April 6, 2005


Home for the homies

by Patrick Dobson

A few years back, then Councilman Paul Danaher said he didn’t care about Kansas City’s Westside because “those people don’t vote.” That has changed. Little did Danaher realize the people of the Westside had power, a lot of it, whether they voted or not. Just recently, they showed that again by telling big-deal developers to shop elsewhere for a view.

Of course, in Danaher’s time, the Westside was disconnected part of the city’s Second District. The homeowners and residents of the Westside, one of Kansas City’s most diverse neighborhoods, didn’t stand a chance against the development achievements and promises of their wealthier, flashier and whiter — not to mention suburban — neighbors north of the river.

Since Danaher left office, thank God, the city’s been rearranged and the Westside now belongs, more aptly, to the Fourth District — a contiguous voting district from I-70 south to 89th Street and from Stateline to Troost. And since Danaher, the Westside has been discovered again, this time not by artists and bohemians but by renovators looking for a cheap house. This was a sometimes-painful adjustment Westsiders had to make from time to time, incorporating these new residents — often with very different ideas of what the urban environment should be — into their quiet, sometimes rough-edged community.

This time, however, high-end developers who have little interest in anything Westside, except a view of the Bartle Hall badminton birdies, have invaded.

It’s too bad, and it’s damn good. In many ways, the manner in which a neighborhood adjusts itself to its immigrants relates to its longevity. The Westside, as a forgotten neighborhood on Silk Stocking Ridge west of downtown, was an enclave for the working class. Historically associated with the city’s Hispanics due to the prevalence of the railroad and nearby meatpacking from mid-20th century onward, the neighborhood has always had a diverse population. According to the 2000 census, Ward 1 had a Hispanic population of 63 percent. The black population was 8.6 percent, the Native population 1.6 percent, Asians 1.1 percent, and the rest, about a quarter, was white.

But the racial numbers don’t do the neighborhood justice. The numbers take into account neither the presence of Hispanic families in the neighborhood or the United States for generations. Nor are there census accommodations for foreign-born Hispanics, whites, Asians or the differences of worldview of someone from somewhere in Chiapas, Hong Kong or Mexico City.

In other words, the neighborhood is distinctly Westside, a regional phenomenon born of the neglect of city infrastructure, bad government, inner power structures and internecine strife.

It’s a miracle anyone can agree on anything.

That’s why it’s good the bad guys showed up. In a fit of largess, the city appropriated a good bit of its own funds for a giant condo project at the corner of 16th and Summit. Great view. Wonderful sale prices. Who would have thought the developer would have needed all that Tax Increment Financing? But both the TIF Commission and the city council thought so, and off the developer went on to build a cellblock worthy of housing Charlton Heston in his 1971 sci-fi post-apocalyptic classic, Omega Man. (If you can’t remember or haven’t seen it, it’s a must.)

That’s when Westsiders decided that the 1997 FOCUS plan for the neighborhood should be implemented. It had been on the table since a series of neighborhood meetings in the mid-1990s. The neighborhood plan therein recommended that the neighborhood continue to preserve its residential/family character. This would include rezoning the area from R4, which allows multi-story/multi-family dwellings, to R2 or R1, which would allow only duplex or single-family dwellings.

Suddenly block captains appeared. Long-time Westside residents joined together at the Tony Aguirre Community Center, at La Posada Del Sol and at individuals’ homes to pour over zoning maps covered with parti-colored lines and blotches showing who had agreed to what. They discussed who owned what property where. People began to say whom they knew and didn’t know on their blocks, and how they were willing to get involved.

In other words, many Westsiders decided to get to know their neighbors a little better. And out of the process came an agreement. It wasn’t consensus, because consensus means that everyone’s ideas get mainstreamed into something others can swallow. Instead, it was an agreement that came out of the turmoil of opposing opinion given and taken with great respect.

Nobody could hear well in the interior of La Posada Del Sol, the retirement home on the top of Irish Hill on Summit Street between 17th and 18th. Sound reverberated through the atrium, forcing people to yell, shush each other and yell again. The group of about 150 people was about half of total population of the Westside’s North End, and about 10 percent of the total Westside population. The zoning map at the front of the group changed and changed again. Hands rose, questions shouted and a few half-elected, half-selected, all-approved leaders tried to answer questions.

In the end, the meeting lasted about an hour and half. Conversations went around the group and within. There was about as much order to the meeting as wheat chaff in a storm. But in the end, everyone voted. Then, as many people as could went to the city council to present their case.

The outcome was just this: The Westside North End was rezoned for single-family housing. Anyone who wanted to build a house there could build a house however they wanted. It could look the way they wanted it to look. They could live like Charlton Heston in the Omega Man if they wanted. They could build a Philip Johnson box of glass and live in that naked if they wanted.

But they couldn’t come in and run roughshod over their neighbors.

It’s a good word. Neighbor. It’s not someone that’s always pleasant or that’s liked. A neighbor is not someone who lives next door to the starter house, but the guy next door who hangs colorful glass bottles on his fence, has a windmill to generate electricity or puts concrete heads in his yard. She’s someone who has to be dealt with as a human, whether she votes or not.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at 



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