With his lean frame and angular face, Frank Murphy still looks like a serious runner, though bad knees have kept him from his passion for three years.
Murphy's devotion to the sport (he has published biographies of marathoner Buddy Edelen and distance master Stephanie Herbst) was one reason that he and his wife bought a charming stone house on Gladstone Boulevard 10 years ago, in the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood. The rehabbed house's proximity to Cliff Drive and Kessler Park gave Murphy easy access to the scenic road that winds along the Missouri River bluffs, at the edge of Northeast Kansas City. The undulating road is bordered by jagged cliffs to the south and, to the north, a short rock wall that separates the road from a steep hillside that descends seemingly forever. Climbers come here, as do disc golfers and mountain bikers and hikers. They're drawn to a bucolic escape from the urban surroundings just beyond.
"I ran the park almost every evening for the first six or seven years and was blown away by how beautiful Cliff Drive was," Murphy says, "especially near twilight."
In order for Murphy to preserve the pristine image of the road before him, he operated under a self-imposed law.
"The rule was, don't look over the wall," he says.
To peer over the deteriorating stone façade that follows Cliff Drive is to replace this sylvan idyll with a troubling reality. Over the wall, countless contractors, transients and thoughtless citizens have dumped trash. They've done it for years. And they go on doing it.
"It was a terrible discouragement to look over that wall," Murphy says.
Brett Shoffner knows exactly what Murphy means. The executive director of the Cliff Drive Corridor Management Committee has spent hours each week over the past year picking through all of that garbage, bagging it with help sometimes and on his own sometimes. He says volunteers have contributed more than 4,000 hours so far over the last year to cleaning up Cliff Drive and the 300-acre Kessler Park directly south of the roadway. That's not counting the efforts of some 900 youngsters who descended upon Kansas City in July for the National Youth Conference and spent part of their time filling 3,000 bags of trash and retrieving 2,700 abandoned tires. (The adults supervising the kids kept them away from the motor oil and antifreeze and spent condoms.)
Shoffner patrolled Cliff Drive on a sweltering early August afternoon and found what he always finds: freshly laid dump sites and transient camps that regenerate faster than the invasive honeysuckle enshrouding the wilderness lane.
The week before, Shoffner had posted a petition online, seeking support for the idea of closing the four gates that allow cars onto Cliff Drive. The closure would keep trucks out, went the logic, posing a challenge for the contractors who dump the vast majority of the litter: building materials, home-remodeling detritus, even demolition remnants. Joggers and cyclists could still access Cliff Drive, and the gates wouldn't keep motorists from entering Kessler Park. The idea was to eliminate vehicle traffic on Cliff Drive's 5 miles of roadway.
The petition fetched just more than 1,500 signatures on change.org, but it was ceremonial rather than binding. It was supposed to send a clear message to the city: Volunteers undertaking the Sisyphean task of cleaning Cliff Drive are sick of trying to protect this asset without enough formal support.
It wasn't the first time that someone wanted to close the gates. About three years ago, the same idea was floated — and shot down by surrounding neighborhoods.
This time, the petition garnered some support from leaders in nearby neighborhoods. Scarritt Renaissance, the dominant subdivision in the Cliff Drive–Kessler Park environs, favored the idea, as long as the gates were open again within two years.
Also onboard was Scott Wagner, a city councilman who used to live in the Northeast's Indian Mound neighborhood but moved to the Northland to keep his 1st District seat. He doesn't represent the Historic Northeast (redistricting meant that Jim Glover and Jan Marcason took over those neighborhoods), but leaders and residents there still call on his influence at City Hall.
Wagner says previous efforts at trash abatement have failed.