Businesses along Martin Luther King Drive. (Photo: Alexis Stevens/astevens@ajc.com)
Photo: Alexis Stevens/astevens@ajc.com
Photo: Alexis Stevens/astevens@ajc.com

Martin Luther King Drive struggles to live up to its name

It’s named for the Atlanta-born face of equality and dignity, but the seven-mile Martin Luther King Jr. Drive does little to honor him or the city.

Anchored by churches, businesses, colleges and homes, MLK Drive offers a glimpse back 70 years and to the beginnings of the civil rights movement. But among the historic sites are empty buildings and vacant lots; eyesores have become the background scenery amidst businesses hoping to thrive, and some fear crime won’t fade away just because the street looks better.

Mayor Kasim Reed first proposed revamping MLK Drive in 2013, and late last week, the City Council approved the first phase of a $6.4 million project for a district desperate for revitalization. But those in the community have major concerns about whether the improvements will be enough to return a sense of pride to MLK Drive.

“It should have been done years ago,” 88-year-old resident J.B. Smith Jr. said.

The lengthy list of plans includes synchronized traffic lights, new sidewalks and a multi-use trail with new landscaping, historic signs, street furniture, upgraded crosswalks, distinctive paving with ADA ramps, public art displays at major intersections, improved medians, new street lighting and a pocket park in the median of the road.

Even though his job is in Alpharetta, Tyrell Hover has lived in a condo off MLK for about four years. He’s within walking distance of restaurants and Upper Cuts, his favorite barber shop. But Hover worries about crime in the area, including car break-ins. The city’s plans can only help, Hover said.

“Anything to better the community,” Hover said. “The immediate area is nice. You’ve got the colleges, some nightlife. It’s a close, tight-knit community.”

For those who don’t live in the area it can be hard to find parking, and visitors to the area park at a Wal-Mart and walk or find other, unsecured lots in the area. Vehicle larceny crimes have increased, but other parts of the city have similar numbers of crimes, according to Atlanta police crime data.

‘Do something about all the shootings’

Early Monday, a man told police he had just left a corner store at MLK and Lynnhurst Drive when he was carjacked at gunpoint, forced to drive the accused robbers for three hours.

Retired English and psychology professor Bobby Howard said crime has to be addressed in addition to MLK Drive improvements. Dilapidated homes in the nearby English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods should be torn down, he said.

“Build it up, but help the people that are hurting,” Howard said. “Then, they need to do something about all of the shootings in this area. It’s a constant.”

While grabbing lunch a few doors down from the barber shop where he works, Jared Allen said the improvements are welcome. But in addition to the money the city is spending, Allen fears the changes will be expensive for property and business owners, too.

Allen’s shop is a few blocks down from the original Paschal’s Restaurant, known for serving up delectable fried chicken and soul food sides. It was also a meeting and dining spot for King and other civil rights leaders. The historic venue closed its doors in 2003, seven years after Clark Atlanta University purchased the property.

Now, Paschal’s operates on Northside Drive. But the original location still stands, unoccupied and rundown, with a vacant overgrown lot next door.

“Something’s going to have to be done with it,” Allen said.

‘Just need to attract more people’

Sprucing up the district would likely draw more tourists, boosting local businesses. That’s exciting to Mario Johnson, who owns Mojo’s Restaurant & Lounge in the same building that housed Frazier’s Cafe Society for more than 30 years.

“A lot of things involving MLK that happened, happened here,” Johnson said.

In 1946, businesswoman Evelyn Jones Frazier founded her eatery, which had a banquet room for meetings in addition to quality service and a sophisticated menu. Johnson’s is the latest business to rent the historic space, and he’s hoping his will become a popular destination. After operating for four years in West End, he moved to MLK Drive about nine months ago. He recently hosted an open mic night that some college students attended.

“We just need to attract more people, not just people in our community,” Johnson said.

Clark Atlanta freshman Jaya Paci and and Terrionia Tilmon walked on a recent Friday afternoon from campus to the Mardi Gras Cafe on MLK. They passed the former Paschal’s on their way back to school, both carrying takeout meals. A black sign with the words “I dream to one day….” spray-painted in white is the only obvious indication that this isn’t just any street downtown. A small garden and more prominent markers would go along way to honoring King, Paci said.

“He did so much for the black community, and the white, to end segregation,” Paci said. “What if he didn’t take that initiative? Where would we be today?”

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