March 9, 2017
Urban Conditional: In looking for a site to honor MLK, what’s old is what’s renewal
by Zack Barowitz
In what was thought to be a fait accompli, the Portland City Council Transportation Committee backed off from a proposal to change the name of Franklin Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard.
The episode represents something of a political nosebleed for City Manager Jon Jennings who brought the proposal to the Council committee. The motives are not entirely clear, but some have speculated that it was done to boost Councilor Jill Duson’s (who sits on the Transportation Committee) reelection bid against Democratic party upstart Joey Brunelle; or for Jennings to take personal ownership of the long, ongoing Franklin Street redesign process; or perhaps to build his own resume and civil rights bona-fides.
Opposition to the proposal was surprisingly fierce. The public hearing brought out old timers who remembered Franklin Street as it was and the urban renewal that made it what it wasn’t. Additionally, they did not want to see the name wiped out as well. Others at the public hearing suggested that Barack Obama or former State Representative Gerald Talbot (who was the first African-American in Maine to be elected to that office) might be more worthy of a memorial.
Instead, the Council Transportation Committee recommended a task force to find another way to honor Dr. King. The recommendation comes, however, with a certain amount of baggage. The City already had a task force that made recommendations to honor Dr. King. What's more, Jennings made it known from the get-go that he would not suffer any more task forces, as they take up staff time and take years to implement. Nevertheless, it's an age-old practice that whenever a committee has a problem that they cannot tackle, they simply create another committee.
Political machinations aside, two things are clear: People just don’t like the idea of changing the names of city streets, and the task of finding a physical location to honor Dr. King is not going to be easy. There just are not a whole lot of places worthy of Dr. King’s legacy. To make matters more difficult, Dr. King had never been to Portland, so any choice would lack historic gravity.
Given that renaming municipal streets could be all but off the table, where should a statue, plaque, or other memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. eventually go?
Lincoln Park should get consideration. The park that sits cater-corner from City Hall is in need of some sprucing up. It is slated to be restored to its pre-urban renewal size as part of the Franklin Street redesign, if and when it ever happens. In addition to activating a fairly dead space, the Abe Lincoln–Martin Luther King connection lends a tidy historical theme.
The Portland Portion of I-295 presents some of the same concerns as Franklin Street insofar that constructing it meant destroying homes and neighborhoods for highways that facilitated white flight. But it is a very visible site and would give people something to think about as they drive through Portland on their way to Falmouth, Freeport and Augusta.
Congress Square Park is yet another urban renewal site in search of a warmer and more meaningful identity. A Dr. King monument could bring a greater sense of purpose to that project.
The Rose Garden adjacent to Deering Oaks would be a lovely setting for a monument to Dr. King, were it not for the fact that the cut-through has relegated the whole area to that of a giant traffic island between the park and Forest Avenue.
Saint John/Valley Street has the advantage of being a historically black neighborhood. The railway employed many African-Americans who then settled around Union Station. Unfortunately, it isn’t the most scenic corridor and the streets should really bear the names of local families, notably the Cummings. Unfortunately, this was proposed several years ago by then Councilor David Marshall and met with neighborhood resistance.
All of these sites are in some way, shape, or form the product of urban renewal. Lincoln Park, Saint John Street, and the Rose Garden were all negatively affected; while 295 and Congress Square Plaza were created as a result of it. Another urban renewal site, Lobsterman Park in front of the Nickleodeon, was recently christened John Menario Plaza at the behest of Manager Jennings. John Menario was the City Manager who presided over much of the urban renewal. The plaza’s visible and central location could be a suitable place for a King monument. Of course, the plaque honoring John Menario would then have to be moved; perhaps to some low-elevation point in the median strip on Franklin Street.