ATLANTA, Ga. -- Fresh grass, polished stone and cheery park rangers greet more than half a million tourists annually who visit a small neighborhood here to view the grave of Martin Luther King Jr. and the artifacts of his life.
This national historic area includes the home where King was born just after noon on Jan. 15, 1929, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he preached. Guided tours scoot curious schoolchildren through a maze of neat and well-organized exhibitions at the family-run King Center.
But on this day, on my first visit, something seemed to be missing amid the beautifully manicured grounds and the smiles of the staff. The center smelled like floor wax rather than fried okra. No saxophones piped in the blues. No elderly men spun yarns of yesteryear. No choirs belted out the power of freedom.
To find the real neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. played as a boy and stirred the nation as a man, I thought I needed to venture further. I paid my respects at his gravestone — inscribed with the words "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last" — and then I hopped the ropes.
I walked along the eastern end of Auburn Avenue, near the King Center. The street, a mile long artery through Sweet Auburn, is flush with Victorian houses, some restored, and others, on the side streets, suffering from years of neglect.
Sitting in a wheelchair on the porch of one of those sagging houses was Mr. Reid, a 77-year-old retired bricklayer. "I came here for him," he said to me, pointing to King's birth house, about 200 feet away. "He took us off the back of the bus, and now we're driving it."
A sudden awkward silence spoke loudly of our differences — in race, age and social class. I'm a 32-year-old white girl from the Atlanta suburbs. I don't exactly fit his requirements for a new friend, especially at a time when he's seen so many folks of my color move into the once-segregated neighborhood and change things.
The pristine two-story Victorian house across from Mr. Reid, in fact, now belongs to a gay white couple. They bought the former boardinghouse for a song. The vaulted ceilings and wooden staircase have been fully restored, but the track lighting and retro knick-knacks feel oddly out of place. Maybe because for the first time a new culture is edging its way into a place famous for its black pride.
During the prosperous 1920s, Auburn Avenue was home to a wealth of black-owned businesses. Fortune magazine in 1956 dubbed it "the richest Negro street in the world."
Back then there were plenty of role models in the tight-knit community that would help influence the thinking of the neighborhood's most famous resident. "If you grow up in this environment and you see heroes, you'll have a tendency to become one," said local museum director Dan Moore Jr. This was especially important for Sweet Auburn's youth at a time when the media and others characterized blacks as "buffoons, shiftless and lazy."
The Rev. King wanted the blacks of Sweet Auburn and the whites of Atlanta to live among each other with recognition of their common humanity. But it is one of the odd legacies of King's success, some folks here say, that as integration began to take hold after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, wealthier blacks began moving into new neighborhoods. Sweet Auburn's population dwindled. By the 1970s, housing projects cropped up where vibrant shops once stood, and the neighborhood's reputation transformed from civil rights corridor to drug alley.
I knew because I'd been warned as a kid not to come here, to one of Atlanta's "bad" neighborhoods.
But walking down Auburn Avenue into the business district with its old storefronts, albeit some of them rundown, I didn't feel threatened or scared. Those were the very kinds of misconceptions that King spent his all-too-short life trying to dispel.
As I continued my journey, smoke from a barbecue pit wafted over me and I found myself outside a place called the Rib Shack. This soul food restaurant — which opened in 1932 — was serving the same kind of slow-cooked slabs of fall-off-the-bone pork when King was a child.
A few feet farther, the neon light of Pal's Lounge lured me inside. There, a musician who called himself Captain Hard Rock Jonathan, a student of Sweet Auburn's rhythm and blues past, picked up a jam session with fellow musicians and welcomed me to listen.
Soon they were shouting the names of those who'd played at the street's most happening nightclub, the Royal Peacock — James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Ike and Tina Turner. I listened to their old stories, and after a while said goodbye, their laughter following me outside.
Back at the King Center, I watched the crowds quietly trickle out for the evening and the park rangers lock the doors. But in the heart of Sweet Auburn, I learned that Martin Luther King Jr.'s spirit lives around the clock.
Jenna Milly, who now lives in Los Angeles, is an editor for latimes.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times