On June 21, 2008, then-Mayor Mark Funkhouser held a party at 27th Street and Prospect, one of the grungiest, most crime-ridden corners in town.
Barbecue magnate Ollie Gates was there. So was a jazz quartet. There was free food, and there was a bus to carry Funk and his entourage up and down streets normally populated on a Saturday night with hookers and pushers.
"This area will no longer be forgotten," Funkhouser told the crowd, which included the Black Chamber of Commerce. "This area must be a priority."
Then the party ended, and everybody went home. The hookers and the pushers near 27th and Prospect returned to business as usual. The people who actually lived there went back to hearing their neighborhood maligned as one of the most dangerous parts of town. (HBO once produced a documentary about it: 27th & Prospect: One Year in the Fight Against Drugs. Not really the way anybody wants their home to be known to the world.)
The area was blighted, no doubt, with an empty lot for every empty promise from a politician (up to and including Funkhouser) hoping to end ills created decades ago by segregation and white flight and forces more powerful than any mayor's reckoning.
But change was afoot, for real this time. Four years later, 27th and Prospect, as everybody thinks they know it, is about to get wiped off the map. And if you think that's a good thing, you probably don't live there.
It's gone through a real transformation from good to bad," says Alvin Brooks, a longtime anti-crime activist who has done work in the area. "And this, I believe, will help in its restoration."
He's talking about the proposed East Campus project, a $57 million idea to combine the Kansas City Police Department's new East Patrol Division station and its crime lab under one roof. To do so, the city plans to wipe out four residential blocks in the Wendell Phillips neighborhood between Prospect and Brooklyn avenues, between 26th and 27th streets. The project has generated a lot of optimism among outsiders about the future of a long-blighted area. A new police facility, some argue, will kill crime and bring jobs with one expensive gesture — the long arm of the law reaching in with the hand of gentrification.
But the plan, progressing toward its first demolitions in early October and construction next year, has also brewed anger, hope and racial animus — a bitter social cocktail created when the complexities of local politics mixed with the brute force of eminent domain.
The backdrop of all this drama: a historic but largely forgotten neighborhood shaped by racial politics and occasional violence. Almost all of the 66 or so homes in these four blocks were built between 1892 and 1917, with only one built in the past 80 years. Most of its inhabitants today are black.
Kansas City zoning codes after 1900 limited black families to a square between 10th and 27th streets, bounded on each end by Troost and Brooklyn avenues. Tired of City Hall's ghettoizing policies and racist neighborhood covenants, a few black families crossed the invisible line a century ago and moved onto the 2400 block of Montgall Avenue. Six of their homes were firebombed in 1910 and 1911.
By 1934, the neighborhood was about 50 percent black, according to a city housing survey. But the areas east of Prospect and south of 27th Street remained mostly off-limits to anyone black. Brooks, 80, remembers that part of the city when white people still lived there. And he remembers the white flight of the 20th century's second half: block-busting property agents going door-to-door to scare white families into selling their homes, peddling paranoia about the new black families that were moving in.
"The realtors would buy houses on white blocks, sell one to a black person, then go to a white neighbor, say, 'Hey, look who's moving in,' " Brooks says. "Once in a while, you'd get a knock on your door and a white realtor would say, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I've got the wrong house.' And then they'd go to the white family next door."
It's also a significant historical area for Kansas City's black community. Leon Jordan, one of Kansas City's pre-eminent civil rights leaders and its most powerful black politician during the 1960s, used to live at 2745 Garfield. He owned a bar called Jordan's Green Duck, at 2548 Prospect. He was gunned down there by black assailants one night in 1970 (at the Mob's bidding, speculation still insists).
The decades since Jordan's slaying haven't been kind. In the late 1990s, crime was so bad that the Rev. John Modest Miles started placing white crosses at the intersection of 27th and Prospect to memorialize homicide victims. Brooks recently attended a candlelight vigil for Andrea Hooks-Shields, whose burned body was found May 14 about a dozen blocks away. She hung out on 27th Street a lot, Brooks says. "That was her beat."
If the city puts a police station at 27th and Prospect, the thinking goes, maybe someone like Hooks-Shields won't walk the streets nearby. If the city puts a police station at 27th and Prospect, maybe someone like Hooks-Shields won't get killed.
Change comes not with a bang but with a sales tax. On November 2, 2010, Kansas City voters approved the extension of a quarter-cent sales tax first enacted in 2002 that had already funded several of the police department's new police stations and other upgrades.
The department needed a new crime lab; at that time, its current lab was taking nine months to process DNA samples. It also needed a new home for the East Patrol Division, its busiest, housed now in a building that was once the cops' radio station. And it needed a place to put both.
Twenty-five locations were considered, and the four blocks from Brooklyn to Prospect, between 26th and 27th, fit the bill. It was easily accessible to Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 71, and it was filled with empty properties that could be obtained without much fuss.
The bonus: Crime stats might be lowered — ideally bringing down the whole city's numbers — by the mere presence of a new police facility. The problem: Not all of the properties were vacant, so every single owner — including residents who had lived there for decades — would have to move, like it or not.
"When I first heard about it, and when I first realized 27th and Prospect was the location that would rise to the top, it was something that I was not in favor of at all," says Jermaine Reed, Kansas City's freshman 3rd District city councilman, who represents the area. "However, understanding the details and understanding the economic impact it would bring to the community, I said, 'Hey, this is good for the actual community, and this is something that we should push.' "
Once residents at 27th and Prospect got wind of the project, though, Reed (who is black) paid for his support of it. In June, 3rd District constituents opposed to the plan turned in a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to the Kansas City election board, demanding Reed's recall.
The effort ultimately failed, but the venom behind it was real. The unlikely genre of anti-development hip-hop had a hit this year with a song uploaded to the site blightmekc.com. Among the anonymous rapper's rhymes: Uncle Tom Jermaine Reed?/Respect ain't free/Brooklyn to Prospect when you on your knees/Smiling after cheese/Lap dog swallowing KCPD's seeds.
"People will try to do and say and be malicious and evil as much as they can," Reed says. "But the reality of it is, it's not about me. At the end of the day, we as a community have to move forward, and that's exactly what I plan to do."
Like most places thought to be dangerous, the blocks around 27th and Prospect are safer than their reputation suggests. On this Thursday evening in early August, the workday is over. But few have come home to this neighborhood.
Most of the homes here that weren't already abandoned are empty now. Windows that haven't been boarded up are busted open. Except for the occasional passing of cars along 27th Street, it's quiet. A basketball's bounce echoes from somewhere not far off, and there's the arhythmic rattle of an abandoned house's dangling aluminum siding, brushed by a breeze. Occasionally, a police siren breaks the silence.
City officials estimate that KC now owns 85 percent of the homes in this four-block area. They're negotiating to pick up the rest. For now, the blocks exist in near lifelessness: stray cats wandering the streets, an old couch rotting on somebody's former porch, a tree limb fallen over a sidewalk that hardly anybody walks anymore. But this time next year, officials believe, work will be well under way to put 28,000 square feet of police station and 76,000 square feet of crime lab right here. That means, they say, 1,140 jobs during the project's construction.
Look around, though, and there's still living going on here, cars still parked out front here and there, homes still held together by maintenance and affection. At 2611 Brooklyn, Ameena Powell has been a fierce holdout. "Recall Reed" signs still dot her property, even as several of her immediate neighbors' homes have been sold to the city and boarded up.
Powell appears to be the driving force behind blightmekc.com and much of the effort organized against the new facility. Her real-estate business's Twitter account, @TheProducersGrp, originally dedicated to promoting the sale of distressed properties (often for $15,000 or less), has recently taken to spamming corporations and celebrities to draw attention to the cause. "Help us get the word out. Fight eminent domain," she tweeted at Rick Santorum, Perez Hilton, Kim Kardashian, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, and a parody Mitt Romney account. (She didn't respond to phone messages from The Pitch and wasn't home when a reporter stopped by.)
Others in the area are eager to talk but are reluctant to do so on the record. They don't want their names attached to discussion of a contentious political project.
"I'm 73, and I just don't have the energy to fight anymore," explains one resident who has sold to the city and is set to move out in September. Sitting on a folding lawn chair on the home's front porch, the owner talks about the dead bodies that have been discovered in the abandoned houses around here in recent years — one next door, the other two doors down. The owner's greater concern was the illicit nightclub said to have taken over the house at 2625 Wabash. "They have dancers coming in over there, and we can't sleep Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights."
But despite the loud music and the crime, the owner didn't want to move from a place that has been home since 1989 and doesn't approve of the police project. "I didn't like it. I didn't have a chance to give my opinion on it. They just came in and said the decision had been made and we have to move."
Sophia Easter didn't want to go, either. "You gotta realize, she'd been in that house over 40-something years, and all of a sudden you gotta move?" says her daughter, Denise Fortune, who spoke for her mother during the negotiation process with the city. "It was horrible. I think it's still taken a toll on her, even though she's moved."
The city offered to provide residents three different appraisals for their homes and pay the highest. Bonuses were added for residents who had lived a long time in their homes, and the city pledged to help pay moving costs. Officials say reaction among those who have sold has nevertheless been bittersweet.
Fortune agrees. She says most homeowners she knows have ended up in slightly nicer houses than the ones they left behind. But the price of eminent domain has been more than just a dollar sign, exacting a further toll on pride already bruised by decades of blight talk.
"I think if you talk to the homeowners, it took them by surprise," says Fortune, who lives nearby. "And then they're going to say it's the highest crime area? And you're like, really? Nobody wants to hear that about where they live, especially all the time in the media. Would you want to live in an area like that?"
Throughout the development process so far, residents have offered complex and contradictory views of the crime in their neighborhood: It's mostly perpetrated by outsiders. It's not so bad. It's unsafe at night. The police station is a great idea. The station is all wrong.
"Who wants to see a big old police station right here?" asks PerSonna Parks, 41, as she and a neighbor visit on her railless front porch overlooking 27th Street and facing the old rows of houses where the police will soon move in. "Nobody! Do you want to see a police station here?"
"No," the neighbor says with a chuckle. "I see enough of 'em already."
"Exactly," Parks says. "Always creeping in the alleyway, always in your business, never there when you need them. It's a lot of taxpayers' money for a whole lot of overkill. It don't make me feel no safer."