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.