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MLK streets traverse nation's past, future

By Jim Kavanagh
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Four decades after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the streets, avenues, boulevards and highways that bear his name remain crossroads of the nation's past and future.

In Atlanta, not far from where King grew up and preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive winds through the heart of the city. For 10 miles, the road dedicated in King's name in 1976 stretches past homes, schools, restaurants, liquor stores, strip malls, churches, barbershops, a roller-skating rink, boarded-up government flats and a gated apartment community, all the way to the city's downtown and its golden-domed Georgia Capitol building.

Pauline Moore, 84, moved with her family in 1940 into the first house built on the south side of what was then called Hunter Street. The family built a second and then a third house and raised chickens, hogs and other animals out back.

Blacks lived on one side of the nearby railroad tracks, whites on the other, said Moore, who still owns two of the houses. (Audio slide show: African American generational voices)

Moore described a close-knit black community in the 1940s that sustained itself economically and socially. The area's blacks had their own churches, theater, mortuary, USO club, nightclubs and more, she said.

"During that time there were just certain places you could go, certain places you could live, and it was just different," she said.

"But after Martin Luther King broke down the barrier, everything changed."

Around the nation

At least 777 streets are named for King in the United States, each with its own history and character, said Matthew Mitchelson, a University of Georgia geographer who has researched roads named for the late civil rights leader. (Send in photos of your town's MLK street)

They range from MLK Circle in Tupelo, Mississippi, at one-tenth of a mile, to MLK Boulevard in Tampa, Florida, at 14 miles. (Watch the rise and fall of MLK boulevards Video)

Eighty-five percent of them are in the South, where King did most of his work and where African-American populations are more concentrated.

"The dominant stereotype is that these are crime-ridden, low-income areas that are just full of blight," said Mitchelson.

But the stereotype doesn't hold up, according to his study in the March 2007 issue of Social Science Quarterly.

"In terms of employment, Martin Luther King streets are actually much more vibrant than streets in general," providing addresses for more jobs on average than even Main streets, Mitchelson said in an interview.

A main reason for this difference is the prevalence of schools and government offices on MLK streets. "Statistically, it's off the charts," he said.

Although Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a clear dividing line between black and nonblack populations in El Paso, Texas, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Cincinnati, Ohio, connects six neighborhoods that are by turns majority white, majority black, or nearly equally populated, according to the Web site Cincinnatihome.org.

Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Seattle, Washington, winds through miles of diverse populations and hosts a growing number of businesses, more than 30 percent of them owned by Asian-Americans, according to The Seattle Times.

Exchanging legacies

In Atlanta, the street's residential population is overwhelmingly black, census figures show. Before the King name in 1976, segments of the street had been called Gordon Road, for a Confederate general; Hunter Street, for one of the largest slave owners in the area; and Mozely Drive, for a businessman who donated land for a park that he insisted be made off-limits to blacks, said Derek Alderman, a cultural geographer at East Carolina University in North Carolina.

"Their names were replaced with King's, signaling a symbolic act" of exchanging one legacy for the other, Alderman said.

And while some of those streets reinforce the stereotypes, others are debunking them.

"People are making a significant effort to redevelop these streets that bear King's name," he said.

Just east of longtime resident Moore's house and past a block dotted with historical markers celebrating black business achievements of Moore's era and civil rights achievements of King's day, stands a Tyvek-wrapped frame of a complex of condominiums and town homes. The development creates mixed emotions in the neighborhood.

"A lot of people who live here aren't really going to be able to afford to live in those," said Altisha Lewis, 19, a student at Clark Atlanta University, one of five historically black colleges, including King alma mater Morehouse College, in the neighborhood.

Lewis said she fears the upscale development will lead to the razing of family homes and student housing and the closing of small, black-owned businesses.

Developer Steven Brock, known for building in parts of Atlanta where others fail or won't try, said he's working with the Atlanta Housing Authority and no one was displaced by the project. He's building on formerly abandoned property, he said.

"It's a great project, it's a great part of the city," he said. "It is socially challenged, but it's a project that's enhancing the quality of life for people in the area."

Tracy Gates, owner of the 60-year-old Busy Bee Café across the street from the site, welcomes the construction.

"I think development is good in any area of the inner city that is blighted, because if they didn't come, people wouldn't come to this area," she said.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the area ... because it changes the whole landscape," she said.

Societies as well as streets are bound to evolve, Pauline Moore said with a shrug.

"Time brings about a change."


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At least 777 streets are named for Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States, according to one study.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Explainer: By the numbers
• I-Report: Black in America
• Timeline: Civil rights struggle
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