ST. LOUIS —
Journalist Jonathan Tilove, who wrote a 2003 book based on visits to 650 King streets nationwide, called the King byways “black America’s Main Street.”
“Map them and you map a nation within a nation, a place where white America seldom goes and black America can be itself,” he wrote. “It is a parallel universe with a different center of gravity and distinctive sensibilities. ... There is no other street like it.”
But while streets named for King undoubtedly resonate widely in the black community, a University of Tennessee geography professor whose research explores the cultural and political significance of such streets said the compromised condition of streets named for King in St. Louis and other cities deserves broader attention.
“In some ways we racially profile these streets,” said Derek Alderman, author of a 2007 study that found a smaller disparity among MLK-named streets and other “main streets” than is popularly portrayed. “We need to move beyond those images and see what concrete lives and realities are living on those streets.”
More than 50 years after King led his march on Washington, communities large and small still debate whether to rename local streets in his honor. In Harrisonburg, Va., city leaders recently agreed to rename a street for King over protests by some residents. A similar debate continues in High Point, N.C., where a King street proposal first suggested two decades ago remains up in the air.
Other cities have had more success in balancing the desire to commemorate King without superseding local tradition. Alderman singled out Chapel Hill, N.C., which in 2005 renamed a major thoroughfare that abuts the University of North Carolina campus. Street signs that identify Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard also include the name “Historic Airport Road.”
Chicago’s Martin Luther King Drive, a major thoroughfare spanning roughly a dozen miles south of downtown, is anchored by important hubs of black life in the city. The street features grassy boulevards with stately greystones, while other segments touch rougher patches that have fallen into disrepair, including a dilapidated motel that drew community protests over crime. Gentrification is taking hold along some parts.