A sprinkling of late-afternoon rain dampens Harris Park's cracked asphalt. Two teams bound up and down the basketball court, which is tucked discreetly into Kansas City's Ivanhoe neighborhood. The game is casual but competitive, and the trash talk flows.
Six teams have joined the park's adult league this year; they play only for bragging rights, but the stands are packed anyway. Nearby, a small playground occupies the children of onlookers. Farther away, a woman circles a trail on the park's perimeter, paying the game no attention.
A tall man stalks the sidelines with his whistle, his muscular frame filling out his striped referee's shirt. He calls fouls like a ref but also offers the instructions of a coach. When someone charges past the tallest player on the court for an easy layup, the ref shouts, "C'mon, big man, you gotta put that down." Big Man doesn't acknowledge the tip, but he meets the next offensive threat at the rim, sending the ball, and his opponent, flying.
On other inner city courts, words of wisdom from a 41-year-old volunteer ref would likely be ignored or scoffed at. But not here.
"He owns this park," a 20-something man in the bleachers says, nudging the young woman to his left and pointing out the ref. "Chris owns this park. He did it for the 'hood. He's got cake. He's cool as a motherfucker, too."
It's not slang — the man is speaking literally. Chris Harris actually owns the park, a rectangular swath of green that runs the length of Wayne Avenue between 40th and 41st streets.
Harris grew up in this neighborhood. Back in the '80s, his block was indistinguishable from any other in Ivanhoe. But while Harris was away at college — and stayed away for a career out of town — drugs and violence hacked up his old street. So one summer, 12 years ago, Harris returned with a plan: Demolish the few houses still standing around his own and erect a park in their place.
The city's Parks and Recreation Department doesn't cut a blade of grass here. But the park has become the envy of city officials, who say they'd like to copy Harris Park and place clones in each of the city's six council districts.
One of the reasons that this place is a model among urban parks is something you can't see — not immediately, anyway. When a car rolls slowly by the park, you don't see anybody posturing or hitching up their jeans to suggest that there's something heavy in the waistband. People are at ease here. Other blocks don't feel like this, Harris points out, and it's not like this by accident.
But there are flaws in Harris' model that the city won't copy, organizational defects that threaten his ability to keep the park running. And after going through a year of resigning board members and dwindling coffers, Harris is faced with deciding what's more important: owning the park or seeing it thrive.
Across from the park, a man sits on the wooden porch of a small gray house, drinking in the view.
"It's peaceful here to me," says Henry Harris, Chris' 69-year-old dad. Henry lives in Raytown but drives past this house twice a day, stopping to smoke a GNC on his old porch. "I mind my own business and set everybody else free. And I mean that."
Henry grew up in Louisiana, where he learned an appreciation for owning land, "something you can call your own." When he bought this house in 1962, his was the only black family on the block. The neighbors "told me how glad they was to have us," Henry says. "Month later, for-sale signs was up everywhere."