The Kansas City, Missouri, Dangerous Buildings Demolition and Preservation Division's records don't show what 5311 Bellefontaine looked like before it was demolished, but chances are it was a single-family, one-story residence like the rest of the houses on the block. Now, it's just another example of the unofficial parkland in the city's ailing east side.
Like 1512 Lawn.
Like 5601 College.
Like 1521 East 39th Street.
Like 3846, 3811 and 3813 Prospect.
Like another dozen dilapidated properties allowed to rot until the city ordered them demolished. All of them owned by Richard Tolbert.
Tolbert has lots of spaces to mow, but he hasn't owned a lawn mower in over two years. "Neighbors get upset, but then, they're the ones egging the city on to tear the houses down. So let 'em live with it," Tolbert says of his many east side turf gardens. "At one of my houses [at 20th and Agnes], the neighbors are very vociferous in claiming that the weeds on my property are hurting their property values. And I tell them, you have my permission to cut my weeds if you think they're hurting your property values."
At 61 years old, Tolbert is in good enough health to run a lawn mower. Instead, he starts most mornings off early at the McDonald's on 14th Street and Prospect, holding court with other older patrons who gather to discuss the news of the day. Tolbert usually shows up in a navy-blue collared shirt, his appointment book and a pen stuffed into the breast pocket. His jeans look worn, but if they're worn from working, it's work that his neighbors rarely see.
At these meetings and elsewhere at his regular public appearances, Tolbert claims to be an anti-establishment advocate for the east side. He often lands in the media as a spokesman for anti-tax campaigns; he gave regular sound bites earlier this year against the new stadium tax. He's also a chronically unsuccessful candidate for office most recently for county executive.
But, in fact, Tolbert has done more to contribute to the east side's blight than to help the neighborhood. He has amassed $100,000 in unpaid taxes and fines from the city's office of codes enforcement. He has allowed at least 16 of his houses to deteriorate enough that the city took the drastic step of demolishing them. He has filed numerous frivolous lawsuits and bankruptcies and has cost the government incalculable legal bills. Tolbert even spent four months in jail after arguing with code inspectors. He alleges he intended to fix up the properties, but neighbors have watched as Tolbert turned his land into weed-filled junkyards.
In his defense, Tolbert talks of a conspiracy against him. When asked about the city's efforts to fine him and tear down houses he refuses to fix, he sounds like a rebellious teenager. "Their attitude is, they're gonna make me do it," Tolbert chuckles, in regard to mowing. "They don't know me very well. You want me to do something, you gotta lead me with a carrot and stick and whisper and lick my ear and tell me you love me. I don't let anyone beat me into doing anything."
At the beginning of his political career, many looked to Tolbert to be this city's first black mayor. He has a pair of degrees from Yale University and is widely regarded as a skilled orator with a brilliant mind. But like the properties he has amassed, his grand ideas become overrun with weeds.