They may not be as ubiquitous as Elm or Main, but more than 900 streets in America are named for Martin Luther King Jr. They range over 42 states from Idaho to Tennessee, with 75 in Georgia alone. Sadly, many of these avenues, marred by vacancy, crime, and disinvestment, are an affront to King’s dream of social justice and equality. According to research at the University of North Texas, neighborhoods containing MLK streets tend to be poorer than surrounding districts, even those with the same racial makeup. Some MLK streets are thriving and cross racial divides, but the same research mostly found segregation: Neighborhoods surrounding MLK streets had, on average, 39 percent more African-American residents than other neighborhoods in the same city.
What’s in a name? Geographer Derek Alderman of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who has made a study of the politics of place names, says renaming streets for King is a way to “construct a new geography of public memory.” But such points of pride can backfire. In Athens, Georgia, longtime black residents opposed renaming Reese Street, which they called “an unknown street in a drug-infested area,” after the civil rights leader. “To name any street for King,” writes journalist Jonathan Tilove in his 2003 book on the subject, “is to invite an accounting of how the street makes good on King’s promise, or mocks it.”
In Boston, Martin Luther King Blvd. travels a half mile in Roxbury from Washington Street to Warren Street. A blank vestige of urban renewal, it had little identity before it was named for King. Thus, says state Representative Byron Rushing of Roxbury, “You didn’t have the problem of un-naming anything else.” The boulevard is well-populated with social services, a public school, and the Roxbury YMCA, but Rushing finds it ironic that a street named “for someone who represented community” includes only one building — the 102-unit MLK Towers for elderly residents — where people actually live.
Now, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, activists and city planners are working to redeem these boulevards of dreams deferred. In St. Louis, a retired postal worker named Melvin White teamed up with a local architecture firm to form Beloved Streets of America, which aims to make MLK streets everywhere into new sites of urban intervention. They have mapped out a plan for long-neglected Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in St. Louis that includes short-term fixes, from ethnic festivals to public art. Eventually they hope for stores, restaurants, and a recreation center.
An architecture studio class offered at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design last fall was called “The MLK Way: Building on Black America’s Main Street.” The instructor, Daniel D’Oca, took his 13 students on field trips to St. Louis and Washington, D.C., where they met community leaders and puzzled how to promote genuine rebirth in these complex places. Their final proposals include plans for urban farming, incentives for small business, housing aimed at young families, and community land trusts to combat — paradoxically — the gentrification and displacement that often comes when conditions improve. “The first thing I try to get people to understand is that cities are consciously designed,” said D’Oca. “Why does MLK Street in St. Louis look the way it does? It was designed to be segregated, to be poor. It was designed to fail.” And something that was designed can be redesigned.
Powerful as they are, monuments to King are still only symbols. We can’t rely on streets or schools or statues to do our remembering for us. It’s in the tough, creative, daily work of scrubbing, funding, voting, and organizing that King’s dreams will be realized — one street at time.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.