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Street's signs point to hollow excuses

For a thoroughfare whose name was changed 15 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street in St. Petersburg still has too many designations to build an identity or honor a hero.

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 26, 2002


When St. Petersburg's City Council voted to rename a main thoroughfare in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many people saw it as a victory.

Nearly 15 years after the grudging 5-4 vote, it's clear that many also considered it a defeat.

In St. Petersburg -- unlike other Tampa Bay area cities -- King's name is still the street's secondary designation, its "alias" as listed by the postal service.

A credible explanation for why turns into a circle of finger pointing.

Ask around City Hall and the standard answer is that it was supposed to have changed already. Ask businesses that continue to use Ninth Street rather than King, and some of the answers are 15 years old. They cite the inconvenience, confusion and cost of changing stationery and business cards.

Of course, only a cynic would question the effect an address change would have on a business that hasn't depleted its stationery supply in 15 years.

Even the St. Petersburg Times has not made the complete conversion. When a subscriber's name is typed into its computer, the address pops up as Ninth Street if he or she lives on Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Circulation chief Tommie McLeod said the database of addresses was acquired from the postal service.

Several attempts to reach the postmaster were unsuccessful.

The confusion over what to call such streets is also reflected in the way this newspaper refers to it in news reports.

When referring to the street in Tampa, for example, we say it this way: "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard." We don't even mention its former name (Buffalo Avenue). But for the street in St. Petersburg, we say: "Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street."

Without practical reasons why Martin Luther King Jr. Street in St. Petersburg hasn't been granted the legitimacy it has in other Tampa Bay area cities, or even the legitimacy of Howard Frankland's -- or Bo's -- bridge, motivations can easily become suspect.

The postmaster's inaccessibility coupled with his apparent recalcitrance on another matter with racial implications makes him an easy target for blame. Thomas N. Pawlowski, the postmaster, has not acceded to Mayor Rick Baker's request to convert a mail distribution center in the predominantly black Midtown section into a full-service post office, even after the mayor offered to pay part of the cost.

Sue Horton, the customer services coordinator who said she often fields media queries for the postmaster, said after researching the street's listing in the postal database that she found the service treats all variations of the street's name equally.

To the postal service, she said, M.L.K. Street is the same as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, Ninth Street or Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Street. Delivering the mail is its mission, regardless of the way a customer chooses to identify the street, she said.

She threw the ball back into the city's court.

The post office does not name streets; that's the city's job, she said.

Mike Connors, who as the city's director of engineering is responsible for street signage, said the city did that job. He remembered the debates and the eventual council resolution that changed the name and was incredulous that the change would not have registered with everyone in the city, especially the postal service.

In Tampa, where Buffalo Avenue was renamed two years after the vote in St. Petersburg, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is acknowledged as the street's primary name, said Gary Sawtelle, spokesman for the Suncoast District Postal Service, which includes Tampa.

The difference is that Tampa designated the King name as the sole name for the street. Why the same hasn't been done in St. Petersburg remains elusive. Maybe the name is just too long. That sounds better than most of the explanations given. Perhaps it's too hard to write on envelopes.

Or maybe, even after all these years, it is just still too hard for some people to say. Maybe the name of the man who guided the United States out of its socially barbaric past still gets too tangled up in some people's throats.

That is the reason this issue won't just be ignored into obscurity, into no longer mattering. There's history here that can't be ignored.

The decision to name the street in honor of King was not an amicable agreement between friends. This was not a choice between Oak Street or Elm Street. It came at the end of a bitter fight by an 11-member committee appointed to recommend methods of honoring King. The debate divided the community, the council and many of those who lived or worked on the street.

It even divided administrations and their staffs.

When Mayor David Fischer replaced street signs with larger, more legible ones, his department head who ordered the signs directed that only Ninth Street be stenciled on the new ones. He dropped the King designation.

His explanation was that he didn't have room for both names, so he decided on Ninth.

Fischer's answer, when told of the explanation, was terse: "He made the wrong choice."

That was in 1994. As far as Fischer was concerned, the transitional period during which the street carried both names was over.

Eight years have passed since that. Still there's too much complacency about the name change. After all these years, we're still finding excuses ... oops, sorry, reasons for why Ninth Street still exists.

We are often so much more efficient at finding reasons why we can't than we are at finding ways that we can, especially when the real reason is that we don't want to.

The debate ended 15 years ago, St. Petersburg.

With its decision, divided though it was, the city asserted its desire to move beyond its ugly segregationist past and into the future King visualized and died for.

Even the side that lost in the debate should know by now that the victory was for us all.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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