by Michael R. Allen
I spent some of my morning talking with a building owner in the Wellston Loop area. He has big plans for his big building, the former J.C. Penney store at 5930 Martin Luther King Drive. (This is the International style gem designed by William P. McMahon and built in 1948.) He envisions the building as catalyst for rejuvenating the area, and seems optimistic despite acknowledging forty years of neglect of the area and of Martin Luther King Drive in general.
The neglect is formidable. On the drive out to his building from downtown, I passed the sites of a dozen buildings that were demolished within my lifetime and whose details I clearly recall. I passed even more buildings that sit empty, or in use, or in some derelict state between. I passed two buildings with significant recent collapses. I passed one row of flats and a corner commercial building under demolition despite being in good condition. I was overcome with melancholy as I considered that many of these buildings won’t survive my lifetime, or even the next decade, and the fifty-odd blocks of a street that supposedly honors to good work of Dr. King will be virtually unrecognizable to me by middle age, and already is unrecognizable to people old enough to recall its heyday.
Even at the time that Franklin and Easton avenues were renamed for Dr. King in 1972, the conditions of the buildings on the street were not great. At the time, some critics felt that the legacy of Dr. King was diminished by placing his name on a street with a sad future. The sad future is now, and the street name certainly seems cynical.
Hopefully, the J.C. Penney building and others on the street will survive, and find good owners, and provide momentum for development along here. Aldermen O.L. Shelon (4th Ward) and Jeffrey Boyd (22nd Ward, including the Wellston Loop), whose wards include most of the street in the city, are pushing for redevelopment that is architecturally sensitive. They can only do what is politically possible, though, before it is up to the market to generate the capital needed to revive sections of the street. May that time come before all is lost on the great street with a great name.