Don’t run, walk

Neighborhood activists plan to heal Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the spine of Oak Park

Oak Park activist Brian Fischer stands in front of a lot off Martin Luther King Boulevard that has sat empty and unused for years.

Oak Park activist Brian Fischer stands in front of a lot off Martin Luther King Boulevard that has sat empty and unused for years.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

You know what Chris Rock famously advises for anyone who finds themselves stranded on any street named Martin Luther King Jr. at night: “Run!”

We laugh, nervously, because it’s true. Nationwide and here at home, streets bearing the name of the slain civil-rights leader have become synonymous with criminal activity and poverty, blighted properties and lowered expectations.

In Sacramento, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has suffered 30 years of neglect and has the rap sheet to prove it: Within a half-mile on either side of its intersection with 7th Avenue, between January 1 and February 28 this year, there were 86 felony assaults, weapon offenses, robberies and narcotic busts.

Chain-link fences stretch block after block past empty lots and abandoned buildings, along too-narrow sidewalks, in front of dilapidated storefronts, homes and liquor stores.

But interspersed among the underutilized spaces and eyesores are churches, schools and a community center, and the people inside are taking the first steps to chart a different course for this problematic neighborhood.

Milk and honey
Brian Fischer is a relative newcomer to Oak Park, but he preaches this community’s renewal with a passion generally reserved for residents born and raised. “All the fences keeping people in? Instead, we should have a boulevard that encourages people to come out,” said Fischer. “It’s literally the spine of Oak Park and we need it to be healthy.”

How to heal the boulevard is the subject of a $1 million study just getting underway, thanks to the efforts of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and Fischer’s group, 100 Minds.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Corridor Improvement plan is expected to prioritize projects to be funded over the next 10 years. SHRA has $20 million to fund commercial and business development, infrastructure, housing, and public improvements around Oak Park.

“I see community gardens and public spaces with art—art the kids at the schools create so that in 20 years they can come back and know they were a part of healing MLK” Fischer said, standing at an intersection where all four corner lots are empty.

Added 100 Minds member Ed Chandler: “Our vision of the corridor is one that celebrates the legacy of Dr. King. One that provides safe access for the children using the boulevard to move up and down to the schools.”

Both Fischer and Chandler speak of MLK as an educational corridor for both the community and the children who attend its two elementary schools, preschool and high school. Both envision community gardens up and down the boulevard and a farmers’ market at McClatchy Park, located just off the boulevard on the corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street.

“When we talk about these empty lots,” added Fischer, “we talk about community gardens and activities where we can gather around food because that binds people together.”

Delores Robinson hadn’t heard about the big plans for her boulevard. But on a recent Saturday at the end of the month, she was out in front of Mount Moriah Baptist Church, as always, handing out free bags of groceries to whoever walked up. The wife of Pastor Allen Robinson, she tries to provide hope.

“I grew up in Oak Park and have been here for 40 years,” she said. “What’s holding [the boulevard’s residents] back is they’ve lost their hope. If someone tells you so long that you’re ugly, you start to believe that. I think if you spruce things up it makes you feel better. And if you get programs where kids can do things, you get them away from gangs. It’s really up to the adults to step up. What I try to do here is hand out love.”

True believers
The city has hosted three public meetings about MLK so far. Attendance has been enthusiastic, but only 50 to 70 people show up.

Oak Park is a community of 20,000 people, according to the last census. About a third are Hispanic, almost a third are Caucasian, and a quarter are African-American. Asians make up 15 percent.

“We need to do a better job of educating our community about what’s going on,” said Joany Titherington, a third-generation Oak Parker. “They still have their blinds drawn and shut tightly, like, ‘It doesn’t concern me.’ There’s decades of fear to overcome. But many hands make light work. Everybody has the opportunity to participate here. The city is asking us, ‘Where do you want this money to go?’”

Residents seem to want the money to go toward walkability.

“Oh, the streetscape has to happen,” Titherington said. “Make it safer, make it walkable, make it livable.”

Chandler agreed, noting that mothers pushing children in strollers are frequently forced into the street because the sidewalks are too narrow and include utility poles. The boulevard also needs benches at its bus stops, more trees and public art honoring King’s legacy, Titherington added.

Longtime activist Tom Sumpter, who pays particular attention to crime at his monthly Cops and Coffee meetings, says there’s an ulterior motive to beautifying the neighborhood and making it walkable.

“Realistically, it’s what attracts visitors and investors—how it looks,” Sumpter said. “But, in creating a safe environment for children and adults to walk, it puts more eyes on the street, too. It’s like shining a light on the roaches. If we use [the street], the bad guys won’t. That theory holds true everywhere. We’ve seen it in our parks and on other streets we’ve worked on.”

Fischer agreed that the corridor will not be fully healed until it’s economically viable, which will depend on business investment and increasing home ownership, two staples of generational wealth that have so far eluded this community.

“There is no such thing as civil rights without economic opportunity. Residents have not been a part of Oak Park for a long time. They’re spending dollars here, but there’s no circulating those dollars among neighbor-owned businesses. So there’s nothing to pass down,” said Fischer.

“We’ve got to have places for our young people to have after-school and summer jobs,” said Yvette Henderson, who owns Flowers Restaurant at 8th Avenue. “That’s what’s lacking in this community. Starbucks is OK, but it’s expensive. We need more affordable stores and the city needs to do a better job in reaching out to the businesses that are already here.”

One project already in the works sits at the southeast corner of Broadway and MLK, where the city owns four properties. The planned mix-use development would include up to 10,000 square feet of retail space, 60 affordable rental units on top and another 20 market-rate townhomes. While the city has yet to officially sell the property, it is under exclusive negotiations with AF Evans of Oakland and construction is expected to begin in 2008.

SHRA’s Chris Pahule, assistant community-development director said: “The city and SHRA have been working for some time on the revitalization of Oak Park. We prioritized the main corridors as areas for improvement. We began with Broadway and Stockton Boulevard, and now we are concentrating efforts on the MLK corridor.”

For now, SHRA is taking the ideas presented at the community workshops and incorporating them into one document to be presented to the community for review sometime this summer.

Could MLK one day become a destination like Midtown, with high-density residential and cool neighborhood shops? Do the people of Oak Park even want that?

Sumpter does, and says that it all comes down to striking the right balance between diversity of income, affordable housing and business.

“We want to maintain the affordable housing we have in Oak Park,” he said. “Protect those who are on fixed incomes and not displace them. But we don’t want to draw in new poverty.”

For his part, Fischer dreams of the day when the boulevard sets the standard for others in the nation—a day when Chris Rock can retire his joke.