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Proposal to Name Washington Heights Street for Harry Belafonte Turned Down

 Harry Belafonte, pictured here at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012, lived on West 156th Street in the 1940s.
Harry Belafonte, pictured here at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012, lived on West 156th Street in the 1940s.
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WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Harry Belafonte may have gone places with his music and acting, but a push to name a street in his honor has hit a dead end.

Community Board 12's Traffic and Transportation Committee voted against a request to co-name West 156th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue "Harry Belafonte Way," declining to waive a rule stipulating that the honoree must be deceased at least two years before the designation.  

Belafonte, 89, moved to 501 W. 156th St. in the 1940s after living in Jamaica with his grandmother, said Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, who has been leading the co-naming campaign since last year. He also attended George Washington High School in Fort George.

“Why can’t we wait until it’s in accordance with our guidelines?” committee chairwoman Yahaira Alonzo said at a May 2 meeting to discuss the issue, according to a recording of the discussion.

“In effect, what you’re saying is, why can’t we wait until he dies,” Morris replied.

He later told DNAinfo New York that the committee's suggestion to hold off on drafting the resolution until Belafonte passed away made him “very sad and disappointed.”

“The guidelines aren’t just engraved in stone,” Morris said, adding that Belafonte’s historical significance, particularly during the Civil Rights movement, should override the criteria. “It’s a matter of priorities in the guidelines. There’s a rationale.”

But CB 12 chairman Shah Ally said enforcement of the rules has been consistent.

“If we had to change it, then we would have to change our entire process,” he said.

Board officials noted at the meeting that CB 12 has never bent the rules when it comes to street co-namings, while other boards in the city have made exceptions.

The process also requires the collection of 150 signatures in favor of the co-naming, as well a rule stating the subject have a connection to the community for at least a decade. Ally confirmed that the campaign met both requirements, including 300 signatures presented by Morris.  

“I get it and I understand why [Morris] is upset, but the process is fair,” the board chairman said. “I don’t think the committee did anything improper.”

Councilman Mark Levine, chairman the City Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee, said he will look into the proposal to see if there's any room for exception. Levine previously expressed support for naming a nearby block for former Mayor David Dinkins, but backed off after Dinkins' family failed to lend its support. 

“In the last couple of years there has not been any exception,” Levine said. “But if there’s anyone that deserves a street renaming it's Harry Belafonte.”

Meanwhile, Morris said he’s going to continue to push forward with his campaign.

“He is a great man,” Morris said. “What’s the purpose that someone needs to be dead to get a street named after them?