Looking beyond decay: Individuals and institutions team up with residents to save MLK Drive
This is the third of a three-part series on the past, present and future of Martin Luther King Drive.
The day we showed up at Dorothy’s TV, Furniture & Appliance, the weather outside was like Florida, and Dorothy Davis’ brother sent us inside to meet his sister, who juggled taking care of business and talking to us and answering the phone. We came to talk about crime on her street, Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, and about why she’s chosen to stick it out there.
Crime is a big topic when discussing north St. Louis, and there is no reason to pretend that crime – petty to felonious – isn’t an element of the culture. Davis said, however, she’s never had a serious problem.
“Fights out in front of the store, maybe, but we take care of that.” She said she runs the miscreants off before anything goes seriously wrong.
Octogenarian Lovie Haynes isn’t leaving the King Drive neighborhood, either. But through her hazel eyes she sees things differently about crime. She’ll be 86 in March, and lives on the second floor of the two-family flat she owns on Hamilton Avenue. Her late husband bought the building in 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.
“I can’t tell you what to do about the situation,” she said. “I’m just an old colored lady. But I can tell you this, I fell in love with Hamilton Avenue, and there’s no place I’d rather be.”
These are people with a strong stake in the neighborhood, whose roots grow deep. They include Dorothy and Chester Davis who own Dorothy’s TV, Furniture &Appliance Shop at 5917 Dr. Martin Luther King Dr., and longtime residents such as Lovie Haynes — Miss Lovie to all. These are people who have settled in on the drive or close to it, laugh at the suggestion of leaving their homes.
Miss Lovie is keeper of a vegetable garden that is a neighborhood landmark as well as a source of healthy food. At one point, however, the garden became a place of congregation for prostitutes, drug users and dope dealers. That is all in the past, she said; nevertheless she acknowledges that crime swirls around her.
“There was no drugs or prostitution when we came here,” she said. “After the white people moved out, things changed.”
So there, in a throw-away line, is a revelation, an open acknowledgement of a problem we all know too well but avoid discussing: a form of racism. It’s not violent racism; it probably was not intended to cause harm to body or spirit. Nor was it the sort of veiled, polite racism that in conversations takes a turn with words such as “but,” “however” and, finally, “what more do they want, anyway?”
"I can't tell you what to do about the situation. I'm just an old colored lady. But I can tell you this, I fell in love with Hamilton Avenue, and there's no place I'd rather be." —Lovie Haynes
It's the kind that says, “I don’t want to live next door to those people because …" fill in the blank. Once the neighbors go, you feel you must go too. Voids are created. A glut of for-sale real estate and then white flight.
But as we’ve seen all around us, Ferguson being a case in point, racism is fundamentally toxic because, in acknowledging and exaggerating differences, it exalts one group over another, and creates enormous impediments to progress if not retrogression from it.
As is true with all fundamentally dystopian problems, progress demands their being dealt with openly and honestly, and no more so than in urban reclamation, where black and white must work together if progress is to be made.
Putting progress in motion
One topic of discussion in disadvantaged neighborhoods is the food desert — a lack of all-purpose groceries and restaurants where prices are reasonable and distances to them are walkable. Dr. Martin Luther King Drive near the St. Louis-Wellston line qualifies as such a desert.
So, to have lunch, Melvin White, president and CEO of an organization called Beloved Steets of America, and his associate, Andre Blunt, and visitors to the Beloved Streets’ office on MLK Drive repaired to the Delmar Loop. We settled in at Blueberry Hill, epicenter of an urban miracle created and orchestrated by entrepreneur Joe Edwards.
White noted that when Edwards started implementing his vision of redeeming his beloved street, Delmar Boulevard, it was not so much better off than MLK Drive is now.
Melvin White has Delmar on his mind.
To accomplish a similar urban revival, Beloved Streets must generate financial resources. White wants to irrigate the food desert (there is a grant from Wells Fargo to begin that work) with storefront labs that would house hydroponic gardens, which would provide fresh vegetables. He would create a source of attraction and income by establishing an arts district that would celebrate African-American cultural achievements.
He is quite aware of the stigma spread over the neighborhood by crime and of the volatile business of racism. Public relations and reassurances are concerns in his developing strategy.
White’s working drawings are the work of renaissance-man sort — Derek Lauer, a St. Louis architect, musician, composer with a capacity for creating various plans and works of art. He has worked gratis as most of the folks focusing attention on King Drive do. His said his plan to renew the street is built on an analysis he has done of it, which included extensive interviews with local residents and businesspeople, the better to tend the grass at its roots.
“We see the solution in three parts,” he said, “the first requires very little capital. Litter pickup and boarding up buildings are some things we’re considering; food drives have been done, as well.
“We see the neighborhood’s self-esteem as part of the problem. The community is so decayed that they can’t see themselves pulling their way out.” Thus part one addresses basic needs.
The second part takes advantage of the existing built environment — the sorts of architectural stock Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office, advocates saving.
“Buildings are dilapidated," White said. “We want to train the neighborhood folks to be carpenters and construction workers so that they can fix up the existing buildings,” while simultaneously teaching local people marketable skills.
His notion of the hydroponic food production would require space, and he’d put vacant buildings to work as food factories, growing food and growing skills. Lauer envisions a culinary training school for out-of-work men and women in the neighborhood, “and then a café.”
"But Martin Luther King's name makes this work all the more significant. He represents the idea of all of us living and being together, as we should. This work is our opportunity to show the world that we're recovering from Ferguson, that we're addressing racism" -Derek Lauer
Lauer said in the second part of the plan, a legacy park would be constructed at the southwest corner of the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Hamilton Avenue. “It’s dedicated to Dr. King’s ideas, and also provides a community space.” The park would showcase the neighborhood and its history — and provide a naming opportunity for a donor. He hopes that grants from various governmental funding sources will come his way.
The third part of the plan makes parts one and two look simple. It involves getting outside investors —persuading skeptical philanthropists and lenders — to take on the risky business of investing in a project with noteworthy value, but that is otherwise a not-so-sure thing,
Lauer said that the plan cannot be one dimensional. All parts are vital. “You can’t do it through one source alone. And to have a vibrant neighborhood, Lauer continued, “You need a destination location. Between Kienlen Avenue and Goodfellow Boulevard, we want to create an entertainment district like the Delmar Loop. However, this one would be focused on African-American culture. It would showcase St. Louis’ rich heritage of food and music and history, as well.”
“We don’t need much — a little bit of money can go a long way,” Lauer said.
There are other efforts to revitalize the drive underway, some more concrete than others.
The city, besides being a partner with Hamilton Heights, has been joined by student groups from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, which is studying our Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Washington, D.C.’s street named in honor of Dr. King. The John Cook School of Business at Saint Louis University, through its Habitat for Neighborhoods Business Program, and the university's School of Law are working on a mentoring program and legal advice program for north side business people. There also is Melvin White’s Beloved Streets program, and architect Derek Lauer’s thinking associated with it. Harris-Stowe University, a traditionally black institution, is part of the on-going efforts.
The International Institute Saint Louis, working with Washington University's Andrew Raimist, has its eye on the neighborhood as having potential as a landing place for recent immigrants, Raimist said. And then there are the other tremendous and varied programs of Washington University and its Sam Fox School of Art & Design. Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and its adjacent Wellston Loop are close neighbors to the school, a mile or so north of it, and an obvious place for the multi-resourced school to extend its hand and to continue to share its human and economic resources.
Participants in the various planning have documents with varying ideas about what constitutes the focus of development. For this series, we have focused on activity west of Union Boulevard. But east of Union, there are signs of continued vitality and promise, such at the historically black Ville neighborhood, as well as an extremely important institutional neighbor, Rankin Technical College at 4431 Finney Ave.
If you measure the MLK Drive from the river to the county line, it is about eight miles long, and there is plenty to consider along there, good and bad. And for Lauer, the picture is even bigger and includes the King Bridge, which extends the territory to East St. Louis and Illinois.
“We’ve partnered with individuals and groups across the river to make it continuous,” Lauer said.
As for what happened to bring us to the present-day situation on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the last 50 years or so, Lauer, like most of the men and women working to save the drive, has various notions, none absolute.
“I’ve studied it quite a bit,” he says. “The tipping point was the situation at Pruitt-Igoe” and the subsequent exodus from and closing of the project. In the wake of that situation, white people headed west at a gallop.
Lauer understands the fundamental problem, however, and that is racism. “This is hard for me to talk about, but racism does exist here. I know families who had businesses [on what was Easton Avenue] who bailed when the street name was changed to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.
“But Martin Luther King’s name makes this work all the more significant. He represents the idea of all of us living and being together, as we should. This work is our opportunity to show the world that we’re recovering from Ferguson, that we’re addressing racism," he said.
“We’re at a crossroads for St. Louis.”