t want to see that.”
On Tuesday, a judge ruled in the city’s favor and dismissed the lawsuit, but Husain said his clients are considering refiling it.
Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi Embassy has sent letters to cities across the U.S. to try to enlighten mayors about Ziaur Rahman so he doesn’t receive additional recognition of the kind he’s getting in Chicago, Ziauddin said.
Chicago honorary street namings are hardly ever this contentious. Many are attempts by aldermen to appease the political supporters, community organizations, ethnic groups, businesses and religious orders that make up the typical Chicago ward and clamor for their people’s contributions to be recognized.
So Chicago has an honorary “Bishop Jonathan Greer Sr. Avenue” on a block of 57th Place near the church Greer founded in the Washington Park neighborhood. There are signs designating part of Lawrence Avenue near the Copernicus Center on the Northwest Side as “Warsaw-Chicago Sister Cities Way.” And in the South Loop, there’s a “Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk Way” to honor the influential house music DJ.
The first honorary street naming, in 1964, designated LaSalle Street in the Loop the “Golden Mile” because of the banking and financial institutions found there, according to city records.
Dozens of the proposals come through the City Council each year. The city clerk’s office estimates aldermen have introduced 65 such requests in 2014 alone. As with most other City Council proposals, if the local alderman backs it, his colleagues are likely to fall in line. The vast majority pass with little more than a quick mention on the crowded agenda of the council Committee on Transportation and Public Way.
Occasionally a street naming proposal does rise above the din of city business.
In 2006, then-2nd Ward Ald. Madeline Haithcock’s attempt to give a short stretch of West Monroe Street the designation “Chairman Fred Hampton Way” in honor of the Black Panther leader who was killed there in 1969 by Chicago police drew the ire of then-Transportation Committee Chairman Ald. Thomas Allen. The panel backed the designation, but once Allen realized who Haithcock was trying to recognize, he left the measure to languish there, sparing the full City Council the uncomfortable prospect of having to take sides on whether to honor the controversial Hampton.
For Husain, the city’s rules governing the awarding of the honorary street signs are nearly as worthy of scorn as giving one to Ziaur Rahman. “How are these decisions even made?” he asked. “What’s the basis for determining if someone deserves the honor? The whole thing is arbitrary.”