Walking Down Rosa Parks Avenue

In Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks Avenue stretches from north to south for nearly three miles. On that street you'll find the Cleveland Court apartments where Rosa Parks and her husband lived. NPR's Teshima Walker tours the apartment complex and talks with business owners and residents that live on and near the avenue.

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ED GORDON, host:

Cleveland Avenue was renamed Rosa Parks Avenue in 1965. The block is a little more than two and a half miles long and runs north and south along the city's west side. NPR producers Nicole Child and Teshima Walker went into Rosa Parks' old neighborhood and brought us this report.

TESHIMA WALKER reporting:

We decided to drive down to Rosa Parks Avenue, the long stretch of road that some of the older residents still remember as the once bustling Cleveland Avenue. We came here in search of the former home of the civil rights icon the street was named after. Along Rosa Parks Avenue, there is an apartment complex with the name Cleveland Court displayed prominently in white writing. This is the housing project that Rosa Parks called home. Today on the sign out front, the C in Cleveland is missing and reads `leveland.'

(Soundbite of traffic)

WALKER: The rundown red brick structure has apartment units on both sides. The front yard of many of the units were mostly dirt with dying patches of grass. As we walked towards Rosa Parks apartment number 634, there's a crew of two men working outside of the apartment. One of the men is blocking our view as he stands on top of a van hammering a pole into the ground. A woman from the city of Montgomery approaches us as we watch the men at work. We ask her what they're doing. Assistant director of Riverfront Facilities, Lainey Jenkins.

Ms. LAINEY JENKINS (Riverfront Facilities): We're here to put a marker up to mark Ms. Rosa Parks' home. Most people probably don't get to see this site because it's not marked, people don't know the site actually exists and this is where she lived.

WALKER: Once the marker is posted, they drive away and on to their next location, leaving us our first full view of the apartment. The screen door to the small two-story apartment has a tiny black wreath, nothing fancy. In fact, it looks dusty. A tall woman with gray hair pulled back into a ponytail peers out at us from the screen door of her apartment next door. We learn that her name is Bonnie Knight(ph) and that she has lived in the Cleveland Court Apartments for three years. Ms. Knight only recently learned why the vacant apartment next to her was receiving so much attention.

Ms. BONNIE KNIGHT (Apartment Dweller): I didn't know. There's a lot of us didn't know that was her first apartment. And my daughter called me one day at 12:00 and said some folks came and had a lot of flowers, you know, was putting it on the porch and all like that. She said, `Mama, you know what? Next door--those folks put a lot of flowers and stuff on next door.' I said, `Why, Christine?' And they say was Rosa Parks' first apartment. I said, `Oh.' And then I said, `Lord, I hope nobody don't get the apartment--you know, somebody decent get it,' you know, somebody...

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WALKER: As we approach the locked door of Mrs. Parks' now vacant apartment, we try to imagine how she lived back then. What kind of furniture was inside? Does she have wallpaper? What kind of curtains did she hang up on the windows? There's no facility manager on site to let us into the vacant apartment. `They don't work on the weekends no more,' one man tells us. We leave to see who else can tell us about this historic avenue.

We stopped at one tenement building we thought was vacant. The windows were boarded up and stray cats were wandering around. As we pulled into the parking lot, we were shocked to discover that there were actually tenants living in this dilapidated apartment. That people are living in these conditions comes as no surprise to those in the neighborhood.

(Soundbite of barbershop crowd)

WALKER: At a local barbershop, longtime resident Danny Lewis(ph) remembers how Rosa Parks Avenue used to be.

Mr. DANNY LEWIS: Well, the best thing I liked about it is that, you know, there were a time where you could come down here and you know you had all your local stores here, you had mostly your politicians that live here, your doctors that lived on this street, you know. Growing up, you know, there was a lot of nice homes out here, a lot of sophisticated people that lived in the area. But then as time grew, you know, people started moving out.

WALKER: As Mr. Lewis nestles his one-year-old namesake in his arms, he explains to us why he thinks the neighborhood has been in decline.

Mr. LEWIS: Well, it's a migration of a lot of people moving into the place with Section 8 homes, you know, and people getting into the area that didn't really care about the area, and then a lot of crime and gang violence and so forth.

WALKER: OK.

On another corner, Charles Thomas, the pastor of New Life Baptist Church, is hopeful and has dedicated himself to rebuilding the neighborhood. He works with members of his congregation to refurbish a building that will be a community center for young people.

Reverend CHARLES THOMAS (New Life Baptist Church): When we got ready to build, the loan officer that I was dealing with tried to get me to go east because we had already built one church here and to build a $2 million church here was not feasible to her. She thought it would be better that we go east. But I was emphatic that I wanted to stay on Rosa Parks and build something beautiful on Rosa Parks with the palm trees and with all of the beautiful amenities that we have. And then first of all you build a community, you build a church and then you build the people. And that's what we try to do.

WALKER: The center will provide computer and job training he hopes will change lives. Reverend Thomas has made rebuilding on Rosa Parks Avenue a part of his church's ministry. For NPR News, I'm Teshima Walker.

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