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Are the streets fit for King?

As people mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day today, some wonder whether putting his name on roads honors him or is simply an empty gesture.

Published January 19, 2004

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Dual signs mark N Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Clearwater in December; the other sign has been removed.
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Yasmin Oliver, 5, shows off her ballet steps before stopping at the Dairy Inn on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Tampa commuters make their way home as the sun sets on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on Jan. 12. Tampa renamed the road for King in 1989.

Leslie Anderson drapes a red and white striped sheet around Don Adams, turns on the trimmer and begins edging his fade.

Anderson's family has owned Anderson's Beauty Gallery on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S in St. Petersburg for eight years. While she has watched the street change names, the neighborhood has remained the same: empty storefronts and not a single sit-down restaurant.

She is proud of the street's name. But when customers ask for directions, she tells them to come on down Ninth. Anderson, who is 40, says it's mostly out of habit, that she wouldn't want the street's name changed back.

But Anderson and Adams agree: There are more important ways to honor King's legacy.

"They name the street, but they don't try to fix up the neighborhood," said Adams, 34, a registered nurse. "We want to see something nice in this area. They spend all that money on the new Publix downtown and on BayWalk, but nothing here."

Their stance reflects a growing uncertainty over the value of naming a street after King - even among those who support his message.

Increasingly, people who believe in King say it's too easy to slap a name on a sign and ignore issues such as crime, unemployment and racism. When the issue of renaming a street recently came up in the Tampa Bay area, it provoked a complex range of emotions, even among those who consider themselves his followers.

Last year, the nearly all-white cities of Largo and Dunedin became the first municipalities in the Tampa Bay area to consider renaming a street for King - and decide against doing so. Both cities launched efforts to find other ways to honor King.

By contrast, the Zephyrhills City Council overcame vocal opposition in the predominantly white community, including a petition with nearly 500 signatures, to rename Sixth Avenue after King.

Opinions are split on such decisions. But most everyone agrees that the image of King Street, U.S.A., is largely of a destitute, crime-ridden area. It's a stigma comedian Chris Rock uses in his standup routine.

It goes like this: Rock says a white friend called him for directions. The man said he was calling from King Street.

"Run!" Rock tells him.

"I don't care where you live in America," Rock says, "if you're on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there's some violence going on."

That perception of the nation's 680 King streets too often matches reality, says Jerry Kolo, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. Once intended as a symbol of equality, the roads have become the dividing line between black and white America. The naming of streets has become a "tokenistic gesture" to appease blacks demanding equal rights, Kolo said.

"Many of us in the black community have gotten carried away by gestures that don't mean anything but are showy, such as naming a street," Kolo said. "I would love to hear voices saying, "Let's look for more tangible ways of honoring Martin Luther King's legacy."'

Carrying on his name

The trend of naming a street after King started in Chicago, four months after his assassination in 1968.

As the years passed, other cities followed. Their efforts were opposed, mostly by whites who didn't agree with King's message. In Chicago, the signs were defaced. In Tampa, about 55 signs in a rural area were vandalized after Buffalo Avenue was renamed for King in 1989.

But largely, King supporters won out. Today, King's name adorns more streets than any other name except for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, according to Marco Williams, a New York filmmaker. Williams visited 30 of those streets for his 2003 documentary, MLK Boulevard: The Concrete Dream.

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a friend of King's, believes that continuing to rename streets after King is a good idea.

"It's not the most important thing in the world," Bond said. "But it's an important way for the city to say we honor and respect him and we respect his life's work."

Others are beginning to question whether such efforts are misplaced, and if there are better ways to remember King.

Michael King, a member of Project 21, a black conservative think tank in Washington, says blacks should focus on economic empowerment and eliminating homelessness, unemployment, drugs and gangs in their communities.

Renaming streets for Martin Luther King Jr. was necessary years ago to "carry on his name when people were trying to forget," said King, who is not related to the civil rights icon.

But "does it have the meaning it did 20, 30 years ago?" he asked. "I don't think so."

Cities should worry about taking care of their residents instead of focusing on renaming streets, he said.

"Wasting your time on whether a street was named after him was not something he would have broken his neck over were he alive," King said.

John Pittman, a supervisor in Largo's solid waste department, agrees.

"Not naming a street right now is a pretty good idea," said Pittman, who is black. "I don't think it's being disrespectful to Martin Luther King. If we just jump up and name a street it would look like like we're being pressured or just off the cuff doing stuff."

Changing perceptions

Every morning, 12-year-old Kandi Nelson waits on Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Clearwater for the school bus to take her and her friends to Dunedin Highland Middle School.

The girls are two generations removed from King. Their parents weren't around during the civil rights movement. Neither were some of their teachers. To them, King is more of a legend than a person.

As Kandi glances down the street, she ticks off all the problems with her North Greenwood neighborhood: no restaurants, no mall, no movie theater, and no decent grocery store. The others chime in, listing what they want: "New houses, a Wal-Mart, an IHOP!"

In a place where it's hard to get a cab or a pizza late at night, the King name on a street sign doesn't hold much significance.

That's one of the reasons Leon Russell, executive director for the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, believes cities should rename a street that transcends the black community.

"The issue for me is to change that perception," he said. "The way most cities dealt with the issue was to name a street in the black community with the worst reputation because that was the easiest to change. Name a street with a better reputation."

But picking a street in the white community tends to spark controversy, notes Jonathan Tilove, who wrote a book about King streets, Along Martin Luther King: Travels on Black America's Main Street. That's why most of the streets are relegated to predominantly black areas, he said.

"The common thread of the streets tended to be that these were the main street in the black community," he said. "Part of that was because of the controversies. King streets can't go where they're not wanted."

In St. Petersburg, the City Council added King's name to that of Ninth Street, a major artery running almost the length of the city, in 1987. The dual label lasted more than 15 years; last year, the council dropped the Ninth Street part of the name.

When the debate has become too contentious in other cities, places such as San Diego opted instead to build memorials, dedicate parks and hold celebrations to honor King. In Muncie, Ind., a federal mediator was called in to help resolve the issue. Community leaders agreed to create more opportunities for minorities and revisit the naming a street later this year.

A similar story line has played out in Largo and Dunedin.

In Largo, city commissioner Charlie Harper suggested renaming a street. Then a black resident proposed Central Park Drive, a visible street that curves past the library. But other residents wrote letters opposing it, and the City Commission quietly dropped the street renaming idea, in favor of a planned King memorial.

"We decided it just wasn't practical to rename a street," Harper said. "There was certainly no pressure from the public because nobody seemed to care."

In Dunedin, a task force was formed to choose a street to name after King. The goal broadened when the nine-member committee agreed to come up with ways to encourage and embrace diversity.

The committee recommended renaming either of two major streets after King. The City Commission rejected both after more than 1,000 residents signed a petition opposing the move.

Today, the city will celebrate its first King Day celebration. The theme: A Community United - Many Paths, One Destination. The city also calls this week Diversity In Dunedin week, and commissioners are moving forward with plans to use the Pinellas Trail to commemorate King and other Americans who lobbied for diversity.

Today, cities across the Tampa Bay area will honor King's memory with parades, candlelight vigils, breakfasts and special church services. But when the pep rallies are over, people will return to their daily lives, with King all but forgotten until next year, said Christine Morris, 81, a Clearwater resident who participates in the marches each year.

"I don't think some people will ever be ready for the future of naming streets after Dr. King, or anyone else who is Afro-American," Morris said. "There is always going to be some prejudice."

What would Julian Bond's long departed friend make of the debate over naming streets after him?

"I think he would say, "I'm happy that people are naming streets after me and schools, but I want them to also do these other things,"' Bond said. "Luckily, this is not an either/or choice."

- Shannon Tan can be reached at 445-4174 or

[Last modified January 19, 2004, 01:15:44]

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