Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation…The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. They equate with one another. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present too.

V.N. Volosinov – Russian Linguist, 1929.

Walking up Lexington Avenue I came to the corner of 38th Street, where the Cuban Mission to the U.N. is located. The building is surrounded by parade fencing, and fronted by a small NYPD booth where one lonely officer seems to be keeping watch for any planned or impromptu demonstrations of political disagreement.

What caught my interest was a street sign on the corner above the booth. In addition to the usual street signs telling you that you’re at 38th and Lex is one of the smaller, blue, commemorative, signs that you see all over the city. (“Tito Puente Place” “Joey Ramone Place and “Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza” are some of my favorites.) Reading this one, I started cracking up. I mean laugh out loud like an escaped mental patient cracking up.

It read: “Esquina Hermanos Al Rescate.”

Directly underneath, it is translated into English: “Brothers to the Rescue Corner.”

Hermanos al Rescate is an anti-Castro, anti-communist, pro-democracy, human rights and rescue organization. The Cuban Mission sits on a street corner named after one of the most vocal and active anti-Castro organizations in the world.

From the Brother’s Web site:
“Brothers to the Rescue is a pro-democracy, humanitarian organization. Our mission is to promote and support the efforts of the Cuban people to free themselves from dictatorship through the use of active nonviolence. An integral part of our effort is to save the lives of refugees escaping the Island and to assist the families of political prisoners.
Brothers to the Rescue was founded in May 1991 after several pilots were touched by the death of a fifteen year old adolescent named Gregorio Pérez Ricardo, who fleeing Castro's Cuba on a raft, perished of severe dehydration.

This is possibly one of the greatest practical jokes of all time or one of the savviest political digs in New York history, or maybe both.

So, it got me thinking. How do these signs end up around the city in the first place? Who is responsible for this one? How do the Cubans feel about it? Curious, I decided to make some phone calls. First, I called the Department of Transportation and asked, “If I wanted to, how could I get my name or somebody else’s name up on a street sign?”

I envisioned “Hammered Heart Way” on the corner of 5th Avenue and 14th Street, where a Dutch gal let me know that I was no longer turning her windmill; or maybe renaming a block of the Bowery to "Thephoenix’s Sorrowful Strand,” in memory of some of the shittiest times in my life, most of which involved a bottle of Vodka, a bag of weed, a handful of Vicodin, a 4 a.m. bedtime, and the resulting pain and madness.

Not surprisingly, the good folks over at the Department of Transportation (DOT) were not sure where this could be handled, but they knew it wasn’t in their offices. “We only erect and maintain the signs, Sir.” They suggested I give the Mayor’s Action Center a call. The Action Center’s first response was, “You should call the DOT.” Oh shit, here we go, time to play “Why don’t you call the guy who just suggested you call me game.” I’m still not sure what actions the Action Center performs, who set it up, or what mischief they are up to, but I did finally get my answer from them.

A kind woman named Gladys helped me with unexpected enthusiasm – she set to work, with assistance from her supervisor (must have been a slow day over at the Action Center) on finding me an answer. After 15 minutes of searching, asking, and inquiring, we got to the point.

Here’s how it works.

Governing rule: No Breathing

If it’s a person you’re looking to immortalize, they must be certifiably dead. My dreams of being a star on the Bowery were crushed.

To get things moving you must write a proposal, to be presented to the neighborhood Community Board, detailing the person’s life and why they are worthy of having a block, corner, or street named after them. It seems to help if the person had a strong connection to that neighborhood or block, or were a member of the clergy, a Broadway personality or a politician. Hmm.

From there, the Community Board will vote on whether to accept the application. If the vote is yes, the proposal is given to that district’s city council member, who brings it to the City Council for a vote. If they vote yes, you have your honorary street name. Seems simple enough.

So it was with Esquina Hermanos de Rescate, or so I thought.

My next call was to Community Board Five to get the paperwork and relevant information (despite John Ashcroft and George Bush, we still have a Freedom of Information Act) regarding the presentation and vote regarding Los Hermanos’ corner. They couldn’t help because District Five ends on the west side of Lexington and the corner in question is on the east side of the street.

I then found the good folks at Community Board Six. After a thorough search, they determined that the Board was bypassed; there never was a presentation or a vote on the sign in question. This meant only one thing: a call to the City Council to find out who greased the wheels on this one.

A document and records handler there did me the favor of searching the records of every vote for a street name since 1986 (I knew this was far enough back because Hermanos was not formed until 1991). As it turns out, the matter was never presented by the District‘s Councilman or voted on by the City Council. Apparently somebody had the juice to bypass the two key bodies needed to approve such an addition to the city’s signage.

I placed several calls to the Cuban Mission for comment. None were returned. I also placed several calls to the Hermanos al Rescate headquarters in Miami. Again, no response. So, the mystery remains. How did the sign get there? Whose idea was this?

Whoever you are, I salute you. You created a sublime and witty piece of political intrigue and added to the endless curiosities of New York street-life.

Viva Los Hermanos!