Question of Park-Naming Leads to Significant Debate

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Above: The Orchard Street Pump House, discussed as a possible naming opportunity (photo by Gary Caldwell).

East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier tells ELi that she hasn’t yet named members to a special committee that will study the question of whether to name a park or park structure after long-time Bailey Neighborhood resident and advocate Sally Silver, but expects to do so in the near future.

Following a lively debate, City Council voted unanimously at the March 11 meeting to authorize Beier to convene such a committee. No one participating in the debate disputed Silver’s contributions to the Bailey neighborhood, and almost all who spoke at the meeting endorsed naming something after her – it should just not be Bailey Park in the opinion of leaders of the Bailey Neighborhood who came to speak to Council.

ELi reported earlier this month that Council member Mark Meadows had proposed renaming Bailey Park – the green area north of the Bailey Community Center – the “Sally T. Silver Bailey Neighborhood Park.”

In his proposal, Meadows stated, “Sally has been an integral part of the fabric of this neighborhood since 1976, constantly advocating for the preservation of it and commenting and providing information on hundreds of issues affecting the neighborhood. In addition she has advocated on neighborhood issues at the state, local and national levels and tirelessly given her time and energy to boards and commissions that address all of the neighborhood preservation issues impacting her, and other neighborhoods in EL and elsewhere.”

During the Council discussion of the matter, Justin Booth and Chuck Overbey of the Bailey Community Association spoke out against renaming the park, arguing that Bailey Park – which they said was named after botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey – is the heart of the neighborhood, home to the young, the old, and many MSU students.

Two years ago, Booth was approached as Chair of the Bailey Community Association regarding redevelopment of the Bailey Community Center through funds from the DNR trust fund. Booth recalled that the community association, City officials (including Council members), and others worked with the community to decide what would work best for the entire community.

During this time, Booth said, many people expressed their ideas for the center through public comments, and kids even drew pictures of what they would like to see. But, Booth pointed out, no one called for renaming Bailey Park. Booth called for discussing other ways to honor Sally Silver.

The Bailey Center as seen from the air in a photo by Gary Caldwell

Overbey, who also serves as the Vice Chair of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, chimed in that there are many other places to rename in honor of Silver, noting Stoddard Park and Valley Court Park in particular.

Konrad Hittner, the Vice Chair of the Bailey Community Association, also spoke out against the renaming, citing legal problems with the process. He noted that a City ordinance prohibits naming one place after two people. Renaming the park “Sally T. Silver Bailey Neighborhood Park” would mean that the park was named after both Silver and Bailey, Hittner said.

But Meadows argued against this, saying the park is not named after Liberty Hyde Bailey but after the neighborhood (which no one disputes derives its name from Liberty Hyde Bailey’s legacy).

Another legal issue that Hittner drew attention to is that City guidelines call for parks and public spaces to be named only after deceased persons.

But Council can override this rule, and at least one exception has been made; in 2013, Council voted to name East Lansing’s soccer stadium after Nick Archer, East Lansing High School’s longtime soccer coach.

In his comment on the matter, Meadows said that he had consulted with various residents of the Bailey neighborhood, including Hittner, who Meadows said had previously supported the idea he proposed.

Meadows then stated that he had moved forward with his proposal because of ELi’s Publisher Alice Dreger pointing out that no parks in East Lansing were named after women. (Meadows had also recommended that Dreger serve on the advisory committee, but Dreger declined since Silver is a donor to ELi.)

Arguing that there was no woman more deserving of a park being named after her than Silver, Meadows explained that his application was just to start the process of forming a committee, which must consist of five people, including a former mayor. The committee could weigh input from the public.

In response, Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens noted that, before Meadows’ proposal came forward, Stephens had contacted the City Manager about naming a park after a woman.

Stephens said he had also been interested in renaming Bailey Park – but after a late and prominent local woman of color in order to serve as a reminder of East Lansing’s history of housing discrimination. Stephens’ notion was to finally name a park after a woman while also remembering people who were effectively barred from homeownership here for generations.

Stephens recommended that the Human Relations Commission and Parks Commission work together to identify people to be honored and places to name after them.

Council member Lisa Babcock said that one constituent had passionately expressed to her sentiments similar to Hittner, Booth, and Overbey, and Jessy Gregg stated that she would prefer to table the discussion until a later meeting since she was meeting with members of the Bailey neighborhood the next night.

Stephens similarly called for adding item to discuss the issue with Parks and Recreation at the discussion-only meeting that was set for the following week. He also wanted public input regarding park-naming, including the question of how to handle choosing the first woman to be so honored in East Lansing.

But in the end all members of Council joined together to vote in favor of convening a committee to consider how to honor Silver, specifically.

Gregg tells ELi that she did attend the meeting the next night of the Bailey Community Association. She says there were about twenty residents present, “and I would say that that group was not in favor of renaming the Bailey neighborhood park. There was a lot of praise for Sally Silver and a lot of support for naming something in the neighborhood in her honor, but not that park.”

She adds, “Someone floated the idea of naming the pump house building after her since that is where a lot of community meetings take place. I suggested that anyone interested in serving on the naming committee should make themselves known to Mayor Beier since she would be appointing the committee.”

The state of emergency caused by the coronavirus has all City meetings on hold presently. When the committee to be appointed by Beier does finally begin to meet, it will be required to follow the state law regarding public meetings in terms of being open and transparent.

Alice Dreger contributed reporting of follow-up information from Mayor Ruth Beier and Council member Jessy Gregg.

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