Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Northeast Times: Memorial Controversy

From the Northeast Times:


Northwood Civic Association president Joe Menkevich had much respect for 15th District Police Officer Gary Skerski, who was shot to death while responding to a robbery in the neighborhood on May 8.

But Menkevich does not believe that the best way to honor Skerski and his heroism is with a petition drive to rename Castor Avenue after him.

"The petition will never be Gary," Menkevich said.

According to retired city police officer Ailis Rogan, the street renaming is a fitting way to honor the former 15th district community relations officer. Skerski, 46, was gunned down during an armed robbery at Pat’s Café, at the corner of Castor Avenue and Arrott Street.

"There’s already a program for plaques," Rogan said, referring to a program that dedicates memorials to Philadelphia police officers who have died in the line of duty. "I don’t think that’s enough."

Rogan, a former Wissinoming resident who lives in New Jersey, started the online petition to rename Castor Avenue in June. She has obtained more than 7,000 signatures, including 1,000 paper submissions during an early-summer benefit for Skerski’s family at Cannstatter’s on Academy Road. The petition can be viewed at www.domelights.com

Rogan, 54, plans to bring the petition before City Council, though she has not set a date.

Menkevich also plans to send correspondence to Council — a letter of opposition to the renaming. His major issues with the petition are Rogan’s out-of-state residency, the fact that Castor Avenue bears the name of a local historical figure, and the estimated high cost to rename the street.

The avenue is named for George Castor, who emigrated from Switzerland in the 1700s and founded the Frankford Presbyterian Church. He is related to Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor, who has said in previous reports that he prefers another street be selected for a name change in Skerski’s honor.

In a letter to Rogan, Menkevich, who is involved with the Historical Society of Frankford, states he will not let the petition campaign be "at the expense of the Castor family legacy." Menkevich thinks the cost of renaming the avenue would be better spent on violence-prevention efforts in the city.

"Your petition exhibits an arrogant disregard toward the financial consequences imposed upon the city of Philadelphia’s resources," the letter said.

Anthony Radwanski, director of communications for City Council president Anna Verna, said renaming Castor Avenue probably would cost "tens of thousands of dollars."

"It’s quite an arduous process," he said.

The renaming would require property address and city map changes, Radwanski said. The manpower also would strain city resources, he added.

"The legal process is easy. It’s the physical process that’s not easy," Radwanski said.

Keisha McCarty Skelton, a city Department of Streets spokeswoman, said confusion that can result for the public from changing street names is often abated by listing the previous name under the new one on street signs.

Radwanski said that, in other renaming situations, the proposals were backed by the councilperson in the district. Most of Castor Avenue lies in the 7th Councilmanic District of former Councilman Richard Mariano, now serving a prison term for his conviction on political corruption charges.

The next largest portion of the avenue is in territory represented by City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski (D-6th dist.). A representative from her office said she has not announced her opinion on the issue, explaining that Skerski’s death, as well as his wife Anne’s loss of her parents in an auto accident two months later, remains too fresh for the family.

Anne Skerski’s father, William Schwartz, died in the upstate Pennsylvania crash. Her mother, Anna, succumbed to her injuries two weeks later, on Aug. 4. Anne Skerski has two children, Robert, 13, and Nicole, 10.

In a statement released Friday through the Philadelphia Police Department’s public affairs office, Anne thanked those who have offered support during the family’s difficult time.

"Gary was a truly good man, a friend to many, and one who gave so much to so many — to the very end. He will be remembered forever as the hero he was," she said in the statement.

Rogan says that’s the point of her effort to rename Castor Avenue — to ensure that Gary Skerski is never forgotten.

"The whole aim of the petition is to have recognition for the sacrifice that Skerski made," said the former city policewoman. "I really wouldn’t want the family to be subjected (to controversy). I would withdraw it if it upset them."

Rogan is upset that her petition caused any controversy in the first place.

"I just don’t understand all this," she said. "With all the violence going on in the city, this would give people an opportunity to show that they support the police department."

According to Krawjewski’s office, Bridesburg residents have proposed renaming part of the Bridesburg Recreation Center after Skerski, though an employee there said no official decision has been rendered.

Next spring, the Tacony Civic Association and Tacony Town Watch will plant a tree in Skerski’s honor at the Christa Lewis Memorial Arboretum.

Rogan, meanwhile, plans to circulate more paper submissions to area businesses to gather additional support for her Castor Avenue endeavor.

"I’m still interested in putting this through," she said.

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