April 6, 2005
Home for the homies
A few years back, then Councilman Paul Danaher said he didnt
care about Kansas Citys Westside because those people
dont 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 Danahers time, the Westside was disconnected
part of the citys Second District. The homeowners and residents
of the Westside, one of Kansas Citys most diverse neighborhoods,
didnt 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 citys 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,
Its too bad, and its 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 citys 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 dont 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.
Its a miracle anyone can agree on anything.
Thats why its 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 cant remember or havent seen
it, its a must.)
Thats 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 didnt 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 wasnt
consensus, because consensus means that everyones 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 Westsides 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
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 couldnt come in and run roughshod over their neighbors.
Its a good word. Neighbor. Its not someone thats always pleasant or thats 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. Shes someone who has to be dealt with as a human, whether she votes or not.
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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