Punjab Avenue sign divides neighbors

December 25, 2010 

This is the story of how a simple street sign divided neighbors, rallied the local Punjabi community, and prompted Fresno County officials to research the pros and cons of hidden tracking devices.

It all started several years ago in a small, well-to-do neighborhood northeast of Clovis. Someone kept stealing the street signs for Punjab Avenue, one of three streets in the housing development. Over the past seven years, they've been unscrewed or hacked off about 10 times.

No one knows why. Once, a neighbor saw a couple of teenagers in a pickup pull up, pop the signs off the top of a pole, and speed off. But the culprit -- or culprits -- has never been caught.

Some people think it's a prank -- or that people just like to collect street signs with unusual names. Whatever the reason, it's costing the residents up to $200 for each replacement.

Jeff Davis, who lives in one of the nine houses on the street, proposed a solution: Change the street name to Sierra Hills Avenue. Maybe that would put an end to the thefts.

But not everyone liked the idea. When the Fresno County supervisors announced earlier this month that they would consider the suggestion at their next meeting, a local radio station rallied the county's Punjabi community -- an estimated 40,000 immigrants from the northern India state of Punjab and their descendants.

E-mails to the supervisors poured in: "It has been very shocking to hear that the County of Fresno is in the process of changing the name of a street just because the street sign has been stolen," read one e-mail.

"I request that you all keep in mind the feelings and sentiments of thousands of Sikh Americans residing in Fresno County," read another. "This is flat out discrimination," read a third.

About two dozen Punjabis showed up at the meeting on Dec. 14 to defend the street name. One woman, Kay Narain, who was born in Punjab and now lives on the street bearing its name, told supervisors that neighbors who want the street name changed have ulterior motives: Earlier this year, she said, they complained that the name sounds funny and told her that "this isn't India."

At least two neighbors agreed with her. Danny Teevens, principal of River Bluff Elementary School in northwest Fresno, told the county in an e-mail that the name-change petition was "distasteful ... racist, and insulting" and has created tensions among neighbors.

Faced with the outcry, the supervisors denied the name-change request. They told county staff to do a better job securing the signs. The street has two of them -- one on each end of the street -- and one shares a pole with a stop sign.

"Weld them, put the poles in heavy cement -- do whatever it takes," said Supervisor Judy Case.

County workers, however, already had tried reinforcing the sign at the south end of the street, which was stolen most often. In the latest theft, vandals simply sawed off part of the pole and took the sign. A sturdier pole isn't an option -- motorists could be badly hurt if a car crashed into it.

Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, whose district includes the neighborhood, suggested installing a remote tracking device on the sign. Case liked the idea and asked county officials to find out whether they could hide a "satellite emitter" in the sign.

So last week, Robin Quinn, a senior engineer in the county's roads maintenance division, asked his staff to research ways the county could remotely and secretly track stolen street signs. In an interview later, he didn't sound optimistic.

"It just seems doubtful that there's going to be something out there that's going to be reasonably priced," he said. "We're not real hopeful."

Quinn had several other concerns: How do you power the tracking device? How do you make sure thieves don't find it and pull it off? How much would it cost for the equipment to track the signal?

Quinn also is considering the possibility of installing alarms on the street signs, though he wonders whether they would do any good in a rural, sparsely populated area. One other alternative: Install a device that would spray dye when the sign is removed -- similar to what banks use to tag stolen money. But Quinn worries about what could happen if the system malfunctioned.

There's one last option: Install security cameras. Quinn says it's his best idea so far. But who would pay for them? And would neighbors agree to have them installed on their property?

Despite the challenges, Poochigian said she's sure the county will find a solution. She dismissed the name-change proposal, saying it would only reward thieves.

Davis, who's dubbed himself the "unofficial chairperson of the name-change committee," wonders how things got to this point.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be this controversial," he said. "It's just a street sign. It's just a name."

Sign thefts uncommon

It's not uncommon for famous street signs -- such as the Haight-Ashbury intersection sign in San Francisco -- to be stolen. But Fresno County officials say it's rare for signs on a short street like Punjab Avenue to be stolen so often.

The county has recorded five thefts of the signs since 2003, but officials say there may have been more. Davis says they've been stolen at least 10 times. In all of Fresno County, 371 street-name signs were replaced in 2009 because of thefts or traffic accidents, according to county records. There are an estimated 12,000 street-name signs in the county.

In the late 1980s, Harcharn Chann, an Indian cardiologist who immigrated here 36 years ago, bought a chunk of land near the Shepherd Avenue exit off Highway 168, a few miles northeast of Clovis. He named the streets of the development in honor of his family and homeland: Two bore his sons' names -- Aman (which means "peace") and Deep (which means "star"). The third street, Punjab Avenue, was named for Chann's home state. Combined together, they form a message: "May the star of peace shine on Punjab."

That's why the name-change petition is upsetting to Chann -- "may the star of peace shine on Sierra Hills" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

Even though Chann, 60, no longer owns any property on Punjab Avenue, he's opposed to changing the street name and says he might sue to stop it if necessary. He said he and others in the Punjabi community would be willing to pay a reward for catching the thieves or help pay for security cameras.

For whatever reason, the street signs for Deep and Aman avenues have not been stolen. And signs bearing three identical street names -- Deep, Aman and Punjab -- in the tiny western Fresno County town of San Joaquin have never been stolen, according to city officials.

A divided neighborhood

Today, there are 20 homes in Chann's development -- many of them on 2-acre lots complete with circle driveways, manicured lawns and and grand entrances. Punjab Avenue is home to a commercial real estate broker, a California Highway Patrol officer, a correctional officer, three school administrators, a doctor and two business owners. By all accounts, the neighbors get along well. But the street-name issue has caused division.

Davis, the real estate broker, moved in seven years ago and noticed that the Punjab Avenue signs kept disappearing. Money to replace the signs comes out of a neighborhood fund that is supposed to be for street maintenance. Punjab Avenue could use some repairs -- it's pocked with holes, cracks and dips.

Besides the cost, Davis -- who has two children ages 4 and 6 -- worries that emergency vehicles might have trouble finding their home without the street signs in place. Two of his neighbors echoed those concerns at the supervisors' meeting. In the past, they said, friends, taxi drivers and delivery trucks have had trouble finding Punjab Avenue.

But two other neighbors wrote e-mails to the county saying the name change would be a bigger inconvenience than the street sign thefts: They would have to change their addresses for all their bills and contact information.

In 2007, after years of constant thefts, Davis polled the neighbors to see whether they wanted the name changed. Five did, four didn't. That was enough to petition the county.

In May this year, county officials met with several neighbors, including Narain, at Davis' house. It was at that meeting where one neighbor made the comment that "this isn't India" and another said that Punjab was a funny name, Narain said.

In response, she told them: "I understand that, but there are Mexican names everywhere and this isn't Mexico."

Davis insists that he has no problem with the name -- "I was hoping it wouldn't become an ethnic issue, but that seems to have happened," he said. The problem, he said, is that the county has been unable to come up with a way to stop the thefts and there seems to be no alternative to changing the name.

After the May meeting, officials promised they would find a way to secure the signs. On the south end of the street, they bolted the street-sign pole into a block buried in the ground; usually the pole is just stuck in the ground. They used heavy-duty rivets to secure the sign. But a month later, signs on both ends of the street were gone. They have yet to be replaced.

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