Ragusa went, abandoning plans to become a fireman and taking on a job that his older brother had turned down, probably wisely. In 1990, the B&C Party Shoppe at 27th and Troost was a store under siege. Ragusa's new corner was the intersection of choice for drunks, who lined up in the alley behind. Prostitutes took their johns to the nearby vacant buildings. Drug dealers occupied the bus shelter. The surrounding neighborhood was in free fall. Tiny, neglected apartments provided a stream of new, unsavory renters as well as horrifying anecdotes: the woman who poured hot oil on her boyfriend, another who stabbed hers to death.
After forty years in the neighborhood, Ragusa's Italian uncle had lost his stomach for the battles. "He fought his fair share of them," Ragusa says. "He knew I had the youth, the strength to come in here."
For minimum wage, Ragusa worked 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week. The deal with his uncle offered a dubious reward.
"I knew I had the opportunity coming," Ragusa says. "I was going to own the store."
Ragusa's immediate task was to fire the manager his uncle believed had been stealing from him. Next was to restore order. One of his first customers grabbed a case of beer and told Tony to put it on his tab.
"How much do you owe?" Ragusa asked.
"Thirty or forty dollars," came the response.
"Now you owe me forty dollars," Ragusa said. "You are going to pay me the forty dollars. And if you think you can walk out of here with it, get walking."
The confrontation set the tone for Ragusa's business. Determined to protect his borders and his customers from the chaos around them, he went on the offense. He hired strongmen and gave them guns.
Ragusa and his men made the parking lot their garrison. Within it, they tolerated no drinking or loitering. Maintaining control was one thing on a freezing January day -- but quite another on a hot July night, when they had to tap on tinted car windows and ask the occupants to leave while dozens of people looked on. Ragusa fought a turf war on a daily basis.
"Don't tell me what to do. This is my corner," the men on the corner said.
Ragusa responded in kind: "No, that's where you're wrong. This is my corner."
The B&C Party Shoppe is a former 7-Eleven with a parking lot out front. Ragusa's uncle bought it in the early '80s when he moved from his original location across the street. Inside, a makeshift wall of wood and Plexiglas divides customers and employees. Four grocery aisles supply mostly chips and snacks as well as a few essentials, such as soup and diapers. Humming glass-doored refrigerators line the rim, cooling beer, sodas and Totino's frozen pizzas. Behind the counter are smaller, more easily stolen items and rows of liquor bottles.
For almost twenty years, the Party Shoppe has dispensed tiny bottles of gin and giant bottles of malt liquor along with loaves of bread, condoms and sticks of butter. Ragusa's prices are jacked up comparably to those in any convenience store: a loaf of Wonder costs $1.89, SpaghettiOs $1.19 a can, a package of ramen noodles 39 cents. Ragusa's sales break down to about 60 percent booze and 40 percent food -- and the prices include tax, which makes it easier on customers like the old man who counts out his quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies with cracked, crooked fingers. Counting twice, he slides $1.75 across the countertop in exchange for a small bottle of Barton's gin. The laminate, once green, is a rubbed paper-sack brown from so many coins, so many bottles of gin.
A buck seventy-five at a time, Ragusa has paid his uncle for the business. He made the final installment in 1997. From his own place -- opposite a tiny Chinese restaurant and diagonally across from another convenience store, the J&P Market -- he's given jobs to his two brothers, both of whom drive new cars and live north of the river. He's paid the medical bills for his daughter, born in 1992 with a diaphragmatic hernia. He's bought a 6,000-square-foot house with a view of Smithville Lake. The store grosses $800,000 a year, Ragusa says.
But Ragusa's run at 27th and Troost appears to be coming to an end. He's not being scared away by the dealers and crack whores. Instead, he is succumbing to a Troost redevelopment plan that doesn't include a corner liquor store. Pressure from city hall isn't easily fought with fists or shiny black guns.
Mary Williams-Neal moved to the Beacon Hill neighborhood in 1992, taking over as manager of the Courtyard Apartments, half a block south of the Party Shoppe. The seven sturdy brick buildings had been rotting from the inside out, and the more than eighty small units had attracted a destructive mix of dope dealers and poor people. Williams-Neal's management was part of a salvage effort by the Kansas City Neighborhood Alliance, a nonprofit organization that builds and renovates affordable housing for poor people. The Alliance renovated the apartments, slicing their number in half, and Williams-Neal's management brought a firm hand.
During her daily walks on Troost, Williams-Neal saw the same things Ragusa did: prostitutes, drug dealers and drunks. But rather than a lawful eye in the neighborhood storm, the Party Shoppe seemed to Williams-Neal to be one of the main problems.
"There was a lot of drugs and crime. Tony was contributing to that," she says.
Williams-Neal found allies in a group of neighborhood leaders who had remained committed to the area despite its decline. Organizing under the banner Hands Across Troost, they began to fight the image of Troost as the dividing line between blacks and whites in Kansas City. Hands Across Troost members came from both sides of the street and included residents of the Beacon Hill, Union Hill, Longfellow and Hawthorne Homes neighborhoods. They had success, forcing the 1994 closing and demolition of the Creston Place Apartments at 906 E. 30th Street.
The apartments were "drug infested, totally drug infested," remembers Ella Tolbert, president of the Beacon Hills Neighborhood Association and secretary of Hands Across Troost. "There were shots being fired all the time. It was just too bad."
With that success, the group turned its attention to enemy number two: Ragusa's store.
Under neighborhood pressure, Kansas City police investigated Ragusa. An officer set up surveillance from the vacant lot across the street. A drug dog sniffed the aisles and the crevices of the employee area. Officers found no truth to the neighborhood rumor that drugs were being sold inside the store. (Police had charged Ragusa with selling alcohol to a minor in a 1992 sting in which underage youths were sent into several Kansas City liquor stores. Fearing jail time, Ragusa pleaded guilty; a judge sentenced him to two years of probation, forty hours of community service and a $500 fine. Ragusa donated the money to Children's Mercy Hospital, which had treated his daughter. He put in more than the required forty hours, painting the bowling alley-turned-church next door.)
Still, the neighbors maintained a vigilante flair, lining up chairs on the sidewalk along 27th Street just east of the Party Shoppe, cooking hot dogs and harassing Ragusa's customers.
"Oftentimes we would confront certain persons who were going to the store," Williams-Neal says. Between prayers and songs, the neighbors offered business cards from a nearby counseling service or referred passersby to the Community Action Network center in the basement of the Courtyard Apartments. Their efforts earned some shouted curses and obscene gestures from passing cars. But they also seemed to prompt an attitude change on Ragusa's part, Williams-Neal says. "The history with the neighborhood was that [Ragusa] didn't care. I think at that point he decided he would work with us."
Ragusa donated $100 to Williams-Neal's victorious 1995 city council campaign and allowed her to put up campaign posters in his store. Over the years, he also attended some neighborhood meetings and donated hot dogs for police-sponsored youth events in the area.
His efforts did not make friends of his critics.
In 1998, Hands Across Troost took its battle to city hall. Ragusa's neighbors told tales of public urination, drinking and outdoor sex on the part of Ragusa's customers, and the neighbors persuaded Eldon Audsley, manager of the city's regulated industries division, not to renew Ragusa's liquor license. Ragusa rallied, recruiting a busload of people to testify on his behalf at a hearing of the Board of Liquor Review. The eight or so policemen who attended the hearing were split on the issue, an equal number testifying for and against the Party Shoppe. Ragusa earned his renewal. In its vote of support for Ragusa, the board said the shop owner shouldn't be punished for his customers' activities.
Ragusa made a few more changes. He added lights to the outside of his store, refaced the awning and changed the pay phone, installing an on-off switch inside the store and setting it up so people could only call out. But he remained an object of derision.
"I saw right then there was no pleasing these people," he says.
Beacon Hill has long been a neighborhood on the edge.
In the early part of the 1900s, the neighborhood was established as the southern boundary of Kansas City's black community. Having moved farther and farther south ahead of the migrating blacks, the city's whites drew their line in the concrete at 27th Street in the early 1920s. They marked their decision with a covenant: 112 white residents immediately south of 27th promised not to allow their property to be "owned, occupied or used by any person or persons of the Negro race or descent." The stipulation was to be included in deeds and leases into the 1950s.
Ella Tolbert was born in 1934 and grew up in Beacon Hill. She remembers a vibrant community of black professionals, doctors, lawyers and others who could afford the affluence of Troost. Segregation was a cloud, but one that held a silver lining in the unity it created for the black neighbors. The eventual removal of such segregating rules as the neighborhood covenant south of Beacon Hill allowed young blacks to leave their parents' large, aging homes behind.
Other members of the community were forced out in the '70s by demolition for Bruce R. Watkins Drive, and vacant land left by the road's subsequent delay contributed to the neighborhood's decline, Tolbert believes. Meanwhile, Kansas City's official north-south line of segregation at 27th Street rotated to an unofficial east-west line at Troost.
Today's Beacon Hill barely resembles the one of Tolbert's childhood. Some blocks boast two-story homes standing side by side with well-tended yards, but neglect is the norm. On opposite corners of Forest, formerly handsome shirtwaists stand on deserted lots, their masonry first floors supporting upper stories charred by fire. A stone retaining wall includes steps to an abandoned lot. Some empty houses sport new plywood to cover their windows, while others remain open to the elements and anyone looking for temporary shelter.
The idea of redeveloping Beacon Hill can be traced to a Washington, D.C., taxi in 1998. Crammed in the back seat were Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, city Director of Housing and Community Development Jim Vaughn and Bill Brown, director of the Kansas City office for Fannie Mae (a government-chartered private organization that helps people with low or moderate incomes afford homes). The men, who were attending an annual Fannie Mae meeting, wanted to replicate a program that had been working in Washington's Howard University area, where redevelopers had taken a neighborhood approach instead of financing individual homes. Kansas City became one of seven cities chosen by Fannie Mae for similar projects, and Beacon Hill was the beneficiary.
The men saw it as a way to put action into their rhetoric about fixing up Troost. Just the year before, Cleaver had babbled about making the neglected boulevard into a "forest of fountains."
And Beacon Hill, as forgotten as it had been, showed signs of potential. It's close to Crown Center and 18th and Vine. As it neared completion, Bruce R. Watkins Drive would serve as a transportation link and a buffer, isolating Beacon Hill from other troubled neighborhoods to the east. To the west, Hospital Hill had been growing. New housing in the form of the Longfellow Heights apartments brought more than 300 rental and townhome units for people with incomes between $12,810 and $57,860, filling a vacant lot across the street from the Party Shoppe. And University of Missouri-Kansas City officials have been planning to build medical-student housing in the 2400 block of Troost. "It's small enough to do good things in but not so large you get lost," Brown says of the neighborhood.
A combination of public and private funds will finance the $28.25 million Beacon Hill project: a $10 million loan from Fannie Mae guaranteed with federal grant money, $3.25 million in federal funds and an estimated $15 million in construction investments by the yet-to-be-named private developer.
To guide the initiative, Cleaver formed the Beacon Hill Task Force. It includes neighborhood representatives like Tolbert, elected officials like Williams-Neal, other city officials, bankers, real estate agents, and representatives from Fannie Mae and the Housing and Economic Development Financial Corporation. HEDFC, a nonprofit organization, will serve as developer, guided by a partnership called Beacon Hill Developers, which includes development powerhouses J.E. Dunn Co., Taliaferro & Browne Inc. and the Zimmer Cos.
The redevelopment area covers about two dozen blocks between 22nd and 27th streets from Troost to Paseo, a stretch where there are now houses, vacant lots, a few businesses, an abandoned hospital building and a couple of churches that will be allowed to stay. To replace buildings that have outlived their usefulness, the task force hopes to see 300 mostly single-family houses.
"Beachfront property," John Cyprus calls it. The tag is Cyprus' way of trying to change his neighborhood's image, but it seems an apt description from his second-floor porch, with its view of the downtown skyline framed by the ornate railings on bridges that arch across Bruce R. Watkins Drive.
In 1999, Cyprus paid $10,000 for his two-story 1890s Queen Anne Victorian. It took a visionary to see the vacant home's potential, but he had done similar rehabs before, buying an old home on Union Hill and restoring it before his new neighbors got the same idea and transformed the historic district from shambles to chic. "It was just time for a new adventure," Cyprus says of his move east.
His new home was a wreck. The fireplaces had been stripped of their marble. Piles of oak trim boards lay on the floor, apparently dropped there when someone was caught stealing them. The ornate wood exterior was rotting away. It took eleven Dumpsters to haul off the trash. The contents of what will be a twelfth -- old doors and rotten timbers -- remain in Cyprus' side yard.
He replaced the exterior wood and gave it nine colors of paint to fit its Victorian style; inside he saved the banister but removed the main floor walls to create a mauve-carpeted great room opening to the kitchen. The transformation is startling and is marred only by the sign in the front yard: "Smile, you are on camera."
Cyprus believes what happened at Union Hill can be replicated on Beacon Hill and that fundamental change will occur on the east side of Kansas City. Vacant lots will fill with new homes. Neighborhoods will recover.
Standing in the way is Ragusa, Cyprus says. "I don't think a liquor store is what I look for in my neighborhood," he says.
The redevelopment plan lets homeowners now living within its boundaries remain, though they'll need to fix up their houses; the plan provides special financing for older residents who can't pay for the repairs on their own. (When they sell or their heirs inherit their properties, the debt will have to be repaid.)
The well-connected Kenneth Bacchus, a former city councilman who now has a job with developer J.E. Dunn, says the goal is to save as many homes as possible in a range of prices, from the small bungalows along Flora and Vine to the two-story brick homes with their octagonal towers along Forest. The city will buy the remaining property, using eminent domain if necessary to force the owners to sell. Then the developers will redraw the neighborhood map, adding streets to break up the long, isolating blocks and building at least one park. It will be a "new urbanism"-style development, Bacchus says, with garages off back alleys and landscaped front yards. Builders will be lured with a promise of 12 percent return on their investment, Bacchus says, and the market will drive sales -- a rarity for inner-city residential property, which is more frequently brokered through nonprofit corporations that assist qualifying buyers who would, in truth, rather live somewhere nicer.
The city is already buying up the neighborhood properties; Edgar Jordan, the city's manager of property and relocation services, says he is trying to acquire 256 of them. He's reached agreements on 91, including forty that the county has seized in lieu of tax debt.
Jordan can negotiate only 10 percent higher than a property's appraised value, but he can kick in relocation money to help someone move to a comparable house.
The buyout works the same for businesses, except there's a catch: There is no relocation money, and the city buys only the building, not the business. Ragusa laughs at the $120,000 he's been offered.
Black handguns are ever-present at the Party Shoppe -- the clerk's in his holster, Ragusa's pitched onto the adding machine as he sits down, then, when he stands, picked up again and squeezed into his trousers, where the metal disappears into his paunch, overhung by the front of his untucked shirt.
Ragusa first drew his gun in 1995 in defense of Junior, a longtime employee who cleaned up and did odd jobs around the place. When Junior accidentally bumped a customer, the contact set the man off. He let fly with a tirade of racial epithets and curses. Then he started in on Junior's mother.
The man went outside but returned with a knife. "I'm going to cut your throat," he said.
"Put the knife down. You ain't cutting nobody, pal," Ragusa told him. Ragusa drew his .45. Then the man's mother came running in, saying, "Don't shoot him. Don't shoot him."
He also didn't shoot a few years later, when he was working with one of his brothers, Jack Weber, and a man stumbled through the door saying he had been robbed. Rather than sympathy, the man drew scorn from the gang at the Party Shoppe. They had seen him drinking with the skulkers outside and weren't surprised that the neighborhood men, having softened up their visitor with liquor, turned on him and took his money.
"I'm going to show you guys I'm no pussy," the man said as he left the store. When he came back a few minutes later, Ragusa yelled "Gun!"
Weber lunged across the counter, grabbing the man's wrist with one hand and shoving his own firearm into the man's chest.
"Shoot the motherfucker! What are you doing?" Ragusa yelled.
But the man's gun had already struck the bottom of the counter and fallen to the floor.
The store hasn't been robbed since Ragusa took over. And the moments of violence stand in contrast to the friendly banter from the raised stage behind the counter.
Weber calls his customers' names as they come through the door -- Tanashia, Tyrone, Ron, Dees, Sandra, Darrel, Arthur. When the name isn't quite there, "Mom" or "darling" will do.
"What did I tell you about smoking?" Weber says to a middle-aged woman, her stocking cap pulled down against the cold. "I'll get you to quit one of these days."
Smiling as she takes the cigarettes, the woman agrees. "He might be just the guy that can do it."
Two customers later, Weber takes the role of pusher.
"Cigarettes?" he asks a man who is buying a small bottle of gin. Weber explains that the man buys cigarettes each day for his mother. If he forgets, he returns grumbling.
Regardless of what neighbors like Cyprus and Williams-Neal say about him, Ragusa has his defenders.
"They don't understand what an asset he has been to us," says Doug King, a cop who until recently was stationed at the Community Action Network center a half-block away. "I try to explain it, but some of the people are just set in their ways."
King says Ragusa has allowed police to use his roof for surveillance, that he doesn't allow loitering in his parking lot and that Ragusa and his employees are the first to call police when trouble occurs. Often they are the only ones who call.
"Some other business owners around there don't do anything to help us out," King says.
Ragusa's help goes beyond 911 calls. King says a recent homicide investigation received a boost from Weber. King had shown him the picture of a woman police suspected of being involved.
"The next day Jack calls us. He says, 'Doug, Doug, Doug, this gal you were looking for, she's right outside the store. I tried to stall her,'" King says. And Party Shoppe employees will call the cops with specific tips about drug dealers: "Come up from the north side so you come up with his back to you."
King says that if all businesses and property owners were as watchful as Ragusa, the streets would be safer and King's job would be easier. But King says Ragusa's vigilance comes with some baggage. By selling booze, Ragusa draws trouble. "With any liquor store, you are going to have certain undesirable people who hang around," King says. Vacant buildings, however, draw the same crowd. "I think [Ragusa's] being looked at as maybe a scapegoat," King says.
Also on Ragusa's side is Paul Vitale, who owns J&P Market, Ragusa's main competitor. "It's not a fair deal," Vitale says. "Tony's been over there quite a while."
Vitale's father used to own a grocery store nearby, and Vitale can rattle off a list of grocery stores that once were in business within a few blocks: Jumbo's, Anne's, Jack's, Safeway, Food Bazaar, Joe and Tony's. All sold liquor. "There's always been booze here," Vitale says. "This isn't a hardcore neighborhood. It's really not."
Though he stands to gain business if the city lets him stay through the Beacon Hill redevelopment, Vitale worries that the project could just as easily reach across the street and grab him. "They take [Ragusa]. They are going to take the Chinese restaurant.... What's to say they are not going to take me?"
Ragusa had a showdown with Williams-Neal at the January 24 meeting of the city's Planning and Zoning Committee, on which Williams-Neal sits.
Kansas City Police Officer Steve Morgan took the unusual step of speaking on Ragusa's behalf. "Mr. Ragusa has done everything in his power to assist us in regard to narcotic sales and everything else that goes on in that neighborhood," Morgan told the committee members.
Williams-Neal was unmoved.
"The truth of the matter is the store needs to go," Williams-Neal says. "It is time for us to stand up for what's right in the area. It's not good for the children. It's not good for the families."
Ragusa counters that his customers appreciate him. "Her and twenty people don't want me," he says of Williams-Neal. "But 1,000 people a day -- they want me. I'm here. I'm steady. I'm the one that went to court. I'm the one that called these guys. Pay me my rightful money that I have coming. Give me $500,000 -- I'll move my store."
Sharon Dean, who lives in the area, spoke up against the Party Shoppe. "I've used the store at 27th and Troost, and it has been helpful at times," she told the committee. "They are right when they say he has been steady in the community. But the activity that is attracted to that community is also steady -- the drug users, the prostitution, people who loiter -- the people who make me nervous as I walk by or drive by at night."
The committee, which also includes Troy Nash, Bonnie Sue Cooper and Ed Ford, voted unanimously to recommend passing the urban renewal plan that will freeze assessed values for ten years and declare the area blighted, allowing the city to impose eminent domain. The recommendation passed the full council the next night.
In the official jargon of city hall, however, "blighted" is used to designate areas that are no longer viable. And that can't be said of the Party Shoppe. Ragusa isn't pretty, nor are many of his customers. But they are viable. They just don't fit the idyllic new image for Beacon Hill. In that picture, older people tend gardens in front of the small homes they've occupied for decades, next to pristine townhouses occupied by young professionals and their children, down the street from apartments filled with dental students -- and blacks and whites are oblivious to whether their address is east or west of Troost. There's to be no room for an Italian convenience store owner whose wares include a fair number of imports from Kentucky, Russia, Jamaica and Milwaukee.
Ragusa has not given up. He has a lawyer and is bent on "fighting it all the way to the end."
"People badmouth this neighborhood," he says, "but there's good people here. They're just as good as up north, down south, the Plaza. I want to stay where I'm at, where I learned how to do the business. I don't want to battle again."
But realistically, he knows the best he can hope for is a higher price for his building, which developers expect to have acquired by the end of the year. In the meantime, he's scouting a couple of vacant properties within a half-mile north and south on Troost. He says he wants to build a larger store with room for a deli and gas pumps outside. If Ragusa stays close, his customers will follow -- the old ladies who need soup, as well as the thirsty crack dealers.