A day before the nation was set to celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, people along the Seattle street that bears his name spoke of how what he stood for is being realized today.

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At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and East Cherry Street, there’s a convenience store where those with a hankering can get their fried wings hot and their Budweiser ice cold.

Behind the counter at King’s Deli, Kifle Mandefro greets all his customers — an increasingly diverse mix from the neighborhood — with the polite smile of a grateful merchant.

That Mandefro, an Ethiopian immigrant who came to the U.S. 20 years ago, could fulfill his dream of owning a business is the result, he believes, of another dream — one the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of more than 40 years ago.

A day before the nation was to celebrate King’s birthday, Mandefro and others who live, work, play and worship along the nine-mile stretch that bears the civil-rights leader’s name, spoke of how what he stood for is being realized today.

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“Things have changed dramatically, and I’m lucky to be part of the progress,” says Mandefro, 42, who bought the store two years ago.”There’s no question Reverend King’s contributions are having an impact on all of it.”

It is estimated that more than 730 U.S. cities have a street named in King’s honor — many traversing some of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods.

In Seattle, King Way is in the midst of a revitalization.

Dissecting the city’s core, its northern point starts at East Madison Street, with its boutique shops and trendy restaurants, and snakes past largely residential Madison Valley and Judkins Park, past newly constructed town houses and middle-class and modest homes, past playgrounds and parks, including one named for King.

At Franklin High School, the street doglegs across Rainier Avenue South as it darts east and continues south, past hair salons and nail salons, tired-looking apartment buildings, past the newly developed NewHolly, myriad community centers, past warehouses, body shops, and soon-to-be-opened light-rail stations, past churches and places where you can rent a car, rent furniture or take a loan in advance of next week’s paycheck.

Most who talk about King say they see great progress, given Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday as the nation’s first African-American president. In speaking of King’s vision, most couldn’t help but speak of Obama, too.

More to be done

Some believe that while the country does a good job of providing opportunities for those willing to work hard, there’s a lot yet to be done to reach racial, social and economic equality.

Mandefro says some things may never change — that it is possible there always will be discrimination. “But what’s important is that there’s also progress and growth and that those who work hard can also achieve.”

At East Madison Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, around the corner not far from her home, Christine Psyk is preparing to board the bus.

The 54-year-old points out that King spoke to economic, social and racial justice. “I think what we’ve done in this country is gone backward on the economic piece,” she says.

“The whole notion of responsibility toward our fellow man has been lost in an atmosphere of selfishness.”

A few blocks south, at Powell Barnett Park, Christina Merkelbach watches her 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son climb the ropes of a massive jungle gym.

She believes 40 years after King spoke about economic opportunities for all people, too much poverty remains in some communities of color.

“That goes against his dream,” she says. “I worry that until we can figure out why poverty is so concentrated, we won’t move to that next level.”

A few feet away, Samuel Blackwell encourages his 5-year-old, Savannah, as she, too, climbs the play equipment.

Positive image

Blackwell, who owns Seattle Central Grind on East Cherry, said he hopes Obama’s election and the image of his stable young family will be a positive influence for the African-American community.

He hopes for others, especially young blacks, what he has been able to achieve for himself, he says, “taking advantage of a lot of the opportunities that Dr. King made possible.”

Richard Ito, 64, and his Shih Tzu, Jasmine, are the only ones strolling the path at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park.

Ito, who lives in Mount Baker and served during the Vietnam War, said racism isn’t as much of a problem in Seattle as in other U.S. cities.

He lost his job at Boeing in the early 1970s — just two years out of the service — in a period of hard times that gave rise to the phrase: “Will the last person to leave please turn out the lights.”

He recovered, retiring after 35 years in construction, and believes there are “more opportunities for all people of color than there were” 40 years ago.

Just across Rainier Avenue South, National Pride Car Wash is humming with activity on this sunny day. Mount Rainier is out.

Michael Stears, 56, lathering up his black Infiniti, said he believes King would be frustrated with the level of elitism in the country now.

“Even people who aren’t bigots or racist have such a sense of entitlement, this idea that my life is more important than yours,” Stears says.

He’s worried about the spate of recent crime, especially involving young black men — proof, he said, that many have not taken advantage of the sacrifices made by those who came before them.

“But at the same time there are many others who are doing the right thing, helping out at home, staying out of trouble, getting good grades. Those are the ones I want to see get credit.”

Further south, outside the Rainier Valley Teen Center, 12-year-old Jamari Lewis says that because of King, America “is a better place.”

His friend Monique Foxx, also 12, says King made it possible for kids of all races to attend the same schools.

Standing outside Joy Palace Seafood Restaurant, Jacquie Bowen, her daughter Amena, sister Julie and friend Dale Tom have just enjoyed dim sum.

Jacquie Bowen, 50, who lives in Burien, recently read King’s “I Have a Dream” speech online in its entirety and reflected on what it means now.

As a nurse in Seattle Public Schools, she works with kids of all races and ethnicities and income level.

She sees the inequities and says, “There’s so much work left to do in fulfilling that dream.”

She says many of the gains made in areas of equal opportunity during the Clinton years were eroded over the last eight.

“I’m so hopeful that under Obama, that culture will come back — and expand,” Bowen says.

Tom, 61, who lives in Renton, says she thinks today’s celebration of King Day is more special because of Obama’s election.

“I think part of King’s dream really is coming true. We’ve been Band-Aiding everything, not finding solutions. I think this nation will be better.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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