It's just one little part of the world, but things take place there, too, just like everywhere...

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It’s just one little part of the world, but things take place there, too, just like everywhere else.
— Harvey Keitel in the film “Smoke.”

THE RUNNER hops from blacktop to concrete to steel plate, skirting orange cones, yellow Caution tape and construction flaggers with signs reading Right Lane Closed Ahead.

He’s racing down eight-mile Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Seattle’s South End. He’s over by Franklin High where the street’s just crossed Rainier Avenue South and doglegs east.

Mount Rainier is out. Folks waiting for the No. 48 bus stare. The stone lions guarding the United House of Prayer for All People stare, too.

Hip-hop spills from subwoofers. Forklifts beep-beep-beep backwards. The car exhaust is nasty. But soon, there’s the sweet smoke of beef ribs drifting from the barbecue joint.

Then, a sunporch where a Vietnamese woman tailors bridal clothes. And a staging area full of PVC. The runner runs this route regularly. And why not? The street is wide. It’s familiar. It’s hardly an effort to get to from his Central Area duplex.

“Bob Marley!” some of the workers yell at him, this black man, 6 foot 3, all limbs and graying dreadlocks. “Superman!” some of the kids holler, loving the sight of a man running in long white socks and the green-yellow-red flag of Ethiopia fashioned as cape.

The runner was born with a different name, but sometime after college, after he claimed Ethiopia as The Motherland and decided to boycott all meat and dairy, his buddies dubbed him “Absolute.” End of story. Don’t look for deeper meaning into why Absolute runs MLK, down to the corner of Graham Street where the McDonald’s presides and where he pauses, thrusting his hands in the air à la Rocky Balboa, then turns back, heading north.

Because what matters is that Absolute is a faithful human presence here.

Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, straight as a chopstick in these parts, has always been more than just a humbler cousin of Rainier, even though city folks have long talked of its potential. A perfect people-mover, a grand expressway, a memorial to a revered leader.Such talk is resurfacing as excavators rip up the street, clearing a path for light-rail trains that will zip up the street’s middle and radically redefine the Rainier Valley. Such public investment here is unprecedented, and officials expect the new transportation project to ignite new commerce, new character, new vitality to the street.

But what about the life already here?

VIRGIL BOGUE certainly pictured the street as significant. He was the visionary engineer hired by city fathers at the turn of the 20th century when Seattle officials needed help figuring out what to do.

Bogue’s answer? A landscape both majestic and practical, featuring a civic center, park boulevards, waterfront development and rapid-transit routes. In his ideal Seattle, a highway would extend from downtown through Rainier Valley, which already had its Columbia City and its electric railway. Bogue’s highway would cut a diagonal across the lower half of the hourglass-shaped city, roughly paralleling Rainier Avenue and reaching the shore of Lake Washington near Rainier Beach. Most importantly: the highway would alleviate traffic on Rainier.

Voters ultimately rejected Bogue’s plan, but city officials liked his notion of an arterial to run from Dearborn Street to approximately the southern city limits. The City Council authorized construction of such a street in 1913. They chose Empire Way as its name, in honor of “Empire builder” James J. Hill, who built the transcontinental railroad to Seattle. And, they prophesied, the street would do what streets are meant to do: move cars.

It “will some day prove to be one of the most heavily traveled streets entering into the city,” engineers wrote, even before the two-story frame houses, the outhouses, the fences, trees and chicken houses were demolished to make way for it. And by many accounts, the street served the city well. It was, after all, the headwaters of the old Sunset Highway, ferrying traffic south then east over Snoqualmie Pass decades before bridges floated across Lake Washington.

By 1959, Empire steered more north-south traffic on an average day than its cousin Rainier — a fact that would remain until present day. By 1959, the city had also latched onto the latest in civic projects: the urban freeway. Officials figured Empire could be an “expressway,” and for a while, the public bought into the idea.

But the so-called R.H. Thomson Expressway never materialized, voted down vehemently because it would have taken a chunk out of several central neighborhoods as well as the Arboretum.

The only serious makeover the street would ever see would be to its name, a story best told by consummate activist Eddie Rye, Jr., who recalls that Stevie Wonder had started a movement to get Congress to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday. “I was interviewing Jesse Jackson on a talk show, and he was talking about this movement and how we needed to support it, and he said, ‘Maybe you guys could do something locally.’ “

Empire anchored a commercial district that, in the 1980s, still embraced the automobile. There were service stations, fuel companies, garages and used-car lots that sold vehicles to people with all kinds of credit: little, bad and none. There were taverns, groceries and retail stores. But the street was also the backbone of a thriving residential community, folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t be accommodated elsewhere. When the city needed homes for defense-contract workers, it built low-cost housing projects Rainier Vista and Holly Park. When racial covenants kept blacks out of other parts of the city, they moved here, too.

The Norwegians, Italians, Germans and Japanese who had populated the valley in the early 1900s had given way to Filipino, Chinese, African Americans and Vietnamese by the 1970s. That so many different people had found a place here, Rye figured, made Empire Way an obvious choice to salute King. The local businessman and, at the time, radio talk-show host, collected some 4,000 signatures and submitted a petition to rename the street. Some folks fired off letters to the City Council, lambasting the idea as “stupid,” particularly given the cost of changing everything reading “Empire Way.”

But the council authorized the name change in 1981, saying “the positive effect in most of the communities where Empire Way is routed would be tremendously favorable.”

The rechristening, though, had little, if any, impact.

“Really, there hasn’t been a whole lot of change,” says David Clayton, who opened his VW repair shop on MLK Way 21 years ago.

Rather, private and public money funneled to Rainier, where Columbia City blossomed: Starbucks and a bistro, a farmer’s market, even an art gallery.

“Rainier was like the community street. It had the little nail shops, the beauty salons, the Safeway, the video store, the Post Office,” says resident Minerva Humphrie.

“MLK was mostly nothing. MLK is, just, MLK.”

MAYBE SO. IT’S widely agreed that the street has never been leafy nor grand nor the tiniest bit charming. Sure, it offers prime views of Mount Rainier. But the street is functional in that Alaskan Way Viaduct sort of way.

MLK was “a speedway to a lot of people,” says Lawrence Russell, a local. And for many, it still is.

Yet, streets have intersections, which in turn have stop signs or traffic signals or just plain curbs that force cars to pause. On any given day, some 30,000 vehicles course MLK. How many drivers take even a brief look around?

Absolute’s destination is where MLK meets Graham, a corner cab drivers once used to divide the valley in two: “shallow valley” and “deep.”

Folks who live in these parts know the corner because if you take Graham up over Beacon Hill, it’s a quick route to Interstate 5.

Rainier Valley is home to some 54 cultures; at this one corner you can hear Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Tigrigna and Hindi, and you can buy frozen eels, fresh humbow, an old-fashioned doughnut, a used Geo and a pile of Zizi curls in one easy swoop.

Head west on Graham and there’s Co Lam, one of the region’s biggest Vietnamese Buddhist temples, attracting some 200 people every Sunday. One evening in February, 1,400 people flocked to the squat structure where thick garlands of firecrackers were hung for the Lunar New Year. They cast divinatory sticks; peeled paper fortunes off oranges; placed sweets and cups of tea before photos of the deceased. Then, for 14 vigorous minutes starting at midnight, the firecrackers blasted, the lions danced and the drums banged.

On the northwest corner stands a Speed E Mart, where some men fill out their Quinto and Lotto tickets while others buy bottles of Night Train Express and Wild Irish Rose. Nearby Mizuki Nursery is only a shell of a place now, having shut its doors after Mr. Mizuki died and his family sold some of the land to the light-rail agency. But a neighboring Baskin-Robbins still caters to moms looking for an ice-cream birthday cake. And the King Way Gift Shop satisfies those searching for Virgin Mary clocks, Korean blankets or a variety of items priced at 79 cents.

Farther up MLK crouches New Beginnings Christian Ministries, housed in one of those barely-there buildings that even pedestrians might overlook. The church moved in here last December when it outgrew a Beacon Hill building that had neither bathroom nor kitchen.

“It’s like moving from the pit to the palace,” says Pastor Melba Thomas, adamant that the best kind of fellowship can be had only over a shared meal.

On Sundays, accordingly, the church’s tiny kitchen hums with cooking that feeds a small, African-American, mostly female congregation.

A Gary’s market used to sit across the street, but now it’s Viet-Wah Superfoods, reigning over a shopping complex that never saw a need to change its Empire Way name.

The number of Vietnamese businesses in the valley now rivals the number packed in Little Saigon uptown. The shopping complex and adjacent “Asia Village” building accommodates two restaurants, a bakery/deli, two clothing stores, a money-wiring service and a florist.

The Paradise of Flowers shop belongs to Alicia Huynh, a former nurse who has reinvented herself with the help of her brother, a reconditioned auto tech with an affection for bonsai. The pair arrived from Vietnam as children. But they’ve never forgotten what it’s like to be confused newcomers, and every time a customer walks in and, in Vietnamese, says something like, “I can’t go into American store. They think I’m crazy,” they know their decision to open a flower shop was the right one.

Paradise of Flowers is, reportedly, the only one in the city catering to both English- and Vietnamese-speaking clientele. Its neighbor at the intersection’s northeast corner has the distinction of being the only gas station in the city with a fiftysomething Punjabi mechanic named Ram Lal.

Absolute’s corner is also Lal’s corner, his destination seven days a week. Even a passing glance at the 76 Station here captures sight of Lal, in his oil-stained coveralls and knit cap, customarily seated outside the garage, studying the traffic, the shoppers, the afternoon tide of Aki Kurose students scampering home across MLK. Lal, a man of few words, greets them all, if only with a look.

LATE LAST YEAR, a drive through this 4.3-mile stretch of MLK would have elicited one of two reactions:

Wow. Look at all the construction.

Or, Gee. Look at all the stuff that’s gone.

In order to build this part of the rail system, it was necessary to displace 86 businesses and 50 residences. Sound Transit purchased 74 properties and parts of 230 others. Temporary construction easements totaled 148.

To anyone with an emotional connection to the South End, the sight of so many buildings fenced in and torn up was sobering.

As a countermeasure to the construction havoc, the city created a $50 million fund for MLK Way businesses. Sound Transit also says it will invest some $85 million in mitigation and infrastructure improvement for the Rainier Valley. That includes sound insulation for some residences and underground utility lines for all south of McClellan Street on MLK.

By 2009, Rainier Valley’s MLK will feature not only light-rail trains and four stations, but public plazas, sidewalks, more streetlights and left-turn lanes, fire hydrants, pedestrian-only signals, public art, bike trails, 1,000 trees and a new concrete roadbed.

“Visually, it will all click that this is a special street,” says architect Debora Ashland, explaining how the light poles and various other structures will be painted a color called Sound Transit Blue.

The project didn’t come easy: There were cost overruns and a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination because the trains in this part are going in at grade level, not underground as they were envisioned for the city’s North End.

Sound Transit, backed by a spectrum of elected leaders, predicts light rail, and all that comes with it, will bring “a fresh, new look for Southeast Seattle.”

You can already see some of that with the arrival of an unrelated renovation of the Rainier Vista housing units on both sides of MLK Way. “Looking good,” chimes in Absolute as he hurries by.

Whenever he runs MLK these days, Absolute no longer passes “Save Our Valley” lawn signs, the placards that pleaded for underground trains. But at his corner, the bitterness persists.”Me and my wife worked hard for 10 years to save money, and now it’s a disaster,” says Gurdev Singh, who owns the 76 gas station where Lal stands watch. All the construction has blocked off his driveways and cracked his concrete.

“When the track’s laid down, there’s going to be no business at all.”

Alicia Huynh, the florist, first ran her shop farther north on MLK, near Rainier. She’d been there just a year when Sound Transit notified her that her building would be razed. Her shop ended up in storage for three months before she relocated to MLK at Graham, with assistance from the city, last year.

The shop’s current location is nicer and bigger — and no one steals the balloons that are hung outside the front door, daughter Kristina points out.

“The community needs a face-lift,” says Huynh. “When it’s done, it’ll be more inviting. We just have to be patient, I guess.”

If real time were faster, the transformation of MLK over the next four years would make good reality TV. Before and after; a nod to “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and yes, an actual show called “Town Haul” in which an entire town is, well, made over.

And just like that, folks could take a look at the street and weigh in as to whether it’s indeed better.

It’ll help, though, to remember what Absolute’s corner was like.

Florangela Davila is a Seattle Times staff writer. Harley Soltes is a former Times staff photographer. Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.