Kansas Citians think their neighborhoods are going downhill.
In surveys year after year, residents’ satisfaction levels have plunged. Their feelings about safety, city services, the overall quality of life -- they’re all down, down, down.
So this may come as a surprise: Kansas City neighborhoods are actually doing a lot better since 2000.
Beginning today, The Kansas City Star kicks off an eight-day series on the state of Kansas City’s neighborhoods. It starts with the first-ever neighborhoods report card, perhaps the most thorough analysis of livability trends ever done in the city.
This covers three dozen quality-of-life trends, things like crime rates and school test scores, street conditions and retail growth, even traffic accidents and water-line breaks.
What it reveals: More than 60 percent of all the trends show improvement this decade.
Consider what’s happened since 2000 in a majority of neighborhoods. Violent crime has dropped. The number of streets pockmarked with potholes is lower. Most parts of town have more restaurants. Even the number of neighborhood block parties is up.
In essence, neighborhoods may be better off but residents don’t feel that and don’t believe that.
"It doesn’t surprise me," Mayor Kay Barnes said. "There’s a lag time often between how people perceive things and when they get better. Even if they see it with their own eyes, it doesn’t register for a while."
Now maybe it will.
The Star’s analysis covers neighborhoods within the city limits, not in the suburbs. The paper ranked the top suburbs in the metropolitan area last year. But suburbanites still have a big stake in how well city neighborhoods are doing.
That’s because while many people perceive cities and suburbs as entirely different worlds, the truth is they often prosper or decline together. Demographic researchers are finding ever-stronger connections, whether looking at population or property values: As a city goes, so go its suburbs.
"The more attractive the city is as a place to live, the more attractive the whole metro area will be, and that will draw more jobs and growth for everyone," said Jordan Rappaport, an economist who wrote about the shared fortunes of cities and suburbs for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City last fall.
The heart of Kansas City, downtown, is beating a lot faster today. Look what’s being built: a new arena, an entertainment district, the long-awaited performing arts center, and down the road a few miles, renovations at the twin sports stadiums.
That progress can be seen and measured in terms of construction cranes and steel girders. But how is progress measured in neighborhoods?
It hasn’t been. According to city and neighborhood leaders, no organization has systematically tracked neighborhood performance. The city has 240 recognized neighborhoods, but they are too small in size to compare.
So The Star, after consulting with neighborhood leaders and city researchers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, grouped neighborhoods into 42 larger clusters. Then we compiled statistics for those clusters and for the city as a whole.
That provides proof for the kinds of progress that some residents are already seeing.
Look at Washington Wheatley near 18th and Vine. Residents for years didn’t feel comfortable doing the simplest things outside, like sitting on their porches, because of the rampant and rising violent crime.
But now someone like Barbara Mack-Johnson, president of a block club on Agnes Avenue, drives around and sees more people out walking, more senior citizens working in their yards, even more homeowners on their porches after dark.
"This is the best-kept secret in Kansas City, that things have gotten so much better," Mack-Johnson said.
Indeed, while homicides spiked last year and raised alarms in some parts of the city, crime overall is on a long-term decline that is touching nearly every neighborhood in Kansas City.
Violent crimes, including rapes and assaults, have dropped this decade in more than 70 percent of neighborhood clusters in the urban core. They’re down 24 percent around the 18th and Vine district and in Grandview Triangle neighborhoods just west of U.S. 71.
But that’s just a small part of The Star’s neighborhoods report card. Here are other trends:
Average ACT test scores in public high schools have increased in 55 percent of neighborhood clusters. For example, East Side neighborhoods such as Blue Valley improved thanks in part to Van Horn High’s 5 percent increase in ACT scores so far this decade.
The net number of restaurants has grown in 56 percent of neighborhood clusters. Take a drive now along Independence Boulevard in the Northeast area, and there’s an assortment of ethnic eateries, from Vietnamese to Haitian, serving the growing immigrant population.
More than two-thirds of neighborhood clusters have gotten cleaner, based on annual litter surveys done by Bridging the Gap, a local environmental organization. The litter rating around the Swope Parkway Corridor on the southeast side has dropped by 22 percent just in the past three years.
The city is resurfacing 19 percent more miles of streets a year than at the dawn of the decade. One such stretch of road is the 5300 block of North White Avenue in the Maple Park neighborhood. It had ruts and dips and uneven patches of asphalt from water main repairs. Residents didn’t even like walking on it. Then it got repaved.
"It’s much nicer," said Georgene Harkrider, who lives on the block. "You don’t have to look down with every step and worry about stepping in a hole or a crack or something."
All these trends on the upswing represent a real resurgence in city living conditions. Taken together, they add up to a healthier, safer, better-looking and more stable city.
Except some city folks just don’t believe it.
Activist Cynthia Canady, who lives in a neighborhood with high crime, low services and generally poor conditions, put it this way: "I live on the East Side, and as far as I’m concerned, all of this is down."
Going it alone
Certainly, some of those upward trends have not reached her neighborhood. Other parts of town aren’t seeing some of the improvements either.
The city may be safer, for instance, but not in the Shoal Creek Valley way up north around Hodge Park. There, as the population has jumped more than 50 percent this decade, so has the total number of property crimes such as burglary and vandalism. Now Shoal Creek’s property crime rate is higher than in urban sections like Hickman Mills out south and 49-63 straddling Troost Avenue.
Likewise, the home ownership rate -- an important signal of investment and stability -- is rising in most neighborhoods, but not in Helen Bryant’s Swope Parkway-Elmwood neighborhood south of Brush Creek. While the streets are cleaner there, the blocks are dotted with empty houses, some of them rentals or foreclosures from real estate speculators who have been indicted for inflated housing appraisals.
"We’re stuck with these holes in our neighborhood," Bryant said.
And in myriad ways, the city government isn’t helping out much.
In The Star’s compilation of neighborhood trends for this decade, one general group of indicators was mostly down -- city spending on neighborhood services. Of nine services studied, the city was spending less money on six, after adjusting for inflation.
Money for demolishing abandoned buildings was 34 percent lower. Spending for cutting weeds and mowing vacant lots was 46 percent lower. The number of property code inspectors was 31 percent lower.
"Since 2000, we’ve been kind of in a cutback mode" because of a recession and a general lack of focus on neighborhoods, said David Park, assistant director of the city’s Neighborhood and Community Services Department.
That helps explain why Kansas City residents are feeling so down about their city. Most of the questions on annual citizen satisfaction surveys relate to city services.
The proportion of residents satisfied with the city’s property maintenance enforcement tumbled from 30 percent at the beginning of the decade to 19 percent last year. Satisfaction with overall city services plunged from 55 percent to 40 percent.
So if, as The Star’s research shows, city neighborhoods overall are on the upswing, then it’s happening without a lot of help from the city government.
Before leaving office last month, City Auditor Mark Funkhouser summed it up this way: "Neighborhoods are doing better despite worse city services generally."
Why, then, are neighborhoods doing better this decade?
For one thing, societal changes have worked in the city’s favor. Downtown’s resurgence and the charter school movement have boosted confidence in urban living.
For another, more neighborhood organizations have taken matters into their own hands to improve their quality of life. In some cases they’ve even taken on responsibilities normally expected of the city government.
Sheraton Estates north of Swope Park got tired of waiting after calling the city to mow overgrown grass around empty houses. Now a resident with a riding mower does it.
The Kansas City Church Community Organization got into the housing rehab business after the collapse of the city’s housing contractor.
And in Greenhaven near Antioch Mall in the north, residents tired of poor street drainage decided to pay for culverts under their driveways.
"If you have strong neighborhoods, you’re going to see changes," said Lynda Callon, a West Side community coordinator and president of the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Council. "It really depends on whether a neighborhood can pull it together."
Many have. While The Star’s series on neighborhoods kicks off today with a look at the city as a whole, we’ll focus the next seven days on individual success stories.
We will profile clusters, or contiguous groups, of neighborhoods in different sections of Kansas City, from the historic central city to the outer reaches of the Northland. We’ll show why those clusters of neighborhoods are top performers and what lessons can be learned from them. In one case, it’s perseverance. In another it’s a heightened sense of pride.
Finally at the very end, next Sunday, we will unveil the city’s No. 1 cluster of neighborhoods and disclose how neighborhood clusters rank against each other all across the city.
This should go a long way toward resolving some of the oldest -- and newest -- debates about the best places to live in the city. There are so many to choose from.
Are the Midtown’s architecturally distinctive neighborhoods better than any older, closer-in parts of the Northland?
How does downtown, which has been down so long, now stack up as a neighborhood?
And is there any doubt that Brookside is the best overall?
The results may surprise you.
part 1 of 8
What are the most livable neighborhoods in Kansas City? This series will tell you.
Today, The Star presents a report on the overall health of neighborhoods. Beginning Monday, the newspaper will focus on one section of the city each day and identify the top neighborhood cluster there.
Then, next Sunday, we’ll reveal the top cluster in the entire city.
ABOUT THE SERIES
"Rating Our Neighborhoods" is the result of a yearlong effort by Jeffrey Spivak, with help from several other reporters, to measure the quality of life of city neighborhoods.
The Star modeled the analysis on "Rating the ’Burbs," a project Spivak did last year ranking the quality of life in Kansas City suburbs. That series won the Community Service award from the Missouri Press Association.
A close look at Kansas City neighborhoods was the task this year and it presented several new challenges. The city has 240 neighborhoods, and almost all are too small to compare statistically. So Spivak’s first step was to meet with neighborhood leaders, city officials and researchers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City to determine how to combine tiny neighborhoods into bigger clusters so they could be compared.
Spivak then spent months gathering statistics that would help measure the livability of each cluster. Paula Shorter, an associate mathematics professor at Rockhurst University, advised him and did the sophisticated math to convert the raw data into a point system.
The results, which we’ll print over the next eight days, will tell you about several of the best neighborhood areas in Kansas City.
Day by day
Today: Contrary to public opinion, neighborhoods in Kansas City generally are getting better.
Monday: The best neighborhood cluster in the Southwest Corridor.
Tuesday: The top cluster in the Historic Central City -- an area basically north of Brush Creek and east of Troost Avenue or the Paseo.
Wednesday: The top cluster in the Inner Northland, generally south of Northwest 68th Street in Platte County and Northeast Pleasant Valley Road in Clay County.
Thursday: The best cluster in the Southland.
Friday: The top cluster in the Outer Northland.
Saturday: The best cluster in the Southeast Side.
Sunday: The very best cluster in the entire city, plus some surprises -- places that may have ranked better or worse than you thought they would.
ABOUT THE STAFF
Reporter Jeffrey Spivak writes about civic projects and metropolitan trends. During his 20 years at The Star, he has covered city and suburban governments. He was a Pulitzer Prize runner-up for co-writing "Divided We Sprawl," a series of articles about urban decline and suburban growth in the Kansas City region. In addition to his newspaper work, he is author of the recent book, Crowning the Kansas City Royals, about the city’s last championship baseball team, and also Union Station Kansas City.
Spivak received a journalism degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and earned a master’s in business administration at the University of Kansas.
Allison Long has been a photojournalist at The Star since October 2002.
Long, a Lousiville, Ky., native, graduated from the University of Florida and has worked at newspapers in Biloxi, Miss., and Tallahassee, Fla., winning awards for her coverage of childhood disease and animal welfare. She went to Afghanistan this year to report on the service of local troops.
Edited: Craig Nienaber, government editor
Design: Charles W. Gooch, page one designer
Graphics: Dave Eames, graphic artist
Copy editor: Terry Albright