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The Remarkable Transformation Of One Neighborhood In KCK

In 2006, an organization called Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Greater Kansas City (LISC) identified six neighborhoods in the Kansas City area to target for improvements: Blue Hills, Douglass-Sumner, Ivanhoe Northwest, Downtown Kansas City, Kan., Scaritt Renaissance and St. Peter/ Waterway.

LISC is a national group that works with local organizations and communities, the Kansas City area initiative was called NeighborhoodsNOW.

For the first time in its 33-year history of working in Kansas City, LISC is announcing that one of those neighborhoods has graduated. St. Peter/Waterway is sustaining redevelopment, and is a community where people want to live, work, play and raise families.

A Changing Community

Every morning in St. Peter/Waterway begins with ringing bells. The area, according to LISC, covers 11th Street to 16th Street and Minnesota to Orville in Kansas City, Kan. The bells ring at 6 a.m., 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. every day from the tall bell tower of the Cathedral of St. Peter  Catholic Church.

"I think for a lot of the community, and even those who are not Catholic, it’s a reassuring presence," says Father Harry Schneider, who has been with the church for four years.

Patty Orth has lived in the neighborhood her entire life and says as a kid the bells signaled her to go home for dinner.

"Six o'clock the bells ring and you go home," she says. "So, it’s just 'I wake up every morning to the bells.'"

Orth, has lived in the neighborhood her entire life; she raised her kids and grandkids here and has lived in a 100 year old home on 15th Street for 38 years.

Orth saw her neighborhood change in the 1980s and 90s as a lot of people started moving south to Johnson County or to the Piper area in western Wyandotte County.

"We had prostitutes walking our streets, I mean in our neighborhoods walking the streets... And you know you don’t want your kids to see that kind of stuff," says Orth. "There were some drug houses. And We had issues with drive-bys. Car chases those sorts of things. But I think the important thing is people like us didn’t move. We said we’re not going to move!"

That’s how Orth got involved with the Cathedral Neighborhood Association, which she’s been the president of for the past 10 years. It covers all of what LISC identifies as St. Peter/Waterway and extends beyond those borders to 10th Street-22nd Street and Central-Minnesota.

In 2006 when LISC identified St. Peter/Waterway as a target neighborhood, Patty Orth saw an opportunity to tackle some growing community problems through the Cathedral Association; crime, blight and problems with infrastructure. She and members of the community began meeting to draft a quality of life plan and common goals.

"It was an eye opener. I’ve lived here my whole life and I learned a lot of stuff about the community... like there is a world outside of the Catholic Church, that’s one thing," she says laughing. "And that people you know people do care. It’s not just a small group of people that cared."

The Cathedral Association engaged with their local police department to establish community policing and  they worked on a plan with the Unified Government Of Wyandotte County to go halfway with residence to finance new sidewalks.

Community Housing of Wyandotte County (CHWC), a community development corporation, worked closely with LISC and acquired unkempt properties in the target area and have since rehabbed or built more than 70 homes. They also offer multiple first time homeowner assistance grants.

This started to attract more people. In 1990 the neighborhood was about one-third Latino. Today, in St. Peter/Waterway, the Latino population has doubled.

"My kids have grown up and they are very well rounded, because they’ve grown up with all kinds of people," says Orth.

Working For Improvement

One of the controversial changes has been the implementation in 2008 of a traffic calming plan. Streets changed to one-ways and they put in different stop signs. Patty Orth says a lot of neighbors still don’t like it.

"They have to drive maybe a block out of their way," she says. "People who live out of the area don’t like it at all because they can’t cut through. But if you go to new subdivisions and that’s how they built all of them, you can go in on way but you gotta go out that way too."

Crimes against people and property have decreased by almost 40 percent since 2009. Fewer drive-by shootings were reported in 2010 and 2011.

Now, kids fill the streets to play, people hang out on their porches and work in the yard. Seventeenth Street, a long strip of old well-kept homes typically ‘goes all out’ at neighborhood functions throwing barbeques and Christmas lighting competitions. On Halloween they can expect 3,000 kids — Patty Orth has already started buying Halloween candy. She gets the 17th Street runoff with an average of 300-500.

"That’s what’s so fun about it, our neighborhood, people still do congregate and meet and have a good time.Whereas some neighborhoods don’t do that anymore," says Orth.

Another popular place to congregate is Waterway Park, a more than 100-year-old park that used to be a shallow lake. It then became a small play area with a baseball field that evolved into a hot bed for drug deals and prostitution in the 1980s and 90s. But CHWC, with help from LISC and the city as part of the plan, came in and cleaned it up. They took out the ball field, put in a playground and just recently landscaped, adding trees and a walking path. At about 6:30 every night the park fills up with people from the neighborhood.

Since the improvements the park sees on average 80-100 visitors a day. Tracey Jordan and her six children live four blocks from the park. She’s been happy with the transformation but feels like even more could be done. `

"Because there is like another acre and a half that they can put something on," she says.

Steve Curtis the community organizer for CHWC agrees. He says plans for a soccer field are in the works. He grew up in Kansas City, Kan. and later in life decided to move back because he missed the diversity and the style of the people.

"A real kind of blue collar attitude," says Curtis. "Just real kind of straight forward, sometimes a little more blunt then you would like but always speaking the truth ."

Engaging Youth

Curtis’ main job with the CHWC has been to engage youth in community activities.

"All these garages in here were tagged all the time. So the kids came up with a program three years ago to talk to the owners – paint a mural on the back and CHWC would put in a solar power motion detection light," he says.

The art squad weeded and picked up trash, and has painted nearly 20 murals on garages in the alleyways.

"We wanted to make them like not a creepy part that people were afraid to go to," says 17-year-old Amber Finley, a Senior at Sumner Academy.

Finley and her 15-year-old sister are responsible for a lot of the paintings — garages with a Monet type landscape; a rose painted for elderly resident; a city skyline; outer space; a crazy cat raccoon painted on the back of Bill’s garage who’s known in the area for feeding feral cats.

"He has tons of cat foot and cat toys all set out on his porch and he leaves it out there overnight. And just lets all the neighborhood cats go there," Finley exclaims. "If you have a cat then he’s probably been on your porch."

Finley feels like the art is bringing more people together. And people do use the alleys now: kids cut through, outsiders go on mural tours.

"People in that house always come out and give us water and they don’t speak any English, but you can tell that they’re like admiring it and their kids go over and look at it, it’s nice," says Amber Finley.

"Muybienpintado," says Cruz Morales, who lives in the house across the street from the community garden. He bought the house 3 years ago and is fixing it up. He says he likes the calmness of the neighborhood and the only problem is the muchachos — boys who are responsible for occasional theft and vandalism.

Amber Finley’s ladder was stolen over the summer, keeping her from finishing higher up parts of some murals and a few solar lights have been broken. Finley was on the bus when she noticed the most recent taggings that happened only about a week ago on two of their murals. She got upset, and texted Steve Curtis immediately.

"I was like can I get a community officer, cuz I know who did it, so I’m like can we get a community officer to go to his house and force him to paint with us," she says. "Make him understand the hard work that goes into it so maybe he won’t destroy other people’s things next year."

The art squad plans to continue their efforts to enhance the neighborhood and will continue to paint over tags. Next week LISC will names St. Peter/Waterway as a sustainable community. As the neighborhood looks ahead to "graduation" it’s unclear how much support from outside organizations like LISC they’ll need in the future to keep making progress.

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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