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Residents of Kansas City, Kansas, are helping create a heritage trail worthy of their history

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Laura Ziegler
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KCUR
John Daniels, Jr., 55, said he was happy to weigh in on a proposed Northeast Kansas City, Kansas, Heritage Trail. He also said he's been hearing about projects to improve northeast Kansas City, Kansas, and preserve its history for years. "I'm excited, sure," he said, "but excited in theory. We'll have to wait and see about its implementation."

For years, residents have heard they're getting more green space, walking trails and projects to preserve their rich history. Now, community groups and the Unified Government are planning a trail and green infrastructure connecting Kaw Point to the Quindaro Townsite.

On a gray, nippy day in October, dozens of Wyandotte County residents gathered in Parkwood Park off N. 9th Street and Quindaro Boulevard to share stories about their past and envision a new future.

The rolling green park is the hub of the Parkwood Historic District, a neighborhood of Prairie Style and Craftsman bungalows. The district — the park and the homes — is on the Kansas City, Kansas, Register of Historic Places and is a beloved spot in northeast Kansas City, Kansas.

“It’s coming,” said Mata Townsend, 71, one of three community ambassadors on the lead team planning the new Northeast Kansas City, Kansas, Heritage Trail. “We want everyone to know it’s coming and we want their input!”

Standing behind a table filled with colorful charts and information, the bubbly retired government worker and community activist waved people over to describe the goals about the proposed hiking and biking trail, green infrastructure and economic development possibilities. She said people in her community, most of them Black, don’t often get the opportunity to speak out about what they want.

About 100 people came and went over the course of the morning, jotting down their thoughts on a big piece of poster board and giving oral histories to a videographer. They hovered over a large map of northeast Kansas City, Kansas, delicately placing tiny Monopoly houses and blue dots.

“The blue dots indicate where people say they have memories,” said Adam Rosa, founder of Chicago-based Collabo, an urban planning firm that is consulting on the project. “Green dots are where they want to see park improvements and green space.”

Andrea Smith said it was most important to her that the project celebrate the contributions of the Black community, such as the once bustling commercial area around 5th Street.

“Delis, barber shops, groceries and pharmacies,” recalled Smith, who described her age as “over 65.”

“I’d like to see markers for the places and people that had a big impact on the neighborhood,” she said. “We made a big contribution to Kansas City, Kansas.”

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Laura Ziegler
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Adam Rosa of the urban design firm Collabo watches residents move pieces around a map as they weigh in on how resources should be allocated for the Northeast Kansas City, Kansas, Heritage Trail.

“This is one of the most historic areas in the county, but our history is ignored. Even by us,” said Townsend.

This was the first in a series of community meetings designed to gather memories, details and dreams for an ambitious project anchored by a miles-long trail through the heart of the area.

The south end of the trail will be Kaw Point Park, part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers.

The north end will be the Quindaro Townsite, one of three National Commemorative Sites in the National Park System. It was the location of a Civil War-era commercial port on the Missouri river, home to a unique community of settlers, abolitionists, Wyandot Indians and freed slaves, who escaped across the river to Kansas to what became a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Heritage Trail project evolved from sweeping recommendations in a 2008 Master Plan for Kansas City, Kansas, that envisions a green city with neighborhoods whose residents are healthy and fit, infrastructure that ensures clean air and water and a community that embraces its diverse culture and history.

The project came to life when the Groundwork Northeast Revitalization Group, also known as GroundworkNRG, partnered with the Unified Government to apply for a grant from the Mid-America Regional Council. They were awarded $108,000 from the Sustainable Places Grant, supplemented by a $30,000 match from the UG.

Rachel Jefferson, executive director of GroundworkNRG, said the partnership made sense. Her organization promotes innovative and inclusive projects, she said, offering new solutions to old problems. She praised local officials for their willingness to embrace an unconventional approach to urban design.

“All too often, government plans sit on a shelf and the goals are never accomplished,” she said. “Our community deserves better. They deserve to see progress and to have a say in implementation.”

Helen Collins, 69, was bent over a long table, writing on a white poster board with a black Sharpie her list of concerns about Parkwood Park.

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Laura Ziegler
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Residents wrote specific concerns and suggestions on poster board. Planners say they'll try to work the suggestions in to the next iteration of the project.

“Number one. Crumbling pavement in parking lot is a hazard,” she said. “Number two. Sloping access to other parts of the park are handicap issues. Number three. Park needs trash barrels at entrances and exits. Number four. More activities for the community.”

Some parents said they wanted to see the pool at Parkwood Park open more regularly — it’s often closed due to a lack of lifeguards. Others brought up the need for places for kids to hang out, such as skateboard parks. People wrote they wanted something done about litter in the streets.

Multi-dimensional project

As colorful stickers and tiny houses proliferated on the poster board, Adam Rosa, from Collabo, said there will be budget constraints and other limiting factors farther down the line. But this first stage was important to give the community a voice in determining how resources will be allocated.

Monopoly houses and red hotels showed where people wanted more housing or business investment. Green cloth indicated park space or cemeteries.

Winding through the middle of the map was a piece of string, representing the proposed trail.

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Using Monopoly pieces and yarn, residents got a chance to show where the important places are in their community and where they want improvements. Planners say they'll use this information as they design the new trail, structures and historical markers.

“Everybody gets a say in where they think the main trail should go,” Rosa said. “We’ll take a picture of everyone’s idea, overlay all the routes and see what some of our options are. It’s a very hands-on way of doing it.”

Rosa said the project has four pillars: history, economic development, environment and mobility. Early designs include a loop through the heart of the neighborhood, a river trail and an outer loop using the right-of-ways for vacated rail lines.

But the plans are preliminary. The community will weigh in again at a meeting in the coming weeks.

Community ambassador Mata Townsend could barely contain her excitement.

“People will travel hundreds of miles to see the biggest ball of string, or whatever,” she said. “Well, this is going to be our ball of string here in Northeast Kansas City, Kansas.”

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