published Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

David Cook: Will MLK return?

Why is M.L. King Boulevard — a road with deep history and spirit, in the heart of downtown, near a university, in a city repeatedly named one of the best places to live in America — so terribly empty and depressed?

Tuesday. Lunchtime. The street (not counting white-owned Champy's fried chicken joint, which is always packed) was nearly empty. Boarded-up buildings. For-sale signs. Empty lots.

Wasn't long ago that Main Street looked the same way. Now, people say it's the hippest place in town.

Wasn't long ago that the North Shore was forgotten. Now, it's known throughout the South.

(And Glass Street?)

So why is M.L. King Boulevard so forgotten?

Is there — still — too much subconscious resistance to an urban street named after a black American leader?

If the street was returned to its original, less civil rights-ish name — Ninth Street — would the investments then pour in?

Long ago, the street — nicknamed the "Big Nine'' — was full of life. Bessie Smith singing. In the '50s and '60s: movie theaters, restaurants, housing, clubs.

The Martin Hotel, considered one of the finest in the South.

"It was really an upper-class [area] for black people," one woman said back in 2000.

In the 1950s, the road changed to a one-way street, a post-war gesture devastating to local economies and symbolic of shifting racial dynamics across the country: white flight out of the city, very little coming in.

In the 1980s, folks fought to change the name from Ninth Street to M.L. King Boulevard. White leaders voted it down. Developers reconsidered their plans.

And when the street name was finally changed, one downtown hotel changed the way it listed its address: from E. Ninth to Broad Street, according to newspaper archives.

In 2003, the boulevard returned to a two-way flow of traffic, which leaders hoped would bring back life.

"M.L. King can become one of the most vibrant and important streets in our community,'' Mayor Bob Corker said at the time.

Ten years have gone by. So little to show. On a street near a university in the heart of a city known across the country.

Sure, there have been investments in the past. Like the nearly $900,000 given to the now-defunct Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce that produced so very little.

(Next month, three of the boulevard's foreclosed properties — barely 100 steps from Champy's — will be auctioned off.)

Nearby, the Renaissance Square development — $3 million in public and private funding, with plenty of tax incentives -- still sits mostly empty.

So, what is the future of M.L. King Boulevard? What is the just vision for that street?

Perhaps the answer is in the street itself.

Dr. King, when all else was said and done, believed in people. Human rights. Life, to be respected and well-lived.

Yet all across America, cities and towns have renamed streets after the civil rights leader, ironically making his most-well known legacy a traffic one. Dr. King, most remembered while driving through intersections.

And the geography of the boulevard today is hardly respective of the democratic vision of life King spoke of. I've been to the mountaintop ... and seen four lanes of traffic and boarded-up buildings?

So, get rid of the cars.

Turn M.L. King into a car-less, pedestrian-friendly zone. Five or six blocks, coming out of downtown, reserved only for all the good and grand things that have, for centuries, emerged when people interact, eat, shop and live together.

A car-less M.L. King would slow things down. Open up something that's hard to find in places with red lights and four lanes.

All across America, people would hear about it. The car-less street in the heart of downtown near a university.

If the place was hopping decades ago, why can it not happen again today? Or is the street, like its namesake, to remain just a memory?

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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nucanuck said...

Opinions aren't worth much, but mine is that the re-development by committee approach usually involves other people's money and is based on weak ideas. That is the recent history of this high potential zone. We have not yet had a visionary with a plan that could create synergy. That time will come because the area is perfectly located for success.

The name designation, MLK, makes little difference to most Americans except maybe the hard core haters and a few of the old guard.

Much of Chattanooga's inner city had fallen vacant and/or deteriorated by 1975 and it takes decades to put all the pieces back together again. Piece by piece, block by block, that has been happening and should continue.

MLK Boulevard's day will come.

March 13, 2013 at 1:42 a.m.
jesse said...

E.9th st. rocked in the 60's and 70's! Night clubs, Pete's Casaloma B B Q,old Plantation, Sam Pettyjohn was the Mayor of 9th st. Then they renamed it and made it one way and it's been down hill since!Seem to me something modeled after Beale St. in Memphis would work!

March 13, 2013 at 1:11 p.m.
AndrewLohr said...

Under one-way it was still lively, at least Saturday nights. Two-way was a waste of 2 million bucks: not the disaster I feared, but a waste. (My traffic engineer brother also opposed it.) A waste, imposed against the popular will--Mayor Corker ducked a vote--and supported by one lie I clearly remember, the claim that one-way kept little cross streets busy: they were dead as a doornail. It's still a street: use it as one, though maybe turn some unused buildings into parking lots.

March 14, 2013 at 12:20 a.m.
conservative said...

David Cook: Will MLK return?

We don't know for sure if he will return with Jesus when Jesus comes to set up his kingdom but I hope so.

March 14, 2013 at 12:49 p.m.
Easy123 said...

And the unicorns and fairies too? Maybe Zeus and all his compadres will come back as well, right, conservative?

March 14, 2013 at 1:07 p.m.
jesse said...

They need to rename it what it is"E,9 th st."!

Get it back to what it was!

The bottom line is they fixed something that wasn't broke and ruined it! Just about the time we were gittin over segregation and startin to mingle they polarized E.9th. and renamed it M.L.K. Blvd.!

now the only time we mingle is during the STRUT!

Makin it 6 blocks pedestrian only will finish it off for sure!

March 14, 2013 at 3:28 p.m.
gjuster said...

Main St and the North Shore prospered because the people invested themselves there. Money and hope just won't do it.

March 16, 2013 at 6:02 p.m.
Lr103 said...

jesse, 9Th Street, or The Nine, was dying long before the area was renamed M.L.K. One of the reasons for renaming the area M.L.K. was an attempt to breathe life back to the area. That's why it's important to not overly sensationalize an area with the word crime ridden. Once that label is used over and over again, be it a city, town or a street, the negative image sticks, and the area will certainly die.

March 16, 2013 at 7:57 p.m.
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