Give yourself plenty of time to see the uneasiest street in America.
You can take pictures next to cars with trash bags for windows or near pit bulls guarding women twisting braids in their front yards. You can catch black vendors outside the Apollo Theatre hissing “devil” at tourists or spend an afternoon with a man named Dawg clutching a fistful of crack.
In Portland and Harlem and points between, go find a street named Martin Luther King.
I know you’ve been told to avoid it. Chris Rock even has a joke that essentially goes:
“If a friend calls you and says ‘I’m lost. I’m on Martin Luther King Boulevard’ and they want to know what to do, the best response is, ‘Run!’ “
Well, I’ve toured them, and I’ve had to run only a couple of times.
St. Louis has the most rundown MLK with its broken, red brick townhouses and an endless streetscape of wrecking-ball rot. Utah’s (for me at least) was the least friendly: At midday I was chased to my car by residents of an apartment complex while the manager looked on. Washington, D.C., has the most tragic MLK, which is lined with T-shirt memorials to young people who’ve been killed.
More than 700 streets are named in memory of the great civil rights leader, who was slain by an assassin’s bullets 37 years ago Monday. But why is it that these roads honoring this nation’s answer to Gandhi get largely confined to menacing and mostly black neighborhoods? (There are a few, like the one in Berkeley, that aren’t.)
Look at how lifeless it is around here, Paul Johnson tells me, surveying the MLK street in Little Rock, Ark., from behind his old lawn mower. He’s looking for yard work just blocks from where nine black teens famously desegregated Central High School in the 1950s. Now the neighborhood is mostly black. Houses with broken windows dot the street.
Does Johnson think this is a good memorial to King? “They ain’t never gonna put it where you’d like to see it,” he says behind a wry smile. “You know, in a flourishing neighborhood.”