By Fred B. Shoken
8:00 AM EST, January 13, 2013
Comedian Chris Rock has observed that Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence, but now "Martin Luther King" is a street — and if you're on Martin Luther King Boulevard anywhere in America, violence is taking place.
I believe that Baltimore's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is less violent than many other similarly named streets in America. As a relatively new road (dating from 1982), there are few buildings fronting the boulevard. The roadway, which hugs the western edge of downtown, doesn't run through a particular neighborhood. Instead, it borders established historic districts such as Ridgely's Delight and Seton Hill, redeveloped neighborhoods such as Heritage Crossing, and major employment centers including the University of Maryland campus and biopark, Social Security building, and state office complex.
But is a drab, six-lane road primarily used by commuters to bypass downtown traffic a fitting tribute to Martin Luther King? The only time it is truly linked to the man himself is on the third Monday of January, when an MLK birthday parade is held in his honor.
This year, on Aug. 28, Baltimore and the nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's preeminent speech, "I Have a Dream." To mark the event, Baltimore should refurbish Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to highlight this speech and the values held by King.
My proposal includes the following components: 1) banners illustrating phrases from the speech should be hung from street lights along the 2.3 mile boulevard; 2) a Dr. King Park should be created along both sides of the boulevard between Franklin and Mulberry streets; 3) bold graphics stating "I Have a Dream" and "Let Freedom Ring" — two major themes of the speech — should be installed on the U.S. 40 overpass of the boulevard; and 4) a landscaped bike/walking trail should replace the broken-up brick sidewalk along the western edge of the boulevard and connect to the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail, Orchard Street Church historic landmark and other nearby trails and historic sites.
This project should include input from a wide group of participants in order to create a fitting tribute to King. Baltimore City Schools should become involved by having schoolchildren create the artwork for the banners to be hung along the boulevard. This could be done in conjunction with local art institutions. The Morgan State University School of Architecture and Planning could sponsor a citywide charrette on the design of the Dr. King Park, with the input from citizens, King scholars, historians, nearby property owners and residents and other stakeholders. Local businesses and corporations could help fund the creation of the park.
While the Dr. King Park would be a physical space, it should also exist in cyberspace, including high-tech methods to read about, listen to and visualize the themes of Dr. King's speech. Visitors to the park could utilize smartphones, tablets and other gadgets to download information about Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggles of his era.
The purpose of the bike/walking trail would be to make the boulevard more accessible to city residents and visitors. Today MLK is a barrier between neighborhoods and downtown, a contradiction to the unifying spirit embodied by its namesake. The trail would encourage its use as a place for people to come together.
Baltimore has three monuments in honor of Christopher Columbus. A statue of Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, graces Mount Vernon Place. Confederate Civil War monuments in Baltimore outnumber Union Civil War monuments three to one.
Isn't it time for the city to remember Martin Luther King in a more meaningful manner than a bunch of street signs on a nondescript, downtown bypass route?
Fred Shoken is a local historian and historic preservation specialist. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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