Effort to honor longtime AIDS advocate by renaming Newark street sparks dispute

By Eunice Lee/The Star-Ledger
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on October 27, 2013

Newark resident Isabel Davila and city officials planned to rename the corner of Ballantine Parkway and Lake Street after longtime AIDS advocate Elena Perez but faced stiff opposition from the historic neighborhood association. (Eunice Lee/The Star-Ledger


NEWARK — What’s in a street name? Apparently a lot, according to a group of residents in a historic Newark neighborhood.

A group of neighbors in the city’s Forest Hill section are up in arms after City Council President Luis Quintana recently sponsored a resolution to name a street corner after Elena Perez, a local resident and longtime HIV/AIDS advocate who died in April.

The Forest Hill Community Association, however, says an intersection a block away from the Ballantine Gates — the stately entrance to Branch Brook Park on the corner of Lake Street and Ballantine Parkway that the city originally proposed for the sign — is a more appropriate site to honor Perez.

The association says that it’s protecting the interests of a legally designated historic district. The North Ward neighborhood is home to the city’s oldest residence, the Sydenham House, built in 1712.

On Thursday, Quintana said the parties came to a compromise and agreed to erect a sign for the "Elena M. Perez Plaza" on the corner of Berkeley and Highland avenues.

The city council will vote on the amended resolution Tuesday.

But Perez’s younger sister, Isabel Davila, says she was stunned and dismayed at the association’s response. Her sister, who died at age 79, dedicated her life to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS, advocating for patients and created the HIV lab program at St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, Davila said. She was a parasitologist in the hospital’s infectious disease department, according to Davila.

"Why (is it on) one street she’s not good enough? That was my anger," Davila said.

Quintana later told Davila that he and other private donors would set up a scholarship fund in Perez’s name. No city funds are being used, Quintana said.

Davila said she’s glad the scholarship will help someone in the future but can’t help but see it as a consolation prize. The FHCA’s vocal opposition still stings.

"They didn’t know her. They didn’t know what she did," she said of the association. Perez was a longtime Forest Hill resident and Davila still resides there on Highland Avenue.

So why is the intersection a block away more suitable than the first site?

"If you were going to ask me why, I have no clue," Davila said.

FHCA said the proposal to erect a sign honoring Perez never went for review before the city’s Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission or the state Historic Preservation Office.

"Many in our neighborhood are offended that this is being put forth for a vote before the municipal council" without input from Forest Hill residents or government agencies regulating historic districts, the association said in a statement.

Perez, a Newark resident since 1962, was the former chairwoman of the Newark Eligible Metropolitan Area HIV Health Services Planning Council, which oversaw federal funding for community-based providers helping HIV/AIDS patients in five northern New Jersey counties. Quintana described her as an early crusader for AIDS patients in Newark during the ’70s.

After Quintana was elected to the city council, he said Perez taught him the importance of securing federal Ryan White Emergency Care Act money to help underserved populations including Newark, East Orange and Irvington.

Her resume shows her level of devotion. Perez developed the National AIDS Education and Training Center at the then University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and later founded the St. Columba Neighborhood Club, a community-based health services organization that targeted the Hispanic community.

She was also a board member of the Ryan White Council, which was named for the hemophiliac teenager from Indiana who contracted the virus after receiving a blood transfusion. Perez devoted her life to helping AIDS patients and had no children herself, Davila said.

"Elena was a dynamic lady," Quintana said. "She was always talking about prevention."

But not everyone knew her story so well.

In a letter, the Forest Hill association wrote, "The person who is being honored is not known to have lived at or near the proposed site or bear any historical significance to the area."

The FHCA "is adamantly opposed to the street naming ceremony that is being proposed," the letter read.

Davila suspects that something more sister may have played a role.

"I think it’s an underlying racial issue," Davila said.

A spokesman for the Forest Hill association, Paul Agostini, said that the opposition did not stem from racism. He noted that other street signs in the neighborhood bear Hispanic names.

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