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How MLK Boulevards Across the Country Are Inspiring Change

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How MLK Boulevards Across the Country Are Inspiring Change

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A new documentary released last week aims to analyze why so many streets named after the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. have become symbols of blight and inequality.

“Avenues of Dreams: Reclaiming MLK Boulevards” spotlights scholars, business owners, and residents of St. Louis and Baltimore working to restore their neighborhoods in an effort to honor King’s vision of a equitable nation for all.

In the summer of 2020, producer Amber Payne began researching Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards and the black communities in which they were located. His attention quickly shifted to Baltimore and St. Louis.

“It’s a story I’ve been thinking about for years,” said Payne, a former editor at NBCBLK. “So it became a dream of mine to find a way to tell this story.”

Reggie Williams in the ring in a scene from “Avenue of Dreams”.Rayner Ramirez

The film is a collaboration between Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement and cable company Xfinity’s Black Experience. Comcast owns Xfinity and NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.

Black struggles in cities like Baltimore and St. Louis are examined through old abandoned buildings that populate streets named in King’s honor. Poor property conditions reflect systemically racist policies that continue to impede the development of black communities.

Nneka N’namdi, the founder of Fight Blight Bmore, is leading a campaign to revitalize Baltimore’s underdeveloped neighborhoods and address the elements that have led some areas of the city to decline. She points to practices such as redlining and other policies that have created segregation and economic inequality in the city’s black neighborhoods.

In the early 1900s, the city became the first in the nation to implement a housing ordinance to prevent black residents from moving into areas where predominantly white residents lived. The legacy of these covenants and other discriminatory practices has made Baltimore a segregated city to this day, N’namdi says.

Bree Jones in a scene from “Avenue of Dreams”.Rayner Ramirez

The inequality gap between black and white neighborhoods in Baltimore parallels St. Louis. A 2018 report from Washington University in St. Louis found that black people are disproportionately more likely to live in the city of St. Louis, rather than its surrounding suburbs. The report credits exclusionary zoning laws for driving segregation, which still persists and affects employment and life expectancy.

Farrakhan Shegog, president of Young Voices With Action, said the derelict buildings along MLK Drive reflect the flight of white and black residents due to crime and the neighborhoods’ unappealing appearance. His organization trains the next generation of leaders who participate in community activism.

“Buildings like this not only affect the environment, but also people’s mental health and mental abilities,” Shegog says in the documentary. “To see that, you have to look at a summary of North St. Louis over the years – not just the white flight, but the black flight. Blacks also fled the city.

The stigmatization of redlining-era neighborhoods in cities like St. Louis, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Chicago continues around streets named after King, said University of Tennessee geography professor Derek Alderman. . In the film, Alderman says he thinks MLK boulevards “are a litmus test” for where the country accepts economic inequality and systemic racism in black communities.

A scene in St. Louis from “Avenue of Dreams”.Rayner Ramirez

“We’re suggesting that these streets and their communities are somehow not worthy of investment or worthy of infrastructure improvements, not worthy of educational investments,” says Alderman, “and in some ways that’s a perpetuation. Clearly, the stigma of streets named after Dr. King reflects an absolutely rediscovered legacy in redlining.

Anderson adds that while the focus is on honoring King by honoring his memory and his dream, it also broadens the context of how the country takes responsibility for the issues that black Americans face in those neighborhoods or ignore the problems they encounter.

“These street names are not just memorials to remember the past,” he says. “These are memorials with the aim of effecting social change.”

While many neighborhoods reflect America’s segregationist past, there are people working to right the wrong, especially in the two cities featured in the documentary.

In St. Louis, changemakers like Aniya Betts are going door-to-door telling residents how they can access resources like utility bill assistance, rent assistance, and fundraising. warrants. The organization is proposing a $5.4 million mixed-use development project so that the land can be owned by the residents who live there. The efforts of Shegog, Betts and other members of the community are done in hopes of affecting the residents while continuing King’s legacy.

“It’s important for us to incorporate the ideas of the elders into the youth so that those moments don’t get lost in history,” Betts says.

Talking with residents like Betts, Payne said, is what inspired her to tell the stories in her documentary. She said she hopes the film pushes back the narratives and stereotypes that communities of color are not able to pull themselves out of their circumstances.

“These people — young people and old people that we’ve spoken to — aren’t doing this for the press,” Payne said. “They don’t do this for the awards. They’re doing this to save their cities, to save their streets.

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How MLK Boulevards Across the Country Are Inspiring Change

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