Jeana Poertner's dining table is ready for company: meatballs from Garozzo's, Roma bread, cheese, an array of sweets. The two dozen or so people she has invited will juggle small plates with their wineglasses as they wander through Poertner's three-story home or gather on the front porch for cigarettes.
On this cool March evening, they've come together for a reason. Yes, there's something of a sales pitch in play, but not for culinary gadgets or plastic containers or Jesus. Poertner is pushing her neighborhood.
Pendleton Heights was Kansas City's first real suburb, a once-exclusive neighborhood that has, over the past 100 years, seen more highs and lows than the Prowler at Worlds of Fun. The gossip and news shared by a couple of people sitting in rocking chairs on Poertner's front porch fit somehow into this century-long timeline, informed by history. Have you heard? they ask. One of the three Heim mansions on Benton Boulevard — once home to the beer-brewing Heim brothers, who built Electric Park, at 46th Street and the Paseo, in 1907 — has been sold.
"It's one of the prettiest mansions in the Northeast," answers Linda Fleischman, the flame-tressed massage therapist and former concert promoter. She's an unofficial cheerleader for the Northeast, an area bounded roughly by Truman Road and Cliff Drive, from the Paseo to Blue River. She loves this neighborhood in particular, and she's thrilled when she sees new faces.
Seeing new faces is the point of these monthly cocktail parties, which Fleischman organizes with other residents of Pendleton Heights. "The parties started as a way for neighbors just to get together and talk, but it's sort of evolved into a way of introducing people to this part of Kansas City," says Kristen Johnson, a marketing manager at H&R Block. "You would be surprised by the number of Kansas City natives who have never even heard of the Historic Northeast."
That was true of Christy Maddux, a 30-something audiologist who grew up in the south Kansas City suburbs and had rarely ventured this far north in the metro. "I didn't even know that neighborhoods like this even existed," she says. Tonight, the young doctor is on Poertner's porch, one of the converted, still learning about her adopted neighborhood.
A few minutes later, Maddux gives four of the party guests a tour of the home, a few doors down from Poertner's, that she bought in December 2010. In the dark, the 127-year-old house looks a little like the Bates home in Psycho. And once Maddux unlocks the heavy front doors, things don't get much better. The Queen Anne, which sat empty for two years before Maddux purchased it, has been gutted to its 19th-century brick walls. It's a dusty mess, but through it you can see the structure's spectacular bones.
Maddux and her boyfriend, Adam Lopez, saw the possibilities right away.
"I think it's the most beautiful house I've ever seen," she says, pointing out the distinctive, hand-laid tiles surrounding the fireplaces, the 12-foot ceilings, and the intact butler's pantry. A sunflower motif runs through the house: on a stained-glass window, carved into the frames surrounding the pocket doors, in a few of those handsome fireplace tiles, on the woodwork leading to the second floor.
During the building boom of the 1880s, someone (the name is lost to history) spent a lot of cash building this house in the 500 block of Garfield. Maddux's house isn't nearly as extravagant as R.A. Long's million-dollar Corinthian Hall — built several blocks east and 27 years later — but it's one of the few homes left in this area with the original porte cochere still standing. Maddux heard from neighbors that a mechanism buried in her backyard once lifted up buggies and turned them around.
Before Maddux inked the deal to buy the house, concerned friends (and, she says, her own realtor) advised against the purchase. She found out later that this is a common hazard for people shopping for property in the historic neighborhood. It's dangerous, people say, and way too close to crime-riddled Independence Avenue, that fabled boulevard of hookers and handguns. But she did her homework. "I went to neighborhood meetings," she says. "I spoke with the beat cops. I couldn't find anything on my own as bad as I was being told."
Johnson believes that those who don't have preconceived ideas about the Northeast as a dangerous place — people like her, for instance, who aren't native Kansas Citians — are willing to take more chances. Johnson says she "stalked" her neighborhood (Fleischman uses the same word) for weeks, driving through it at all hours of the day. "One summer night, I watched kids riding their bicycles up and down the streets at 9 p.m.," she says. "You don't see that anymore. That's when I knew that I had to live in Pendleton Heights."
There really are some bad things about living in the old Northeast, says Michael Bushnell, publisher of Northeast News. He has covered the area's crimes and misdemeanors for 14 years, including running mug shots of the Northeast's "Most Wanted" and, for years, a weekly "Heap of the Week" feature that showcased photos of trash left behind by the latest tenant evictions.
"But things really are changing here," Bushnell says. "The first wave of young professionals was from 1988 to 1991. I really started seeing the artistic people move here around six or seven years ago. It started after the Crossroads became priced and taxed out of existence.
"The Urban Farming Guys have built a neighborhood farm in the Lykins neighborhood, which was once one of the roughest areas in the Northeast," he adds. "If they can succeed, there's hope for us all."
More optimistic still is Eric Bellamaganya, the former graphic designer who fell so hard for the historic district that he not only moved here but also built a business around his passion. He helps find homes in the Northeast for the young professionals suddenly discovering the big houses at low prices.
Bellamaganya says he and his wife were living in a spacious downtown loft when his building was sold. "We looked at different downtown lofts," he says, "but they looked like suburban apartments: charmless. We had several friends who were moving to the Northeast, so we went looking and fell in love with the first house we saw."
For many of the newer residents of Pendleton Heights (and the nearby Scarritt and Independence Plaza neighborhoods), settling in a suburb is the last stop in an urban odyssey. Johnson was living the beige life in southern Indiana before a St. Patrick's Day visit to Kansas City drew her toward an impulsive decision. "The downtown was so alive and vibrant, and the streets were filled with people," she says. "I liked the idea of living in an urban area, so I moved here three weeks later."
Fleischman was raised in Lee's Summit. Local actor and Independence Plaza homeowner Ron Megee grew up in Olathe. Like Johnson, they've outgrown their apartment years, their loft daydreams. But they still want to be close to the city center, not kept away by long highway commutes.
They and their neighbors can walk to the City Market on Saturday mornings or drive five minutes to shop at the Power & Light District's Cosentino's Market.
In the years following the Civil War, neighborhoods like Pendleton Heights were developed to be as far away from the heart of the city as possible. By the 1880s, the exclusive enclave — appropriately named Quality Hill — on bluffs overlooking the West Bottoms was choked by fumes and foul odors rising from the stockyards and the fast-growing, noisy metropolis. So the well-heeled moved east, building elaborate mansions on Independence Avenue and bourgeois Victorians in the adjacent neighborhoods. It remained a solidly upper-middle-class quarter of the city until World War I.
"When the power elite started moving to Hyde Park and even further south," Bushnell says, "it became an exodus. That's where the money went. And when the Blue River Valley and the East Bottoms became more industrialized, this area quickly transitioned into a working-class neighborhood. There were suddenly steel mills, breweries, grain elevators. Factory workers could walk to work or grab a streetcar."
For decades, the population of the Northeast was made up of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants. It's still multicultural, with an ethnic palette that includes Mexicans, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Vietnamese and Central Americans.
There also are immigrants here from KC's gay and arts communities — a couple of overlapping groups among the Northeast's creative-class transplants.
Megee and his partner, costume designer Jon Fulton Adams, live in an 1884 Italianate house with a prominent turret. They're the social leaders of their neighborhood. After a couple of their fellow Northeasters — the artists Hector Casanova Cinderhouse and Renée Laferriere Cinderhouse — were married, Megee and Adams hosted a reception for them at their three-story home, which they call Chestnut House.
"We've never experienced any anti-gay hostility from any of our neighbors," Adams says. "It's been a very welcoming experience. And because of that, many of our friends have also moved into the Northeast." Adams and Megee convinced fellow local-theater brand names Kimberly Queen and Cody Wyoming to move close by. (A short roll call of other Northeast creatives includes restaurateur Patrick Ryan, photographer Nicole Cawlfield, and married artists Bryan Clark and Jenn Johnson-Clark. There's sculptor David Daleo and artist Jill Daleo, another couple. There's the fiber artist Taylor Triano.)
In 1976, another gay couple — Jim Miller and Joe Cecil — purchased a Pendleton Heights duplex. At the time, Miller worked the night desk at one of the hotels on the Paseo. (When a man wielding a lead pipe tried to rob Miller on the job, the petite, boyish-looking clerk shot the would-be robber, hitting him in the ass as he fled.)
"Everything was fine for the first five years," recalls Miller, who now lives in Texas. "Then, in 1980, we rented the second floor to a young African-American. He worked four blocks away and wanted to walk to work. What we didn't know — couldn't know — is that at the time, there was an unwritten rule that blacks were not supposed to live north of Independence Avenue.
"I lived in old Northeast back in the 1970s," says Judy Ancel, director of the University of Missouri–Kansas City's Institute for Labor Studies, "and I finally had to get out of there. There was no diversity in those days. It was all white. I had African-American friends who wouldn't come and visit me. The neighborhood scared them."
"After our tenant moved in, the hostility kicked in," Miller continues. "The young man didn't even stay a month. We had eggs and rotten meat thrown at our house, car tires slit, rocks thrown through our front window, the windshield smashed in our car. And then the angry phone calls started. It started as a racial thing, and it morphed into an anti-gay attack. The harassment continued for a year until it finally wore us down. We sold the house and moved to Brookside."
"That was over 30 years ago," Adams says. "The world has changed since then. And the Northeast definitely has."
Yes and no.
"You can't deny that Independence Avenue went through a long, long period of decline," Bellamaganya says. "But I believe that Kansas City is finally coming to its senses and realizing that the Northeast is a valuable asset that they have allowed to decay — by benign neglect — for decades. But crime statistics are down. Prostitution, too."
"Ron used to live in the Northeast, about 10 years before we bought our house, and he swears that the hooker population has dropped 90 percent," Adams says.
And then there are the schools. "The Kansas City schools have challenges no matter what side of town you're living in," Bellamaganya says. One of his two children is being home-schooled; the other attends a Catholic school in midtown. "There are a lot of carpools among the neighbors," he says.
"It is a quiet neighborhood," says Johnson, who spent two years restoring her 120-year-old house, which was filled "with years of trash and feces." She adds: "I loaded 10 Dumpsters with all the stuff we hauled out of here."
Johnson bought her home for less than $30,000 (a bargain helped by the fact that all the structure's plumbing had long since been ripped out). Today, it looks ready to be photographed for some glossy magazine.
Adams and Megee put their house on two credit cards. It was another Northeast bargain, meaning another fixer-upper. The home had been split up, in the 1980s, into five ugly apartments. Three years after they closed the deal, Megee and Adams are still working on the house; they've already restored it to its original, single-family layout.
"It's the value that's attracting younger homeowners," Bellamaganya says. "You can still find bargains if you're willing to look and willing to do the work. Pendleton Heights is the most desired location right now, but it has the most aggressively active neighborhood association and is well-positioned geographically. What people don't understand is that there are multiple neighborhoods in the Northeast, and each neighborhood is totally different. There's exceptional diversity at every price point."
"I fell in love with the area because it reminded me so much of the neighborhood where I lived in Brooklyn," Fleischman says. "Very diverse, very community-minded, very urban." Poertner, who hosted the March gathering in her solidly constructed home ("The same Italian family lived in it for over 80 years," she says), moved from Brooklyn with her boyfriend several years ago.
"We were visiting friends in Kansas City and we realized that, for the money we were spending on a tiny apartment, we could own our own big house. Bigger than anything we could ever afford in New York. So we moved to Kansas City and bought a house in the Northeast."
Bellamaganya knows right away when a potential client is wrong for the Northeast.
"You have to have a passion for this area," he says. "If you don't, you shouldn't come here. There are still a lot of lifelong residents living here, and I tell people, 'Don't come here if you're on the five-year plan. If you want to fix up a house and move on, don't move here.' "
Back on Poertner's front porch, Fleischman leans back in her rocking chair and whispers conspiratorially: "Come on, don't you want to move here and live near all these wonderful people?"
It's a tempting pitch, and she is a masterful saleswoman.
"Linda is one of the best things that ever happened to the old Northeast," Bushnell says. "She's convinced a lot of people to move here."
"It's not a sales thing," Fleischman says. "I'm a promoter. I'm just a conduit. I shine the light on anything fantastic."