Divided byway

Winding along the west bank of the Schuylkill River, West River Drive is one of the most peaceful, scenic thoroughfares in the city.

But it’s been the scene of controversy since Feb. 16, when the Fairmount Park Commission decided to rename the stretch after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The reason?

In 1987, City Council unanimously approved an ordinance renaming West River Drive for Frank Palumbo, the noted South Philly restaurateur and philanthropist.

But that’s as far as it got.

Then-Mayor Wilson Goode refused to install street signs bearing Palumbo’s name, claiming City Council had overstepped its authority when it passed the ordinance.

"Despite the fact that City Council passed it, West River Drive is a park drive under the jurisdiction of the Fairmount Park Commission," said the commission’s chief of staff, Barry Bessler.

Council members "don’t have jurisdiction over the park," added Mayor John Street’s deputy director of communications, Deborah Bolling. "The park did not act on that ordinance. Unless the park made it so, it just didn’t happen. It is not Palumbo Drive as far as the city is concerned."

Council President Anna Verna, then chair of the Streets and Services Committee, was one of the sponsors of the 1987 bill.

"I thought it was a very worthy and very appropriate cause because Frank Palumbo had been extremely, extremely generous to the zoo – and that [West River Drive] was certainly within the route of the zoo," Verna said. "It was a very deserving cause."

Some of Palumbo’s local supporters feel the intention behind the aborted honor has been sidestepped.

Jody Della Barba, president of Girard Estate Area Residents, believes the Fairmount Park Commission should have at least reconsidered the Palumbo issue before naming West River Drive for King.

"I think they swept this under the rug," she said. "They should have considered this Frank Palumbo issue before they changed it to Martin Luther King."

IN HIS JAN. 25 budget address to Council, Street sided with the Fairmount Park Commission’s plan to christen the drive for King. As mayor, Street appoints many of the commission posts.

The mayor noted that Philadelphia was one of the few major American cities that did not have a road named after King.

But in 1987, when Street was a councilman, he voted with the rest of the body to name West River Drive for Palumbo.

"I don’t know how he could have forgotten because he seemed to be one of the most vocal people in City Council at the time," Della Barba said.

Bolling said she could not speak for an action that Street took as a councilperson.

But Suzanne Revello, also of Girard Estate, recalls the momentum the Palumbo naming once had.

"John Street remembers very well. Does he have amnesia?" she posed. "What annoys me is that they are acting like this never happened. John Street was in favor of the whole thing."

It was Revello’s father, Salvatore DiVito, who spearheaded a grassroots campaign to rename West River Drive after Palumbo, his longtime friend. DiVito died in 1995.

In 1986, the South Philly resident and owner of Samsa coffee service collected 25,000 signatures to support his cause.

DiVito chose West River Drive to honor his friend because Palumbo drove the byway every day from his Main Line home to his South Philly restaurant, Palumbo’s.

The legendary establishment at Ninth and Catharine was a favorite hangout and fundraising spot for city politicians. For decades before it burned down in 1994, Palumbo’s brought world-class entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante to Philadelphia. A Rite Aid now occupies the site.

Palumbo also was a generous patron of orphans and the Philadelphia Zoo.

DiVito brought his case to honor Palumbo before City Council after the Fairmount Park Commission rejected his idea in 1986.

According to Bessler, who served on the commission at that time, the group turned down DiVito for two reasons. First, a commission policy prohibited renaming park roads after anyone who had been dead less than 10 years. Palumbo died in 1982. Also, Bessler said, DiVito’s idea lacked "universal support by any one commissioner or any group of commissioners."

"It was an idea brought to us by a private individual," he added. In the face of defeat, DiVito kept pursuing his cause.

Citing a legal opinion from attorney Gabriel L.I. Bevilacqua, a former top official in the city solicitor’s office, DiVito told city officials that the authority to rename streets in Fairmount Park rested with City Council.

"From all the research that was done, if City Council passes it and the mayor does not veto it after 10 days, it becomes law," Revello said. "Since when does the Fairmount Park Commission have the authority to make laws?"

But Bessler cited the city charter as the park commission’s source of power.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania created the Fairmount Park Commission in 1867. In 1951, the commission was absorbed into the City of Philadelphia when it went to Home Rule Charter, explained the chief.

"We are a governmental agency that has been created by law and has the authority over things under its jurisdiction, and the naming of park roads is something that falls under the Fairmount Park Commission," said Bessler.

YEARS AFTER HIS father denied Council’s vote on the West River Drive renaming, Councilman-at-Large Wilson Goode Jr. said he stands behind Mayor Street’s support for the King renaming.

"I’m glad the Fairmount Park Commission made the right decision," Goode said.

The councilman said he knew nothing about the efforts during his father’s administration to change West River Drive to Frank Palumbo Drive.

"Not that I’m aware of," he said. "I know Kelly Drive is named Kelly Drive and West River Drive is named West River Drive."

East River Drive was named for the late Councilman Jack Kelly shortly after his death in 1985 – before the commission’s 10-year rule was created.

Della Barba and Revello maintain they mean no disrespect to King, and both agree he deserves to be honored with a street in his name.

"This has nothing to do with Martin Luther King," said Revello. "It could have been anybody. We are not trying to turn this into a racial thing.

"But it seems very strange," she added. "It seems a mysterious way that this was done so quickly. One day Mayor Street mentions it and it passes?"

Della Barba contends that the road already was taken, even if the Palumbo renaming was not fully processed.

"I have no objection to Martin Luther King having a street named after him. It just shouldn’t be a street designated for somebody else," she said.

While both women feel strongly about the issue, they are split on their next course of action.

Revello said she refuses to fight the name change because "it’s not going to change anything."

Della Barba, on the other hand, said she plans to contact Street and ask him to reconsider the Fairmount Park Commission’s decision.

"It’s not that we just came up with this. This was passed in 1987," she said. "We shouldn’t let this rest. The person this was designated for – this should go to him."

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Jane Kiefer
Jane Kiefer, a seasoned journalist with a rich background in digital media strategies, leads South Philly Review as its Editor-in-Chief. Originally hailing from Seattle, Jane combines her outsider perspective with a profound respect for South Philly's vibrant community, bringing fresh insights and innovative storytelling to the newspaper.