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Finding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

The city's Land Reutilization Authority owns the vacant building at 4553 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Greater Ville.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Bridge at sunrise. Photograph from Wikipedia Commons.

Our city’s enduring legacy to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. consists of the renamed Veterans Memorial Bridge (built 1951, renamed 1968) and the several-miles of combined Franklin and Easton avenues (renamed in 1968). The bridge is ever-functional and well-maintained, but the street honoring America’s greatest twentieth century political leader generally is a poor testament to the man. No matter how many miles of fresh concrete sidewalks and pink granitoid old-fashioned street lights go up on Martin Luther King Drive, the street’s condition generally is depressing, and most of its miles lack even basic beautification measures like street trees. (Of course, that street named for the slave-owning founder Thomas Jefferson is not much better off in many stretches.)

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3850 Martin Luther King, Destroyed by Fire Today

by Michael R. Allen

Here is a photograph from December 2009 showing the two-story commercial building at 3850 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive that was destroyed by fire this afternoon (at left here).  The building and its neighbors dated to the 19th century but were damaged in the tornado of 1927.  After the tornado, the owners rebuilt the front elevations in modern white bakery brick with green glazed brick accents.

Martin Luther King Drive North St. Louis Streets

MLK Clean Up

From State Senator Jeff Smith:

Closer to home, I’m organizing our second annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Cleanup of MLK Jr. Blvd in the city, on Monday, Jan. 19 – the state holiday honoring the civil rights leader. This is a great opportunity to honor the life and memory of Dr. King, and last year, (in spite of the weather), we had a great time doing it. I invite any of you, along with your friends, friends, neighbors and any organizations to which you belong, to meet at the corner of MLK Jr. Boulevard and Union at 12 p.m. on Monday. Gloves, trash bags, donuts, and hot chocolate will be provided!

If you can make it, just call my district aide Johnny Little at (314) 601-4252, or reply to this email (

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MLK in St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

Perhaps my experience of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in St. Louis was epitomized by watching a lone wrecker. The man was palletizing bricks and stoking a bright orange barrel fire fed by millwork and door casements of the building he was wrecking. The cold did not deter his determination to get in a day’s work. The building he was wrecking? A commercial building on Martin Luther King Drive.

The scene was a reminder of some harsh realities of this city. North side laborers, even with skills, are far more likely to find work tearing down their own neighborhoods than rebuilding them. Our city is one of many American cities who renamed a downtrodden thoroughfare for one of the greatest Americans to live, and then did nothing to staunch the decay that dishonors the name on the street. Our city’s leaders, black and white, found time on the holiday to pander and squabble while many citizens were busy earning money for food and shelter.

Further west on the street, past Kingshighway, I encountered the relatively vibrant street culture of the Wellston Loop. People were out walking, traveling from store to store. A barbeque restaurant was crowded, with patron’s cars spread out over an adjacent vacant lot. New sidewalks were in the middle of construction, and several buildings were amid major renovation projects. That’s reality on MLK, too.

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Hope on Martin Luther King Drive

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.

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Charrette on MLK Drive this Saturday

This announcement fell into my inbox:

Help plan for the future of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Ville Neighborhood! Alderman O.L. Shelton, the City of St. Louis and AIA St. Louis are working together to bring together design professionals, developers and neighbors for a charrette to be held at Marshall School, 4342 Aldine, 63113 on Saturday Apr. 22.

Green input and perspectives are welcome! If you’d like to participate, contact Michelle Swatek with AIA St. Louis at or (314) 621-3489.

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Coming Down This Week

by Michael R. Allen

Urban Review St. Louis reports that the Doering Mansion is almost gone. Demolition began last week.

Also nearly gone this week is the art deco Regal Theater on Martin Luther King Boulevard. I have been following the saga there and hope to post more information and photographs on our website soon. In the meantime, the other endangered art deco movie house in town, the

Martin Luther King Drive North St. Louis Streets Urbanism

Old Easton Avenue

by Michael R. Allen

One of the two remaining three-story 19th-century commercial buildings on the south side of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive just west of Jefferson disappeared last week.

We have no photograph of the building. May someone else have a better memory of the building than ours.

Rob Powers did get a photograph of another great commercial building across the street that came down in 2001. The “Heller Co.” sign and its greatly-altered building still remain in use. This block was one of many thriving commercial blocks on the former Easton Avenue; by the 1930s almost every block of Easton from downtown through the Wellston Loop was chock-full of buildings housing apartments, stores and offices. The street must have been fabulously urban.

Today, traces of the past density remain, especially between Grand Avenue and the city limits. But the vitality is less evident, and certainly less concentrated. Enough buildings remain to make the thoroughfare a likely candidate for future revitalization.

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5900 Block of Martin Luther King Boulevard

by Michael R. Allen

South face of the 5900 block of Dr. Martin Lutherk King Drive, 1998. Photograph by Don De Vivo.

Don De Vivo took these photographs of this St. Louis block in 1998, capturing conditions that have only worsened in the course of seven years. This block is part of a long commercial corridor on Martin Luther King Boulevard that straddles the cities of St. Louis and Wellston, an industrial suburb experiencing severe economic depression. De Vivo, a developer and real estate broker who owns six properties on this block, has been working to stabilize the physical conditions here and renovate his buildings since 1986, when he made his first purchase in the Wellston Loop area. Recently, De Vivo and others formed a nonprofit development corporation, the Wellston Loop Community Development Corporation, to jump-start redevelopment of the commercial district on Martin Luther King Boulevard in the Wellston Loop.

Note that the large commercial building seen recently burned in February remains partly standing in October. This building is adjacent to a former branch of the J.C. Penney store, built in 1948 as a rare example of a well-defined International Style building in a neighborhood commercial district. The J.C. Penney store building still stands, although it has been ravaged by years of abandonment.

Photographs from February 2, 1998

Photographs from October 8, 1998