Monday, January 15, 2001

Address for dreams: Martin Luther King Drive

        His dream still lives on Martin Luther King Drive. The Rev. Dr. King's dream of equality, opportunity and freedom for all echoes up and down the street Cincinnati named for the slain civil rights leader in 1987.

        On this day, as the nation pays tribute to the Rev. Dr. King's memory and pauses to reflect on his goals and ideals, the flame of hope burns brightly for a better tomorrow on this 3.2-mile stretch of roadway.

Estella Moreland works on Clemmie Wiley's hair at Ollie's Beauty Bar.
(Tony Joned photos)
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        Martin Luther King Drive is not Easy Street. Problems exist. But they are being addressed. So, this is not a dead end.

        During the last decade, the street that touches six Cincinnati neighborhoods has experienced a modest rebirth, a renewed sense of purpose.

        An improved streetscape, a much-touted piece of modern architecture and an influx of new businesses and housing have turned the drive into a boulevard of dreams.

Building hope

        “Things are getting better on this old street,” Clemmie Wiley said as Estella Moreland styled her hair last week at Ollie's Beauty Bar on Martin Luther King Drive.

img   • Length: 3.2 miles from Central Parkway to Victory Parkway. The east-west artery touches six neighborhoods: Clifton, Corryville, CUF (Clifton Heights-University Heights-Fairview), the Heights, Avondale and Walnut Hills.
  • Traffic flow: According to the most current data — recorded March 23, 2000, at the Eden Avenue intersection — 29,414 cars traveled past that spot on Martin Luther King Drive in a 24-hour period.
  • Dedication date: Cincinnati City Council gave Martin Luther King Drive its name on July 1, 1987.
  • Previous names: The new street name replaced all of St. Clair Street and Melish Avenue, as well as part of Dixmyth Avenue. St. Clair Street was named after Gen. Arthur St. Clair, the Northwest Territory governor who named Cincinnati. Melish Avenue's namesake was William Melish, a 19th-century Cincinnati brush maker and Chamber of Commerce president. Dixmyth Avenue represents the phonetic spelling of Dick Smith, a 19th-century editor and pioneering business reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette.
        “There's still plenty to do,” Estella added between clips. “With Jewish Hospital closed, and the old Columbian School wrecked, we've got a bunch of empty buildings and parking lots.

        They could be turned into houses to bring people back to the neighborhood.

        “People living in houses would help cut down on crime and trouble.”

        Clemmie nodded. Estella went back to work. Behind them, on a wall of mirrors, a portrait of the beauty parlor's founder, Ollie Anderson, faced the door and six busy lanes of traffic.

        Ollie's has been on the street for 50 years. Back then, that part of the drive was named Melish Avenue. Avondale was a peaceful residential community. Crime was not a concern. The explosive growth of the area's hospitals had not swallowed much of the neighborhood. No one had ever called the place, “Pill Hill.”

        Clemmie recalled how the area's quality of life slipped during the strife-torn '60s and '70s. “Too much conflict. No one wanted to work together. They wanted to argue. And complain. Nothing got done.”

        Snip. Snip. Estella's scissors kept working.

        Clemmie compared life on Melish Avenue then with life today on Martin Luther King Drive.

        “It's better today,” she declared. “And it's because of Dr. King.

        “He made us think about human relations. He preached equality for all races. He helped us dream for a better life, a better world.”

Unveiled Sept. 27, 1987, the black granite monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stands at the northwest corner of Reading Road and Martin Luther King Drive.
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        Some say the dreaming turned serious on Martin Luther King Drive when the city started widening the street in 1994. The two-year, $4.2 million project paved the way for new opportunities.

        First, a clogged section of the east-west artery bordering University Hospital became a free-flowing landscaped boulevard divided by a chain of tree-lined islands.

        Then, on the north side of the street, University Hospital capped its latest expansion with a futuristic, highly praised building, the Vontz Center for Molecular Studies.

        The modest rebirth has been fueled by new businesses — mainly fast-food restaurants and gas stations down the street — and the first new housing this stretch of road has seen in three decades.

Building tomorrow

        On the south side of Martin Luther King Drive, across from University Hospital, sounds of hammers driving nails and saws cutting lumber fill the crisp winter air. Work is progressing on the $4.7 million Bellevue Gardens apartments.

        Set to open this spring, the 40-unit complex features Victorian-style rooflines and facades. Both fit comfortably into a neighborhood of century-old brick houses.

        More changes could be in store.

        Two blocks west of the Vontz Center and Bellevue Gardens, the intersection of Vine Street, Martin Luther King Drive and Jefferson Avenue needs revamping.

        Work won't begin on the $4.6 million upgrade until planners and area governments decide whether they are going to build a light-rail system. That could transform the region and the neighborhood. A major stop on the rail line would be at that intersection on Martin Luther King Drive.

        “This street is a prestige address now,” Clemmie Wiley said. “And it's just going to get more so. It's all because of the man who's honored down the street.”

        She motioned east, toward the intersection of Reading Road and Martin Luther King Drive. At the northwest corner stands a black granite monument to the Rev. Dr. King.

Hero to hero

        Pennies rest in the mulch at the monument's base. With some, Lincoln's copper-colored face looks at the Rev. Dr. King's image carved in black granite. Other pennies have landed tail-side up. The civil rights leader looks down at one-cent copies of the Lincoln Memorial.

        In 1963, the Rev. Dr. King stood on the steps of that Washington, D.C., landmark and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The black granite echoes the speech's last three words: “Free at last.”

        Cedrick started to walk by the monument. He stopped to look and chat. “Don't use my last name,” he said. “Just call me, "The Wizard.'” An auto mechanic by trade, he was en route to the neighborhood AutoZone. He was doing a free-lance job on a friend's car.

        “I love the man,” the Wizard said of the Rev. Dr. King. “The work he did let me get an education, let me get a good job, let me go to eat where I want to. He let me be proud.

        “That's why, every day, in my work or when I just meet people I like to leave them with a smile, a good deed. I call it planting a positive seed. Plant enough and they will grow forever.”

        Off went the Wizard in search of an alternator.

Lighting the way

        Denise Bax feels she owes her career to the Rev. Dr. King. She runs an income tax preparation service in the lower level of a strip mall at the corner of Burnet Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive.

        “Dr. King taught me — and everyone of every race — not to feel inferior. Because of him I can own my own business.”

        Every day, she sees where his dreams have come true and where they need work. In the two years her business has been in Avondale, she has noticed “an increase in parents, men and women, taking care to set a good example for their children. They're realizing they are the only ones who can help their kids have a good life.”

        She still sees too much crime, robberies, break-ins, etc., on a street named for a man dedicated to non-violence.

        She'd like to see “big signs along the street with Dr. King's picture.” The signs would announce:

        “No crime zone. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is named after a great man. Remember what he stood for.”

        Two doors from Denise's tax service, Estella had finished styling Clemmie's hair.

        As she got ready to leave, Clemmie shared one last thought about the Rev. Dr. King, the man and the street.

        “This street is a special place,” she said. “Not just because it's named after an African-American. It serves as a reminder of what all races working together can accomplish, what we have done and what we still need to do.

        “This street acts as a beacon of hope.”

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