Victoria Chen | 2/4/2009, 6:13 a.m.
They make appearances in books, movies, plays and songs by performers ranging from Common to U2. But as Mel King sees it, “Streets don’t get their due and they’re an incredible part of all of our lives.”
“Nobody talks about streets … as an entity on their own,” the longtime community activist said.
To rectify that oversight, King began writing about the streets of his life, resulting in an illustrated long poem book, titled “Streets,” published in late 2008.
“Streets” is the focus of a reading and book signing tonight at United South End Settlements’ Harriet Tubman House, as well as an exhibit at the same venue that runs through the month of February.
Streets shape our lives from the moment we enter the world, King said.
“I realized as I was writing this that I had been thinking about this ever since I was born,” he said during an interview last week at the South End Technology Center on Columbus Avenue, which he founded after retiring from his post as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1996. “As soon as you get out and walk, you just have to go where the street takes you. In a way, it’s a metaphor for your life.”
The book opens with the name of the street where King spent his youth: Seneca Street.
“Urban renewal wiped out all those streets, but that’s where I grew up,” King said.
The neighborhood surrounding Seneca Street — where the Boston Herald building now stands, at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and the Southeast Expressway — had “a racial, ethnic cultural mix [that] was as great as it could be, and I learned a lot from the different cultures on the street,” he added.
In “Streets,” King draws a vivid picture of street life, of babies in strollers, children playing hopscotch and stickball, runners tackling Heartbreak Hill and people joining marches for justice. He includes references to personal events, such as his 1983 campaign for mayor and a childhood experience where his father welcomed a stranger off the street into their home, as well as biblical, historical and contemporary allusions, to the disciple Paul and to “Turners Nat and Chuck.”
A series of watercolors, painted by Artists for Humanity teen artist Billy Nunez, brings the poem to life. The paintings are renderings of photos King took, including images of his granddaughter watching fireworks, of children at an ice cream cart, of a fire hydrant and of a streetlight. The finely captured depictions of real-life scenes underscore one of the poem’s fundamental points: streets are a concrete part of our lives, but they also exist in our imaginations as abstract cultural icons.
“The illustrations have gotten a lot of praise,” noted publisher Dyahnne Alston. “The [book as a whole] just makes you feel differently about the things you see every day.”
Alston owns Sweetie’s Press, a “fairly new” publishing company based in Silver Spring, Md., that aims to “publish minority literature, by minority writers and featuring minority children.” King signed the book deal to publish “Streets” on his 80th birthday last October and the soft cover came out in November, Alston said.