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MLK Blvd. reflects King’s spirit – and challenges

Two-year-old Jaylene Smith walks with his grandmother down L Street on Monday in the 34th annual March for the Dream from Oak Park Community Center to the state Capitol.
Two-year-old Jaylene Smith walks with his grandmother down L Street on Monday in the 34th annual March for the Dream from Oak Park Community Center to the state Capitol. lsterling@sacbee.com

Sacramento’s 34th annual March For The Dream launched Monday from Oak Park Community Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, as it has for decades. “The name itself reflects the empowerment of the people in taking ownership of their community by naming a street after one of our heroes,” said march organizer Sam Starks. “We didn’t want to leave Oak Park behind.”

But in the 26 years since Sacramento joined more than 100 other cities across America in renaming a street after King, the 2.8-mile boulevard from Broadway on the north to Franklin has come to reflect many of the challenges and changes playing out across inner-city America.

The area around Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has become more economically distressed since 1970.

Shortly before he was murdered in April 1968, King decried how “millions of people in the Negro community” were paid “wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” And that economic gap between white and black has grown in Sacramento and the rest of the state. About 37 percent of residents living around MLK Boulevard and north of Fruitridge Road fell below the poverty line between 2009 and 2013, up from 24 percent in 1970, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.

Roughly 49 percent of families in the neighborhood earned less than $30,000 each year between 2009 and 2013, up from 41 percent in 1970, after adjusting for inflation.

And the number of African Americans living there has fallen sharply as the number of Latinos has risen – a trend that has played out in Richmond, Compton and other low-income inner cities in California. The percentage of the neighborhood’s residents who are black fell from 44 percent in 2009 to 21 percent in 2013; they were largely replaced by Latinos.

MLK Boulevard, once known as Sacramento Boulevard, isn’t a source of pride for many area residents, said Robbin Ware, an Oak Park community activist and president of the Sacramento NAACP from 1997 to 1999. “I used to walk the boulevard, but I don’t any more,” said Ware, who lives a block away from the heart of the boulevard. “MLK Boulevard is a disaster, and to name a street like that after Dr. King is a disgrace – some might say he’s rolling over in his grave,” Ware said. “This street is a nest of trouble loaded with pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, drunks and a large population of mentally ill folk and females sometimes baring their upper and lower bodies.”

As Monday’s marchers walked “the extra mile” down MLK Boulevard on their way to Sacramento City College, they passed a black-and-purple bra in the gutter, a pile of dirty disposable diapers, filthy clothing and a soiled bath mat. Farther south, several mentally ill people pushed shopping carts and talked to themselves. Passers-by could find piles of insulation, carpeting, abandoned sofas, fast food and beer wrappers and a shopping cart filled with discarded shoes and sneakers.

At the bus stop at the intersection with 41st Avenue, Josefina Gallegos and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Evelyn Rivas, grimaced at the festering trash at the corner. “Look,” said Gallegos, a Mexican immigrant who moved into the neighborhood with her granddaughter to save money. “I want it to be clean here, not nasty.” Evelyn added, “My mom didn’t want us to live here, but it’s the only place we could afford.”

According to Charlane Fay Starks, a teacher and wife of Sam Starks, the common perception is that streets named for King in Central Valley towns are violent, crime-riddled and economically distressed. Starks wrote her doctoral thesis at University of the Pacific on the relationship between schools and neighborhoods along such streets. While some communities have tried to change that image through economic development and street beautification, many schools located on MLK streets suffer from “the same conditions of economic neglect, blight and despair.”

In Sacramento, Christian Brothers High School, Oak Ridge Elementary, Father Keith B. Kenny Elementary and St. Hope Academy are all on MLK Boulevard.

“Understanding what it means to work in a school located on a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. street is in itself transforming,” Charlane Starks said. One of the keys to change, she said, is for teachers “to examine their own ideas about the community and school.”

The more teachers know about King’s legacy of social justice and civil rights, the better equipped they and their students are to understand and confront the problems in their neighborhood, she added.

Ware said the city should take responsibility for cleaning up MLK Boulevard.

Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers Jr., whose patrol included the boulevard from 1987 to 1990, said it was worse then. “You had a lot of open-air drug-dealing, prostitution and blight,” he said. “Crimes of violence have diminished.”

Now you have a lot of home ownership, and the new owners are renovating,” Somers said. “It’s moving in the right direction, and more businesses along the boulevard will make it better.”

Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, said he and his wife used to volunteer at the Imani Clinic on the boulevard, supervising UC Davis medical students.

“A lot of families are still struggling here,” Bera said as he marched along the boulevard Monday. “You’ve got to rebuild this sense of community by bringing the community together. How do you invest in education, rebuild the middle class and give them a chance?”

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed.

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