Crime plagues area near Martin Luther King Jr's birthplace - CBS46 News

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Crime plagues area near Martin Luther King Jr's birthplace

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ATLANTA (CBS ATLANTA) -

The history of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior's childhood neighborhood near 501 Auburn Avenue is just as rich and complex as the man whose fight for equality and civil rights changed history.

On Jan. 15, 1929, King was born in an upstairs bedroom of the home. It is where he spent the first 12 years of his life. It's now a national park.

At one point, the homes surrounding King's residence housed the elite of African-American society.

A few doors down at 535 Auburn Avenue was the home of Charles L. Harper, the first black high school principal in Atlanta. He lived there from 1910 to 1945.

King is the shining star that was born on Auburn Avenue, and whose eternal resting place, along with his wife, Coretta Scott King, is now just a block away. There is a water memorial and an eternal flame honoring the family's legacy.

The national historic site is an area where nearly a million tourists travel every year.

But for all the beauty and history, from the 1950's to today, the neighborhood has fallen on hard times. And unfortunately, the societal ills that plagued the area scar the landscape around King's home.

Just across the street from King's memorial, CBS Atlanta News watched a homeless man jump into a dumpster searching for food.

"It can make the experience for visitors not as palatable," Kwanza Hall said.

Hall is the Atlanta City Council Member for District 2 that covers Dr. King's National Park and the Old Fourth Ward.

Hall said there are things tourists see in the area near King's home that he works every day to combat.

Those things are poverty, homelessness, drug addictions, prostitution, and crime.

"The challenges that Dr. King spoke about run concurrently with that legacy, and that we as leaders need to help negotiate and fix," Hall said. "It is easy to say, ‘build new buildings and move the people somewhere else,' but then what do you have, just another pocket of poverty on the other side of town. Still, there is more work to be done."

Hall said a lot of that work is being done with the Historic District Development Corporation.

The non-profit was co-founded by Coretta Scott King, Christine King Farris and John Cox in 1980 as an all volunteer neighborhood-based organization with a charge to preserve and revitalize the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic District. Over the past 40 years the non-profit has revitalized and rebuilt more than a hundred homes, and turned vacant abandoned buildings into thriving commercial properties.

But Hall admits despite all of their efforts the Old Fourth Ward isn't where it needs to be.

"You have to ask yourself the question. ‘What's missing? Why haven't we figured this out? And why haven't we had the same level of change and growth?'" Hall asked.

Currently, Hall said there are 700 families living in poverty just a few blocks away from King's birth home.

Atlanta Police gave CBS Atlanta News crime statistics that show a large numbers of violent crimes committed in the area.

According to police reports, there were nearly 800 crimes committed within a half mile radius of King's birth home.

Those crimes included, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft to name a few.

Hall said things need to change, but pointed out in the 1980's and early 90's that no one could walk the streets. Hall said a lot of blame could be passed around for why this area isn't thriving.

However, he is optimistic and hopeful that the new Atlanta Streetcar Project, along with the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King's March on Washington when he gave his famous I Have a Dream speech will spark new life and growth in the area.

"All in all, we should be looking forward, in a collaborative fashion, to continue the work Dr. King spoke of," Hall said.

Hall has a deep history in the area as well; his father, Leon Hall, worked closely with King to fight for civil rights.

For five years, Leon Hall worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, based in Montgomery. He helped coordinate sit-ins, recruited young people to the South to work in the movement, and worked in voter registration and political education programs.

For Kwanza Hall, the fight isn't just to honor King's lasting legacy in the area, but to honor his father's legacy, as well. Leon Hall died at the age of 42, in 1989, before he could see King's neighborhood improved.

"This is a legacy we all must keep, bear the torch going forward, and pass it on to the next generation," Hall said.

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