Blyth BIA recommends review after lengthy "Gypsy Lane" discussion
BY DENNY SCOTT
After significant discussion, the Blyth Business Improvement Area (BIA) has suggested North Huron Township Council review infrastructure names to reduce future issues around political correctness.
The decision followed discussions around Gypsy Lane in Blyth, which was named in 1974 according to Sparling. “For most of Blyth’s history, it was Wilson Street,” he said, saying the name stuck from 1854 to 1974.
The street was named after the individual who originally laid out the village of Blyth, Sparling said. It had ended at Wellington Street, but there was a path from the end of the street to County Road 25 (Blyth Road), Sparling said, which was often used by local Roma groups to get to what is now the Blyth Campground to sell horses and wares. The term Gypsy Lane was a historical term for that path, he said.
“[Roma] groups continued to visit Blyth until the 1970s,” he said. “They would come to the arena, trade horses and have other commercial activities.”
In 1974, however, the entire street was renamed to Gypsy Lane, which is a significant problem in modernity, Sparling said.
“Gypsy is an ethnic slur and racist,” he said, explaining it refers to the Roma people, which is the largest minority group in Europe. “It’s actually derived from Egyptian, and people mistakenly considered Roma people to be from that country.
“In the era of being politically correct and appropriate, Gypsy may not be desirable,” he said.
Blyth Festival General Manager Rachael King spoke to the genesis of the proposal. She said the goal is to change the name of Gypsy Lane back to its pre-1974 street name, Wilson Street. The intent, she said, is to foster a diverse and inclusive community.
After some discussion, however, Sparling pointed out that the issue may be more widespread than Gypsy Lane, and that there are rules about what a street can be named. As a result, the executive changed the motion to have North Huron Township Council review infrastructure naming throughout the community and remedy any problems they discover.
Sparling asked the BIA’s North Huron Council representative, Councillor Kevin Falconer, what he thought of the motion.
“Personally, I wouldn’t touch [this issue] with a 10-foot pole,” he said. “This is not the mandate or the responsibility of the BIA.”
Falconer said there is a “huge process” involved in changing street names including “changing polygons” for 911 calls and forcing every resident of the street to change their identification, deeds and mailing address.
“It’s a big undertaking,” he said. “I fully sympathize with the effort to be inclusive and remove any possibility of misconception of ethnic slur in the age we live in now... [and] I wish you luck.”
King said she recognizes there is a process, and the changes won’t likely take place overnight, but it’s important the BIA and the community be seen as working towards betterment.
“It’s about how the village is perceived,” she said. “For those who come, it can be shocking.”
She said residents are desensitized to it, and Sparling added that the relatively small number of Roma people living locally may make the name less recognized than other racial slurs, but no less damaging.
Hotel Lux representative Shane Yerema said the effort shows the BIA is working towards changing the issue and “starting the conversation,” which will help if the issue becomes more widely known.
Falconer suggested asking the residents of Gypsy Lane how they felt about it, however King felt the process would be better served by sending a letter to North Huron Council, as council’s decision-making process already invites public input.
King also said there was support from Huron County staff and local multicultural groups.
“With council, there will be opportunity for public comment,” she said. “The first step would be to try and move the issue forward.”
Rev. JoAnn Todd, the representative of local clergy on the BIA, said while she could already hear the arguments on both sides of the issue, she felt it is an important project.
“We need to move forward on it,” she said. “This is potentially hurtful.”
Falconer once again reiterated that streets being renamed is a huge undertaking and expense that is borne by the municipality.
“It’s bigger than you think,” he said. “I’m fully sympathetic with the process you’re talking about, but it does bear a large cost.”
He said everyone on Gypsy Lane should be in favour of the project before it goes ahead, likening the situation to a customer asking a business to change its name because the customer doesn’t like the name.
“This is more than just a ‘liking’ issue,” King said. “This impacts the entire village of Blyth. Right now, Blyth sits waiting for there to be a much larger global uproar from a visitor who brings something to light that we just live with every day.”
Wonky Frog representative Cat O’Donnell said she could see both sides, but said she had witnessed a number of street name changes in her former home of Mississauga before moving to Blyth and for much less important reasons. Falconer said that large cities have much greater tax bases to draw on for projects like that.
“It will be a hard sell to tell someone in Wingham [council has] to raise taxes to cover the cost,” he said, before once again wishing the BIA luck.
Todd pointed out that Seaforth, in the recent past, changed a street name to Lloyd Eisler Avenue to recognize the former Olympian, saying if it could be done there, it could be done in Blyth.
She then pointed out the cost to change it may pale in the cost of the embarrassment that may follow if the name isn’t changed.
Sparling said the change is an important one because, while there was no malicious intent behind the name, it is a hurtful term, comparable in Europe to some of the most prevalent racial slurs in North America.
He said he has already received comments on the antiquated street name from visitors to the community, and that will only increase with the BIA trying to improve and advertise the Blyth Campground and the Blyth Festival using a Gypsy Lane address for its outdoor summer season.
“I would rather be in front of this issue than behind it,” he said. “If the wrong people get a hold of it, there may not necessarily be anything we can do to deal with it.”
While Falconer had said this isn’t a BIA responsibility, Sparling said the financial damage that could be caused by people avoiding the community due to the street name obviously has the capacity to impact businesses.
As a result of the discussion, and Sparling’s suggestion to make the BIA’s recommendation a broader one, the BIA recommended that North Huron Council begin a review of infrastructure names and change anything that doesn’t promote a diverse, inclusive and welcoming community.
Sparling said he has confidence that Falconer and his fellow council members will address the problem.