Yasir Arafat Way? Denied. Gretchen Dykstra Way? Approved.
Alhaja Kudirat Abiola Corner? Denied. Jackie Mason Way? Approved.
This pattern may look like the handiwork of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but when it comes to the ceremonial renaming of New York streets, the man to call is Department of Transportation official Robert Adamenko. Testifying recently in a continuing lawsuit, Mr. Adamenko insisted the Mayor had nothing to do with any seemingly politically motivated denials. He was perfectly capable of turning down the requests himself.
Or was he? The lawsuit, filed in May at Federal District Court in Manhattan by an activist group that was denied a sign, alleges that Mr. Adamenko has been playing favorites in conferring temporary blue street signs. As a result, city lawyers spent July and early August in a familiar posture: typing up a defense that could possibly keep the administration out of constitutional hot water.
Lawyers from the city’s Corporation Counsel’s office have had to admit that Mr. Adamenko, an amiable Liberal Party operative who was hired for the job after he passed his résumé to party boss Raymond Harding, didn’t follow the Department of Transportation’s official, written policy on renaming streets. He rejected potentially controversial signs because they were politically sensitive-grounds not mentioned in the straightforward policy statement. He also granted dozens of signs promoting commercial and for-profit entities, something the policy statement explicitly bans.
Faced with the lawsuit, the administration’s legal team might have quietly acknowledged the policy wasn’t followed, redrafted and been done with the matter. But, no surprise, the Mayor’s forces have decided to fight, contending that the agency policy is not a binding rule and that the city is not obligated to give a sign to people with clear political agendas. Which leaves them defending a record marked by inconsistency and questionable logic.
It’s a little amazing that the temporary renaming program even exists, at least when you consider that the Mayor, who strove to eliminate the right to sell paintings on city streets, still allows anybody-O.K., most anybody-to exercise the right of expression by actually renaming streets. Residents can ask the transportation department to rename a street, and the agency will even install the sign, wrapped so it can be unveiled at one’s very own dedication ceremony. There are only two conditions: A proposed honoree must fall into one of five approved categories, and the applicants must pony up the $250 cost of installing the sign. The renamings usually last for 30 days, and should not be confused with permanent, often political, renamings (e.g., Nelson and Winnie Mandela Corner, Joe Doherty Corner, Sharansky Steps), which are the handiwork of the City Council.
Mr. Adamenko, an assistant commissioner in charge of special events, obviously does not rubber-stamp every request. In 1997, he turned down the National Council on Islamic Rights’ request for Yasir Arafat Way, writing that a sign couldn’t be issued because Mr. Arafat wasn’t dead. During a four-hour deposition on June 10. Mr. Adamenko testified that he actually denied the request for an Arafat street (one corner away from Yitzhak Rabin) because of the political fallout: “When you put him next to Rabin, the United Nations might be unhappy. And that’s also politically sensitive because of fuses on both sides. At that time in the city, with the problems in Israel and what’s going on in Palestine and all over, it’s very, you know-.”
In 1998, Mr. Adamenko approved 116 signs and denied only one. But it only takes one to prompt a lawsuit. The East Timor Action Network, or E.T.A.N., asked to rename the corners of 68th Street at Madison and Fifth avenues to commemorate the “1991 Santa Cruz Massacre,” in which the Indonesian armed forces killed 271 people in Dili, East Timor. That would put the signs on either side of the block where the Indonesian Consulate is located. In October 1998, Mr. Adamenko said No, “due to the sensitive political nature of this request.” He rejected a subsequent E.T.A.N. request, too, for a sign honoring a “Free East Timor.” That, he held, was “very political” and would “inflame the diplomatic community.”
Problem is, the department’s written policy says only that renamings cannot “promote products, commercial entities, political parties and/or political candidates.” According to Standard Operating Procedure 96-1, streets may be renamed to commemorate or promote “a public event of a not-for-profit nature; a cultural event; an event or person of historic significance; an individual who has made a significant contribution to New Yorkers; or a community or public service.” The 1991 massacre would seem to qualify as an event of historic significance. Mr. Adamenko declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
E.T.A.N. has argued that the city used a clear double standard when assessing political controversy. Is their initial request to memorialize 271 slain East Timorese any more inflammatory than the blue “Esquina Hermanos al Rescate-Brothers to the Rescue Corner” sign fastened three years ago to the lamppost outside the Cuban Mission to the United Nations, which memorializes four Cuban-American anticommunist activists shot dead while flying near Cuba? That and other arguably controversial signs that have gone up, E.T.A.N. contended, constituted an invitation to “the public-at-large to use city street signs for expression.”
Not so, said city lawyers. Mr. Adamenko was reasonable to deny E.T.A.N.’s requests because they would promote a political cause and, the lawyers claimed, the Department of Transportation has never put up a sign promoting political organizations or causes. (Some signs, like the one outside the Cuban Mission, went up by mayoral directive.) According to the city lawyers, “They are official highway signs, providing specified information in accordance with Federal highway sign requirements.”
During the deposition, Mr. Adamenko explained his objections to the E.T.A.N. sign, to the Arafat sign and to “Alhaja Kudirat Abiola Corner,” which would have memorialized an assassinated Nigerian dissident. “This is my interpretation, you know. I could be wrong, I could be right, but to have foreign policy on light poles in the City of New York when we have so much work addressing traffic mitigation … I don’t want to fight the wars of the world on traffic signal poles and lamp poles. There has to be a different way.”
According to one former transportation department official, who asked for anonymity to avoid being pulled into the suit, the policy statements were supposed to eliminate discretion. But Mr. Adamenko, who for 27 years ran a textile operation in the garment district, clearly used his discretion when it came to requests from stores and businesses. “It’s good for the vitality of the city, the economic development. These are people who employ people in New York,” Mr. Adamenko said.
That explains Hammacher Schlemmer Way, MTV Music Awards Street, Soul Man Way, Plaza Sesamo, Carnie Way, Bike to Work Week Boulevard, Yo Yo Ma Way, Henny Youngman Way (a 90th-birthday present), Indiscretion Way and, simply, S&P Personal Wealth, as well as the intersection of Beast Avenue and Beauty Way, usually known as 47th Street and Seventh Avenue.
But there has not been a J&R Music World Inc. Way. “This one is easy,” Mr. Adamenko said at the deposition. The electronics store, which employs 600 and is right across from City Hall, had asked to temporarily change Park Row to J&R Row for its 25th anniversary and an accompanying music festival in City Hall Park. “The Brooklyn Bridge, once again, it’s personal. That is one of the most beautiful bridges in the city, a historic site. And then again, I based it-I said no.… The thing with J&R, I would have done it if it was another location, but they got the park for a weekend. Then they got the big bands. And then they wanted the signs. Pretty soon they want to stretch it and have a party on the bridge.”
Mr. Adamenko’s other job is to keep track of such special events. His duties include checking the pavement and traffic flow for the 25 parades, the 1,200 street fairs, the bike-athons and the marathons, the block parties, the Con Edison crews, all of it. “Everything that moves in the city, I have to know about,” he said. “I don’t have the time to dedicate that much time to the signs, which is important, but I just don’t have the time.”
The city’s time-squeezed sign guy is a likable, back-room-Charlie bureaucrat. “The nice thing about Bob,” said one organizational leader who deals with him, “he’s genial and amusing. That’s very different than most people who work for the city.” He’s politically savvy, too, having outlasted two transportation commissioners: “He’s a little Ray Harding, but not as grumpy,” added the leader.
Maybe that’s why he’s not closely supervised. Mr. Adamenko testified that when he brought issues to “the Hall”-City Hall-they usually deferred to his interpretation. If they hadn’t, he wouldn’t have minded: “The Mayor can do anything he wants, ma’am, from my point of view,” he told Nancy Chang, a lawyer of the Center for Constitutional Rights who is representing E.T.A.N. “He’s the Mayor of the City of New York.”
The legal arguments coming out of Mr. Adamenko’s denial of an E.T.A.N. sign ended on Aug. 5, and now it’s in the hands of Federal judge Robert Sweet. In July, the judge nudged the two sides to settle the practical half of the suit. A blue sign with “East Timor Way” in four-inch-high lettering was attached to the lamppost at Madison Avenue and 68th Street and scheduled to come down on Aug. 17. E.T.A.N’s New York City coordinator, John Miller, said it is still pressing the constitutional claims to get a declaration that will clear up the law.
If Judge Sweet rules that Mr. Adamenko discriminated, it could mean the end for the sign program. Couldn’t it? The Mayor’s press office didn’t call back, but that would seem to be an alluring possibility for a man who likes to run things. Or he might want to keep it, since it’s so attractive to the city’s business interests. Just in the past year, Mr. Adamenko has approved Nickelodeon Magazine Way, VH1 Fashion Avenue, People Magazine Way, Sheraton Four Points Way, HMV Way and Barbie Street.