A Snapshot of History: MLK in Motion

By Alan Silver

Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard is the spine that supports our inner Northeast neighborhoods. What happens on the street affects everyone nearby, and we can track the changes in our community by seeing what people make of the street. Its businesses and sidewalks, road surfaces and atmosphere – we can see who we are, and who we want to be, in what use we make of them.

Living near Alberta Street for some years, I found that as that street’s commercial uses changed rapidly, I was struggling to remember what it looked like before
gentrification swept through, tornado-like. With MLK Boulevard, I wanted to be able to remember what it looked like before its next wave of development made it into something new – so I decided I wanted to create a photo record of what the street looked like. When I learned the story of Erwin Grant – a gentleman who filled a warehouse near Fremont with toxic waste – I decided to dig deeper into the history of the boulevard. My website of photos and stories of the boulevard became a launching point for gaining a better understanding of how people have used the boulevard and its buildings throughout years past.

Strongly-debated aspects of American life have repeatedly filtered down to the boulevard, as people have again and again contested with one another on how their ideals should affect life on the street. Racial aspects of gentrification; a deliberately-set explosion in a building (still standing!) that was serving as a military recruiting center during the Vietnam War; protests in support of, and opposition to, abortion; numerous other issues have been contested on the street. One story, now little-heard, is a city police raid on a porn theater at MLK (then Union Avenue) and Alberta, in 1964. The city vigorously prosecuted this case, filing charges against both the producer and director of the movie being shown. This was a time when cries about the dangers of pornography were running high. Mayor Schrunk wrote a screed in 1962, warning parents that children were never safe in commercial spaces by themselves – porn might lurk behind any sales counter. The city pursued the film’s makers into the 1970s when a court in New York state declined to extradite the filmmakers.

With the World Arts Foundation, I organized a celebration for the 25th anniversary of the boulevard’s name change in 1989. While the conflict over the name change slowed the process, residents of the area led the move to name the street after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Success in place-making such as this is often citizen-led; city-directed place-making often leads to disappointment, as with a Gateway project that fell short of what was promised, and is now sequestered in a little-used concrete plaza.

While I’ve uploaded fewer pictures in the past couple of years to mlkinmotion.wordpress.com, I continue to collect stories of people’s experiences on the street. We create a world in miniature along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

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