Nearly 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the former Masonic Temple in Davenport as he received the Pacem in Terris Award given by the Diocese of Davenport.
A block away on 5th Street once stood a strip of black-owned businesses, including the Blue Bird Tavern, where jazz great Louis Armstrong is believed to have performed as an underaged Bix Beiderbecke sneaked in to catch a glimpse.
A park to memorialize those moments in the Quad-City black experience has received a major boost from the state of Iowa, Davenport officials announced Friday.
The Iowa Economic Development Authority has awarded a $3 million grant to the city for a future Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park Plaza and housing project at the northeast corner of 5th and Brady streets.
"It's huge," local historian Charles Pearson said of the development.
He and others have tried to preserve the memory of the Blue Bird, which was around in the 1920s. The tavern and the original black business district that extended along 5th Street from Pershing Avenue west to Marquette Street vanished a long time ago.
The proposed development is offering him an opportunity.
"The Blue Bird should be on the National Register of Historic Places, but it got knocked down," Pearson said. "Can we still tell the story without having a building? Now we can."
The housing project and park is a partnership between a city task force and developer Frank Levy, president of Des Moines-based Newbury Living.
A headline brought them together last summer.
Levy said he read that the task force selected the 5th and Brady location for a park as he was about to submit a proposal to build a senior apartment building at the same site.
"I was taken by surprise," he said. "I had two choices — abandon my project or combine the two. Within two weeks, we had a deal."
The first call he made was to Ryan Saddler, St. Ambrose University's diversity director and a member of the task force.
"It was a shot in the dark," Saddler said. "He called me. I had no idea."
The apartment building will contain 24 one- and two-bedroom apartments plus a 1,740-square-foot interpretive center for the park. The building will take up about two thirds of the city-owned parcel, which is currently a parking lot. The park will take up the remaining third and face Brady Street.
"This obsolete city-owned parking lot has been an eyesore for years," Mayor Bill Gluba said. "I am so glad to see that it will finally be cleaned up and converted to something we can all be proud of."
Levy said preserving empty sites that once were significant is a new trend in historic preservation.
"Historic preservation usually refers to the renovation of existing buildings," he said. "Charles Pearson and the MLK task force have expanded the notion of historic preservation to cover places where buildings of significance once stood but no longer stand. We see that as a new frontier in the historic preservation movement."
The entire project costs $6 million. Saddler said that with the state grant the task force can begin a local fundraising effort for the park.
"I believe this is a gift from God to be in this position," Saddler said. "A year ago, we thought it was just a dream. It's become a reality here today."
Levy said work on the project could begin in April.
"I feel very lucky that I can make a contribution that can benefit the city and the civil rights history of the area," he said.
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