David Cook: Will MLK return?

David Cook: Will MLK return?

March 13th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

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?