For Jack and "Babe," lifelong friends and partners in poverty, most days start alike: looking for work and comfort along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue's strip of crumbling storefronts and junk-littered lots.

On a good day, the men make folding money for their habitually empty pockets. On a bad day, King Avenue is simply the fastest route to Anacostia Liquors and the distilled consolation of a $4 fifth of Odessa vodka.

"I think it's a shame," said Jack, a life-worn man of 45, as he turned copper-colored eyes on to the emptiness of King Avenue. "If Dr. King could see this, it would hurt him." And swallowing a gulp of vodka, he hissed, "He didn't die for this."

For more than three miles, the avenue renamed in 1971 for the slain civil rights leader winds through the heart of Anacostia in predominantly black Southeast Washington. Along its length, faces and facades tell a story of the hope that King's life engendered and the despair and fear left in the wake of his death in 1968.

King Avenue is home for 14-year-old Joann Williams and her brother, Lionel, 12, who say that when they grow up they want to watch their children skipping rope and playing ball as they do on the street they love.

On Tuesday, Joann will be a pompon girl in the seventh annual Ward 8 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, a part of the District's city-wide celebration of King's birth. Yet King Avenue, says an excited Joann, is simply the name of her street.

"It doesn't make me think about him, but if we didn't have anybody like him we wouldn't have anybody to talk about in school," she said.

The avenue, much like the man it was named for, represents many things to many people depending on perspective and vantage point.

Albert R. Hopkins Jr., who heads the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., said he sees promise and growth spiraling out from planned Metrorail stops in the area. Seventh Police District Sgt. Gary Nelson sees street crime lurking in the night shadows of the avenue and its environs, and people who live only for "drugs and liquor, dancing and making babies," he said.

As this week's celebration of King's birth begins, some, especially older Anacostians, say the avenue is a constant reminder of the legacy of his life. Others talk of the progress that never fully materialized, stalled by the inflation of the 1970s and the conservatism of the '80s.

Storefront churches with hand-painted signs stand next door to abandoned shops and nightclubs with broken windows and padlocked front doors. Grocery stores and greasy spoons abound. The avenue grows more affluent, however, as it stretches beyond St. Elizabeths Hospital, with new town houses and well-kept older homes.

Originally called Asylum Road because it bisected St. Elizabeths Hospital, the route was renamed Nichols Avenue in 1872 after Charles Henry Nichols, an early superintendent of the hospital who historians say owned land in the area worked by slaves.

But giving King's name to the dying commerial strip was not enough to halt its downward socioeconomic slide.

"I wanted to teach these youngsters that they could be something," said Edward L. Stephens, a retired federal government photographer. "I wanted to teach them photography. But I couldn't get any money to set up a shop . No loans out here."

Stephens, 64, operates a ramshackle, money-losing game room called Pop's Playland and Video Arcade at Good Hope Road and King Avenue SE. Convinced that the area is still in deep decline, he says he is like most of the area's other people who "struggle to survive."

Edward Marvin, a furniture salesman, said he measures the avenue's hard times by the dwindling number of customers in his store. Located near the area's landmark 20-foot-tall chair, the store was downtown until it was burned the night of King's assassination.

Marvin said most of his customers are on public assistance and simply cannot afford furniture.

"That's just the life of Southeast," said Jack, who gave only his first name, as he passed "Babe" the vodka bottle. "These are hell-and-high-water times. There's drugs and stuff out here. Crime. No work."

"Things seem to be going backward," said Maurice Reveley, 46, owner of Jiffy Car Wash, across the street from St. Elizabeths. "It looks like ever since Martin Luther King got killed, things are getting like they were before the '60s.

William F. Magruder, owner of Magruder Funeral Home on King Avenue, maintains that the civil rights leader broadened opportunities for blacks, and that evidence can be seen even on King Avenue.

"What you have to say about King is that he opened doors that weren't opened," said Magruder. "Through him and Supreme Court action, you're finally getting a chance to get white jobs."

At the southern end of King Avenue, where Union forces at Fort Carroll once stood guard over the capital of a divided nation, Boley Zywusko said he believes prosperity may yet come to the area. Zywusko, one of the white merchants in the area, has operated his Fort Carroll Delicatessen and Grocery for 16 years and believes the city chose just the right street to name for King.

"Dr. King stood for justice for all," he says. "I think the future is very bright out here."