Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
They’ve been languishing for a long time but are finally becoming sites of urban intervention.
Many public spaces still bear names and symbols that recall America’s history of racism. But even in the cases where names places seek to signify progress—as in the case of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr.—the often-deplorable economic and physical condition of these areas suggest that racial equality is still a long way off.
"They’re a part of the larger history and geography of racism,” says Derek Alderman, a scholar of cultural geography at the University of Tennessee who has studied and written about streets named after MLK since the early 1990s. “So while you're celebrating, in effect, the Civil Rights movement which helped overcome some racism, you're still being reminded of the obstacles that continue to face African Americans.”
There’s no comprehensive national data on all MLK-named thoroughfares, but academics have been able to piece together a rough picture over the years. As of 2014, more than 900 such streets existed in 42 states and Puerto Rico, according to Alderman’s estimates. Roughly 80 percent of these were located in southeastern* states. Not surprisingly, Georgia, which is King’s home state, contains the highest number.
Here’s Alderman’s map of these streets by zip code:
While a lot of these streets are flourishing, a majority aren’t doing so well. “Limited census-related research suggests that the majority of these streets have lower incomes and higher inequalities and levels of racial segregation than city-wide and national norms,” says Alderman.
Researchers at the University of North Texas have found that these streets tend to be poorer than others with the same racial demographics, and to house more black residents than streets at similar income levels. The physical condition of these streets is also well-documented in news articles, photography projects, and even a book by journalist Jonathan Tilove called Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America's Main Street. In a 2014 article in Colorlines, Jamilah King quotes Tilove:
"To name any street for King is to invite an accounting of how the streets makes good on King's promise or mocks it."
Take a quick tour of of some of the MLK-named streets in America in this hyper-lapse video below:
The symptoms of concentrated poverty on some of these streets are familiar. They include shuttered storefronts and cracked pavements, crime and unemployment, and a lack of education and transit options. Chris Rock famously joked about this reputation in a stand-up routine in 1996: “if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.”
That negative reputation has had real effects on life along the streets. A 2012 analysis of housing data on Realtor.com by the AOL Real Estate blog found that home values on King streets had fallen 12.5 percent from 2010 to 2011. The nationwide median housing price also fell over that period, but only 4.7 percent.
Sites for urban intervention
Melvin White is a 46-year-old postal worker in a St. Louis, a native who grew up just around the corner from the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. In the last 10 years, White witnessed streets nearby improve, while the one named after the civil rights leader remained ridden with crime and poverty. "And yet, the name Martin Luther King was on the street,” White tells CityLab. “I was like, 'Wow, why is this name on a street like this?’”
After visiting other cities, White realized that this was a nationwide problem and started the Beloved Streets of America—a non-profit with the aim of revitalizing streets named after King in 2009. “I found out that a majority of these streets ran through economically depressed neighborhoods, and that's not fitting for a man who gave his life to uplift the community and stood for diversity,” he says. “We want to de-stigmatize these streets, starting right here in St. Louis.”
To do that, White has partnered with St. Louis-based Lauer Architecture Progressive Design firm and architecture non-profit Creative Exchange Lab. Together they have created a multifaceted revitalization plan for St. Louis’s MLK Boulevard, which they hope becomes a template for other cities.
Step one of the plan requires elbow grease, says Derek Lauer of Lauer Architecture. It entails the physical transformation of the street—repairing sidewalks and walkways, refurbishing and restoring unused buildings, turning vacant lots into parks, and starting an urban agriculture initiative. White hopes these seemingly superficial changes will “raise the self-esteem” of the street.
For step two, he and his colleagues hope to allot the revamped spaces for youth vocational training, community recreational centers, and child care and other social services. They also want to attract retail, services, and investment to help jumpstart economic growth in the neighborhood.
Here’s a rendering of some aspects of the master plan for MLK street in St. Louis:
But while White’s grassroots efforts have been praised by urban scholars, activists, and local academic institutions, not everyone is a believer. A 2014 article in the St.Louis-based Riverfront Times found some local politicians skeptical about the lofty nature of White’s plans. It also reported that lack of funding had left many aspects of the plans in preliminary stages. Here’s writer Danny Wicentowski, via Riverfront Times:
Although things seem to be moving in the right direction for Beloved Streets of America, what White really needs right now is a completed project. For all the promising meetings and commitments from other organizations, the only tangible progress White can point to is a list of vacant properties he bought from the city's Land Reutilization Authority, and the clothing and food giveaways.
Despite the criticism, White and his partners are determined. “We’re not letting the lack of resources stop us from doing something,” says Jasmine Aber, executive director and co-founder of Creative Exchange Labs, the non-profit architecture and design firm that’s trying to find the partnerships, technical support, and resources White needs to get the plans off the ground.
Inspiring a new generation of urban planners and architects
Inspired by his work at Beloved Streets of America, professor Daniel D’Oca at the Harvard Graduate School of Design is now teaching a class about planning and designing for the specific needs of MLK-named streets. As a part of the class, he took students to see the streets in St. Louis, Missouri (where his class met White), and Washington, D.C.
“St. Louis has an interesting and very terrible history because it’s a place that has either invented or perfected a lot of racist, exclusionary tools. It’s been really creative in how it’s kept white and black populations apart,” D’Oca told the Harvard Gazette.
After talking to activists, community members, and elected officials in these two cities, D’Oca’s students are working on various big and small urban projects. Examples include identifying practical ideas for reinvigorating dilapidated building facades, outlining a community land trust to insure that future public and private investments benefit existing residents, and creating a small business development guidebook.
D’Oca’s ultimate goal goes beyond the scope of classroom curriculum. He hopes his students will take what they’ve learned in this class into their post-grad school professions and do their bit to reverse decades of discriminatory planning that have left neighborhoods of in the condition they’re in today.
“That MLK streets and the neighborhoods that flank them look and function the way they do is no accident,” he tells CityLab via email. “Public policy encouraged whites to flee central cities, incorporate as separate municipalities, and then deny access to these municipalities through things like exclusionary zoning, racial covenants, and racial steering. The tools that shape the built environment are powerful: we need to make sure we're training future architects and planners to work with communities to think about how these tools can help build better, more equitable outcomes.”
*Correction: Streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. are concentrated in southeastern states, not southwestern ones.