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Getting There: Spokane didn’t just follow suit and rename a street for MLK – it built a new one

January 21, 2019

Last month, with little forewarning, Martin Luther King Jr. Way finally opened for its full stretch in Spokane, from Division Street to Trent Avenue.

Years in the making, MLK Way glides by the University District into the East Central neighborhood, a useful connection between the bustling city core and the struggling neighborhood.

With its near-completion – there are still six to eight weeks of work to do in the spring, when the city will close the road to lay the final layer of pavement – Spokane joins the more than 1,000 cities worldwide with a street named after the American civil rights icon.

From Atlanta to Kolkata, India, to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the world is rife with roadways named for King.

The first street to be named for King was in Mainz, Germany, according to National Geographic. Just three weeks after King was killed, the city council in the German town just outside of Frankfurt put his name on a major street two blocks from roads named for Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

The German beginning makes some sense, since King was named for Martin Luther, a German and key figure in the Protestant Reformation. What Germany started, however, became a very American activity. Now, at least 955 streets in the U.S. are named for King, according to data compiled by Derek Alderman, a geography professor at the University of Tennessee.

It took more than 40 years for Memphis – the site of King’s assassination – to rename a street for him.

The street, formerly named Linden Avenue, was one of the last King marched down, leading thousands of demonstrators from Clayborn Temple to City Hall to confront segregationist Mayor Henry Loeb about his efforts to block unionizing sanitation workers. A week later, he was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

The name change, which took place in 2012, was powerful for Memphis, as is every time a street is renamed for King.

“When the name of a place is changed, it’s also a sign of power and influence — it reflects who is in charge and who has made an impression on the culture,” the National Geographic article reads.

That’s not the case in Spokane. No street was renamed here. Instead, the city built a new one.

In 2009, the city submitted an application for the $15 million extension of Riverside Avenue east of downtown, beating a deadline before new environmental regulations took effect that would’ve prohibited the project, which runs as close as 75 feet from the Spokane River.

The Riverside extension, as the project originally was called, started in 2011 and that same year the City Council voted to name the road after King.

“This street is going to go through the heart of Spokane’s education district,” Ivan Bush, a prominent figure in Spokane’s African-American community, said at the time. “That will go well with the principles that Dr. King believed in: Faith, family and education.”

People in the region had been clamoring for a street named for King since at least 1991, when Spokane Mayor Sheri Barnard proposed renaming portions of Market, Greene, Freya, Thor and Ray streets in honor of King. Neighbors protested and Barnard backed off from the proposal.

In 1995, Tony Stewart, a longtime champion of human rights and founder of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, proposed renaming North Idaho’s Rimrock Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. At the time, the Aryan Nations compound still stood on the road, and Stewart’s proposal wasn’t just to honor King, but a way to symbolically punch a Nazi.

Renaming a road isn’t always easy, and at the time Kootenai County required the approval of every affected property owner, racist or otherwise, so Stewart’s proposal went nowhere.

Four years later, in 1999, the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Spokane, filed an application with the city to rename an important corridor through the South Hill after King, which now runs through the heart of the South Perry District.

Mitchell wanted Martin Luther King Jr. Way to begin at Second Avenue and Arthur, continue as the arterial changed to Newark and then Perry to the intersection of Southeast Boulevard. His church sat in the middle of that stretch, and still does.

“I think this is a good time for Spokane to speak out: ‘Yes, we do embrace diversity,’ ” Mitchell said at the time.

This was a decade before transformation of South Perry really kicked in, and the business owners pushed back. The South Perry Business Association said the street name change would be counterproductive since they are trying to take advantage of the historic character of the area – a history that went back to the 1890s, as they saw it, but didn’t include King.

“It’s already hard enough to find this spot,” said Jim Alice, co-owner of Liberty Park Florist and Greenhouse. “The area is financially fragile anyway.”

Mitchell withdrew his application, saying he wanted to work with residents and business people in the neighborhood before moving ahead.

Twelve years passed before the City Council approved the name Martin Luther King Jr. Way for that road that exists today. The city built a street where none was before, so it didn’t have to seek approval from neighbors or business owners. One end of the road is downtown. The other lies in the East Central neighborhood – a neighborhood that has a long association with Spokane’s black community.

Though it was the historically racist redlining policies that limited choices for African-American homebuyers to East Central, today the east Spokane community embraces its identity. The Carl Maxey Center – a community center devoted to Spokane’s African-American people, and named after a leader of the local civil rights movement – is in the midst of being developed on Fifth Avenue.

And the pedestrian bridge that goes over MLK Way in the University District has the officially uninspired name of the Gateway Bridge. When the city was soliciting names for it, some called it the Maxey Bridge.

But as the proliferation of MLK Ways around the world attest, names change.

MLK march closes downtown streets today

From 1 to 2 p.m. today, the MLK Unity March will parade through downtown Spokane.

The march route will go along Spokane Falls Boulevard from the Convention Center to Bernard Street, Bernard from Spokane Falls to Riverside Avenue, Riverside to Washington Street, Washington to Spokane Falls Boulevard and back to the Convention Center.

Avista work impacts Francis and Indian Trail

Avista is replacing a large pole on the island at the intersection of Francis Avenue and Indian Trail Road. Both directions of traffic on Francis will be routed to the south side of the street. The lanes will be closed from 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17 to 7 a.m. Friday, Jan. 18. The traffic signals will flash red during this work.

Hamilton ramp still partly closed

Work by the state to repair the Hamilton overpass continues, with the ramp from Hamilton to Second remaining closed unitl Jan. 25, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. The $1.43 million project is repairing the decks on I-90, the westbound ramp and state Highway 290.

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