"Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence," says comedian Chris Rock in his live 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain. "Now what's Martin Luther King? A street. And I don't give a fuck where you are in America, if you on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there's some violence going down."

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Later, Rock gives advice to anyone who finds themselves lost on an MLK-named street: "Run! Run! Run!"

Search any sizable town and there's a good chance there's a street named after King. Not all are awful, of course, but Rock's generalization struck a national chord and made the street an emblem of everything gone wrong in America since the aspirational heights of the civil-rights era.

Alderman Sam Moore insists his 3rd Ward doesn't need an outsider like White or BSA to ride in and save the day.
Alderman Sam Moore insists his 3rd Ward doesn't need an outsider like White or BSA to ride in and save the day.

"The reality is that the street runs through some very damaged neighborhoods," says Michael Allen, director of the St. Louis Preservation Research Office.

Chicago was the first city to name a street for King after he was assassinated in 1968, gunned down in a Memphis motel by an escaped Missouri convict named James Earl Ray. It took four years for St. Louis to christen the former Easton Avenue and sections of Franklin Avenue in King's honor, but by the '70s, the golden years of north city were already fading. No longer restricted by racist housing covenants, many well-heeled African American residents moved to the county, leaving historic black neighborhoods like Wellston and the Ville to rising crime and urban blight. The jobs left too. Wellston lost a small-motor factory and a steel foundry back to back in 1982 and 1983.

"From the late '60s into the '90s, St. Louis lost 60,000 or 70,000 of the best industrial jobs, something like two-thirds of the jobs in the city," says Todd Swanstrom, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor who's written extensively on the relationship between urban decline and suburban sprawl.

He notes that during north city's boom in the 1950s, St. Louis' retail corridors — like Easton Avenue — were supporting a population that topped 800,000. Over the next decade the city lost 100,000 residents, and the free fall was on from there. Schools closed in droves; some were bulldozed, others now sit behind fences like massive graffiti-covered tombstones. Since the '60s, neighborhoods along MLK have experienced population loss as high as 40 percent. Malls pulled away the customer base and drove the last nail into the area's economic heart once the 1970s rolled around.

"You see people that are walking the streets every day; they don't have a job to go to," says Oscar Brooks, who has run his resale shop at roughly the same spot on MLK for 23 years. "There's not as much hope as there was."

Industrial towns all over the country suffered varying levels of depopulation, decay and job loss in the latter third of the 20th century, and many Martin Luther King streets, drives and boulevards — more than 700 scattered about the U.S. — are located in some of the hardest-hit parts.

"Growing up in north city St. Louis, you just always assume that this is the life," says Kawana Williams, a volunteer for BSA for the past three years. "Being around Melvin, I came to realize that this doesn't have to be how we live in north St. Louis. Nobody should have to live like this."

Alderman Jeffrey Boyd of the 22nd Ward turns his hulking red pickup truck onto MLK, heading west toward his office just a block west of Beloved Streets of America. He's in a jovial mood, but his smile evaporates as he spots a woman crossing the street about twenty feet away, almost directly in front of the BSA office. She's wearing black track pants and a dark hooded sweatshirt. Her dyed red hair is matted and clumped.

"I have to deal with people like her every day, these prostitutes all up and down Martin Luther King," he grumbles. "Those are just some of the issues we have to deal with."

Boyd has attended a handful of BSA events and meetings in the last two years. But like the other five aldermen who represent portions of MLK Drive, Boyd is uneasy about White's big promises.

"In theory, it's a great concept," he says. "But here's what I said to him some years ago: 'How are you going to do get this done? Where's your strategic plan? You can't just come into a neighborhood and think people will stop their agenda to focus on you.'"

Ward 4 Alderman Sam Moore is even blunter.

"I hear a lot of wind," he says. "We're not sitting here twiddling our thumbs, we're working it as best we can, and we don't need no cavalry to come in and save our souls."

Both Moore and Boyd can rattle off the success stories in their respective wards: Most of the sidewalks in Boyd's ward are now paved, and new street lamps cast light on the handful of businesses still operating there. A city-backed façade renovation project helped further improve the look of the street. The largest recent development in the 22nd Ward is the Arlington Grove housing development on MLK, which took ten years and $34 million to complete. As for Moore's 4th Ward, he spearheaded a massive trash cleanup initiative, reined in the glut of illegal chop shops, repaired buildings that now contain businesses and, most visibly, developed an eight-store strip mall on Whittier Street. Moore's ward office also shares the building with the Greater Ville Neighborhood Preservation Commission.

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