"The whole time I thought, 'There's something else I could be doing. I don't want to do this the rest of my life,'" he says.

He found that purpose staring him right in the face in 2004, when he drove through the Delmar Loop and noticed the booming development there. It was a stark contrast to MLK Drive just a mile and a half away.

"It just hit me so hard," he says. "'It just don't make no sense, man.' That was just going through my mind. It can't be like this."

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

White began visiting MLK streets on his vacations and kept seeing a lot of the same: streets lacking community-supporting businesses, burdened with vagrancy, crime and abandonment, along with infrastructure desperately in need of renewal. Still, none of the videos seems to show a street that can match St. Louis' rundown MLK.

It took five years before White registered Beloved Streets of America as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2009, a delay he chalks up to the fact that he barely understood the concept of a nonprofit in 2004.

"But I wasn't going to stop," he says. "I was just going to keep pushing until doors opened."

White, it can safely be said, is obsessed with this project. He works the graveyard shift at the post office, manually sorting mail from eight o'clock at night until five in the morning. Then he comes home, gets a handful of hours of sleep and goes back to work on MLK. Much of BSA's initial budget came out of his own pocket, and he is stretched pretty thin. He says he recently moved out of a home and in with a friend to save on rent. It's difficult to get him to talk about why he's so single-minded about this project.

"If I don't do it, then I can't see anyone else doing it," he says succinctly.

These days the work involves rustling up connections with groups like YouthBuild, researching vacant properties for future projects, putting out feelers to the existing nonprofits in the area and courting colleges like Harris-Stowe and Washington University. He still wants to work with the aldermen, and he says the May 20 meeting will happen.

Meanwhile, the three-week deadline to break ground on Legacy Park comes and goes without a shovel going into the ground.

"I'm not trying to take nothing from anybody — I just want it to be done," says White. "Sam Moore, Jeffery Boyd, if you got some plans, come on in, let's bring it together! You can't be fixing up your little part and thinking it's going to solve the problem, because you step outside that and it's back into deprivation."

Evans Avenue is just two blocks south of MLK Drive. A beige Cadillac is parked in front of a handsome two-family brick house. The brick face is painted white, and the windows are accented with decorative arches. This is where Dennis Warfield lives, in the last habitable house on the entire block. Only three others houses are left, and all are condemned. One of them is missing its entire roof and back wall. Passersby can peer into the second-floor rooms like a dollhouse.

"Everybody else is gone," says the 70-year-old retired machinist and widower. "When I was first here, there was a house here, house there, school across the street, all the houses were occupied."

So little remains of those days. The Thomas F. Riddick School was bulldozed in 1993, leaving an enormous empty field across the street. The nearby ice-cream shop he took his kids to closed down soon after. But Warfield says he's been in this spot since 1983 and doesn't want to move.

"I've thought about it," he admits. "But the house is paid for, and I can't see paying rent when I can stay here."

Venture down the drive, and the struggle of the residents is evident, as is their desire for MLK to improve. On one afternoon this spring a woman (who declined to give her name) wearing faded blue coveralls leans against the pink-and-yellow-painted wall of Dr. King Chop Suey on MLK and Semple Avenue. Large sunglasses cover most of her face, and her right earlobe is a ragged fleshy mess, as if someone ripped an earring clean out some years ago.

"People get by however they can," she says in croaking voice. "This place deserves help."

But there's also a fair amount of ambivalence. Farther west, an old man named Paul with a head of curls and high hairline rests his legs on a bench, a tall boy at his feet. He's not terribly interested in grandiose plans for change to the street.

"I don't worry about anything," he says, waving his hand dismissively. "As long as I'm OK, I don't care what they do."

Aaron Morris grew up in the neighborhood in the '80s and '90s. He says he joined the Crips gang at nine years old, proving his courage with petty robberies. His uncle taught him to package rocks of crack cocaine in bottle caps before delivery, and he repped the gang's blue colors with pride while managing to hide that identity — and the occasional assault rifle clip — from his harried mother. He says he witnessed his first murder on the corner of Garfield and Taylor avenues, four blocks north of MLK.

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