Missouri neighbors try to erase city's dividing lines

Monday, May 24, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — In Kansas City's historic Northeast, between the cacophonous commercial corridor of Independence Avenue and the winding, tree-lined boulevards near the Kansas City Museum, sits St. John Avenue.

In a city marked by dividing lines, St. John is one of its hairline fractures.

The affluent reside up a slight hill north of the line, while the working poor live on St. John or to the south.

Recently, though, residents on both sides of the avenue have joined to revitalize the area by capitalizing on its growing diversity.

The first visible step in their plan can be seen where Askew Avenue crosses St. John. Artist Joe Faus is painting a mural on a wall where, up to now, beige paint has never successfully covered the territorial scrawls of restless teenagers.

The mural, framed by large flowerpots, depicts people of many races at a marketplace. To organizers, it represents what the Northeast is and the modern multicultural marketplace it can become.

"This is just the beginning," said Danilo Aguilar, a community organizer who works in the area through the Westside Housing Organization. "This is the catalyst of what is happening, what is going on."

The socioeconomic divide at St. John has been there since the early 1900s, when judges and businessmen occupied mansions on the scenic byways near Cliff Drive.

Their maids and butlers lived on St. John and below, according to JoAnne Rahtjen, a historic preservationist who lives on Gladstone Boulevard across from the Kansas City Museum.

Today a home north of the line can sell for $550,000 while one south goes for $17,500.

In the last 20 years, cultural diversity has complicated the divide.

The Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood was 79 percent white in 1990. It was projected to be 63 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black, 13 percent other races and only 12 percent white by this year, according a 2007 neighborhood renewal plan prepared by Greater Kansas City LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corp.).

On a recent afternoon, a shrouded Somali woman stood on the northeast corner of Askew and St. John, waiting for a ride, while a black teenager sat, elbows on his knees, on the steps of the apartment behind her. A white crossing guard guided a Hispanic mother and two pre-schoolers across the street.

A Kansas City Art Institute graduate ambled past an African beauty store to reach his cluttered studio, while an Asian father drove a Buick full of kids just freed from school. The rumbling of ranchero music competed with rustling leaves and the beat of a loud motor.

There is richness in that diversity. But tensions emerge, too.

Kathy Drews, whose family has lived in the Northeast since the 1930s, recalls feeling uncomfortable when Hispanics began moving in around her. She had already been jaded by prior problems with drugs and arson around her grandparents' home.

"I watched these changes taking place and wasn't real comfortable with it," said Drews, who lives on St. John and owns a small business there. "I was just a little bit nervous about the cultural differences.

"How could we communicate? How could I not feel like I was being rooted out?"

So when a family from Mexico moved right next door, she ignored her gut.

She walked over to her new neighbors, shook their hands and welcomed them to the neighborhood.

"I said, 'I want to be a good neighbor. I am praying for a good neighbor.'

"They have turned out to be the best neighbor I could have hoped for. They're wonderful gardeners, good neighbors, good friends."

Neighborhood leaders have likewise discussed how to reach out their hands in hopes of developing productive partnerships.

The Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood, where the mural sits, benefits from a strong homes association. The group has been discussing how to draw in the area's newcomers, who up to now have hardly been involved.

Maybe they could bring a translator to meetings, and draw up bilingual brochures.

Or paint a mural on a wall that couldn't seem to shake the graffiti.

Across the city, murals have been proven to deter taggers, who respect the artists' work.

But in the Northeast, they've been painted over because some neighborhood associations have seen them as conflicting with efforts toward historic preservation.

Rahtjen herself had pause about murals before she began advocating this one.

"I am a purist when it comes to historic restoration," Rahtjen said. "I also realized in certain areas of the neighborhood that we need to embrace other cultures, and a mural is embracement of another culture."

Now the Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association is sponsoring the project and other renovations in the area. One of its members, Malenda Shahane, recruited her workplace, UMB Bank, to help fund the mural.

"We're breaking ground here," Aguilar said.

Shahane lives north of the line, but she refers to the blighted corner at Askew and St. John as "ours." She enjoys Somali gyros and a Mexican bakery near her home.

"We're all one neighborhood," Shahane said. "And that's how we need to see it. We shouldn't look at dividing lines."

A unified Northeast sees itself as part of Kansas City's urban revitalization, well positioned just a few minutes from downtown.

It is the only place in Kansas City where Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Somali and Central American restaurants can co-exist on the same strip. East of the glitzy Power & Light District, one mom-and-pop store quietly springs up where another has died.

"Nobody comes and does a ground-breaking when somebody renovates a storefront," muralist Joe Faus said. "It just happens under the radar, and that's something to celebrate."

To Faus, the mural celebrates that spirit that says, "We don't give up."

He and others also hope the mural improves the image of an area that is fighting prostitution and gang activity. While crime has been decreasing in the Northeast faster than in other areas of the urban core, it is still higher than elsewhere in the core, according to the 2007 study by LISC, the agency that is helping residents solidify a vision for the area's renewal.

"If you target the litter and the graffiti, that gives a signal to criminals that somebody cares, somebody is watching , and you need to take your actions somewhere else," Shahane said.

"Grime equals crime, so we're trying to clean up the grime."

Drews points to continuing frustrations she has with litter and graffiti. She cleans it up and then finds it marring her property again.

At the corner of Askew and St. John, she hopes people passing the mural will begin to see the same renewal she has experienced.

"The Northeast is changing. The Northeast is becoming one of the best places in Kansas City to live," Drews said. "It's a good place to grow and be a part of what's going on. That's one humble person's opinion, who has been mighty frustrated and mighty discouraged, but refused to give up."


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