A few years ago, comedian Chris Rock’s biting wisecrack on the common denominator that weaving through nearly every Martin Luther King Boulevard in the country was met with thunderous applause and hearty (but guilty) laughter — because we know what he said was right on point:
“You know what’s so sad,” Rock began, “Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what’s ‘Martin Luther King?’ A street. And I don’t give a f— where you are in America, if you are on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.
“It aint’ the safest place to be. You can’t call someone and tell them: “I’m lost on MLK Blvd,” Chris Rock continued on with the joke that wasn’t really a joke.
Chris Rock then says the person on the other end of the line would then scream frantically to the person lost on MLK Blvd, “Run! Run! RUN!!!”
“Sad, sad, sad,” the comedian added as he shook his head.
For Rock, a beloved political and cultural humorist, to deliver that famous line was like driving a blunt needle through black American’s hearts. What he said was funny but it was embarrassing to acknowledge the truth of his words.
In most cities in America, including the city of Atlanta, the street named after one of the world’s greatest advocates for nonviolence is full of violence, echoes of impoverishment and pollutes its cities with urban blight.
Even though the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a main artery of the city that cuts through or runs by several iconic edifices – such as the Georgia state Capitol, the Georgia Dome and the historic Atlanta University Center that includes Morehouse and Spelman College — much of the 12 miles of Martin Luther King street is littered with abandoned buildings, broken down cars, unkempt yards, liquor stores and other symbols of impoverishment and disenfranchisement.
In the birthplace and bedrock of the Civil Rights Movement, city leaders acknowledge this wholeheartedly.
That’s why Mayor Kasim Reed proclaimed during the annual King Day Ecumenical Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church , Reed that he was going to make vast improvements to the street.
“We need to make Martin Luther King Jr. Drive one of the most attractive streets in America,” Reed said. “We all travel a good bit. If you want to go to a bad neighborhood, ask where M.L. King Jr. Drive is. I mean, almost every city that has a M.L. King Jr. Drive is challenged. And I think that we owe it to Atlanta to make sure that the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in our city is best in class.”
In showing off the 16-page planning document and the renderings that flanked the mayor at his latest press conference, the mayor has illuminated that plans are already making community rounds for neighborhood approval. They include new bike lanes, waterfalls, and green median space in the middle of the road.
In the post civil rights era, the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has been pummeled with vandalism, gross neglect, illegal dumping and graffiti. Reed and city leaders want to make MLK more safe, desirasble and more friendly to pedestrians, including adding a shared-use pedestrian-bicycle path. Demolition is now slated for mid-summer of this year instead of the spring of 2016. The street improvement project also will be moved up to start later in 2015 instead of 2016.
Atlanta officials have begun efforts to pitch residents living in the city’s western neighborhoods on more than seven miles of roadside renovations along Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Under the guise of “Martin Luther King Jr. Grand Boulevard Concept,” which begins at Northside Drive and ends at Fulton Industrial Boulevard, city officials sought input that could impact a final plan presented to Atlanta City Council.
At a neighborhood meeting, residents listed off the problems that plague the once-proud street:
- speeding cars;
- narrow sidewalks that draw strangers too close together, especially at night;
- many places alongside the MLK corridor where no sidewalks existed.
- The dangerous crossings. “At Fairburn [Road] and MLK, I will do anything to not have to cross there,” said one homeowner.
- Another homeowner said: “We talk about beautification, but yet the homeowners might need assistance to do some exterior beautification for their homes.”
Council approved the MLK Jr. Drive plan, but then again, how could anyone say no? According to Councilman Kwanza Hall, the MLK corridor cuts through four of the councilperson’s districts, so it is in their mutual best interest to support the facelift and beautification of MLK Drive.
After easily galvanizing city leaders and resident support, the short-term projects like center medians and landscaping could reportedly be completed by the year 2017.
Other more complex or comprehensive projects, such as streetlights, bicycle lanes, and planted medians would require closer to five years to finish, according to city officials.
But according to city leaders like C.T. Martin, this move to beautify MLK Drive couldn’t begin too soon.