The burglar thought he was being sly. He pulled quick hit-and-run jobs. But he couldn’t outrun e-mail.
This past spring, Kansas City’s North Patrol division received reports of a man in a wine-colored SUV stealing things like golf clubs out of open garages. So police e-mailed out a crime alert.
A neighborhood umbrella group for Briarcliff forwarded that e-mail to home association leaders, who forwarded it on to their members. Hundreds received it.
Within minutes, responses came back from residents who had seen that SUV parked at a roofing project in their neighborhood. Police swooped in and made an arrest.
That’s Briarcliff, where responses to crimes can be as swift as the crimes themselves. It’s no wonder the Briarcliff cluster of neighborhoods stands out from the rest of the close-in Inner Northland in The Kansas City Star’s analysis of the city’s best places to live.
"The bottom line is, neighbors have to help out and protect their neighbors," said Ralph Scott, a retired executive who heads the Briarcliff area umbrella group. "A lot of time, we can’t wait on the city."
In The Star’s series on city neighborhoods, we are profiling Briarcliff as the top-performing neighborhood cluster in a section of the city that we’re calling the Inner Northland. That’s the older Northland, generally south of Northwest 68th Street in Platte County and Northeast Pleasant Valley Road in Clay County.
Inner Northlanders have long lamented that they’re neglected by the city government. Most residential streets still don’t have curbs and storm drains, for example. The Star’s analysis confirmed that, indeed, the neighborhoods lacked resources and services.
But residents in this section of town have learned to make do -- by finding a way to do things for themselves.
Like with crime in Briarcliff.
This cluster is west of North Oak Trafficway between North Kansas City and Vivion Road. It covers not just the chic Briarcliff West but also the subdivisions of Claymont, Green Meadows and old Briarcliff. Last year, the Briarcliff cluster had 30 cases of burglary and vandalism per 1,000 residents, while the adjoining Davidson cluster to the north had more than double that rate.
This was no accident. Briarcliff residents keep crime down by doing everything from being nosy neighbors to clearing brush.
Northlanders call this "pride." It’s the pluck of the people, and it offers a lesson for other city neighborhoods: If you want things done in Kansas City, sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands.
"You see neighborhoods in the Northland take on responsibilities that the city could very well do," said City Councilwoman Deb Hermann, who represents the Inner Northland. "There’s a definite pride in ownership."
The Inner Northland consists of eight clusters of neighborhoods. From west to east, they’re Breen Hills, Lakeview Terrace-East Line Creek, Briarcliff, Davidson, Big Shoal Valley, Crestview-Chaumiere, Searcy Creek Corridor and Gracemor.
In age and character -- mostly ranches and split-level homes built after World War II -- the neighborhoods could fit into older parts of suburbs like Lenexa or Prairie Village or Blue Springs.
Like those suburbs, The Star found these neighborhoods to be safe, stable and mature. The Big Shoal Valley cluster ranked in the top 10 citywide for fewest violent and property crimes. Breen Hills was No. 5 in owner-occupied housing. Crestview-Chaumiere was No. 6 in fewest traffic accidents.
But these neighborhoods also have attributes not always found in the suburbs -- close proximity to highways for zipping around town, a country-like feel from greenery and wide setbacks along thoroughfares such as Chouteau, plus a good balance of housing prices and apartment offerings.
Being in the city has its down side, though -- namely, being part of a big, bureaucratic government that never seems to have enough money. Just about every city neighborhood and every part of town feels it’s shortchanged by City Hall, but the Inner Northland may have the best case to make.
"People north of the (Missouri) river are always led to believe something is going to come our way, and it seems like it never happens," said James Cianciaruso, planning director of Northland Neighborhoods Inc., which aids neighborhoods there.
When The Star looked at quality-of-life measures, Inner Northland neighborhoods came up short in a whole host of city services.
As a group, they’re generally near the bottom in recreation offerings, from swimming pools to fishing lakes. They’ve mostly received below-average capital improvements funding in recent years through the Public Improvements Advisory Council. They’ve even had more water-main breaks than most other parts of town.
Over the years, neighborhood leaders have just learned to live with it. And they’ve learned if they want the city’s help, they better come up with their own plan.
So when Gracemor east of Interstate 435 couldn’t get storm drains, residents hired an engineer to tell them how to grade the ground around their foundations and keep water away.
When Golden Oaks wanted a new playground off Antioch Road, but all the city would do is buy the equipment, the residents got together and installed the equipment.
And when elderly couples in Greenhaven near Antioch Mall become too feeble or sick to keep up their yards, the neighborhood association doesn’t wait for the city to do the mowing but instead gets it done with the association’s own tractor.
"We do it because it makes our houses all look better," said Greenhaven president Dwight Sampson. "We’ve got a lot of pride."
Then there’s Briarcliff. Pride takes several forms here.
Look at the Briarcliff West development: Elegant homes with two-story-tall front columns and steep slate roof lines, mirroring the look and feel of Hallbrook or Loch Lloyd out south. Ongoing construction of condominiums with views of the downtown skyline. Plus a newly opened shopping "village," with narrow storefronts of varying heights and colors copied from the Tuscany region of Italy.
"We’ve had a focus on creating something really unique to Kansas City," said Nathan Hagedorn, the development’s project manager.
The neighborhoods across U.S. 169 are different in their own way.
Drive through the narrow, winding, hilly streets and you’ll see an eclectic mix of split levels, Cape Cods, Colonials, Tudors, modern stucco-and-stone two-stories, even one-car-garage ranches. Most front yards aren’t big enough for a good game of catch, but few places in the city or suburbia offer such a variety of architectural styles.
That’s one of Briarcliff’s strengths -- and there are plenty of others.
In The Star’s analysis, it was high in elementary school test scores, thanks to Briarcliff Elementary. It was low in commute times, being minutes from highways and downtown. And it ended up tops in the city in housing conditions, with University of Missouri-Kansas City surveyors not finding one home that rated substandard, as in sagging gutters or uncut lawns.
That remains impressive to Briarcliff’s most notable resident, Mayor Kay Barnes, who moved there earlier this decade after more than 40 years in Brookside and Waldo.
"Everything around you is maintained to high standards, and that creates a particularly livable environment," the mayor said.
This sense of pride turns into vigilance when it comes to crime.
In the 1990s, this area was a hotbed for break-ins. On the west end, the property crime rate in Briarcliff West exceeded the city average at one point. On the south end, Waterworks Park was labeled a haven for drugs and prostitution.
This decade, the Northland Community Alliance formed among Briarcliff’s neighborhoods. It built an e-mail alert network, putting a modern spin on the old-fashioned neighborhood watch. It organized volunteers to clear brush and trim trees in the park to limit hiding places for criminals. It even worked with a neighborhood across North Oak so less crime would spill back into Briarcliff.
It’s paid off. Property crimes in the Briarcliff clusters have declined about 50 percent so far this decade, the second-best drop in the entire city. Residents are so watchful now that once when a homeowner left her car running and her car door open in front of her house, a neighbor called her cell phone to make sure she was OK.
Of course, as with any city neighborhood, Briarcliff has some shortcomings.
It doesn’t have a city swimming pool, community center or many other recreational amenities. And its housing appreciation ranked at the bottom of city neighborhoods. In fact, the older Briarcliff-Claymont area is one of the few places in the city where average home prices declined from 2001 to 2005.
That may be a case of those neighborhoods still being somewhat undiscovered.
Said Curtis Stock, a Re/Max real estate agent on North Oak: "People have a tendency to drive right by it."
Maybe not anymore.