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TOM REESE / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A view from Seattle's Martin Luther King Jr. Way includes the Olympic Mountains and Smith Tower.

Seattle: Martin Luther King Way is growing into its name

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fifteen years ago, when the time came for Seattle to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Karen Yoshihara had doubts about the chosen road: a no-nonsense eight-mile stretch that offered a straight shot through impoverished neighborhoods, a fading business district and a warehouse-lined industrial area.

Unlike the merchants who complained about the cost of changing their addresses, Yoshihara had another objection: She thought the road wasn't good enough for the man being honored.

"At the time I thought there might have been a more appropriate stretch of road," said Yoshihara, 55, who has lived near King Way since 1972. "It's not exactly the most beautiful street. It just didn't seem a fitting memorial."

Today, Yoshihara says she was wrong.

Over the years, as she has seen the street transformed, she has had a change of heart.

"Maybe Dr. King would have been proud," said Yoshihara while stopping at a doughnut shop near the Martin Luther King Jr. Market, where she works as a checker. "Now, I can't imagine it being called anything but Martin Luther King Way."

Named after a man whose primary legacy was his vision for a better future, the street itself seemed for years to have no future. Its houses were dilapidated, businesses were closing, and fear of crime - real and perceived - kept many people away.

Now, along this once-troubled thoroughfare that traverses the city's southeast side, there is a new optimism.

Houses long left in disrepair are being renovated. Blocks pockmarked by abandoned lots have begun to fill in. A wave of Southeast Asian-owned businesses has led the street's commercial revitalization. And even Holly Park and Rainier Vista, two of the city's largest public-housing projects, have had facelifts in recent years.

Martin Luther King Jr. Way is growing into its name.

"This is a prime location right now," said LaVonne Beaver, 30. For 38 years, Beaver's family has published The Facts, a neighborhood weekly based in the strip's north end. "In the past 10 years, it has really become more of a multi-ethnic community."

In some ways, the road chosen to honor King mirrors the course of the movement that he championed.

Like the civil-rights campaign, the road begins modestly (a two-lane residential street), quickly gains force as it courses its way south (where it becomes a state highway), feeds into a national network (the interstate) and then disappears into the suburbs.

It's an unpredictable, eclectic path. Dilapidated houses stand next to newly renovated ones, storefront churches thrive near Buddhist temples and mini-malls near housing projects. On Martin Luther King Jr. Way, you can find a blood-donor center urging donors to bring a friend, a Vietnamese restaurant serving only soup, a Filipino grocery/video store, a barbecue shack and a car-part junkyard - all within miles of one another.

Roughly the northern third of the street is residential, cutting through the heart of the city's African-American neighborhoods. In the past decade, there has been an influx of new white and Asian-American residents, drawn by the area's affordability and its proximity to downtown.

It was optimism about the area that convinced Tedla Dessalene, an Ethiopian refugee, to risk starting his own business on King Way.

A tall, soft-spoken man, Dessalene, 38, opened Abyssinia Grocery four years ago with the savings he had amassed from years of working 80-hour weeks on three or four jobs, first in Washington, D.C., and then in Seattle.

The store is not much larger than an espresso shack, but it offers an eclectic range of goods - everything from cold beers to a wide selection of Ethiopian foods and spices. His 27-year-old wife takes over for him in the afternoons, and he heads to his other job as a parking-lot manager, working until midnight.

But the sacrifices are worth it, he said. The house he bought for $90,000 near the grocery store is now worth $150,000. He and his wife also have a house in north Shoreline, and he's talking about starting another business.

There are now at least a half-dozen other Ethiopians, men who came to this country with little or nothing, who have started grocery stores on the street, he said.

Having his first business on a street named after the civil-rights leader holds special significance for Dessalene. He remembers first hearing about King when he was a high school student in Ethiopia. Later, when he came to the United States as a refugee from his war-torn country, he sought to learn more about King and the fight for civil rights.

"Without that time, we would not have the freedom we have today," he said. "It's hard enough to live in this country, especially for Africans, but he helped to make our lives better."

Further south on King Way, Steve Choi, a 50-year-old Korean-American businessman, also feels optimistic about the long-term prospects of his recently relocated and expanded clothing store, Funky Town.

Outside, large, eye-catching signs proclaim the store's recent grand opening and bargains on its urban hip-hop wear, the store's specialty.

Choi said Korean immigrants are also becoming established on King Way. He names an array of businesses near his store, all owned by fellow Korean Americans.

But not everyone is pleased with the developments on King Way.

George Noble, owner of Green Stone Properties, a real-estate agency based on King Way, said that when he started his business in 1984, the area was roughly 70 percent black, 20 percent white and 10 percent Asian. Now Asians make up about 30 to 40 percent of property owners, and blacks just 50 percent.

"I don't sell that many properties on this street to African Americans now," said Noble, who is black. "Most of my clients are Asians."

As Martin Luther King Jr. Way has been revitalized, so have property values. Many African Americans are leaving, moving to southern suburbs like Renton or Kent, where they can buy bigger houses for less money, Noble said.

"The price of property here is going up and up," Noble said. "It used to be possible to buy $8,000 lots; not anymore." A property just off the strip that he sold for $119,000 just two years ago now commands a $149,000 price.

Although he likes the revitalization of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Noble believes African Americans are mostly being left out.

"Most of the businesses here are owned by Southeast Asians," he said. "Where are the African-American businesses? I believe it's an honor to have a business on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. It's just a shame that not more African Americans have businesses here."

And despite its progress, King Way still isn't entirely free of the problems that, in the past, fueled its reputation as an unsafe street.

Bill Mizuki, the 69-year-old owner of Mizuki Nursery, a staple on the street since 1955, said his cash register was cleaned out twice last year by men who had pretended to be customers.

Since the thefts, Mizuki brings in his dog, a Lab-Akita mix, for added security. But although he has had offers on the property, he plans to stay put.

Even though Martin Luther King Jr. Way still is struggling to grow into the lofty promise of its name, most of the time the fit feels just right.

Before it was Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the street was called Empire Way. Today, only a handful of businesses hint at the street's past.

When the name change was proposed, there was such strong opposition that a group of merchants filed suit, taking their case all the way to the state Supreme Court, where they lost.

At the front of the Empire Way Tavern, on the corner of Orcas, the old street signs still hang on the side of the building, a lingering protest to unwelcome change. The owners of the tavern were outspoken critics of the change. But although the tavern has different ownership, the name has remained.

Inside, the tavern hasn't changed much over the years, either, said Ricardo Ramacho, who took over the bar four years ago. It continues to draw the same crowd, mostly white men, who live and work in the area, Ramacho said.

"I thought they could have left the name as it was," said Ramacho, 36. "I've been coming in here since I was 21. People still call it the Empire Way anyway."

But, in hindsight, it's clear that Empire Way, a grand, anachronistic appellation left over from a more brash age, was doomed.

That King, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Price and a proponent of non-violent change, would supplant that relic of an imperialist America is a rich irony that now seems inevitable. After all, all empires rise and fall.

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