City streets offer easy immortality

Signs: Baltimore will rename a road after almost anybody.

November 07, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Before Cal Ripken's last baseball game, Mayor Martin O'Malley strode onto the field and boldly proclaimed Lee Street would be renamed Ripken Way. O'Malley thrust an orange-and-black street sign in the air and called it a fitting tribute to the Iron Man.

The way the crowd cheered, you'd have thought it was a major-league deal.

But it turns out you don't have to be a retired legend to get a street named after you in Baltimore.

About every nine days in Baltimore, someone - or something - is immortalized with a street sign.

The Ripken Way sign, just south of Camden Yards, is the most recent of 34 erected since January to honor people, churches or institutions.

A few that have adorned the city in recent years are well known - Corn Beef Row and Clarence Du Burns Lane. But most are more obscure, like Rev. Juggle Way, Thaddeus Winkey Way, Sweet Hope Way.

City officials don't ask for a fee, or even a reason, to rename a street.

"We grant most requests," said Public Works Director George Winfield, whose department runs the little-known program. "I'm not aware of any recently that have been denied."

The yellow, green, blue, red and orange signs designate one or more blocks of a street with the name of a person, place or thing. The original name is not dropped, the street just bears two names.

The vanity signs are supposed to be temporary, and while city officials are re-evaluating their sign policy, they appear to be in no hurry to take them down.

There are 126 of them on the city's 2,500 miles of streets, avenues, roads, alleys, boulevards and ways, city records show.

A neighbor of the city's last mayor figured out how easy it is, which is why Kurt L. Schmoke now lives on Kurt L. Schmoke Way.

"It was a surprise to me," Schmoke said after the sign was presented to him at a September block party in his Ashburton neighborhood.

Schmoke said he didn't know how long the city would leave it up, but said he hopes to have it when it comes down. "I will rename the walkway to my house," he said.

The signs, manufactured by the city for about $50 each, include Jerry Turner Way, Avenue of the Arts and Bourbon Street (its lone bar is moving soon).

The colorful signs are supposed to be taken down within 120 days, but it hasn't worked out that way. Of the 169 streets that have been ceremonially named since 1984, just 43 signs have been removed.

"Somewhere in the course of history, many signs were allowed to be left in place," Winfield said.

One embarrassing sign didn't last long.

In 1997, a street was renamed Rev. Willie E. Quick Way to honor the pastor's one-year anniversary at New Lebanon Calvary Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

Days later, the sign was taken down when the city learned the minister had an extensive background of criminal charges. Convicted of sexual assault, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, court records show.

It was one of his alleged victims who came forward to protest the sign, city officials said.

After that, the Public Works Department issued a ruling that a criminal background check would be made for all designees.

But Winfield said his department does not routinely perform criminal background checks before issuing a sign.

It wasn't an issue when it came to Ripken Way, which was put up as a permanent sign.

"Renaming Ripken Way is much more major in that it is not looked at as temporary," said Kurt Kocher, public works spokesman. "This is a very unusual thing we did for Cal."

It was unusual because the request came from the mayor's office, not from a church or community group, like most others.

Ripken said the orange sign "blows me away."

"It's a place I've called my second home for a long time," he said of the stadium. "It'll be really cool to go to the stadium and make a right on Ripken Way. I hope it will spur a memory or two for people, and I hope they're good ones."

Some 48 members of the clergy have had city streets "temporarily" named after them in the past two decades. Eleven of the signs have been removed.

About 26 churches have stood on a street named for the house of worship. Nine signs have been removed.

"This may be an instance when a better tracking policy needs to be instituted," Kocher said.

Winfield said he wants to take inventory and remove the signs that should come down. Some, he said, might stay up.

He also wants to charge applicants a fee, probably the $50 it costs to make the sign. The signs would be taken down and given to the honoree after a year.

The new regulations should be in place by April.

The Rev. Ernest L. Montague Sr., who had a section of Collington Avenue emblazoned with a blue Trinity AME Way sign on Sept. 15, said he hopes his sign stays.

After all, several of his colleagues in the clergy have had their signs up for years. "I'm praying this is permanent," he said.

As could be the sign at Lombard and Exeter streets: Corn Beef Row.

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