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Artists Explore Possibilities Of Vacant Lots In Kansas City

Artists have a reputation for moving into places others don’t – turning areas once full of empty buildings into thriving districts, such as the Crossroads Arts District in Kansas City, Mo. So, it’s not surprising they’d take a look at the thousands of vacant lots and vacant houses in the city, exploring everything from sculpture parks to art galleries on some of the least desirable lots.

Creating a new space with a purpose

At the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center at 37th and Woodland, Dina Newman walks downstairs in a black t-shirt and big hoop earrings. Newman manages health initiatives – from gardening to fitness. She steps outside and down the sidewalk to a grassy vacant lot.

The idea behind the project called LOTS of Love was sparked a few years ago by a Kansas City Art Institute class. Walk around the neighborhood and you’ll see a lot of vacant lots – more than 500.

"We know that vacancy, not only in Ivanhoe but in the city, is an issue," says Newman.

The project explores new approaches. Take a close look at this lot and there’s a small fire pit Boy Scouts use for roasting marshmallows, a remnant of a driveway — but mostly open space. But, Newman says it’s now envisioned as a meet-and-greet lot, with an orchard, picnic tables, benches and an expanded fire pit.

"We want to provide opportunities through these lots that it’s just not going to re-purpose and make it a beautiful pretty thing – it’s going to mean something, it’s going to have purpose," says Newman. "That’s the point of LOTS of Love."

Dreaming of possibilities

"It’s kind of a dream space," says artist Sean Starowitz. "We’re just creating an opportunity that’s one possibility."

Starowitz is known for his collaborative work, such as Bread KC which raises funds for the arts community through shared meals. He says his LOTS of Love team spent months with the Ivanhoe residents to find out where they see the potential.

"That to me is kind of one of the hardest struggles in any kind of community work is not telling people what they need but really being quiet and sitting back and listening," says Starowitz. "For me, that’s been the greatest challenge and also the most invigorating part about it." 

The residents mentioned a place to play dominoes and a place to grill. With funding from donors, those things will be incorporated into two new lots — a play lot and the meet-and-greet lot — expected to be ready by the end of the year.

Art as inspiration

"Turn around, I mean, you tell me how many empty lots you see?," asks designer and photographer Charles Brown. "If you turn in a circle right now."

Brown stands next to a boarded up house near 82nd Terrace and Brooklyn. At least three vacant lots – one with waist high grass – are in clear sight. Brown, who’s volunteered with kids in this Marlborough neighborhood, bought a lot last year for $1,200 from the Land Bank, and he's created what he describes as a mini-sculpture park.

"My hopes for the lot are really for it to become a gathering place ... forever," he says.

There’s a bright orange bench, two small sculptures and two tall ones – one red like a flame, the other yellow and curved. Brown says he picked the lot because it’s close to a school, so kids could stop by on their way home. It’s about 80 percent complete; he still wants to add some picnic tables.

"I'm going to add a few more pieces," says Brown. "That was the ultimate, I want a space where I can see kids, and hopefully, they can get into art at a young age."

A house for art and artists

Accessibility to the arts has long been a focus for Pat Jordan. She sits inside her gallery, Vine Street Studio, a former firehouse at 20th and Vine. It was about a decade ago that Jordan says she started to notice all the vacant houses in the city’s urban core.

"I looked at that as a challenge and wanted to figure out a way that the art could become more relevant and somehow or another tackle that issue," she says.

Jordan, the president of the Gem Cultural and Educational Center, started working with the nearby Key Coalition Neighborhood Association a few years ago. She says she identified an empty building to turn into an Art House.

"You understand that once you start peeling back the layers in a rehab job ... it’s quite an adventure, you’re not quite sure what you’re going to run up against," she says.

It’s in the beginning stages — they’re tearing down walls, and taking the house back to the studs. Jordan says plans call for displaying art, holding workshops and creating an artist’s residence.

And Jordan has already purchased the empty lot next door, turning abandoned property back into useful space.

This look at Kansas City's neighborhoods east of Troost is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost with KCUR.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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