The talented artist died in April 2022. On Thursday, which would have been his 35th birthday, his old hangout spot in the Flats neighborhood was dedicated as “Extraordinaiire Way.”
By Dusty Christensen
HOLYOKE — In the music video for his 2016 song “Old School,” Holyoke rapper Justin “Extraordinaiire” Chavez can be seen showing off his lyrical talent while surrounded by friends and family outside the H.J. Toepfert Apartments. As the group plays dominoes and shoots hoops on a crate nailed to the street sign on the corner of North Summer and Albion streets, the Flats neighborhood stands out as a main character in the video.
It was on that same corner that dozens of Paper City residents gathered on Thursday afternoon — what would have been Chavez’s 35th birthday — to pay tribute to the rapper, who died unexpectedly in his sleep last April. Elsie Rodriguez Garcia, Chavez’s mother, and Jonathan Chavez, his brother, unveiled a street sign dedicating Albion Street as “Extraordinaiire Way.”
“I grew up in the projects,” Rodriguez Garcia said, gesturing to the building behind her. Justin and Jonathan spent all of their time on that corner as kids, she said, whether it was playing marbles or running around pretending to be ninjas. “Justin learned very early the importance of community. Of uniting people and making sure everyone was represented.”
It was Chavez’s community-focused spirit that the city celebrated on Thursday, The event drew a crowd that included Mayor Joshua Garcia, At-Large City Councilor and Chavez’s childhood friend Israel Rivera, other members of the City Council, state Sen. Adam Gomez, D-Springfield, and many others from across the city and neighborhood.
“It leaves so much of a legacy,” Jonathan Chavez told The Shoestring ahead of the dedication event. “He’s not here, but I feel like he is here.”
Jonathan Chavez and Elsie Rodriguez Garcia prepare to unveil a sign dedicating Albion Street in Holyoke’s Flats neighborhood as “Extraordinaiire Way” after rapper Justin “Extraordinaiire” Chavez. Standing nearby are state Sen. Adam Gomez, Holyoke City Council President Todd McGee and Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia.
Chavez was known for the pride he showed for his city. Many of those gathered Thursday were sporting “Made in Holyoke” hoodies — Chavez’s brand.
“It’s taken on a life of its own,” Rivera, who led the effort in the City Council to dedicate the street to Chavez, said of the Made in Holyoke movement. “And it has helped the city overall create a positive message around it.”
Chavez was born into a home where community organizing was important. His mother, Rodriguez Garcia, ran youth programs, the first of which was an after-school program right in the part of the Flats neighborhood where Thursday’s event took place.
Helping his fellow Holyokers was important to Chavez, too. He played a key role in organizing a Thanksgiving dinner at Kelly Elementary School in the Flats back in 2016 after a massive apartment fire on High and Appleton streets displaced at least 40 people. The next year, when there was another fire in a Flats apartment complex, Chavez helped with relief efforts.
“My son was truly extraordinary,” Rodriguez Garcia told The Shoestring. “He picked the perfect name for himself.”
Rivera told The Shoestring that Chavez’s music focused on the real struggles that people in the city and their neighborhood faced. One of his songs, for example, “Untold,” painted a humanizing, empathetic picture of those who panhandled in the city.
“Damn, I swear I know that dude,” he rapped. “Used go to school with him, bet he know that, too.”
“When he became who he became with regards to his stardom as a local rapper, he didn’t forget about where he grew up,” Rivera said. “He came back to the neighborhood.”
And Chavez was always looking to give back, his mother said. That’s why so many people from the neighborhood appeared in his videos, she said; he wanted everybody to have the spotlight, not just himself.
Jonathan Chavez laughed recalling a time when he organized for his brother to be interviewed on a local podcast, only for Chavez to show up with a bunch of friends who he hoped could be part of the interview, too.
“Just to know that his name is going to be on that corner, it’s amazing,” Jonathan Chavez said of the street dedication. “Not too many people are able to have that type of honor and I feel like my brother deserves it tremendously. He did so much and didn’t ask for nothing in return.”
But there was sadness in Chavez’s life, too. A talented young soccer player, he had dreams of athletic success that were cut short when he tore his knee before his senior year of high school.
“He was put in a low state of mind when he worked at something his whole entire life and he had it taken from him,” Jonathan Chavez said. “He started putting all his energy into the music … He did the music so much that he perfected it.”
Those gathered Thursday held green, silver and black balloons in front of the Toepfert Apartments, smiling as Rodriguez Garcia spoke about her son. When she and her son pulled cardboard off the sign to reveal “Extraordinaiire Way” for the first time, the audience cheered. And the crowd then sang “Happy Birthday” in English then Spanish, letting their balloons fly.
“Your community is showing up for you today,” Mayor Garcia told Rodriguez Garcia.
Rodriguez Garcia said that her son was her everything.
“He gave his heart and his heart gave up … He fulfilled his purpose,” she said, urging people to check in on those they love. “Before you know it, the time just passed you by.”
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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