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Monday
Apr232012

The Tragic Irony of our MLK Boulevards

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master at using streets and public space. However, his memory has been assigned to rather unfortunate thoroughfares throughout the country.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of our most important civic leaders. He brought a sense of equality and social justice to the United States at a time where we had strayed far from such inalienable rights. His legacy, in terms of how we build our neighborhoods, was that of a public figure who used public space to great effect. Whether it was his speech on the Washington Mall or marches down main streets, he had a profound ability to leverage the figurative and literal hearts of our towns and cities to enable a common dialogue for greater good. 

At any other time in our species’ built history, we would honor such a person in careful dedication of public space and monuments in memorable places within the towns and cities that he inspired. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln been given grand monuments while others such get plazas and parks named in their honor. Universities name buildings after their founders, gracious donors and alumni.

It is with great irony, then, that he is celebrated through the very types of "public space" that denigrate our towns and completely disassemble the public rostrum that was critical to his success. Specifically, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevards across our country are, almost without exception (Cleveland’s example is a possible exception), the most dire, uninspiring, and ruthless examples of American-born infrastructure. Sadly, we have chosen to honor his memory on the arterials and highways that ripped through urban renewal districts and acted as the spigot for white flight out of our cities. Highways such as these have become simultaneously given this great man's name and symbolic of the division he fought against.

These “boulevards” that spurred our nation’s post war development patterns prohibit Mr. King-esque use of public space. Whereas our streets’ once allowed multiple forms of mobility, retail, living, festivals, and, yes, public demonstrations, planning theory in the past sixty years has dedicated itself to focusing only on moving the automobile. We used to design our streets like Swiss Army Knives with multiple tools. Now we simply create lame butter knives. The effects of such an effort have become clear and no person, great or not, deserves to have their name ceremoniously attached to such memorial highways.

I am just guessing, but if Mr. King were still around and could have a hand in designing our streets, and more broadly speaking, our entire civic realm, he would do so in a manner that put communities and people first. He likely would not resort to the same automobile protectionism that has prevailed in the time since his death. His focus, instead, would be creating a built environment that allowed for coming together, making connections, engaging in public debate, and working together to create a more promising future. 

So what would these streets look like? They would likely be straight-forward examples of just plain good streets: broad sidewalks; tree planting on regular intervals; tamed throughways that allow movement of goods and people at a speed that is moderate and safe; and multi-storied buildings that allow residents and works to look down on the street and passively police it or activate it. Very simple, economical stuff. We’ve been doing it, until recently, for centuries. Streets were once the centerpiece of public American life and since the sixties have become perfunctory ways to get through a place as quickly as possible via car. They are undemocratic and uneconomical. They are vigorously un-American.

Last week, the city of Memphis finally got around to relocating its MLK memorial highway stretch from a piece of its interstate beltway to a five-mile stretch of its own Linden Avenue, alongside FedEX Arena. Even in Memphis, where Mr. King played such a prominent role, the city does not seem to have the ability to find or create a street within city limits that gives the man his due. They have, instead settled on a five-lane arterial road that could be anywhere on the planet. It is exactly the type of place that King nor any other human would feel comfortable walking, let alone engaging in public discourse. Roads such as these divide rather than unite us. They impoverish rather than enrich. They simply are not good enough to honor those who have sacrificed so much. We can do better.

A memorial street done right: Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia

If you know of any great examples of ceremonial streets or spaces, in particular MLK Boulevards, please share!

 A quick Google Image survey of MLK thoroughfares from around the country

 

Examples of what are or could be great candidate streets for remembering someone

 

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