Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Old World Third St. Will Be MLK Drive

Council unanimously approves naming entire street to honor civil rights leader.

By - Feb 9th, 2021 12:10 pm
Part of Third Street became Old World 3rd Street. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Part of Third Street became Old World 3rd Street. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Tuesday morning the Common Council unanimously approved renaming a downtown street to match its north side name.

N. Old World Third Street will become N. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, eliminating a 1984 political compromise that saw N. 3rd St. split into two different names instead of being entirely named for the civil rights leader.

The compromise was brokered back then to appease merchants on the street, including Usinger’s Famous Sausage, who objected to the name change and said it would negatively impact tourism.

The unified street name won’t go into effect immediately, giving the city time to work out logistical issues with area businesses. For now the downtown segment could receive an honorary street name, as the Westown Association is requesting. Such a designation, often applied to a one-block stretch in honor of an individual, would place a blue street sign above the official green one

“To move forward sometimes we have to correct things from our past,” said lead sponsor Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs when a council committee discussed the proposal on January 27th. “Many people ask why now? To them I say why not?” She said the move would set a positive example for future generations and honor the civil rights leader.

Westown, while requesting the honorary name for now, is backing the name change. “Although the physical barrier, the Park East Freeway, has been removed [in 2004], a psychological barrier still exists,” said executive director Stacie Callies in January. She advocated for city resources to be allocated to Old World Third businesses to support the change.

“My colleagues and I are sensitive to this issue,” said Coggs. “I believe we all remain committed to helping businesses through these hard times.”

While Coggs represents all of the current N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., she only represents one block of Old World Third St. The remainder of the 0.6-mile street is represented by Alderman Robert Bauman. He is backing the change and told Urban Milwaukee that it’s about time the change was made.

All 13 of their colleagues joined them as co-sponsors of the measure.

Mayor Tom Barrett is also backing the name change. He must sign off on the ordinance.

It’s the second time the council has renamed a downtown street in recent years. In 2018, Coggs led the unanimously-adopted renaming of N. 4th St. to N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. from W. St. Paul Ave. north to W. Capitol Dr.

In both cases the Common Council bypassed the street renaming process that requires a postcard survey and instituted a new name by ordinance.

Vel Phillips, a civil rights pioneer in Wisconsin, passed away in April 2018 and was heavily connected to the street. She went to elementary school at the former Garfield Avenue School, now an apartment building, which is located on 4th St., she attended church at St. Marks, and was later married in the church when it was on N. 4th St., and she represented the residents that lived along the street during her time on the Common Council.

Coggs said Phillips was clear that she wanted to avoid a N. 3rd St. situation and that any street name should go all the way through Downtown. The alderwoman, in 2018, said it was also symbolically important that Phillips Ave. and King Drive ran next to one another on parallel streets. King and Phillips were believed to be friends.

A handful of businesses may consider new names as a result of the latest name change. Brick 3 PizzaWho’s on Third tavern, Third Street Tavern and the soon-to-open 3rd Street Market Hall all contain a reference to the street name.

There still will be a N. 3rd St. A one-block stretch runs south of E. Michigan St., another under Interstate 794 and a third from W. Auer Ave. north to W. Capitol Dr. The last segment occurs because the King Drive name was applied to the angled N. Green Bay Ave. starting at W. Burleigh St., where N. 3rd St. is interrupted for a block.

The renaming was endorsed by Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, Milwaukee Area Technical College president Vicki Martin, state senator LaTonya Johnson, the city’s Equal Rights Commission and Jan Johnson Carlyle, the daughter of the late Marlene Johnson-Odom, the former alderwoman who sponsored the original renaming.

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