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In 10 miles, The Paseo shows poverty and progress. Is that what MLK should stand for?

A drive down The Paseo, which some want to rename for Martin Luther King Jr.

Residents and workers along The Paseo share their thoughts on whether the historic boulevard should change its name to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Residents and workers along The Paseo share their thoughts on whether the historic boulevard should change its name to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

What might Martin Luther King Jr. have thought if he saw The Paseo today?

That the progress he'd hoped for has been slow in coming.

Along its 10 miles, from the cliffs above the Missouri River to flood-prone South Kansas City, about a third of the road's 28,000 residents live in poverty, twice the city-wide average, according to census data. It remains highly segregated, with African-Americans comprising 70 percent of the population in a city that is 30 percent black. Home values are about half of the $133,000 citywide median. Like many parts of the east side, it is plagued by gun violence.

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He'd also see the hope and change.

On surrounding streets east of downtown, there is new affordable housing, part of the HUD-funded Paseo Gateway Initiative. Gone are the Capri and Royale, the seedy motels that were a magnet for crime. At 18th Street, the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy teaches life skills along with sports, and the old Paseo YMCA, birthplace of the Negro Leagues, has been reborn as the Buck O'Neil Education and Research Center. New owners of all colors are hammering sweat equity into old homes facing the lush, tree-lined medians.

In short, he would see an expanse of the African-American experience in Kansas City, circa 2018.

It's why many voices in the black community, led by ministers in churches on the boulevard, support renaming it for King.

They say its combination of history, grace and grit makes it a fitting choice and puts an end to the city's dubious distinction as one of the nation's largest municipalities without a thoroughfare dedicated to the civil rights icon who was assassinated in 1968. More than 900 municipalities have such a street, boulevard or avenue.

"We think The Paseo embodies the spirit and peacefulness of Dr. King and what he stood for," former City Councilman Ken Bacchus told The Star's Steve Kraske on KCUR last month. "And we think it is the appropriate place."

A coalition headed by the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is gathering signatures to place the question on the August ballot. The SCLC mobilized this spring after the Park Board, which holds jurisdiction over the city's boulevard system, balked at the renaming of a signature street designed by urban planner George Kessler, who was inspired by the grand Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.

In response to the petition campaign, Mayor Sly James formed an 11-member advisory group to solicit other citizen ideas and make a recommendation before the end of the month. The panel has heard a range of suggestions of streets that could be renamed, including 39th Street, 63rd Street and Linwood Avenue.

After three public hearings, The Paseo, the new KCI terminal, due to begin construction this year, and an east-west street emerged as the leading choices, the advisory group reported Wednesday.

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Built in 1899, the fountain designed by George Kessler and John Van Brunt at Ninth Street and The Paseo is the oldest fountain in Kansas City. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

Where Charlie Parker practiced

There are actually multiple Paseos, each with an essential character. And along the boulevard, multiple opinions about changing its name.

The northern tip, just below Cliff Drive, is home to Riverview Gardens, public housing that overlooks the industrial river bottoms. As he fired up a small grill on his front steps to cook chicken for his two kids, Chris Johnson, 34, said other Kansas City streets would benefit more from a name change.

"I would change Prospect," he said. "It's already got a bad reputation."

Bad enough that City Councilman Jermaine Reed's 2011 proposal to rename the avenue gained scant support because of its association with economic struggle and crime.

Johnson's Paseo bears little resemblance to the green boulevard that runs from Eighth to 18th streets, featuring the city's oldest working fountain (now known as the Women's Leadership Fountain), a pergola-covered walkway and the jazz district where Charlie Parker practiced at night on the median, according to one of his biographers.

It is the stretch of The Paseo in the National Register of Historic Places. It's also drawn testimony urging that an east-west street, cutting across more diverse neighborhoods, would be the most meaningful tribute to King.

"It might be better to assign Dr. King's name to a street indicative of the racial divide, east-west, that still defines our city," Cydney Millstein, an architectural historian who worked on the boulevard's entry into the register, told the advisory group May 2.

At Troost Lake near 28th Street, catfish and the occasional body are still found. James Moland, working on his car at lakeside, said he could care less about the ministers' aspirations, calling them "a bunch of clowns." He preferred Linwood over Paseo.

"That would be cool," said Moland, 85 and a Navy veteran. "Linwood is a busy, busy street."

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People still occasionally fish at Troost Lake near 28th Street and The Paseo. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

'A good choice'

Past Linwood and the vintage stone-and-bronze traffic signal mounted on a pedestal in the intersection, the faded grandeur of lower Paseo is evident. Here, the river of green vanishes and the street becomes a block-to-block, even house-to-house, proposition.

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Annette Lopez and her husband have spent the last two years rehabbing their home near 37th Street. Catty-corner sits a house recently abandoned and boarded up, which she considers an upgrade after months of noise and all-hours activity.

"We love it here," said Lopez, 42, a waitress at Harvey's in Union Station. "I'll admit, the first time I heard it (the renaming idea), I was like 'It's Paseo Boulevard.' I have to admit I like The Paseo, but I would have no trouble" with a name change.

"I think they hit the jackpot with The Paseo," said Anthony Mebane, 50, a former Greyhound bus worker who pulled his motorcycle into the X Press Mart at 44th, just north of Brush Creek, earlier this week. "Paseo is a good choice. It depicts the day-to-day. It depicts the higher expectations and the lower expectations of the city."

It becomes manicured and campus-like at Brush Creek, where Gates Bar-B-Q has its corporate offices. In the 5000 block, a table with Mother's Day jewelry for sale was set up on Darlene Farr's lawn as she sat with friends in the midday heat on her porch. She said she was fine with changing her address but that a renamed Prospect might spur more positive change.

"This is a pretty nice neighborhood and Prospect needs a lot of cleaning up," Farr said. "Putting his name over there, the city and whatever else would really get up and clean it up and put more into it."

The fragile end

Between 55th and 56th Streets, The Paseo's fragility is in bold relief. On the east side is St. James United Methodist Church, where a young minister named Emanuel Cleaver II preached in the early 1980s and advocated for King's name. His son, Emanuel Cleaver III, has followed in his place.

Across the street, at the corner of 55th, the handwritten sign on the door of Paul's Liquor and Grocery says "No hoods in the store" — a warning to patrons not to cover up for the security cameras. In March 2017, Warren Jackson III was in a car when he was shot to death by two men coming out of Paul's, according to police.

A man behind the counter, who would not give his name, said he doubted the change of address would harm his business, which was brisk in the middle of a spring afternoon. Paul Tesky, a young carpenter buying a Budweiser 12-pack, said King's name belongs somewhere else.

"I think they should have him in a more regal area," he said, citing the violence often associated with streets named for King. "It's supposed to be the opposite of that." He suggested J.C. Nichols Parkway or the Plaza fountain that also bears his name.

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A neighborhood near 79th Street along The Paseo. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

Paseo the boulevard ends in the Marlborough community at 79th Street, which is part of the 744-acre Middle Blue River Green Infrastructure Project. It's an ambitious stormwater control effort using environmentally conscious best practices like pervious sidewalks and cascading rain gardens.

But Paseo the street staggers on, through a down-at-the-heels stretch that includes boarded-up businesses and a used-car lot, finally terminating at East 85th Street, where it becomes Woodland Avenue.

By any name, The Paseo captures the city across time, encompassing its aspirations, achievements and failures. Kirk Kincaid, speaking for Paseo Baptist Church, told the mayor's advisory group that its renaming would bring honor to both King and one of Kansas City's essential streets.

"Paseo Boulevard ... represents the past, present and future of Kansas City, Missouri."

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The old YMCA on the right is being restored as a black history center near 18th Street and The Paseo. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

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