Will it remain? Ceremonial street sign installed for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Even as The Paseo signs come down along the nearly 10-mile road now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a group of petitioners is fighting to undo the name change the Kansas City Council approved in January.
By their count, they have the more than 1,700 signatures needed to put the issue to a vote later this year. Tara Green, one of the petitioners, said she expects they’ll surpass the legal threshold by the end of this month and file a petition with the city.
“All of us want to see Dr. King honored, but what we didn’t want to happen was see our voices taken away entirely,” Green said last month. She’s one of several homeowners leading the petition drive to undo the street renaming.
Volunteers have been at grocery stores, restaurants and other heavily-frequented spots around the city gathering signatures. An associated Facebook group has more than 900 members.
Green noted The Paseo and its generous green spaces, inspired by Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, were designed to beautify Kansas City as part of its original park and boulevard system. The street is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.
“To attempt to rewrite that history, I think, is extremely unfair,” Green said.
The debate over whether to rename The Paseo for King has been raging for more than a year since proponents, led by the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, first approached the city’s Board of Parks and Recreation, which governs the city’s boulevards, with the idea. They were unsuccessful.
After being rebuffed by the board, the group launched a signature drive but didn’t garner enough support to put the issue to a vote. At the same time, Mayor Sly James appointed a citizen commission to recommend potential streets or other sites that could be named for King.
After a series of public hearings to solicit ideas, the panel endorsed the new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport, 63rd Street or The Paseo.
James then turned the matter over to the City Council for a decision.
The issue was attached to the “East Side Revitalization” plan proposed by Councilman Scott Taylor, 6th District at-large, by Councilman Quinton Lucas, 3rd District at-large, but later stripped out. Months after that, the council passed the ordinance.
Lucas, who lives on the boulevard, was one of the chief City Council proponents of the name change and still supports it.
“I do think it would be unfortunate if we go from being the only city without a recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a thoroughfare to being the only city that has ripped his name off of a thoroughfare,” Lucas said.
Councilman Jermaine Reed, 3rd District, who also supported the name change, said in a statement that he supports the petitioners’ right to mobilize.
“There are more than 900 streets named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 42 states,” Reed said. “Our city should be no exception. As Dr. King once said, ‘There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.’”
To opponents of the name change, the process the council followed is part of the issue. The city didn’t get the approval of residents along the street, a rule Lucas argues is rarely enforced.
Councilwoman and former mayoral candidate Alissia Canady, 5th District, one of four council members who voted against the proposal, said repeatedly during campaign debates that her constituents, including residents of the boulevard, didn’t support the change.
“The way I see it, Paseo is history,” said Gail Gabrielson, 73, who signed the petition last week at the now-shuttered Mama Tio’s on the boulevard.
Diane Euston, a Waldo resident and historian and teacher, said she had been out at least seven or eight times collecting signatures, including Tuesday’s signature drive at Mama Tio’s. She said the street is “uniquely Kansas City.”
“To me, it’s so Kansas City,” Euston said of the boulevard. “To take something and rename it, especially when part of it is part of a historic district, to rename something — not just a section of the street, 9.98 miles — is ridiculous,” Euston said.
Many say they’re fine with renaming a street or landmark to honor King, just not The Paseo.
“If it’s in the name of unity, it should probably run east and west as far as neighborhoods are set up in Kansas City,” said Ebony Moore, 39, who lives on the boulevard in Midtown. “It’s kind of running through a predominantly African American neighborhood, which is not serving the interest of Martin Luther King’s dream.”
Apart from substantive concerns about the change, some residents have voiced frustration over issues such as new mailing addresses and driver’s licenses.
When the name change passed, Chris Hernandez, a spokesman for the city, said the city would work with staff at the U.S. Postal Service to coordinate a transition plan for residents. In an email Friday, he said USPS had committed to handling the job of notifying residents.
But it’s unclear whether USPS has sent that notification, and a local spokesperson for the federal agency did not return requests for comment.
Lucas, who lives on the boulevard, said he had yet to receive any information, though he didn’t wring his hands over it.
“My bills still come to Paseo Boulevard,” Lucas said. “Literally everything about my life is still to Paseo Boulevard, so I think there are some that are kind of claiming the sky is falling for any resident along the street. I’ve seen no change.”
Hernandez said as of Friday 95 Paseo signs had been taken down and replaced with 109 new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard signs. He added that crews are expected to finish installing all of the signs by the end of the month.