Detroit’s rundown Martin Luther King Boulevard lined with abandonment, homelessness, new housing

“If a friend calls you on the telephone and says they’re lost on Martin Luther King Boulevard and they want to know what they should do, the best response is, “Run!” – Comedian Chris Rock

Pigeons pecked at the feet of homeless people who gathered in a line for a free meal.

Up the road, Dorothy Stephens strode into a senior housing high-rise, where her mom is finding new life after her husband’s death.

And Jon Singleton, a new resident of Detroit, wandered past graffiti-strewn buildings toward nearby Wayne State University.

All were on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a 2-mile stretch named after the civil rights leader in the 1960s. Formerly Myrtle Street, the boulevard is lined with abandoned buildings and homes, new public housing and a few schools and churches.

What a better day than Martin Luther King Jr. Day to explore the boulevard?

On Monday afternoon, Bill Morgan walked up to the Neighborhood Service Organization in tattered shoes, smelling of stale booze. He was tired and hungry, lugging a garbage bag bulging with some shirts, blankets and a toothbrush.

At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 3rd Street, Morgan said he doesn’t keep track of the date, let alone a holiday.

“Don’t matter to me,” Morgan said of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, his brown eyes blood shot at the Neighborhood Service Organization. “Christmas, birthdays? Don’t change a thing for me. It’s another day, another struggle.”

It wasn’t always this way. Morgan grew up in southwest Detroit, a son of an autoworker and “the best mom ever.”

“I’ll never forget the day (Dr. King) was shot,” said Morgan, who was 4 or 5 years old when the civil rights icon was gunned down on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. “My whole family cried. And I was like, ‘Who is this guy?'”

When Morgan was a teenager, he said he chose drugs and alcohol over the empowerment taught by Dr. King.

Just east of Morgan, the boulevard begins at Woodward. It opens up to abandoned and occupied apartment buildings, empty parking lots, walls covered in graffiti and a few stores. The grassy median is often unkempt, with a few toppled street lights and trees that haven’t been removed for many months.

The boulevard is a big draw to homeless and mentally ill people because it’s lined with numerous service organizations.

One of the city’s biggest housing failures, the Jeffries Projects, was built in the 1950s with high-rise towers and squatty apartment blocks. Just a decade later, drug dealers and crime took over, and the buildings eventually closed. Many of the towers were demolished in 2001.

Three were renovated and converted into senior housing, where Dorothy Stephens’ mother moved a few years ago. The pair were headed to a nearby church for a service dedicated to Dr. King’s life.

“We do what we can to celebrate his life,” Stephens said of Martin Luther King Jr. “Although we still have a far way to go, Martin Luther King gave a reason to keep fighting.”

About halfway across the boulevard, MLK converges with Rosa Parks Boulevard at an intersection that is anything but unique.

Relatively new housing and vacant lots surround the area.

More than 750  American cities have a street named after Dr. King, according to Derek Alderman, a cultural geographer at East Carolina University. Only 11 states, he said, don’t have a MLK road.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.