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Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Honor for Dr. King That Leaves Few Satisfied

Anchorage Journal
The New York Times
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
Published: August 17, 2010


ANCHORAGE — The new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue here is a fine-looking road. Spruce and birch trees line both sides. The Chugach Mountains rise in the distance. It feels, and it is, far away from the struggling streets that bear the civil rights leader’s name in many other cities.

Unlike those streets, often in historically black or poor neighborhoods, or both, Dr. King Avenue was previously woods where bears wandered. It does not have an extensive human history, and that is part of the problem.

“It is on the periphery of the city,” said the Rev. Alonzo B. Patterson of the predominantly nonwhite Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church here. “It was put there because it disturbed the minimal amount of people.”

It might seem reasonable to wonder why Anchorage would name a street for Dr. King. The city is less than 6 percent black and, while it has had chapters of black-white conflict, it is not known for the legacy of discrimination that scarred so many other places.

Racism is another story here. Alaska Natives were stripped of their language and culture by white settlers. They now suffer from much higher rates of suicide, alcoholism, rape and homelessness than do non-Natives.

With more Natives moving in from rural villages, as well as an influx of migrants arriving from Asia and Africa, the white population in the city is declining as an overall percentage, down to less than 70 percent. There is and will be plenty of work to do when it comes to getting along.

That was evident in the nearly quarter-century it took to find something to name for Dr. King. For years, residents and city leaders were not all enthusiastic. At one point, voters rejected Mr. Patterson’s goal of renaming Ninth Avenue, a prominent road downtown.

Later, when Mark Begich, a Democrat, was mayor, he signed an executive order naming a planned new road in southeast Anchorage for Dr. King.

“He gave me his word when he came into office,” said Mr. Patterson, who is black. “ ‘I promise you I will do something about this.’ He kept his word.”

The city opened the road to much fanfare this month. The new mayor, Dan Sullivan, a Republican, attended. A banner and posters declared, “Dreams do come true.” But Mr. Patterson noted that there are no houses on the new street. The offices of several city and state agencies are nearby, including the city Police Department. A major state crime laboratory is under construction. The road, which cost $37 million and is 1.2 miles long, may have plenty of practical purposes but it does not necessarily satisfy those on either side of the naming issue.

“It’s nice, you know, but what’s the significance of a street?” said Carol Jones, a microbiologist who is black and was walking her dog, Caillou, on the bike path beside the new road recently.

Max Wilke, 31, a white construction worker outside the crime lab site one recent afternoon, said that the new road is “not a bad thing” but that he would rather have seen it named “something more Alaskan.”

“I guess every city has to name something for Martin Luther King these days,” Mr. Wilke said.

Mr. Patterson says comments like Mr. Wilke’s show just how pertinent Dr. King’s message of unity is for the city. He noted that the relative emptiness surrounding the new road, while not what he would have preferred, could present possibilities.

“It’s in that area toward which the city is growing,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in print on August 18, 2010, on page A13 of the New York edition.

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