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A photographer's odyssey to document streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr.

A taco restaurant Berger photographed in 2009 on King Blvd. in South L.A. that had a mural of King standing next to the pope.
A taco restaurant Berger photographed in 2009 on King Blvd. in South L.A. that had a mural of King standing next to the pope.
Courtesy of Susan Berger
A taco restaurant Berger photographed in 2009 on King Blvd. in South L.A. that had a mural of King standing next to the pope.
Berger captured this image of a sidewalk sale along King Boulevard in Los Angeles in 2009.
Courtesy of Susan Berger
A taco restaurant Berger photographed in 2009 on King Blvd. in South L.A. that had a mural of King standing next to the pope.
Berger said this photo, from King Boulevard in 2009, still stands out to her because of the image of then-President Barack Obama. She said she noticed images of Obama throughout her travels documenting streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. around the country.
Courtesy of Susan Berger
A taco restaurant Berger photographed in 2009 on King Blvd. in South L.A. that had a mural of King standing next to the pope.
When Berger first started the project in 2009, she said she didn't know what she was going to look for each time she visited a street named after Martin Luther King, Jr. But over time, she said she found recurring themes of hope and resilience in storefronts and signs.
Courtesy of Susan Berger


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In 2009, Arizona-based documentary photographer Susan Berger was finishing up a project in a rural area when she drove by something she didn't expect to see: a street named after Martin Luther King, Jr. 

"And right then and there, I said I want to see what these streets look like and where they are," she said.

So Berger decided to pack up her camera and travel around the country for a year photographing MLK Boulevards, Streets and Ways. She ended up documenting 33 of the estimated 900 MLK streets in the U.S.

Martin Luther King Boulevarrd in Los Angeles was the first street named after Martin Luther King Jr. that Berger photographed.
Martin Luther King Boulevarrd in Los Angeles was the first street named after Martin Luther King Jr. that Berger photographed.
Couresty of Susan Berger

Her first stop was in Los Angeles. She said she didn't know what to expect when she started the project until she met a man who told her about the history of the South L.A. street and what it meant to him.

"He was very excited to tell me the street used to be called Santa Barbara Avenue, and when it became Martin Luther King, he was very proud of that," Berger recalled.

The name change happened in 1983, after another King–Celes King III–and other activists pushed for honoring King with a highly visible street

Berger went on to take photos of MLK streets and boulevards in Chicago, Milwaukee, Newark, Philadelphia, Seattle and New York. She went to Macon, Georgia; Beaumont, Texas; Shreveport, Louisiana; Little Rock, Arkansas; Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; and more. In the end she visited 17 states and the District of Columbia. 

Berger noticed some similarities among the MLK streets she was photographing around the country: Many were in predominately black neighborhoods, and often the local art and businesses would feature King's words and image.

But there was one thing that made King Boulevard in South L.A. stand out to her: how many different communities called that street home.

"There's evidence of different ethnic groups that have lived there," Berger explained, pointing to her black-and-white photos of taco shops, synagogues and churches. "It seemed like the American dream story–what's supposed to be the American dream story–coming through that street."

Berger said one of the biggest things she noticed while traveling around the country was the pride residents of streets named after King Jr. took in their communities and in their homes.
Berger said one of the biggest things she noticed while traveling around the country was the pride residents of streets named after King Jr. took in their communities and in their homes.
Courtesy of Susan Berger

That made her think: Should streets honoring King be in the neighborhoods where the people live who were most affected by his words? She also wondered about her own role in this project. Would she–a white woman–be perceived as a voyeur? How did her identify affect the images she captured?

Even after visiting streets named after the civil rights leader in all corners of the country, she still doesn't have an answer to those questions. 

Berger said the project opened her eyes to different communities and points of view, and that any time King's name is mentioned–and especially every January as the holiday in honor of his birthday comes around–she can't help but be reminded of the experience  and its effects on her all over again.

She tears up when she thinks about how these streets reflect how long and hard black people in the U.S. had to work for their civil rights.

"A lot of it makes me very sad," she said. "It makes me sad that a group of people had to fight so hard to have what is in our Constitution. That's very sad to me."