Restoring MLK’s dream, street by street

Posted at 2:09 PM, Jan 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-18 14:09:43-05

ST. LOUIS — Melvin White walks down an empty Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis, Missouri, recounting what once was a business or a home, but is now a rundown shell.

“My friend used to stay here,” he said, peering into the window of a building, its walls falling apart and floors covered in debris.

White, a postal worker, is hard to miss in his dark blue suit, pink pocket square and shined shoes. He stands on a worn-down street corner and shakes his head in disappointment. This is what he is trying to change.

In 2004, White began to notice the stark contrast between the poor conditions on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and a parallel street, which was once impoverished but has since experienced development and is now full of bustling businesses.

Melvin White walks down an empty Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis, Missouri, recounting what once was a business or a home, but is now a rundown shell.

White was deeply bothered by this. In the years that followed, he traveled to a number of U.S. cities with streets named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most recognizable leaders of the American civil rights movement.

Most of the streets White visited were in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods with high crime rates and little economic opportunity.

White’s interest in the condition of streets that bear King’s name was also prompted by a joke comedian Chris Rock told in a stand-up routine.

“Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence,” Rock said on stage, “Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street.”

“If you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there is some violence going down,” he said.

The joke stuck with White.

“We noticed that this was a national problem,” White said.

There are approximately 900 streets named after King in the United States, including in Puerto Rico, according to research by Derek Alderman, head of the geography department at the University of Tennessee.

Cities began naming and renaming streets after King immediately following his assassination in 1968.

“The establishment of a King holiday (in 1983) energized the renaming of streets for King,” said Alderman.

Alderman, who has studied the naming of streets and those named after King for roughly 20 years, said that based on analysis of the available data, King streets tend to have high levels of poverty, inequality and racial segregation when compared to their respective cities and regional and national pattern.

White said he believes it is a disgrace that the streets meant to honor King’s legacy of nonviolence, economic opportunity and racial equality are often violent, segregated and offer no economic sustainability.

This is not the case in all cities with streets named after King. King streets in cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tampa, Florida, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, are prominent thoroughfares and have a large commercial presence.

The city of Atlanta, King’s hometown, has pledged $20 million to the revitalization of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Mayor Kasim Reed said the aim is to make the corridor one of the most “attractive in the county.”

But in St. Louis, it’s common to see boarded-up storefronts and dilapidated buildings along the 6½ mile stretch. Approximately 5 miles away is Ferguson, Missouri, which has seen broad criticism regarding segregation since the killing of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer.

White’s office is located at the heart of King Drive.

“If you sit back and look, on a daily basis,” White said, “you see prostitution, you see drugs being sold, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, trash just being dumped all over the streets.”

Armed with the knowledge that poor conditions and negative perceptions plague many of the streets named after King, White decided he had to do something.

“Dr. King was a great man,” White said, “and to have his streets recognized in such a horrible light prompted us to come up with a nonprofit organization to change that stigma.”

His organization, Beloved Streets of America, aims to “revitalize and conserve streets” named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

White’s organization has partnered with various local leaders and architects and has won the support of academics across the country.

The revitalization efforts are working toward bringing jobs, economic stability, safe public spaces, and a sense of pride back to Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis. The organization wants to facilitate job training and access to critical services for residents. Equipped with new skills, White hopes to employ residents as part of the physical repair and building of structures on King Drive.

Along with architects and designers, White’s organization has created a proposal for the entire length of St. Louis’ King Drive. The plan includes parks, urban agriculture, community centers, shopping areas, and a statue of King.

Though White and his organization have had some success with smaller initiatives like trash pick-up and community events, they continue to face significant challenges to generate the necessary funding to bring the plans to fruition.

With few businesses in the area, the crime rate, and the perception of the street, White has struggled to pull in donors and entice investors.

The King streets that have been targeted for improvement in a number of cities across the country haven’t seen much success, said Daniel D’Oca, design critic at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Inspired by Beloved Streets of America, D’Oca recently led a class that focused on designing King streets. The class visited King street in St. Louis, where class members worked with White and other community leaders, as well as a street in Washington, D.C.

“It is no surprise these communities look the way they do,” said D’Oca, “that they see such disinvestment.”

D’Oca pointed to historically discriminatory housing policies, as well as white flight, the large-scale migration of white residents out of urban areas and into the suburbs, when explaining the current conditions on King Drive in St. Louis.

Though White knows the challenges ahead, he is not discouraged. He envisions a day when visitors will come to St. Louis, excited to visit attractions and vibrant businesses on the street.

White also co-founded the National MLK Street Initiative, with the goal of galvanizing a national network of leaders to revitalize King streets across the country.

White remembers learning as a child about King’s tremendous contributions to the civil rights movement. He believes the streets named after King should reflect his legacy accordingly, and he hopes that one day St. Louis will serve as a blueprint for other cities.