ST. LOUIS — In many cities, they stand as sad, dilapidated monuments to a civil rights hero.
With the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday today, the focus in St. Louis and around the country turns to the streets that bear his name.
Nationwide, at least 730 streets are named after King, according to a geographer who’s mapped them. They weave through every state and most cities, through places like Elgin, Texas, St. Louis and Salt Lake City. They come in all sizes, from the 13-mile drive in Chicago, to a street about 500 feet long in Marianna, Fla.
More get added to the map each year. While some of the streets are prestigious boulevards, such as in Atlanta, many others cut through long-abandoned neighborhoods.
“When you go on the streets named after Martin Luther King you end up on some of the worst looking streets in the country,” St. Louis Alderman Peggy Ryan said.
That’s something neighborhood groups and local governments nationwide are trying to change. These efforts are not guided by any centralized organization, just the common belief that a street named after King should be a better tribute.
In Little Rock, Ark., a coalition of neighborhood associations plants trees and picks up litter along the city’s MLK Drive.
In Jacksonville, Fla., the city recently built sidewalks and bike paths along its MLK Boulevard and a nonprofit group called Social Compact put together a neighborhood analysis to help the local chamber of commerce attract new business there.
In St. Louis, the city will spend $7.8 million over the next three years on improvements to Martin Luther King Drive.
The five-mile stretch of road has become known for its rows of vacant buildings and broken glass. Along the drive, shopkeepers are holding out hope that eventually, new businesses will add variety to a smattering of chop suey joints, pawnshops and beauty parlors. They hope to add to the spark of development that has occurred along the street since 2000, including a new strip mall, a handful of stores, a Blockbuster video store and a few new restaurants.
“Everything will help,” said Terry Liberman, co-owner of Easton Loan, which has been in the neighborhood since 1928. “Any effort to make it look nicer will encourage someone to take a risk and open something.”
“One of our goals is to improve Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, not only the actual street itself, but improve the way the whole street looks from city limits to downtown,” said Ryan, who co-sponsored the funding ordinance with Aldermen April Ford Griffin, Terry Kennedy, Michael McMillan and Frank Williamson.
Neighborhood business owners, employees and residents along the street say they welcome the public investment. “Of course, we would like to see $80 million rather than $8 million because historically Martin Luther King (Drive) has been overlooked,” said Steve Roberts, whose company, Roberts Brothers Properties, has invested millions of dollars in the area since the 1980s.
Several churches along the street are addressing pervasive problems such as drug addiction and lack of parenting skills. The Williams Temple Church of God in Christ has a neighborhood outreach center that helps people achieve homeownership and earn their GEDs.
Linda Thompson, the center director, said a street named after King should be cared for.
“We were able to get some recognition for him, finally get the city to change the name,” she said. “Then what do you do with it? We need to treat it like a child. Do you abuse it or do you love it?”
Roberts said his company plans to start building another strip center along Martin Luther King Drive this year. It would be similar to the one Roberts Brothers Properties built at Kingshighway, he said, now 90 percent occupied by mostly national chain stores.
“This is a large, historically important area in the African-American community that once upon a time had middle-class families living in this area with businesses and services that have left,” Roberts said. “We have slowly been bringing professionals and retailers back. We want to continue that.”