Along Martin Luther King is the title of a wonderful book that documents the travels of two reporters along nearly 500 streets around the US named after the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is my first post in a long time and it was this NYTimes article (Boulevard in Newark Runs from Decline to Rebirth) that inspired me.
I used to live in DC and had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in SE where MLK Drive winds through a mix of mostly very low income neighborhoods. I hated the perverse irony that the corner of Good Hope and MLK roads became an unofficial memorial to youth who were killed by violence in the surrounding neighborhoods. These experiences led me to the aforementioned book and to spend time on MLK streets, blvds, and drives in other cities. The situation was always a little different in each city, but they all rhymed with the central theme - fallen from grace.
This former resident of MLK Blvd in Neward describes the transformation that I have only witnessed the last bottom of.
I came across an professor of geography at East Carolina University, Derek H. Alderman, who studies geographies of public memory and commeration. Described as
“I can see Lawyer Tate, Dr. Shelton, Old Lady Ruffin and all the beautiful buildings,” Mrs. Whigham said, ticking off the people who once filled the granite-and-marble Victorians. “It was a gem. For a black family, it was a dream to be living here.”
In the summer of 1967, the Whighams huddled on their rooftop as rioters burned neighboring buildings; then the Whighams helped bury a dozen victims of the violence. In the decades since, they have witnessed the flight of the professional class and the onslaught of drugs and despair, planning countless funerals for teenagers killed by gunfire and young mothers felled by AIDS.
I am interested to learn more about what Alderman's uncovered about these locations serving as arenas for debating King's legacy.
My work recognizes the socially constructed and contested nature of commemorating the past and the importance that space, place, and scale play in the memorialization process. Where a memorial is located is not incidental but actively shapes how people conceptualize and carry out the politics of commemoration and the larger goal of achieving social justice. Much of the work in this area has focused on the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.—examining the role of African Americans in naming streets for the slain civil rights leader, the controversies they face, and the ultimate locations which these named streets occupy. I am particularly interested in understanding how place names serve as arenas for debating the meaning of King’s historical legacy.
Some interesting facts about MLK streets
- At least 730 streets have been named in MLK's honor in 39 states and DC
- Chicago was the first city to name a street in 1968
- 70 percent of places with King streets are in the seven Southern states of Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and North Carolina.
I continue to think that it would be an interesting viral project to engage students to document the residents and business owners along these streets on a shared site. I liked the brevity and simplicity of The Thought Project and you could pair it up with a google maps mashup like Wayfaring.