If you live on or near one of the nearly 900 streets in the U.S. named after Martin Luther King, Jr., you’re more likely to be poor, and you’re more likely to be black. And some might argue that your street serves more as a symbol of inequality than of progress made since King’s death.
A photo series from photographer Susan Berger documents life on streets named after King in cities around the country, from New Orleans to Baltimore to Los Angeles.
“I’d choose an airport to fly into, rent a car and drive in a large circle for several weeks,” she says. “I knew I wanted to include the cities important to the Civil Rights Movement–Selma, Birmingham, Atlanta. And I wanted to photograph in the north. I’m from Chicago, and Chicago was the first city to rename a street.”
She started the project after noticing a Martin Luther King Drive in an unexpectedly rural area. “I became curious about the streets renamed to honor Dr. King and wanted to see what they looked like, what life was like there, where they were,” she says.
She says she had no preconceptions or agenda, and the photos show some diversity–in some cities, the streets aren’t as segregated, or are in better condition. But most of the photos show poverty.
A video from Colorlines shows a similar picture of MLK streets across the country:
Some cities are starting to try to improve. In St. Louis, an organization called Beloved Streets of America–launched by a postal worker named Melvin White–is working with architects and urban planners to create a new plan for revitalization. White was inspired to start working on the project after noticing changes on a similar street nearby.
“Just by going a mile away, I happened to look at the sign and say, wow,” he says. “What is this? Why is MLK Street in the condition it’s in? I saw prostitution, I saw abandoned buildings, I just really took a look at it, the way that it was. Why is Martin Luther King Street like this? This was a great man, a hero, and why is he being recognized in this light?”
Along with a firm called Lauer Architecture Progressive Design and the nonprofit Creative Exchange Lab, White hopes to raise funds to redesign Martin Luther King Street in St. Louis, and then help other streets across the country do something similar.
“I want this to be a tourist attraction for all to see,” he says.