Snowflakes streak through the air and melt as soon as they hit the ground on an early December afternoon.
"It's a good day for blight," says the man known to Kansas City blog readers as Midtown Miscreant.
Midtown Miscreant is Mark Smith, an ex-con possessed of an attraction to the city's saddest places.
I grew mesmerized with his posts (at midtownmiscreant.blogspot.com) in August when Smith began putting up photos of neglected neighborhoods. Smith has a job driving around and picking up wireless signals for cell phones — a gig that takes him all over the metro. He has always loved cruising through the city and looking at its troubled core. When another blogger wanted to list the top 10 blighted areas in the metro, Smith ran with the idea, making urban-blight tours a regular feature of his blogs.
In an August 13 post called "The Ghosts of KCK," Smith posted eight bleak photos, most of them black-and-white.
"I think in another post I may have compared this part of the metro with pictures I had seen of Chernobyl," he wrote. "When you drive through here, even where houses still exist, there is a pervasive feeling of decay, emptiness, loss of hope." The landscape leaves him at a loss for words. "I apologize if you were expecting me to do my usual wise ass commentary, but I just can't find much to be flippant about here. I'm not sure why, trust me I can go to a million neighborhoods, every bit as bad as this area, and a barrage of smart ass comments will spew forth.... But there is something that tugs at me when it comes to this part of KCK."
He was back in form a couple of weeks later.
"Blight is all in the eye of the beholder," he wrote in an August 24 post that included photos of newly built, beige tract homes in Johnson County. "One man's blight is another's flight. Today's Urban Blight Tour takes us not into the heart of darkness, but the land of blandness. There are no meth addled trailer park creatures, or thugged up gangstas to worry about where we are going. The biggest threat isn't a car jacking or stray bullet, the enemy here is a same sameness that is more frightening than anything I encounter in Midtown. Today my intrepid reader, we explore the Johnson County Subdivision, and all that comes with it. Now before some of my more thin skinned readers, who hail from JoCo, get their Tommy Hilfigers in a bunch, let me say this. If you chuckled at the posts I have done on any number of my urban brethren, then turn about is fair play, it's your turn now."
Smith also writes about career criminals and undesirable characters most people don't get the pleasure of meeting — unless they find themselves in a police lineup. His September 22 essay recounts a feud between "Joe," who Smith claims was "at one time one of the city's most violent career criminals," and "Bird Dog," a "big man, I mean linebacker big, but gone to fat." Bird Dog ends up with bullets in his butt, thigh and shoulder; Joe eventually torches a house at a lake south of town.
At 49, with a biting wit and a mouth full of curse words, Smith knows that his face is worn into a permanent scowl. He keeps his head shaved bald and wears a white goatee. His uniform is a black-leather jacket and blue jeans.
Smith decided to start writing in October 2007, after reading Greg Beck's gritty blog, Deaths Door A strip-club bouncer and veteran of Kansas City's seedy nightlife, Beck had been writing Death's Door since November 2002. His death of a heart attack in September 2007 was the first loss in a relatively young blogging community, where countless Kansas Citians felt that they knew a man they had never met.
Smith doubts that he enjoys such stature.
"I think I'm the dog-and-pony show of Kansas City," Smith says of his place in the local blogosphere. "I don't really fit."
He rants about crime, his past and blight. He has earned enemies, engaging in a flame war with self-appointed crime-fighter Alonzo Washington after Washington trashed the family of a crime victim for refusing his help.
"Why go out of your way to call them liars?" Smith asks me. "They just lost their kid. Have a little compassion."
In late October, Smith wrote about himself.
"Prisons are full of former abused, molested, and neglected children. Here is the story of one."
The boy is 7, his father out of the picture, his newly divorced mother worried about his lack of a male role model. It's 1966, a "supposed safer era than today." A neighbor with a train collection offers to take the boy to church, mentor him.
"The trips to church, the time spent playing with the train collection, lead to something dark, foreign, beyond the understanding of the naïve trusting woman and the innocent 7-year-old," Smith writes. Eventually, the boy refuses to go to church, and the neighbor finds a new kid to mess with.
"Jump forward to the early '80s, the boy, now a man, stands in the shadows late one night, staring across the street at the man's house. He still lives there, older, no longer as imposing, just an old bent man, living alone.... The old man came within minutes of having his markers called in, his ticket punched, snuffed out like a candle. For reasons the boy couldn't explain, still can't, he gave the old man a pass, he let him live."
Smith seemed the perfect person to spend this year's holidays with.
Smith picks me up at The Pitch office in his black Dodge Stratus. Normally Max, his Yorkie, would ride shotgun in a laundry basket, but not for this afternoon's blight tour.
"This first place that we're going is Blue Summit," Smith says, referring to the hamlet bordered by Truman Road and 23rd Street and Interstate 435 and Blue Ridge Boulevard. He calls the place Dog Patch.
Smith is following a couple of navy-blue corrections-department vans, likely headed to the courthouse in Independence.
"It's a lot of younger, 20-, 30-year-old white people who just want to be drunks and crackheads and smoke meth and steal copper," Smith says of Blue Summit's residents. He clarifies. Not everyone in "Dog Patch" is on the wrong side of the law. Some, he says, are "just regular working Joes." Smith follows the corrections vans under the I-435 bridge. He passes the Erotic City porn emporium and turns on Vincil Street. A sign reads: "Now entering Blue Summit."
"This is probably one of the biggest shitholes in the city," Smith says.
It looks like a trailer park, but it's not. The mobile homes, Smith says, "are just the nice places."
A few middle-income homes with Christmas decorations fail to cheer up the gloomy area. We also see boarded-up homes, shanties and burned-up frames.
"You come in here in the summertime when they're all out, it's like they've got radar," Smith says. "They know when somebody doesn't belong."
Streets and porches are empty now. Yards covered in trash bags and piles of tires outnumber the well-kept lawns.
"You feel sorry for the people who live next to this fucking guy," Smith says, pointing to a house with trash covering the yard.
Down a dead-end street, he pulls up to a house that has collapsed. The rotting wood frame barely hides a trailer that the residents have moved into, Smith says.
"They just let the house in front of it fall down and just stayed in the trailer," Smith says. "That's the amazing thing about the shit down in here."
Smith caught hell the last time he wrote about blight in Blue Summit.
"If Dog Patch is such a bad place how did you make it through here takin all of these pictures?" someone named Will wrote on October 15. "I've lived here all my childhood and never had a problem with anyone so I think you really need to get your shit right and last of all you don't need to talk shit about people you don't know just to make your life look better. P.S. Get a life."
"These people are human beings who deserve diginity [sic] and respect as such, and folks should not treat this area as a spectacle to be viewed by onlookers as if in some kind of tragic zoo," an anonymous poster added October 19.
"It pissed off people and offended them, but it didn't make it not true. The place is a fucking cesspool, and a lot of 'em could do better," Smith says of the people who live there.
Places like "Dog Patch" fascinate him.
"I like looking at this kind of shit. It makes you wonder about the people living in it. That's why I wrote about it. It's more interesting to write about that kind of shit than my new exercise program or what happened on the last episode of Lost."
It's Saturday afternoon. Smith parks in front of two identical brick buildings on Forest Avenue.
"This was the old federal halfway house," he says.
Smith stayed at Dismas House at 3126 Forest when he was released from prison on Christmas Eve in 1999. It has been 10 years since his last conviction.
The halfway house is now shuttered. (Dismas House later moved to 207 West Linwood.) Smith walks to an alley next to the building and points to a wire running from what was once the building's TV room.
"See that cable coming out?" He points to a window where his bedroom used to be and says he and another resident rerouted the cable to their bedroom. They hid their TV in a cabinet. They opened the cabinet at night and watched HBO.
"Man, I thought this place was like heaven when I got out. If you wanted to, you could leave. I didn't."
Check kiting and a bankruptcy scam in the early 1990s put Smith in state and federal prisons. Smith says he was in the recycling business with a couple in Springfield. "The company was going to take a nose dive," he says. They filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Smith says he opened a second company to buy the recycling company's assets at pennies on the dollar, then turned around and sold them for actual value.
"And we split the money," he says.
They got caught. He jumped bond, played cat-and-mouse with federal agents and postal inspectors, bolted for California. But he came back to Kansas City in 1994, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He called his girlfriend, but a bounty hunter had already found her and told her that there was a reward for turning him in. After Smith called her, she called the bounty hunter, who called the feds.
Smith was staying at a Residence Inn off Interstate 435 in Kansas. As he walked to his car, he noticed that all four of his tires were flat. He stood there for a minute. "You know what time it is," he says. The agents arrested him.
He was convicted in early 1995 on a multi-count indictment. The feds got him for bank fraud and theft/receipt of stolen mail. Missouri got him for forgery and fraud. He served five years and three months, most of the sentence in Missouri state prisons and several federal facilities.
Smith was born in Kansas City. His family moved around but mostly lived south of Oklahoma City in the Lawton area before coming back to Kansas City when he was 6. His parents divorced almost immediately.
Smith lived off 79th Street with his mother and went to John T. Hartman Elementary School. He calls it the poor end of Waldo. His mother worked a couple of jobs.
"It wasn't as traumatic as it could have been, didn't get as bad as it could have been, but it was bad enough," Smith says of the neighbor who befriended and then molested him. "It was bad enough that I honestly did have moments where he was in more jeopardy than he was aware of."
But that wasn't why he grew up to be a criminal.
"I don't blame any of that shit for the way I turned out. I don't think it had anything to do with it. Maybe if I was out cutting the legs off puppies or pulling the wings off flies, or something, yeah. But I wasn't. I was making a lot more [money] a lot quicker than I could honestly, and that's why I got into crime."
Smith says his slide started when he began skipping school. He hated school. Because of truancy, he ended up in a group home at 27th Street and Gillham. Smith ran away. He was sent to the McCune School for Boys. He kept running away from the group homes until he was sent to the Training School for Boys in Boonville, Missouri, where there was nowhere to run.
He had only an eighth-grade education by the time he ended up in Boonville. He calls it "gladiator school," a training ground for criminals that was "rougher than the actual prison." But he says he got his GED there and left in 1975.
Back in Kansas City, he picked up where he had left off. By the late '70s, he was living among the hookers, strip joints and bars around Linwood and Main (a neighborhood that would later be razed for Home Depot and Costco). Back then, Smith says, people didn't run the risk of randomly getting shot and killed.
Smith ran the check scheme in the late '70s and early '80s. He says he would open a couple of accounts and put a couple of hundred dollars in each, then run a few checks through each account. Then he would write a check from account A for, say, $5,000 and deposit it in account B. Then he would write a check from account B for, say, $8,000 and deposit it in account A. He would keep floating the checks to build up false balances on the accounts.
He was arrested a couple of times for the scams and got probation, he says.
Smith quit forging checks and started a loan scam. He knew a woman who was a billing officer for a big company and who could get people's banking information. Taking on someone else's identity, he would approach a loan officer, knowing how much money was in that person's account. He would say he needed a $20,000 loan so he could buy a $40,000 boat — and he needed the money right away. He would tell the loan officer that if the bank wouldn't loan him the money, he would take money out of his account and make a cash payment on the boat.
"They don't want you to take the money when they can charge you interest," Smith reasoned.
Bank employees rarely questioned him, he says. Instead, they would fire up a cashier's check, walk him to the window, put the money in a bag, and ask if he wanted an escort to his car. He would then be set for a while. But he burned through the money.
"I didn't do that every day, but I did it a bunch of times," he says. "I did it a lot."
Smith smokes Marlboro Lights as he drives through streets where tennis shoes hang from power lines — a sign that drugs are sold at a nearby house — close to a YMCA and a block from a school near Linwood and 31st Street.
He drives past trash-covered yards and, near Cleveland, a house painted all black with windows covered and doors padlocked. Some of the people who live in this area are older. They've worked their whole life to be able to retire in their homes.
"Fuck, they probably don't feel safe coming out," Smith says. "It's like they're held hostage in their own houses."
He says the houses have been this way for a couple of years. "They're going to be like this until they fall down ... or until some crackhead gets in there and catches 'em on fire."
Smith gets grumpy, thinking about the money pumped into the Power & Light District.
"They should have worked with what they had there and tried to revitalize some of those buildings instead of gutting the fucking history out of the city."
He gets grumpier thinking about the apartment complex behind the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Smith served in the Coast Guard, so he goes to the VA. His enlistment had nothing to do with patriotic duty; "I went in to stay out of jail," he says.
He says homeless veterans on the streets might have had a chance if the government had kept the apartment complex open instead of abandoning it five or six years ago.
The complex covers an entire block and abuts the gates of the VA hospital. Boards sway in the wind from windowless frames. The front door to one of the buildings is wide open.
"They just fucking let it go," Smith says. "I'll kiss your ass if you can find a copper pipe in there anywhere. I'll guarantee you there's people living in there."
Smith drives past churches with Plexiglas covering the stained-glass windows. He sees a grocery store named Happy Foods.
"Fucking Happy Foods. There's nothing happy about the food in there."
On another drive a few days later, he flips on his hazard lights and rolls down the window to take a picture of a dozen creepy Christmas-caroler dolls set up on a sidewalk. One of the dolls is dressed up in a Chiefs sweater and hat. A neighbor woman sees him. "Hi, just taking a couple of pictures if that's all right," he says. "Give you some free advertisement."
"All right," the woman hollers.
He points out an apartment complex where a mother left her kids home alone so she could prostitute herself. According to news reports, the kids ate the mother's crack cocaine. "People like that, I don't have any compassion for," he says of the mother.
Hookers wearing flannel coats and skullcaps, zigzagging down the sidewalk on Independence Avenue, wave as he drives past.
"We've got, like, the ugliest fucking streetwalkers in the nation. They all look like they should be unloading a truck or something," he gripes.
"There's no fucking work ethic among crooks and thieves anymore," Smith laments. "Maybe that's why I got out of it. Nobody takes pride in their job."
"My second-favorite blighted area is the trailer park, the Mayfair," Smith says as he drives along U.S. Highway 40. "It's a gem. It's the crown jewel of trailer parks. There's not another like it."
The Mayfair and the adjoining Bunker Hill mobile-home park are, Smith says, "twin venereal warts on 40 Highway."
He pulls into the Mayfair and points to the rusted, nearly unreadable sign in front.
"It's right out of Psycho or something. Out of the two, the Mayfair is probably a little less shitty than Bunker Hill. This is when you're moving up — you move from Bunker Hill to the Mayfair. It's got a good, permanent smell of dog shit around here."
Smith shows me the "high-rent road," a short entry road of trailers that aren't completely trashed.
"The really shitty stuff starts on the backside," Smith promises.
He pulls back onto Highway 40 and drops into Bunker Hill.
It looks like a tornado ripped through the park. Garbage is strewn across the dirt lots. Torn-down walls and insulation are scattered in another lot. So is a mattress.
"This is a real shithole. Maybe that Dutchman Travel Trailer is the only inhabitable thing in here," he says of a newish trailer parked on the edge of the court.
Smith drives past a trailer butting up against a metal shed.
"It's one thing to live in a shitty area and be poor," Smith says. "It's another to make it rattier."
Smith drives to the end of the trailer court. He has been spotted.
"As soon as they got out and saw this car coming, they were rubbernecking," Smith says of the people who live here. "But they'll never fuck with me. I'm telling ya. They think I'm probably a cop. Who else is going to fucking come in here?"
A man peeks around the corner of his trailer as Smith drives slowly past.
Smith sees life in places that look like they don't have a future. Now, he's facing his own uncertain future.
His wireless-testing job will likely end in January or February, so he's looking for work. He worries that potential employers won't be able to see past his rap sheet.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he says. "I know what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to start running around with two wheelers, running off with ATMs and shit."
Meanwhile, parts of the city that seem depressing don't depress him.
"I'm not happy for somebody else's fucking misfortune," he says. But seeing somebody stick a trailer on the end of a utility shed? "It cheers me up."
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