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Proud residents near troubled MLK Drive want to 'live like people'

A stretch of Martin Luther King Drive that houses two furniture-and-appliance stores is seen from atop the old J.C. Penney building between Hamilton and Hodiamont avenues.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis used to be a large shopping district in the 1950s and '60s. Now, many buildings are abandoned.

On just about any day, a stream of customers arrives at Jaden’s Diner at 4251 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in The Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis. For people from the neighborhood, and for those from other parts of St. Louis, there’s one big draw.

“We’ve got one of the best soul-food places in St. Louis city,” exclaimed Iris Crawford, a cook at the restaurant.

The restaurant can get crowded, especially on Sundays. That’s when the diner offers a glimpse into the once-bustling community of then-Easton Avenue — decades ago an economic powerhouse. Its glory days are long gone, but proud residents hope improvements will come.

In the 1950s and '60s, the street was once home to big stores like J.C. Penney, Jupiters Clothing and Woolworths. Restaurants lined the street from east to west, and on a typical day, more than 30,000 people arrived through the Wellston Loop streetcar system.

These days, some of those buildings are shells of their former selves. But some area residents remember the thriving communities that existed near the street, back when Martin Luther King Jr. was among the leaders of an emerging movement for a fair society.

Iris Crawford, 47, (right) serves a customer their meal at Jaden's Diner, located off of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
Iris Crawford, 47, (right) serves a customer at Jaden's Diner, located on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.

Charlie Johnson has lived in his Greer Avenue home for more than four decades. He and his late wife, Ozell,  moved into their Greer Avenue home in 1973, when the neighborhood was filled with working people and members of the black middle class. Even baseball players Curt Flood and Bob Gibson would rent homes there, Johnson recalled.

For the last few decades, Johnson has seen the homes on his block move from occupied to vacant. He’s also watched as the problems of  Dr. Martin Luther King Drive — abandoned buildings, drug dealing and violence — spread to surrounding areas.

Still, the former landscaper is proud of his neighborhood. At 90, he mows neighbor's yards and plants flowers along the street, free of charge. His goal is to keep up Greer Avenue, in contrast to the decay he sees blocks away.

“This street here is trying to hold the value of it, because there aren't a lot of houses here that have been torn down,” Johnson said.

Seven of his children and one grandchild live on Greer Avenue. They and other relatives own 17 homes in the neighborhood. They began buying homes there in the 1990s, worried about how the neighborhood was changing. They started with abandoned homes across the street from Johnson.

“One night someone shot up the buildings, and I think that’s when our brother had said, ‘OK, we’ve got to do something,’” said Stacey Johnson, one of Charlie Johnson’s daughters.

The J.C. Penney building, in 1948, on what is now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive
Credit Provided by Andrew Raimist
The J.C. Penney building, in 1948, on what is now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.

Her father wants to make sure his community does not fall to urban decay. That’s why he became the block captain for his street a couple of decades ago, and then helped renovate the roofs of his neighbors’ homes.

"I’ve been all over the county — this block here is as good as some of the blocks out in the county,” Johnson said.

Anyone driving west on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive would leave Johnson’s neighborhood and enter Wellston, where residents also want to see change.

Among them is Helen Jackson, who has called Wellston home for 70 years. But even though Jackson has sadly watched her community decline, she’s optimistic about its future.

“Wellston is a striving city, and I raised all my kids here,” Jackson said. “I'd like to see it come back again.”

From 1900 to 1950, Easton Avenue was one of the busiest streets in St. Louis. On a typical day, more than 30,000 people headed to its vibrant shopping district. The success of retail shops led to a rise in the surrounding residential neighborhoods.

Beginning in the 1950s and '60s, the neighborhoods surrounding Easton Avenue started to change. As the civil rights movement drew national attention to push African-Americans to be full participants in U.S. society, a growing number of black residents moved to northwest St. Louis and Wellston. During the 1970s — for a time — the area became an integrated community.

Charlie Johnson, 90, sits outside his Greer Avenue home.  Johnson moved to Greer Avenue in 1973.
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
Charlie Johnson, 90, sits outside his Greer Avenue home. Johnson moved to Greer Avenue in 1973.

In 1972, as whites were moving to the emerging suburbs, St. Louis Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes formally renamed Easton Avenue to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.

In the following decades, the street renamed to honor King’s dedication to the struggle for equality suffered from vacant properties and crime.

“Martin Luther King from the '70s was a street that was starting to decline,” said Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, a Democrat who represents the 22nd Ward. “So if you’re going to change the name of it, it was probably easier to do back then, because they saw it declining.”  

Wellston also declined. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, its population declined from about 9,000 people in the '50s to about 2,300 residents in 2010.

These days, living near Dr. Martin Luther King Drive can be difficult, especially for people like Barbara Wilson, who has lived in Wellston for 50 years.

At 86, Wilson has made the most out of her situation. But she’d like to see her community have the same services people in other areas have.

“We have to go to the service station to buy food or get in the car and drive two or three miles,” Wilson said. “They can build us a grocery store in Wellston where we can go and get our food and live like people.”

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Follow Ashley on Twitter @areneewinters 

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