Kansas City’s infamous Troost divide separates two remarkably different realities. To the west, the city is painted blue, celebrating the long-awaited success of our beloved Royals. The new streetcar has generated the buzz of optimism as it connects the revitalized River Market to the thriving Crossroads district with new apartments, offices and restaurants dotting its path. From Downtown to Waldo, local entrepreneurs have powered a grassroots movement, introducing new businesses and creative solutions to once-suppressed markets.
To the east, there is something else. Blight – poverty, vacancy and crime. Some of Kansas City’s most beautiful and storied neighborhoods are succumbing to the effects of segregation and neglect. “Our Divided City,” a KCPT documentary, examined the current state of the city’s east side, and why the area has so drastically regressed. Despite its legal abolition decades ago, cultural damage inflicted by racial segregation continues to reverberate through most American cities. Kansas City is no exception.
Compounding the issue, is the significant number of vacant properties populating the region, which includes neighborhoods like Oak Park and Ivanhoe. Much more than an eyesore, abandoned structures attract dangerous individuals, provide shelter for any number of illicit activities and devastate the housing market. An Oak Park resident said her family’s ‘normal’ includes drugs, murders and drive-by shootings. “People talk about it takes a village,” says Oak Park neighborhood association president, Pat Clarke. “Back in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, we were a village. Now there’s two things going on: either you don’t have anybody living next door to you, or you don’t know who they are.” Throughout many of these streets, a strong sense of community is all but lost as failing properties continue to attract the wrong people and activities.
There is no easy solution. However, through the efforts of individuals like Clarke, and others both in and outside the area, progress is being made. Initiatives like the Kansas City No Violence Alliance (KC NoVA), are helping to change the culture by building up communities and breaking the cycle of crime and violence through education, mentorships and support programs. The Oak Park neighborhood association’s P.R.I.D.E. Campaign (Prosperity Requires Involvement Dedication and Engagement) rehabs abandoned homes. The properties are then raffled off to a pre-selected pool of families, and the winning recipient assumes ownership of a mortgage-free home.
Still others, like David Larrabee are investing their own resources in order to renovate homes, and reestablish a housing market in the area. One woman who crossed the Troost divide to purchase one of Larrabee’s rehabbed properties said she felt so much peace after moving to the area. However, the decision was not necessarily an easy one to make, as she shares, “For a while, I was really even scared just to come visit the houses because there were so many stereotypes of this side of the city. In my mind, people were standing on the streets with guns.” Although violence and crime are more prevalent issues on the east side, there is certainly more good than bad. Misconceptions and generalizations perpetuate fallacies threatening to increase an-already-too-large rift between arbitrary dividing lines.
Thoughtfully investing time, energy and resources will be critical in restoring these depressed areas. In February of this year, the AIA Pillars leadership program chose to take action after viewing “Our Divided City.” Last month, the group met with members of the Oak Park neighborhood association to tour the area, talk with residents and discuss ideas for redevelopment. The session was not over until the Pillars class delivered and installed 12 porch swings at homes throughout the neighborhood in order to begin cultivating the spirit of a renewed and united community.
Tomorrow, May 19, the Pillars class will facilitate an all-day charrette at the Kansas City Design Center where volunteer architects, planners, developers and more will work together to design a plan for the area. Focus will be given to park and streetscape development, as well as residential, commercial and mixed-use architectural initiatives. Work will culminate with a deliverable presented to the neighborhood association in June. The document will include, not only design ideas, but also an outline of how these plans can be put into action and ultimately achieved. IAA architect, Erin Mumm will be one of the charrette facilitators. We are eager to learn from her, and her peers, how Kansas City communities can join efforts and work together for this cause.
***Tomorrow’s charrette session is open to the public, and insight is welcomed. The all-day event will last from 9am-6pm. The Kansas City Design Center is located at 1018 Baltimore Ave. KCMO 64105.