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January 20, 2014

MLK’s streets struggle

ST. LOUIS — A walk down the 6-mile city street named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. yields plenty of images that would surely unsettle the civil rights leader: shuttered storefronts, open-air drug markets and a glut of pawn shops, quickie check-cashing providers and liquor stores.

The urban decay along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in St. Louis can be found in other major American cities, from Houston and Milwaukee to the nation’s capital.

“It’s a national problem,” said Melvin White, a 46-year-old postal worker in St. Louis and founder of a 3-year-old nonprofit group that is trying to restore King’s legacy on asphalt. “Dr. King would be turning over in his grave.”

Nearly three decades into the observance of Monday’s federal holiday, the continuing decline of the most visible symbols of King’s work has White and others calling for a renewed commitment to the more than 900 streets nationwide named in the Atlanta native’s honor. The effort centers in St. Louis, where the small nonprofit is working to reclaim MLK roadways as a source of pride and inspiration, not disappointment over a dream derailed.

White’s goals are ambitious, his resources admittedly modest. A neighborhood park is planned across the street from the group’s headquarters. An urban agriculture project to encourage residents to eat healthy and grow their own food has preliminary support from nearby Washington University, one of the country’s wealthiest private colleges. Above all, Beloved Streets of America wants to build community from the ashes of what was once a thriving retail corridor when White was a child.

The template can be found just a mile away. Delmar Boulevard, which saw a similar decline, is now a vibrant retail corridor packed with restaurants, nightclubs, a renovated movie theater and a boutique hotel. The renaissance earned Delmar recognition in 2007 as one of “10 Great Streets in America” by the American Planning Association.

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