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

May 15, 2014 at 4:00 am
Melvin White wants to fix the nation's Martin Luther King Drives. But can he even fix ours?

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, White works a key into the stubborn padlock on the gate, an imposing combination of vertical black bars and crisscrossed metal fencing.

"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.

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.

"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."

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.

"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.

"I have a housing agency," says Moore of the commission. "If there's any grants to be given it goes to them. That's who has exclusive rights to develop in this community, not anyone else."

But the reality is that MLK is still deeply troubled. Last week, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Chief Sam Dotson announced he was designating the Wells Goodfellow neighborhood, in Boyd's 22nd Ward, as a violent crime "hot spot" because of the nine fatal shootings that have occurred there since January. Moore's ward encompasses Kingsway East, where a twenty-year-old was shot in the back with an assault rifle in early April, and Kingsway West, where an eleven-year-old girl was shot during a drive-by intended for her father. Neither crime has been solved.

But aldermen do have reason to be skeptical of outside groups, says Allen. Big promises are easily made in places like north city, and whether it's mega-bucks private developer Paul McKee or an out-and-out con man like Fredrick Douglas Scott, who once promised to revitalize East St. Louis' riverfront, these projects can take a very long time, create lots of controversy and, sometimes, lead to big disappointment.

"They would have to create jobs to succeed," Allen says of BSA. "He would need to focus on job development if he wants to sell housing units, and that's really tricky. Paul McKee is struggling with all the public subsidies known to man, and he's done this before."

White is clearly not popular with the aldermen [Ward 3 alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. angrily vented that White ought to run for office if he wants to do this work], who are the gatekeepers of community influence, city and state funding, and crucial to local cooperation. In late April, White claims there's been a breakthrough: He has managed to arrange a meeting with all six aldermen on May 20 to talk about making BSA's vision a reality. He mentions this repeatedly to nonprofits and potential partners. But when Riverfront Times asks the aldermen about it, they say they have no idea what White is talking about.

"I don't know what more Melvin wants of me," Boyd sighs. "I don't have any funding I can give him. I've done every possible thing that I can."

Moore, who also denies a meeting is set, says exasperatedly that he does not want anything to do with White.

"He can't just come in here and take parcels of land and begin to develop. Everyone wants to come in and save us, but the majority of the people in this community chose me to lead and bring back what we can bring back," says Moore. "Are we not competent or not capable of doing this on our own? Who is Melvin White? Who in the world is Melvin White?"

The grainy pre-digital footage is all shot from a moving car. One clip, called "MLK Street — Miami, FL," pans over a colorful mural of King and zooms out to capture a large empty lot bordering what looks like a crumbling housing development. Another video shot in Houston shows a barren section of a street that suddenly turns upscale, with large houses and well-kept lawns. Washington, D.C., whips by in yet another video called "MLK Street," its old brick buildings looking almost like St. Louis, if not for the healthy crush of people walking around.

These are all clips from White's YouTube channel. He began documenting the look and feel of Martin Luther King streets around the country in 2004. By then Rock's quip about MLK had entered the cultural cache, and the mockery intrigued White. He wanted to know for himself: Could every MLK Street really be falling apart like the one in St. Louis?

"I don't know what came over me," recalls White. "I could see what was happening here in St. Louis, but I wanted to see if it was like this everywhere, like everybody else was saying."

The declining north city of the 1980s served as the backdrop to White's childhood, though according to Maurie White, Melvin's 71-year-old mother, her son did catch the tail end of the neighborhood's heyday.

"We lived off Semple and Wabada, and he was eight or nine before we moved to north county," she says. "The neighborhood was stable then. Wellston was thriving, it was beautiful, and I remember we used to get up on Saturday and I'd get them dressed and we'd spend a whole day down in Wellston, just walk around. It was nice."

When he turned eighteen Maurie gave him a choice: college or military. He chose the latter and spent four years in the Air Force. He returned to St. Louis for good in 1991.

"That was a pivotal point in my life," says White. "When I got out of the military and came back was when the crack epidemic was at a high peak. A lot of my friends had got hooked on drugs, a couple of them had got killed, and you could just see the change in everything."

His mother joined the postal service in 1970, and he followed in her footsteps. He got hired full time in 1996, and actually carried mail in the neighborhoods around MLK for two years. But the job hardly fulfilled his life's ambition.

"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."

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.

"I wasn't a part of the shooting, but they made me watch," he recalls, pointing to the spot where it happened. "They shot him right here."

Morris can see the patterns of his youth repeating themselves in today's north city. Walking down Aldine Avenue, a stronghold of the Bloods back in the day, he stops to watch a group of kids shoot hoops a few blocks away. Three teenagers lounge against the side of a red SUV, watching the game.

"What you see here are cousins trying to have fun and another group of kids watching out and selling dope. That's what's going on. That's the front," Morris says.

He used to work for a city-funded sex-education and STD-awareness program in 2006, where he used his old street connections to arrange gang truces and talent shows. But the funding dried up, and the program shut down in 2011. These are the kind of kids he would have tried to approach and get into the program, but those days are over now.

"That's what killed our community," says Morris. "All of those big brothers who were standing out, turning on the fire hydrants for us when it was too hot. They became lieutenants looking out on the block to make sure the money was coming in."

Jasmin Aber lays her palm atop the seven-inch-tall stack of ring-bound portfolios that she's just thumped onto the surface of a circular conference table in the Creative Exchange Lab in midtown. BSA's Derek Lauer sits to her right with a binder full of laminated printouts. Across the table in a dark sweater vest and button-down shirt, White stares at the glossy cover warily.

"This is the kind of thing we need to do," says Aber, a German-born architect who founded CEL, a nonprofit that supports community development through design and architecture, in 2010.

Aber and Lauer first met at a conference in 2004, and Lauer got BSA and CEL in touch after he agreed to help White design Legacy Park last year. Aber designed the luminescent sculpture on the side of Grand Center, the one that spells "ART." CEL has deep ties to development organizations in St. Louis, private and nonprofit alike, not to mention connections with institutions including Washington University, Harris-Stowe and Saint Louis University. With CEL on board, the BSA suddenly has a vetted, relationship-rich partner on its side.

Aber flips through a few pages with design sketches for an old proposal on the city riverfront. She's trying to teach White about the nitty-gritty of chasing serious funding and how to write a project proposal.

"This is the kind of thing we need to do for a section of the MLK, since these," she taps the top binder's cover, "are not as big as the MLK project we're talking about."

White slides one of the portfolios off the stack.

"And you need all these different proposals?" he asks.

She tells him yes — and that sometimes these types of proposals can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Damn," says White.

Lauer interjects: "You have to go through all this stuff up-front. In the traditional model, you have the city saying, 'We have money, and we're going to do this.' But this is a different situation. There is no client. There is no public project. There is no project!"

Although things seem to be moving in the right direction for Beloved Streets of America, what White really needs right now is a completed project. For all the promising meetings and commitments from other organizations, the only tangible progress White can point to is a list of vacant properties he bought from the city's Land Reutilization Authority, and the clothing and food giveaways. The amount of money White will need — potentially $200 million — sounds absurd.

At the same time, White is plagued by smaller problems, like the fact that BSA does not have a functioning toilet.

"I don't know how they did it," he fumes as he opens the door to the tiny ruined bathroom.

His dress shoes crunch on shattered porcelain, and he points at a ragged hole where his sink used to be. The toilet bowl is filled with grime. Someone broke in and ripped out all the pipes last August. It seems even the people he is trying to help are against him.

"I just don't know what happened," White continues. "There's no way to get in but from the front, so I don't know how they got in here to do it. These people," he shakes his head. "I just don't get it, man. I just don't get it."

More than a month after White's three-week deadline to break ground for the Legacy Park, the vacant lot across the street continues to fester. But he has not backed down from the promise to have something developed on the lot before the upcoming Legacy Walk in August. What he really wants — what he needs to begin making the kind of impact he envisions — is several million dollars.

"Do you know what I could do if I got the opportunity to get $7 million to this organization? Do you know what that could mean?" White says, giddy by the very idea. "Do you know the scope of what I could do to change this? Man. That's all I need, just a little bit of money, and I promise you, I will change this whole place."