Near the corner where Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue meets Malcolm X Avenue in Southeast Washington, a local artist has painted a mural of King on the brick wall of a convenience store. The black and white portrait, accompanied by an image of the 1963 March on Washington, shows the civil rights leader looking up toward one of his most famous quotes, delivered the night before his assassination 50 years ago:
“Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”
But the “I Have a Dream” mural, which was commissioned in 2013 at the Mellon Convenience Store, has been marred with graffiti. In black spray paint, someone has tattooed King’s face with a teardrop beneath his left eye and a star beneath his right.
In some ways, the defaced mural captures all the promise and pain of MLK Avenue, which stretches 4.3 miles from Congress Heights to Anacostia, where the street ends near Good Hope Road. It was named for King in 1971 — three years after his murder sparked devastating riots in Washington and other cities across the country.
Most of the District has recovered from 1968’s destruction. But much of MLK Avenue remains plagued by poverty, crime and a hunger for change that many residents say has been too slow to arrive.
“I don’t think King would be happy,” said Cora Masters Barry, the widow of former mayor Marion Barry Jr., who lives five blocks from the avenue. “There is still a lot of poverty and unemployment. The avenue itself does not reflect the progress he would have wanted to see for our people.”
On a Tuesday in March, two police cars rush along the avenue, coming to a halt in front of the King mural.
A 22-year-old man was fatally shot near here in December, just two days before Christmas, and police have charged two people with first-degree murder.
Officers order a group of young men hanging out in front of the store to move along. One shouts, “You can’t make us move!”
Another yells to an officer, “I knew you in high school.”
The young men move down the block, reluctantly. The officers wait in front of the store. Amid the tension, a woman wearing a black bandanna, a backpack and purple lipstick crosses the avenue, heading for the Popeyes. The thick smell of the fried chicken wafts over the street.
Inside, Nakia Carter, 47, orders two chicken breasts. “I grew up right here on MLK. I don’t think anything’s changed,” declares Carter, who says she panhandles by day and at night, “I dance.”
She grabs her order and hurries across MLK Avenue, one of almost 1,000 streets across the country named for King. Some are in tough neighborhoods like this one, but others are thriving, according to Derek H. Alderman, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
In 2007, before the Great Recession, Alderman and other researchers studied businesses across the nation with Martin Luther King addresses, comparing them with those on America’s Main Streets. “They were on par with Main Streets,” Alderman says. “In some cases and in some cities, they were doing better than some Main Streets.”
In Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue is now being targeted by some of the same developers who have transformed other parts of the city. Among the new commercial projects slated for the corridor: a Starbucks, a Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore, a tech incubator and a soon-to-open arena that will provide a basketball home for the Washington Mystics and a practice facility for the Wizards, as well as a venue for concerts, comedy shows, boxing and other events.
Sitting in one of the booths at the Players Lounge, an MLK Avenue landmark, Mary Cuthbert wonders who will be affected by the coming development.
She’s a regular at this former strip club, where the menu includes fried catfish, greens and chitterlings, and the special is smothered chicken, mashed potatoes, string beans and corn bread for $5.99. Behind the bar, someone has taped a bumper sticker that says: “They found something that does the work of 5 men: 1 woman.”
An advisory neighborhood commissioner since 1985, Cuthbert has seen the promise of change come many times. She’s seen how development often leaves some people out. How the assurance of jobs does not quite materialize into actual jobs for the community.
“If you don’t have money,” she says, “they are going to gentrify you out. If you don’t own any property and keep it up, what can you do?
“Affordable. That’s a trigger word. It’s tricky. What may be affordable for you might not be affordable for me.”
Alphonzo Lucas, 68, a chef who volunteers at a group home on the avenue, swings open the chain-link gate that surrounds a rose-colored Victorian house.
Lucas, who says he ran the MLK Deli down the street for more than 25 years, remembers what it looked like on the avenue on April 4, 1968, the night of King’s assassination.
“I came through the city during that time, and all of this was in flames. The CVS, the Mellon store, the cleaners, the Congress Heights theater,” Lucas said. “This used to be a mixed, middle-class neighborhood. It’s not better. As a matter of fact, it’s getting worse.
A block north, past the plastic flowers in planters outside the burned-out “Long-Bros Cleaners,” and across LeBaum Street, stands Floyd Wilson Jr., 64, selling used shoes, purses, blankets and kneeling pads for praying.
Wilson, who lives in a homeless shelter, has set up shop outside the black wrought-iron fence that surrounds St. Elizabeths, a 180-acre campus that was once home to the renowned mental institution and is now slated for mixed-use development. For now, many of the hospital’s historic buildings sit empty, painted with graffiti.
Wilson is selling zebra-striped shoes with red platforms — size 7 — Gucci flats with gold clips and two yellow boxes of “Toasty O’s” whole-grain cereal. On the sidewalk, he has scattered dozens of packages containing purple baby mittens.
“The mittens and cereal are free,” Wilson says. Then he launches into a monologue on King. He doesn’t believe James Earl Ray assassinated King. But he is not quite sure who pulled the trigger.
“Martin died for a cause, they say,” says Wilson, who remembers the pent-up anger unleashed by the assassination. “When they slayed King, people were like, ‘I’m going to burn this down.’ ”
It starts to drizzle. Wilson takes two white poster boards and places them on top of the shoes for sale.
“Things are not better,” he says. “No, things have not gotten better since King died.”
Geneva V. Pernell, sitting on her neighbor’s porch next to MLK Deli, recounts riding home from school and watching the city burn in the days after King’s assassination.
“It was terrible,” says Pernell, 65, who has lived on the avenue for 38 years.
Her neighbor, Adelaide McCoy, 89, agrees that they’ve been through difficult times since then.
“When we moved here, we could leave without locking it up,” McCoy says. “But the street doesn’t make the people. The people make the street.”
She and her husband, who worked as a mail carrier, raised six children here and used to grow tomatoes and greens in the back yard. She loves her house and all the memories it contains, along with the hand-stitched, Queen Anne-style furniture she inherited from her mother. But her address on MLK Avenue is not something that brings her pride.
“Sometimes, I hesitate when people ask, ‘Where do you live?’ I hesitate to say I live here. I won’t deny it, but I hesitate.”
Still, every year in January, the neighborhood celebrates the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday with a parade.
“I ride in the truck from the church,” McCoy says. “We march in silence and hold King’s portrait.”
Two miles up the avenue, and nearly a world away, Maleke Glee, 24, sits in the Turning Natural juice bar and drinks a smoothie.
The management has hung a sign on butcher paper: “Please be responsible for the energy YOU bring into this establishment! We are all connected!” Someone has drawn a big heart with a red pen.
Here at the northern edge of the avenue, where it ends near Good Hope Road, condos are going up. Cranes hang over the Busboys and Poets construction site. People mingle at the Anacostia Arts Center.
White commuters on bikes whiz by a placard plastered to construction-site plywood. One sign says, “A Gentrified DC.” But the sign is peeling. The rain is beating against it and glazing the brick sidewalks not far from Anacostia’s Big Chair landmark.
Cole Leiter, a 27-year-old white man who works in political communications, is walking home from Capitol Hill. He has just crossed the 11th Street Bridge that connects MLK Avenue to the rest of the District. Leiter turns for home as he reaches Good Hope Road. He and his now-wife bought a rowhouse on T Street SE more than two years ago. They moved here from Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant.
“We were looking in an area of the city where we could afford to buy a house,” Leiter says. “And for a community that was really neighborly. It’s been wonderful.”
They bought a redbrick house and painted it gray. “Folks are really nice. It’s obviously an area of the city that has been ignored as it has grown up,” Leiter says. “I think there is a sense of that, and for that reason, people really look out for each other.”
A block away, We Act Radio’s live broadcast spills outside over the sidewalk. Kymone Tecumseh Freeman, founder of “Angry Black Man in Therapy” and co-founder of We Act Radio, calls this section of MLK Avenue “the last black Wall Street.”
“From Congress Heights to here in Anacostia is the highest concentration of black-owned businesses left in the entire city,” Freeman says. “But you would be hard pressed just on our block to find four consecutive black-owned businesses next door to each other,” he says. “And that shouldn’t be. Because this city has no good credit with the black community in terms of mom-and-pop stores and small businesses.”
Freeman’s radio station and organization is working to “remove the equation of displacement from development.”
“Because it is not a natural occurrence. It is a product of policy,” he says. “There is a housing crisis in this city. And we need to approach it as such.”
He advocates property-tax caps and a “community land trust,” he says, so communities east of the Anacostia River don’t fall prey to the market forces that have claimed other parts of the city.
Freeman keeps a black and white mug shot of King — taken in 1956 during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott — in the studio’s window. And a 27-year-old King gazes out on the street that bears his name. The sun has begun to set. The streetlights flicker on, casting a glow on a sign pointing north to Capitol Hill. People are heading home from work, driving in both directions — north over the 11th Street Bridge or south toward Prince George’s County.
This is where Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue begins or ends, depending where you are going, in a city where King’s legacy remains very much alive.