Melvin White wants to fix the nation's Martin Luther King Drives. But can he even fix ours?

Melvin White wants to fix the nation's Martin Luther King Drives. But can he even fix ours?
THEO WELLING

Dressed in an immaculate, trim maroon suit and gleaming purple shoes, Melvin White walks from the offices of Beloved Streets of America — a spiffy corner storefront with a bright green awning — to the dilapidated entrance of an adjacent storefront in the same building. A fit 46-year-old who bears a passing resemblance to actor Idris Elba, White works a key into the stubborn padlock on the gate, an imposing combination of vertical black bars and crisscrossed metal fencing.

"I don't give a fuck where you are in America, if you on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there's some violence going down."

"Here it is," he says as the gate creaks open.

Two women and two men step past him into the sunlit ruin of what used to be a store. White, the president of BSA, is dressed to impress for obvious reasons: His guests are from a powerful nonprofit called YouthBuild, a nationally heralded program backed this year by $73 million in federal funding. They have money, and they have volunteers. White needs both.

As a postal-service worker, Melvin White spent years walking the troubled streets of north St. Louis city, including MLK.
THEO WELLING
As a postal-service worker, Melvin White spent years walking the troubled streets of north St. Louis city, including MLK.
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd says he has done everything he can to help the BSA, but he's skeptical of White's ambitious goals.
THEO WELLING
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd says he has done everything he can to help the BSA, but he's skeptical of White's ambitious goals.

While it's easy for White to clean up for the occasion, the building at 5901 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive was not. The floor has been swept, but it's no pretty picture. The ceiling plaster, once molded in neat square rows, looks positively leprous with water damage. Sections of wall are unfinished or unrepaired, covered in blotches of green paint.

One of the YouthBuild volunteer organizers, a burly man in a red sweatshirt and work boots, stands in the middle of the room and cranes his neck to look at the ceiling.

"Man..." he mutters. "You could spend two years just cleaning this place out."

If the comment bothers White — a full-time postal-service employee for the last seventeen years — he doesn't let it show. He's heard worse.

For the past hour White and architect Derek Lauer, who's serving as a consultant for BSA, have been trying to sell the YouthBuild representatives on a very different vision of the building. Where there are currently warped floorboards, White asks them to imagine the kitchen of a culinary school, where students from the neighborhood will use the lettuce, basil, cilantro, arugula and other fresh vegetables grown in an indoor hydroponic garden to be built in a converted storage shed. Across the street, a vacant lot currently filled with garbage will be transformed into "Legacy Park." White leased the property two years ago from the city's Land Reutilization Authority for $1. Back in March, he announced a three-week time frame to break ground on park. The goal is to have the park open in time for the third annual "Legacy Walk" in August in honor of King and the civil-rights movement.

"The initiative started here in St. Louis. We call it a national MLK street initiative," White told the group earlier that morning. "Over the next five years we plan on going to these different cities and creating job opportunities and bringing businesses back, as well as trying to bring Dr. King's legacy back."

Back out on the street, one of the women shakes White's hand.

"This is exactly the kind of project this place needs," she says.

But they seem to linger, looking at the section of crumbling brick wall and broken glass in the alleyway behind the building.

They can be forgiven for their skepticism. The ghosts of better years inhabit the length of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in north St. Louis city. Down the block from the BSA office looms the modern white-walled J.C. Penney department store, closed and empty since 1976. There are rows of uninhabitable homes, burned and crumbled, with whole walls ripped down by thieves drawn to the valuable clay bricks. Most of the businesses on MLK are salvage yards, resale shops, auto-mechanic garages and combination food mart/gas stations. A few diners, salons and nightclubs are scattered throughout the seven-mile strip, but they are vastly outnumbered by boarded-up and bombed-out-looking former stores. Long sections of sidewalk bulge with weeds.

And if fundamentally changing the social and economic climate of this bleak stretch of St. Louis doesn't seem daunting enough, the full scope of White's vision, the one he dreamed up ten years ago in a spur of righteous indignation, is even crazier: to heal not only St. Louis' MLK, but every MLK street in the country. Nevertheless, his big idea has already attracted national attention — both the Associated Press and MSNBC interviewed him for stories. And on a micro-level, he and a tiny staff of volunteers have begun to make a difference — he's held clothing drives and given out donated food in the empty lot across the street. He even briefly allowed a homeless man to live in one of his buildings.

"I know this has potential to change a lot of people's lives," he says a few minutes after the YouthBuild reps pile into their van and drive away.

He gazes out of the BSA office window across the street at the future Legacy Park. Black-and-white photos of the real Martin Luther King Jr. cover the walls around him.

"These people have had a lot of broken promises," he says. "But I'm going to make it happen."


The whole thing started with a joke.

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