Why is the street re-naming issue associated with lawns?

Strong feelings over lawn norms are an expression of deeper community attitudes related to conformity and exclusion. They tap into negative sense of place, as Martin Luther King re-namings do.

We can see the connections by comparing Harrisonburg with Levittown. Levittown is mentioned in histories of the lawn and was the model of the modern exclusive, homogeneous suburb. It was the ideal picture of a community at the time of the push for urban renewal and the template for the modern lawn/driveway/parking lot/car aesthetic and the elusive 'residential character' that Harrisonburg struggled to articulate when its lawn norms were challenged.

Until the housing bubble gave it extra meaning in terms of commodification, 'property value' was a code word for exclusion.

A case study from today

Outside the suburb, the same vision drove 'urban renewal' in which urban communities of color were either not visible as legitimate and valuable ways of living, or were actively targeted for disruption, dispersion, or concentration. During that time, the heart of Harrisonburg's resilient African American community was thus wrecked: R4 redevelopment.

Ruth Toliver's account of early Newtown and R4 shows the direct connection to lawn norms:

This home fronted on Kelley Street, but the property extended to East
Effinger Street. Ambrose Dallard maintained a small farm here with
chickens, a few hogs, and a vegetable garden. The home and small farm
made the Dallards self sufficient as everything they needed for daily
survival was there on the property. Harriet canned produce from the
farm, made jellies, made bread, made clothing for the family, cured
meat. There were no grocery stores in Newtown, so families were
basically self sufficient. Neighbors helped neighbors.
p. 35 (Note: planters hated this sort of independence and actively passed laws to prevent it and try to force African Americans to work for them further south. See: How Dangerous was the Northeast Neighborhood?)
It was as early as 1957 that city planners decided to apply for money
from the federal government in order to clear out certain
residential/business parts of the city and turn those areas into
commercial oases. The idea was that a city would have housing experts
identify 'slum' or 'blighted' areas, then the city would clear out
these areas and build new housing elsewhere for the displaced residents.
Many of the homes identified as 'slums' or 'blighted' were rental
property in some cases owned by slum landlords who exacted the rent on
a monthly basis but did nothing as far as upkeep was concerned. But
what must be remembered is the old adage, "No matter how humble, there
is no place like home."
Caught up in this urban renewal fiasco were homeowners ... . They just
happened to be in the way of progress. These were the homes with the
manicured lawns, well tended flowers and in some cases the wrap around
porches. The homeowners cared for their property despite working long
hours and often long distances from their homes.
p. 105-106 Note, being put on the defensive about lawn aesthetics. It is time to defy such violation of homes, former or latter, with appearances exploited as an excuse, as they were in R4.

A modern challenge

In 2012, when a grassroots movement for urban horticulture arose, resonating with changing mores across the country, a planning commission member said she did not think the city was ready to re-imagine lawns. Another warned that many people would rise up in opposition. See p. 13, pp. 3 for the former and p. 12, last paragraph ff. of Feb 13 Planning Commission Minutes.

Chair Fitzgerald said I have had the experience over the last couple
of weeks as this has been more publicized, of hearing some negative
stuff about this; people who are not in favor of this amendment. It
does concern me a little bit that the press that it has received has
generally been very favorable; but I suspect that there are folks out
there that this is flying completely below their radar. When it moves
forward to City Council you may hear more people speaking out in
opposition than we have at Planning Commission. I have received some
emails and had some conversations about this, and to me the issues
against it are critters, as Ms. Gray put it. There are questions about
this increasing traffic, logistics, and a value aesthetic judgment
that is underlying this whole issues; people being concerned with what
they had expected their neighborhood to look like. When you buy a
property and you move there you think a neighborhood looks like this
“thing”. This “thing” for many people does not include corn in your
front yard. I just want to put out there as part of this discussion
that there are folks out there who are not in favor of this at all and
you may think that the value judgment that lawns are fine is something
you disagree with; but, there are people out there that really bought
into the idea of a neighborhood looking a particular way. I think as
this amendment moves forward through the process we will hear more
from those folks.

Dr. Dilts said I agree with you. I have not actually heard from anyone
regarding the amendment; but, some may feel this effects property
values when you plant right up to the property line with nothing more
than a picket fence between. What we are really asking folks to do is
rethink what it means to have a residential community; because,
residential says one thing to some and something else to others. It
makes me think of the change in what a lawn meant when I was growing
up to what a lawn means today. It used to be clover and dandelions
because that is what grew in your yard. Today it is grass, and it is
usually a monoculture, and that is what everyone thinks is beautiful;
it is manicured and controlled. What we are being asked to do is to
re-imagine residential and we may not be at a place where we can do
Recall Levittown

The following video documents the opposition that actually came forward. Starting at time point 1:15:15, the following points were made:

  1. A modern version of the pressure to redevelop:
    "I think in the next decade, Harrisonburg is going to go through a
    significant redevelopment process which means purchasing property,
    tearing down and re-building, ..., I would ask you to consider
    the impact [this ordinance] would have on that redevelopment process."
    [evidently to shift wealth from developers to homeowners who find added
    value to their home that they will be reluctant to sell like a commodity.]
  2. The 'property value' argument:
    "Neighbors already have 'expectations' of what 
    [the residential character] is going to be and when I 
    bought my property in that neighborhood I certainly 
    didn't expect to have businesses and gardens on every inch 
    around me."
    "what's that going to do to the property in a neighborhood 
    that's been traditional, now you go to sell your house, how's 
    that impacted?"
    Compare to: Levittown on property values.
  3. The urge to impose conformity:
    "but to change the way our city looks, I think its an
    "to my eye, it would just be an abomination to what 
    mother nature does." 
  4. From city council, summing up the political climate: (please note, the council member affirms the person who spoke for
    re-development, not the person who called sunflowers an abomination
    against nature):
    "I foresee in the future, I hope this doesn't happen, these two 
    cultures are going to clash in one way or another ... I think I'm 
    stating a reality and the goal here is not to have that happen." 
    "[The] comments [of the developer] are well taken and believe me I 
    think they have merit."

A way forward

Providing voice to the people in the video is important: not because every view is valid, but because it is a part of civic engagement and the democratic process in which discussion and debate show up flaws on all sides, superior solutions are arrived at, and in the best case all involved change and grow in community. However, representatives must provide leadership to protect residents and sustain the positive vision that emerges from the community.

The answer is rule of law: legislate for health and safety, and critically examine claims of 'tradition' and tastes. Let people know that no matter how long they have lived in the area, or how much they feel they have contributed, they cannot hurt others or interfere with another person's liberty just because they don't like how that person lives or who that person is. Enshrine due process. Respect peoples' choices regarding how they live their lives and use their property, drawing the line where the next person can make a case that his or her health or safety is being affected in a forum where the accused can face and answer the accuser. Show leadership by affirming constructive, creative resident initiatives that contribute to the health, safety, welfare, and freedom of the community.

Playing the race card

City council is not the only vehicle for giving voice to the community in its multifaceted varieties. The local newspaper also serves this role. Regrettably, the local paper continues to use its power to promote and inflame reactionary sentiments as its predecessor did over a century ago.

The following clip from the Rockingham Register is an example of the original 'playing the race card' that forced the 'Lily-white' reaction in the Republican party: race card.
The next is the reaction against people who protested racism:
A reply by attorney James Hayes, the victim of the slander, followed by a detailed expression of white supremacist views: hayes.pdf
Keeping in mind these roots of Jim Crow and segregation, appreciate line by line the editorial reaction of the Daily News Record to reminders of its past:

City Right On MLK
Discussion Must Be Civil, Complete
Posted: July 20, 2013

Sadly, this issue has the potential to deteriorate into a divisive
chapter in the city's history. Letters, comments, and activity on
social media bear this out. Residents who oppose changing the
long-held name of city streets make their comments privately, but in
many cases are afraid to speak out publicly. They fear that their
efforts to preserve the city’s history will have them labeled as
racists if they oppose renaming Cantrell Avenue in honor of a civil
rights leader.

For those who favor the idea, Dr. King symbolizes what they lived
locally during earlier parts of their lives when race relations in the
city were not what they are today. So, this issue is both personal and
part of local history to them.
Continuing on the same online page:
He Wants The Truth?
Then Eric Holder Should Face It
Posted: July 19, 2013

Assorted leftists, race-hustlers, and just plain ignorati, sounding
off in the wake of Saturday's verdict in the George Zimmerman trial,
suggest we can't [face the truth]. They intimate that America, for all
the talk of its alleged evolution into a "post-racial" society,
remains in many ways as intolerant and repressive as ever. Perhaps
that's why, in the past 72 hours, we've seen Emmett Till and Trayvon
Martin mentioned in the same sentence, as if to say Mississippi is
still burning (albeit in Florida), and we've not advanced that far
from the '50s.

Really? That's "the truth" these folks think we can't handle? Well, if
we can't, it's because said "truth" does not boast veracity's
tell-tale ring. The "real" truth can be witnessed in myriad polls that
indicate America has made great strides - metrically as well as in
attitude - in the 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered
his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Or as Washington Times scribe Charlie Hurt, who grew up near Danville,
in one of the deeper recesses of the Old South, has written, "The
vast, vast, vast majority of Americans who have moved on and
effortlessly integrate with others of different races in school, at
work, and on the street can be forgiven if we have a hard time keeping
up with all this fixation on race that remains in some quarters."
Relentlessly confronting the media with the facts has some impact (see example), but some editorial push-back is still evident (demoting a 'pride and power' story for local people to number 2 relative to a 'state politics' story for a local individual), as with the push-back against the protest over Reuben Dallard's obituary.