Photographer Matt Rahner of Columbia, MattRahner.com, documented a four-block section of the Wendell Phillips neighborhood in Kansas City that was demolished to make room for the new East Patrol crime lab. Over the course of two years, Rahner met, photographed and collected the stories of residents who were forced to leave their homes. The neighborhood, bounded by Prospect Avenue, Brooklyn Street, and 26th and 27th streets, had 43 occupied homes, all but one built between 1892 and 1917. Some families had lived there for four generations. Rahner’s exhibit, “Eminent Domain,” is at Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., KCLibrary.org, through May 31. His presentation is 6:30 p.m. May 28 at the library. This conversation took place at the exhibit:
You live in Columbia. How did you find out about this Kansas City neighborhood being condemned and destroyed?
I read an article in The Pitch called “Blight Flight,” and it piqued my interest enough to come and investigate it myself. I’ve always been interested in eminent domain.
My grandfather, my dad’s dad, lived in Kansas City, Kan., and in the 1960s he lost a building he owned because they were putting in a civic building.
He had his dental practice in the basement and rented out the upstairs rooms, so it was going to be his income after he retired.
He was forced to sell his building for pennies on the dollar. That was before a lot of laws were put in place about that. It was really hard on the family. He died of a heart attack less than a year later, and he was only 52. It’s hard to say why, but the family always thought the stress played a role.
How did you approach photographing the people who were losing their homes?
It started out as a portrait project. The first photos were not very good, but slowly I developed a language where the subject was centrally located in the frame, either in the home or right outside the house.
Then all the people moved out, and it became more about the houses.
When you began this documentation, was your motivation art or raising activism?
(Pause.) I pretty much knew I couldn’t help stop this thing. It was already set in motion. People had already moved away.
For me it was just capturing the people who were left and their story and their connection to a place. Because when a place like this is lost, so is the history of the place.
Which people stayed the longest?
I think the people who were the last to leave had the most connection to their house. Many were the fourth generation in the house or had lived in the house 40 years or more.
One woman, Ameena Powell, grew up in the neighborhood, and there is a statue of her dad, Bernard Powell, in the park (Spring Valley, at East 28th Street and Brooklyn Avenue) because he was a community activist, and he was murdered when she was 2 years old.
What surprised you most about your encounters with these people?
They were all very strong in the face of adversity. They dealt with it as positively as possible, even though it was a wrenching thing, having to find a new home. I was surprised most of them were happy I was there and wanted to tell me about their house.
What is this brick in the display case?
(Authorities) handed them out to City Council members and architects at the groundbreaking for the crime lab. It says, “Investing in our community, one brick at a time.” I found that ironic, because they tore down so many homes that were made out of brick and hauled the bricks to the trash dump. I thought it was surprising that they would be so bold as to print that and hand them out.
How do you respond when people say eminent domain is always sad when people lose their houses but without it we wouldn’t be able to build freeways and new buildings that are needed?
I agree that it is sometimes necessary. But there’s a way to do it right. You need an equitable selection process, and you need transparency. You need input from the community.
In this case they said they looked at 24 sites, but Ameena Powell, who is pursuing a lawsuit against the city, says she has found no documentation of any other sites being considered.
So it looks like a land grab, to take this viable neighborhood, where people were rehabbing homes and the percentage of blighted homes was relatively low. If you drive past the site today, it is 24 acres in the middle of a pretty densely populated urban area.
It is a huge building with huge setbacks. Maybe if you had built up instead of out, you wouldn’t have had to take 24 acres. The building only encompasses seven.
You think it doesn’t fit in with its setting.
Not at all. If you think about, as you spread out from the center of Kansas City, the storefronts get farther and farther from the street. In this part of town, the building should still be closer to the street.
This neighborhood had more than 100 beautiful mature trees, and they just razed everything and then planted new trees in sculpted islands around parking lots. It seems backwards to destroy this neighborhood that is viable and put this suburban-looking campus in there.