State College

It took 5 years for State College’s MLK Plaza to become a reality. How is it being used?

Community members gathered at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza in downtown State College on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, for an event commemorating the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.
Community members gathered at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza in downtown State College on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, for an event commemorating the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. adrey@centredaily.com

In 2012, former State College Borough Councilman Peter Morris led a motion to rename Fraser Plaza. The open area next to the Fraser Street Garage became the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza. But it was only last year that a physical transformation took place in that space to help the plaza live up to its name.

It included installation of a mural depicting King’s 1965 speech at Penn State and a trail of paver stones that recall key moments in civil rights history.

“There are a lot of places that are wrestling with issues of civic involvement and inclusion and diversity,” said Gary Abdullah, a member of the advisory committee that helped to mold the plaza. “But there are very, very few places that I’ve ever seen that have been forthright as State College has been in saying, ‘We want to address them. We want to take them on head on. And we want to be serious about it and not allow them to be the elephant in the room.’ ”

He said the plaza is a credit to State College’s leadership — both former Mayor Elizabeth Goreham and Mayor Donald Hahn, as well as members of borough council.

They’re willing to devote space and resources to it, Abdullah said, adding that it’s not just a passing gesture.

“For me, the big thing that stands out is that the people who were the impetus for creating the plaza were not African-American. They weren’t minorities. They were people within the community who said, ‘This matters, and this is important, and this is what we want State College and Penn State to represent.’ ”

Since its ribbon-cutting in August 2017, the plaza has been scheduled for use about 50 times, according to borough communications specialist Douglas Shontz. But, he added, the plaza is also used organically, and the people gathering in the space don’t go through the formal reservation process.

“It has been a really good blend of events devoted to the tenants of Martin Luther King in terms of civic involvement and access and that sort of thing. And also events that really just reflect the community that it’s in,” Abdullah said.

The plaza has hosted events like the 1963 March on Washington commemoration, the Central PA Theatre and Dance Fest, Pop Up Ave and First Fridays.

Downtown State College Improvement District reserves the plaza for its First Friday events, and Lee Anne Jeffries, marketing and communications director, said it’s a great space.

It has a stage already set up for performers, she said, and it draws a crowd because it naturally has so many places to sit.

“It’s not a place where you only have high-flown and lofty, but you also have day to day and accessible and just kind of normal and pedestrian,” Abdullah said.

He said he’d love to see the use of the plaza continue to reflect that blend in the future.

The plaza isn’t solely devoted to talking about civil rights, but it doesn’t forget that it was founded to reflect these important issues, he said.

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