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Community garden just one tool in the quest to revitalize Kansas City neighborhoods

By Jeff Johnson

Except for a stint in the Air Force, Patti Griffith has lived on the same block in the Lykins neighborhood of Kansas City’s Northeast for 62 years. The changes she has witnessed have been mostly of heartbreaking decline since her childhood days, when she enjoyed visits to a nearby penny candy store.

Sometimes the changes came rapidly, like the time many years ago when a row of pretty houses across the street from her home went up in flames, one by one in a matter of days, the victims of some kind of rivalry that played itself out in arson.
For the winter, it doesn’t look like much of a garden or a farm, but this sign marks an area where neighbors will again this spring share ground to cultivate hope, where previously there was a serious prostitution problem. Photograph by Beka NobleMore often, the decline progressed gradually. As families moved away, absentee landlords took advantage of plummeting home prices and lax code enforcement, and as Patti said, “People seemed to stop caring about the neighborhood.” In a scene repeated in many urban core neighborhoods, vacant homes and abandoned properties sprouted up like weeds in an untended garden. Lykins seemed doomed to perpetual decline, and the current foreclosure crisis has only made the situation worse.

But a few years ago, some families moved into the neighborhood with the intention of reversing the decline and of creating a “neighborhood of hope.” Last year, they established a large neighborhood garden across the street from Patti’s home, where that row of pretty houses once stood, but which had since become a haven for prostitution. Patti said that before the Lykins Neighborhood Farm was established, she couldn’t walk her dog in the area for all of the broken glass and dirty condoms.

Not anymore. The new community gardeners cleaned up the area, added lights, and built plant boxes that any resident of the neighborhood could use. Patti proudly gave me a tour of the transformed lots and explained that having a bunch of residents out in the evenings tending the garden chased away the prostitution problems. “I don’t know where they went,” said Patti, “but I’m glad they’re gone.” It was clear she was looking forward to the spring when the garden would grow for its second season.

Another long-time Lykins resident gushed over the fish fry that the self-described Urban Farming Guys had put on for the neighborhood a few months ago, serving tilapia they had raised in a hydroponic pond beside their house, down the street from the community garden.

Raising their own fish (and goats, chickens, and sunflowers) is just one aspect of the radical departure that these families have made in their transition to a rather atypical urban lifestyle. The new families in residence are associated with a non-denominational church, The Rock, and their efforts to revitalize the Lykins neighborhood are inseparable from their evangelical zeal to establish an organic network of house churches. It’s a holistic approach, where the phrase “church life” would be considered redundant, and these neighborhood reformers have staked their very lives on the project.

Ryan Kubicina is the Rock’s pastor, and he also runs their community development corporation called Rock Solid Urban Impact. When he talks about the neighborhood, he eagerly discusses–without transition–the importance of bringing fathers back into the lives of children, the various methods of financing the purchase of foreclosed properties, and “making connections, one heart at a time.”
This house, a stone’s throw from Patti Griffith’s, has been vacant for several years, and is one of many, many vacant houses in the neighborhood. Photograph by Beka NobleThis Evangelical, church-based plan is, of course, not a pattern that would work for all would-be urban neighborhood reformers. But in fact, there is no one correct model for revitalizing neighborhoods that will work in every part of the city. Each is unique, and each needs its own approach.

Neighborhood decline is a complex problem, and it calls for a complex solution, a solution that must reckon with racism and poverty and education and crime, not just vacant houses. And there is no single method, no single organization that can be effective by itself. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote: “If poverty is a complex set of negative feedback loops, then create an equally complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops.”

In order to reverse the decline of its urban neighborhoods–an effort critical to the overall health of the city–Kansas City needs a complex and diverse set of positive feedback loops. Some people have been working on these issues here for a long time and have done great things. Community development corporations and neighborhood associations have worked together with Legal Aid of Western Missouri to litigate hundreds of homes away from absentee bank landowners that were allowing the properties to deteriorate.

Recently, more voices and efforts have been added to the cause and will undoubtedly contribute to the solution. Last week, the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce announced its plan for urban neighborhood revitalization as one of the Big 5 Proposals put forward last year. Mayor James called for an expensive, but ambitious 6-block-by-6-block plan to restore the city’s core neighborhoods. And a bill that would establish a land bank in Kansas City to deal with vacant properties has cleared committee and may very well have the support necessary to become law.

A wide variety of revitalization tools are available, and additional tools are being considered. What is needed is an evaluative process that can determine which tools and groups work well and which ones need to be modified or cut. For example, the receivership ordinance that Kansas City passed not long ago has critics saying it has simply not delivered.
This run-down property was rented to problem tenants until the Rock Solid community development corporation purchased it from the absentee landlord. The house will be demolished and the land will become an extension of the neighborhood gardens. Photograph by Beka NobleFor those looking to reverse the decline of Kansas City’s urban neighborhoods, much can be learned from the Lykins neighborhood, both from its successes (violent crime is way down since 2007) and from its continued obstacles (metal thieves continue to destroy A/C units). Each neighborhood can learn from the others.

For Ryan and his parishioners, their motivation is essentially linked to their particular faith, but their gift to the neighborhood is hope. The residents I spoke with, who gushed over the improvements to the neighborhood, weren’t members of the Rock Church, and they weren’t even inclined to be involved in their neighborhood association. “I’m not a meeting type person,” explained Patti. But they were hopeful. And when you visit a neighborhood that has suffered like Lykins and find residents (and even the mail carrier) sincerely hopeful, that is an accomplishment.

Another group exploring solutions to Kansas City’s neighborhood and vacant property problem is a group of community leaders called the Post Foreclosure Committee. The agenda at last month’s meeting included a presentation by Charles McLaughlin, who rehabs houses in Kansas City that would otherwise remain part of the problem and then helps people get into genuinely affordable homes.

Charles explained that he had tried starting a trade school to provide skilled labor to expand his efforts beyond rehabbing just a few houses at a time. This is the kind of thinking that the entire city should get behind. Charles is part of the solution, and his company is aptly named Hope Properties.

Among those listening to Charles at that meeting was a representative from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Hopefully Charles was really heard, and voices like his will continue to be heard by those that decide where funds are directed and which tools will be utilized.

Lykins Neighborhood Photo Gallery. Photographs by Beka Noble.

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