Feray Gokcek has enough signatures to legally ask the government to name the corner of Scarboro Street and Middletown Avenue “Ataturk Corner” in honor of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern-day Turkey. But he is missing one key piece — a letter of support from an alder in favor of the change.
Alders of the City Services and Environmental Policy Committee delivered that news to Gokcek during a meeting at City Hall Thursday, where they ultimately voted to give his proposal “leave to withdraw.”
That action tables the matter until Aug. 6 which is the deadline for Gokcek to demonstrate that he has achieved adequate support in the form of at least 250 signatures and a letter of support from an alder, or start all over again.
A vegetable wholesaler and self-described “freedom fighter,” Gokcek has said that he wants to erect a signpost to Ataturk, the founder and first president of modern Turkey who is revered for setting up a secular constitution in the Muslim nation, to send a message 5,000 miles abroad to his former countrymen. The street sign would go up right by a Turkish-American Muslim masjid, touching on controversy involving the separation of mosque and state at a time when an Islamist leader has reversed Ataturk’s legacy. (Read more about that here.)
Gokcek was given four months by the CSEP Committee to meet the ordinance requirements to advance his proposal. As of Thursday, Gokcek had collected 420 city resident signatures –– far more than the mandated 250 –– in favor of the proposal. But he failed to gain a letter of support from at least one of the 30 members of the Board of Alders, including the only one of Turkish descent, Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu.
Gokcek showed up to the meeting with dozens of supporters, many of whom are Turkish and members of the Ataturk Union of the USA. Some even drove hours to speak at the public hearing.
Thirteen attendees entered official testimony mostly expressing fervent support of Gokcek’s efforts. While other speakers supported the corner naming for different reasons, one common thread wove through each of their statements –– admiration for Ataturk.
“Ataturk is…one of the first and still remains one of very few leaders in the world that has promoted modernization in a very difficult part of the world that we are still seeing difficulties in,” Serkan Elden said.
Speakers cited Ataturk’s progressive attitudes toward women. Under his presidency from 1923 to 1938, Turkey granted women’s suffrage and led other forward-thinking initiatives, including the notable westernization and secularization of Turkey. Attendees referenced his efforts to increase ties with the United States, and one speaker spoke of him in tangent to Churchill with regards to his efforts for international peace.
Despite the testimony, no alder of the committee had agreed to provide a letter of support to Gokcek. Alders expressed admiration for the group’s determination and passion, yet also noted controversies surrounding the potential designation. As representative of Ward 10, the neighborhood in which the debated streetcorner is located, Alder Anna Festa said she has received complaints from around Connecticut. Specifically, she said, people have denounced Ataturk’s role in the Armenian and Greek genocides.
Morris Cove Alder Sal DeCola mentioned that the mosque across the street is not endorsing Gokcek’s initiatives, thus concerning him as the proposal appeared to be a divisive issue. Such division bolstered his support of a leave to withdraw.
Festa said the area near the street corner represented a very diverse neighborhood. Many people who testified came from outside of the city, making it challenging, according to Festa, because “it’s good to hear from New Haven folks more so than outside of New Haven.”
“As simple as a corner naming can be, it’s so complicated when it has to do with an international leader because we are the United States of America,” Festa said.
While the testimonies remained largely positive, Festa noted that many of those opposed to the proposal had attended the February meeting.
Downtown Alder Abigail Roth said the designation would be a break with past trends. Festa noted that the city generally has a tradition of naming public spaces after famous New Haveners or United States residents. She cited the corner of Chapel and College, named for South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, as the only exception she could find.
“This is probably one of the first times we’ve had someone internationally being recognized,” said Festa.
Festa clarified past concerns regarding the region’s tradition of naming streets after people from Rhode Island in accordance with the wish of donors of the land.
Despite the setback, Gokcek remains resilient.
“Find alder,” said Gokcek when asked about his goals moving forward. “This is 420 signatures on the table. This is waiting for one alder’s signature.”