Brenda Jenkins has lived in a home on The Paseo since 1973. She hears some people want to rename it for Martin Luther King Jr.
Nope. “I like it the way it is,” she said this week. “They just want to change stuff to suit them. We live on this street.”
We don’t know if Brenda’s view is shared by her neighbors. No one has conducted a poll, as far as we know.
But Kansas City is now approaching a highly public and potentially messy argument over renaming The Paseo. The mayor has appointed a commission. Ministers behind the move plan a march this week. Petition signatures will be gathered.
Let’s hope everyone keeps Brenda and her neighbors in mind.
That’s true in a practical sense. If Kansas City changes the name of the boulevard, its residents will have to change addresses, bank and credit accounts, and other paperwork. The rest of the city won’t face that inconvenience.
It’s also true in a larger sense.
The debate over renaming The Paseo for King will bring much needed attention to the legacy of the civil rights leader, and Kansas City’s lack of recognition of that legacy.
Even supporters, though, concede a name change would be symbolic. Symbolism is extraordinarily important — witness all the letters and comments on the proposed change — but we should not see it as a substitute for other progress along The Paseo.
A drive along the length of the boulevard shows the need. The Paseo is dotted with aging homes, some abandoned and covered with graffiti. Walkways and steps to homes are often uneven and potentially dangerous.
But there is enormous potential. Some newer homes have replaced older buildings, and the wide, grass-covered median remains as inviting today as it was 75 years ago. Small play and picnic areas fit comfortably near walking trails and concrete trellises.
Many residents, like Brenda, have lived on the boulevard for decades. They take obvious pride in their homes and neighborhoods.
The Paseo just needs a medium-sized boost to help residents repair homes, tear down structures that can’t be fixed and enhance the quality of public areas.
Renaming the street for King won’t provide that boost.
As it turns out, though, The Paseo forms the western border of the district established for the East Side sales tax approved by voters a year ago.
Much of the $100 million the tax will raise over 10 years is intended for the Prospect Corridor a few blocks east of The Paseo. But setting some of the revenue aside for enhancements along The Paseo makes sense, too.
The city might also use the boulevard as a testing ground for improved housing policy. A revolving fund for repairs, or tax abatements and homeowner TIFs could help homeowners improve their properties.
Landlords would have to meet tougher standards to rent homes along the boulevard. Affordable housing guarantees could be included in the mix. The private sector could match public funds for projects. And so on.
The activists who want to rename The Paseo for Dr. King have started an important conversation. My guess is they will prevail, eventually.
But changing the name shouldn’t be enough. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard must become the highest-quality, most affordable, most-inclusive thoroughfare in the city.
Brenda would probably be okay with that.