One of comedian Chris Rock’s trademarked bits is the one about Martin Luther King Avenue. Rock, musing on African-American history and what people remember about Martin Luther King, notes how sad it is that, in many cities—as many as 730 by a recent count—Martin Luther King is now remembered by a street name—usually located in an area of town that many people avoid, and where violence is often part of the scene. The irony, of course, is that King’s message was non-violence. [Watch the bit for yourself, in the following video, at 1:25, and just ignore the French subtitles.] You may find it offensive, but like so much of Chris Rock’s humor, it tells the truth and hits a nerve.
A new group, called Beloved Streets of America, wants to revitalize and conserve the streets bearing King’s name. The group conducted a seven-year study of various MLK streets and found that the majority were unsafe and crime-ridden. Many were located in distressed neighborhoods, considered areas where predominantly poor blacks live, and viewed as places where whites and non-blacks seldom travel. The streets typically lack sustainable community economic development or economic revitalization activities. They’re the kind of streets parodied in the movie, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” in which comedian Chevy Chase, lost in East St. Louis, Illinois, tries to be upbeat, until he hears gunshots and then famously tells his family to “roll ‘em up,” closing the car windows and locking the doors.
You can see documentation of what some of the real, non-movie-set neighborhoods look like by visiting Beloved Streets’ web page, where you can click on various cities to see video of Martin Luther King streets in St. Louis, Seattle, Tacoma, East St. Louis, Houston, Washington DC, Milwaukee, and Wilmington DE. The video is unpolished and somewhat grainy, but you get the picture.
Heading up Beloved Streets of America is Melvin White, a St. Louis postal worker, who, like Dr. King, has a dream. White calls the situation on Martin Luther King streets “not fitting for a man who gave his life to building community partnerships and uplifting people and their living environments.” And, as for the Chris Rock comedy bit, White is not amused. You can see an interview with White, plus images of St. Louis’ Martin Luther King Drive here.
To achieve his goal, White hopes to use his hometown as the model for redeveloping the many streets that bear King’s name. White wants to build a park on Martin Luther King Drive that contains an exhibit of Dr. King’s accomplishments. He says he needs to raise about $500,000 for the project, and he’s looking for “angels” to help him.
I live in St. Louis, and I can attest to the fact that our Martin Luther King Drive, unfortunately, fits Chris Rock’s stereotype as well as Beloved Streets’ criteria. But there is hope. One example of what can be done with imagination, good design, and community involvement was completed in 2012 in Portland, Oregon.