What’s in a (street) name? Bronx’s Albanian American community protest delay of Fan Noli renaming

Feb. 26 was supposed to be a street renaming for Albanian Americans to honor their cultural icon, Fan Noli. Instead, the issue has sparked protest and controversy.
Photo Adrian Childress

Saturday’s crisp and sunny day was supposed to be a time of celebration — festë — for Albanian Americans both in the Bronx and afar. What was supposed to be a planned moment for a proud community, instead turned into a scene of protest.

After a local law passed in December by the New York City Council to rename the street corner of Morris Park and Tenbroeck avenues after Albanian icon Fan Noli — founder of the Albanian Orthodox Church and celebrated cultural hero — the timing for recognition was ideal with the biennial convention of Albanian American advocacy organization Vatra in town.

Instead, members of the Albanian American community feel both discriminated against and lied to by Democratic Throggs Neck Councilwoman Marjorie Velázquez and the city, who — they and some elected officials allege — dropped the ball on submitting a request to the city Department of Transportation (DOT) to install the new street sign.

“A law that was supposed to be implemented by Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez, an elected official who pledged in office to work with the Albanian American community and all communities to help celebrate their accomplishments, and not undermine them,” said Albanian American Orenala Bashiri, who sits on the Bronx Community Board 11. “However, today instead of being celebrated and appreciated as a community, we were discriminated against us. Marjorie Velázquez for over a month has lied to us.”

“We’re proud to come together on such short notice for our heritage and our culture,” said Mark Gjonaj, the first Albanian American to be elected to public office in the Bronx. “No one can take away your sweat, your endeavors, your success and your contributions.” Photo Adrian Childress

The City Council’s 13th District includes strong Albanian communities in Morris Park and Pelham Bay.

Velázquez took office on Jan. 1, filling the seat of Albanian American Councilman Mark Gjonaj — who backed the street renaming request while serving on the council last year.

She told the Times that much of the backlash against her is driven by “cheap political attacks,” and said that’s she’s been in communication with both DOT and Vatra officials for an eventual honoring of Noli.

“It’s unfortunate that some people would rather divide a community with fabricated lies than work to do positive things for us. This street co-naming was never blocked and I’ve been working with DOT on this co-naming and the former Council Member knows full well street co-namings have always taken time to schedule,” Velázquez told the Times on Saturday. ” We have been coordinating a date with the President of Vatra, Elmi Berisha, to celebrate not only Fan Noli but the church and culture he loved so much. I’ve always stood with the Albanian community, including recently celebrating the recognition of Kosovo Independence Day alongside Borough President Vanessa Gibson and Ambassador Frymëzim Isufaj.”

However, some elected officials, including state lawmakers Nathalia Fernandez and Michael Benedetto expressed sentiments that the ball had been dropped in getting the street renamed “Fan Noli Way.”

Arelt Xhaferri, a third-generation Albanian-American from Queens waves the Albanian flag at a protest in Morris Park on Saturday, Feb. 26. Photo Robbie Sequeira

“The word pettiness comes to mind,” said Benedetto. “There’s a time where you do governance, make laws, when you work for your community; that you put pettiness to the back burner and put what’s right for the community on the front burner.”

While Albanian community members and activists, along with elected officials are petitioning for April 9 to be the new date for Noli’s commemorative green street sign to be erected, many in the Albanian American community are still disappointed and let down by the delay in the process. Some view not having a routine request to honor a community that has seen tremendous growth and presence in the Bronx over the past 20 years — with strongholds in the Bronx sections of Pelham Parkway, Morris Park, Bedford Park and Belmont — as an erasure.

 “The fact the city and Marjorie Velázquez reneged on the promise of renaming the street after Fan Noli … is a travesty,” said Nick Gjeelaj, Albanian American attorney and community figure. “Fan Noli — who is a sacred religious and political figure — a neutral figure in that all Albanians look up to him regardless of affiliation, it’s a simple request that would’ve made everyone here happy, and to have it taken away for political reasons is frustrating.”

Political strife in the Balkans led to an Albanian diaspora to New York City in the 20th century. As large groups immigrated to America in the 1900s, 1940s and 1990s in large waves — the Bronx has become home to many that waved both flags proudly: the Stars and Stripes and Flamuri i Republikës së Shqipërisë.

“Many of the families in this district start off as pizza men, door men and as they continued working and getting educated to … where we are doctors and lawyers,” Gjeelaj said. “To not have that recognized, it feels like an erasure. We are voters who have a strong presence in this district, and this is something that many Albanian American voters and Bronxites will remember when it comes time to vote.”

Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.

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