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Harvard Design Students and Non-Profit Team Up to Revive MLK Jr. Drives

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New York's 125th Street in Harlem, a stretch of which is named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
New York's 125th Street in Harlem, a stretch of which is named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Post office employee Melvin White sadly wasn't making a unique observation when he came up with the idea for Beloved Streets of America in 2004; while working in north St Louis, where he grew up, he noticed the poor conditions of the city's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, a roadway and community dealing with crime and commercial abandonment that seemed to be the opposite of Dr. King's Dream.

"It just struck me, why is this street like this?" he says. "Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of our greatest heroes. I looked around, and said to a friend of mine that we need to change this."

But unlike many, White decided to do something about it. In the decade since, between traveling to similar King streets across the country, White founded Beloved Streets, a non-profit dedicated to restoring and revitalizing these symbolic roadways, often at the heart of a city's African-American neighborhoods (a 2003 book called them "Black America's Main Street").

A proposed park, designed by Lauer Architecture Progressive Design, Beloved Streets wants to create to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The group has raised awareness and modest funds, and purchased land it hopes to turn into a park honoring King's legacy. Last year, the organization was the focus of a research project from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which will work on devising solutions and strategies for use in St. Louis and elsewhere.

"Our philosophy has been to listen first," says Professor Daniel D'Oca, who lead the class of 13 graduate students. "We just came back from a week in St. Louis and D.C., and we probably met 300 residents and community members."

Daniel D'Oca wanted to do work in St. Louis, and a few associates recommended he contact White. He says that St. Louis is, in many ways, an unfortunate "pioneer" in using some of the racial covenants and zoning practices that can lead to segregation and dis-empower black communities, and in the wake of Ferguson, he felt this was the right place for his graduate students to work.

"Architecture and planning, in some ways, got ourselves into the mess we're in right now," he said. "If you look at why King streets are in the mess they're in, disinvestment, segregation, planning and architecture had a lot to do with that."

St. Louis re-christened and re-named sections of Easton and Franklin avenues in King's honor in 1972, four years after Chicago became the first city in the country to create an honorary street for the civil rights leader. White, who founded the non-profit in 2009, believes focusing on these streets, while symbolic, can become a catalyst for the neighborhood, and has a progressive visions for urban development, including solar power and urban farming, as well as business development. The reality of the challenge is quite daunting, but White feels the organization can help connect those interested in helping, and spur development along this six-mile stretch.

D'Oca's plan is for students to come up with concrete proposals for both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in St. Louis, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Washington, D.C. He doesn't expect them to come up with shovel-ready projects, necessarily, but wants actionable ideas to help the organization.

"We don't pretend we're going to solve these problems," says D'Oca. "In many ways, you can't solve the problems of these streets by just looking at these street. But we hope we can be a link on the chain, and be a part of the long, difficult process of making these streets better monuments to King."

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