SALT LAKE CITY — What do a high-end shopping mall, a gas station, the Grand America and Little America hotels, a Motel 6, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, a car museum, the oldest African-American church in Utah, a price-regulated apartment complex, assorted government offices, two jewelry stores, a car repair shop, a burger place, a ski rental shop, a park recognizing the first black person to graduate from a Utah college, and a store that sells soaps and lotions called Purring Buddha have in common?
All are located along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Salt Lake City.
In commemoration of the 32nd Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, I recently walked the length of the street that bears his name. It’s not long. Nine blocks to be exact. The first sign along 600 South that displays the civil rights icon’s name is at 200 West, the last one at 700 East. That’s slightly more than a mile.
And while some have said it’s too short and too nondescript, and not in a nice enough part of town, a slow walk up and down MLKJ Boulevard suggests it may actually be just the ticket.
Martin Luther King Jr. embraced diversity, he dreamed of a time when we would all come together and live side by side without distinction of color and race and wealth.
The stretch of 600 South that bears his name is diversity personified.
The contrasts are striking. On the one hand, for example, you’ve got the 600 Lofts, an impressive new apartment complex with 274 units that sits directly across from the 755 rooms of the Grand America Hotel. The 600 Lofts apartments are income controlled. For one person the limit is an income of $33,600 a year to live there; for two people it’s $38,400; for three people $43,200 and so on. The monthly rent ranges from $838 for a studio to $1,221 for a three bedroom apartment.
At the Grand America, the cheapest rooms are $379 a night. The Presidential Suite goes for $5,000. For one night.
And you can stay at either place no matter the color of your skin.
The street is a conglomerate of economic extremes. At the Garff Mercedes dealership you can purchase a yellow AMG GT R coupe for $198,740. A couple of blocks east at the Salt Lake County Public Health Center I saw a parking lot full of cars that wouldn’t cost that much combined.
At the Payne Anthony jewelry store in the Trolley Square mall on the boulevard’s east end you can purchase a 1 3/4 karat diamond ring for $32,000. Seven blocks west, at AAA Jewelers, used diamond rings go for as low as $400.
The money isn’t the point, it’s the variety and the side-by-side coexistence that speak favorably to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.
If this kind of integration can happen on a mile stretch in Salt Lake City, why not everywhere?
At the top of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, there’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Trolley Square. Farther down, there’s the Trinity American Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black-centered church in the state. Its roots date back to 1890. The red brick building at 239 E. MLKJ Blvd., built in 1907, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Two blocks up, at 444 East, on the south side of the street just above the Salt Lake County Central City Recreation Center, is Richmond Park. This welcoming patch of green, with a playground for kids and tables to picnic on, is dedicated to Mignon Barker Richmond, a woman who, when she was awarded a degree in home economics by Utah State University in 1921, became the first black person to graduate from a Utah institution of higher learning.
At that, it wasn’t until 1948, when she was 51 years old, that Mignon Richmond finally, after fighting discrimination for 27 years, got a job in her major when the University of Utah hired her as a food services professional.Comment on this story
She retired at age 65 in 1962, a year before Dr. King would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and spent the rest of her life volunteering to help children of all ages and push for equality. She died in 1984, just long enough to see the establishment, in 1983, of a national holiday recognizing Martin Luther King Jr.
Two years later, in 1986, Richmond Park was dedicated, paving the way for Utah, in 1993, to name the street out front Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Then, as now, it is a four-lane thoroughfare that allows you to go just one way. Up, up, up. Always up. Toward the mountaintop.