So, for the past week, The Kansas City Star has presented the city’s best places to live in different sections of town. Now we can reveal the best of the best, the No. 1 cluster of neighborhoods overall.
It features charming architecture, home-grown shops and a sense of serenity. If you haven’t guessed it already, here’s a hint: It starts with a B.
No, not Brookside.
Kansas City’s top-ranked place: Briarcliff.
It’s that mixture of the older Briarcliff neighborhood and newer Briarcliff West development, all south of Vivion Road and west of North Oak Trafficway in the Northland.
Yes, North beat South. That’s one of the final surprises in The Star’s ratings of the city’s best neighborhoods. Kansas City’s Northland, long the brunt of jokes and burdened with an inferiority complex, can today pump its collective fist, thump its chest, and like in any big upset, paint No. 1 on its forehead.
"It’s a new world," said John Dillingham, a long-standing Northland civic leader. "It’s nice to see the Northland getting its due."
Of course, it’s heresy to urbanites.
"I would not choose to live there," said Kite Singleton, a well-known urban core architect and advocate. "I much prefer the urbanity and charm of Brookside."
In some regards, No. 1 Briarcliff and No. 2 Brookside are a lot alike. Both are mixtures of million-dollar mansions and middle-class bungalows. Both were planned, in part, by celebrated real estate developers. Both remain clean and stable and well-kept. And both have their own quaint retail shopping villages.
Yet what set Briarcliff apart in The Star’s analysis were also things Michelle Wagoner discovered when she and her husband looked there after deciding to move out of Brookside this year: Briarcliff, as the analysis confirms, is fresher, cheaper, roomier and calmer.
It’s safer, and it has more restaurants, shopping options and park land, when measured on a per-person basis. You get more house for the money, and the homes don’t break down as much. Plus, it’s hilly and filled with ribbons of green space as well as views of the downtown skyline.
In a nutshell, it’s a combination of plush and lush suburbia close to the middle of the city.
In fact, when The Star compared clusters of neighborhoods in 34 quality-of-life measures, Briarcliff finished in the city’s top 10 in half of them, more than any other neighborhood cluster by far.
"We had no idea until we looked up here," said Wagoner, a self-described Brookside-lover who moved as she and her husband were about to become empty nesters. "We were surprisingly thrilled. I didn’t know we’d like it so much."
Throughout this series on city neighborhoods, The Star ranked clusters of neighborhoods within each geographic section of the city. The purpose was to compare neighborhood clusters against their peers and not one part of town against another. Neighborhood leaders repeatedly told us they preferred it that way. So we are not providing citywide rankings -- except for the very top spots.
Still, there were other notable surprises besides Briarcliff in how neighborhood clusters ended up overall:
A decade ago, downtown wasn’t much more than a mix of office towers and vacant buildings. Today, it’s obviously rebounding. But who could have predicted its overall citywide ranking would be right below Brookside?
Yes, downtown can really be considered a neighborhood now. Once upon a time, Quality Hill and Crown Center were oases of new development. But this decade alone, the corridor from the Missouri River to 31st Street has added more than 3,150 housing units, good for more than 5,000 additional residents, scattered from Columbus Park to Union Hill.
"When you see more people and start recognizing your neighbors out on the streets, it feels like a neighborhood," said Brian Pitts, founder of the two-year-old Downtown Neighborhood Association.
Downtown’s character -- the charm of ornamental buildings, the glow of nightlife, the proximity to culture -- outweighed its drawbacks, such as a high rate of property crimes like vandalism. Contrary to popular perception, downtown even had plenty of retail services.
While suburbanites and tourists often consider the Country Club Plaza to be Kansas City’s "real" downtown, the actual downtown ranked ahead of it as a place to live.
Davidson and Big Shoal Valley
What are these? Where are these? Few city dwellers outside the Inner Northland probably know.
But they’re part of the Northland’s coming-out party in The Star’s ratings of neighborhood clusters.
If neighborhood clusters all across the city had been ranked against each other, Northland places such as Davidson and Big Shoal would have cracked the Top 10.
Davidson is home to the Northland Fountain and subdivisions like Davidson and Golden Oaks between Gladstone and the interstates. Big Shoal is just to the east, with subdivisions like Carriage Hill Estates and Ravenwood-Summerset that wrap around the southeast corner of Gladstone, and it’s home to Penguin Park with the giant statues of a penguin and a kangaroo on Vivion Road.
Davidson topped the Country Club Plaza overall. And Big Shoal generally outperformed the clusters of Roanoke, Hyde Park and the rest of midtown.
For years, the Northland has endured its share of slights. Like the time a southern city councilman referred to the Northland as "Montana," as in sparsely populated and rural-minded. And the period when newer Northland subdivisions couldn’t get telephone service, cutting them off from the world. Then there are the jokes about rednecks and rubes and gun racks.
"There’s always been a little ‘us versus them,’ a little inferiority complex," said Mike Burke, a longtime Northland political leader.
Now The Star’s quality-of-life measures establish a little superiority, or at least bragging rights.
They’re close-in, clean, safe, demographically diverse and offer a wide range of housing, from small ranches to parklike estates. That’s not necessarily exciting or fashionable, but it’s valuable in terms of quality of life.
"That’s very encouraging," said James Rice, executive director of Northland Neighborhoods Inc., an umbrella organization for the entire north side. "While we know we have some issues, especially some housing conditions under par, it’s good to know the inner neighborhoods have sustained themselves over a 50-year period."
This is Brookside’s much younger sibling. Legendary residential developer, the J.C. Nichols Co., planned Red Bridge with a similar template -- upscale homes surrounding a quaint, car-oriented shopping center.
Except Red Bridge wouldn’t have cracked the Top 10 if all neighborhood clusters across the city had been ranked against each other.
For sure, this group of subdivisions south of Interstate 435, including Verona Hills, Glen Arbor and Bridlespur, has a lot going for it -- low violent crime, high homeownership rate and residents who landscape and keep up their upscale Tudors and colonials.
But this decade, it has one of the city’s worst rates of retail losses, and the second-lowest housing appreciation of any part of the city.
Red Bridge’s plight mirrors the Southland’s in general: It seems to be slipping. It’s like a once-robust person getting a little sickly in old age.
Almost all of the Southland’s neighborhood areas have lost retail, especially around Bannister Mall. They’re also not attracting much new- or infill-housing construction to draw retail back. And in overall rankings of all neighborhood clusters citywide, most of the Southland finished below average.
"The trend in the Southland is unquestionably down," said Lou Austin, an attorney who is involved in the new Hickman Mills Area Plan. "A lot of people out here are in denial about it."
This ended up being the highest-ranked cluster of urban neighborhoods east of the Paseo, and if clusters had been ranked across the city, it would have finished right in the middle. That’s because it’s something of an urban-core oasis.
Swope Park encompasses neighborhoods like Foxtown, Gregory Ridge and Marlborough East. Of course, together they share some of the same long-standing challenges afflicting Kansas City’s other urban core neighborhoods: higher-than-average violence, declining home ownership, little new investment.
But the neighborhoods benefit from something other sections of town can’t duplicate: close proximity, even by bike, to the giant park itself, with its lakes, trails, fields, skateboard ramps and Frisbee golf course.
Teenager Todd Green lives a mile from Swope and goes there about once a month during the summer for family outings or birthday parties. He and other kids play soccer or volleyball or tag or run races in the wide-open spaces.
"It’s fun, a nice park, not tiny with just a little playground equipment," said the 16-year-old junior at Center High School. "I like the fact that it’s big and you have lots of space to do stuff."
The abundance of recreation helped propel Swope Park neighborhoods above some better-off sections of town overall.
Kansas City has a long history of white flight and precious few examples of mixed-race neighborhoods where whites and blacks work together for their common good.
Hickman Mills in south Kansas City is one such place, and its cluster of neighborhoods such as Stratford Estates, Ruskin Heights and Crossgates ended up middle-of-the-pack overall against all other clusters in the city.
Certainly, Hickman Mills -- south of Interstate 470 and east of U.S. 71 -- is suffering like the rest of the Southland: declining population, loss of retail, little recreation. Its school district also has had its share of racially charged troubles. Yet here, whites and blacks share leadership more than any other part of the city.
Of two elected state representatives, one is African-American. On the Hickman Mills school board are two African-Americans -- while racially mixed districts such as Raytown and Grandview have none. Hickman Mills schools also have the lone African-American superintendent on the Missouri side of the region.
And at Ruskin High School, ACT scores and graduation rates have improved this decade, all while the majority African-American student body has been led by a white principal.
"It is a refreshing situation to have diverse voices represented in leadership," said Diane Hershberger, executive director of Kansas City Harmony, which has trained the Hickman Mills school board in understanding diverse leadership styles. "It is absolutely valuable because different perspectives are at the table, not outside feeling left out."
DAY 8 OF 8
Find out how your neighborhood did in The Star’s livability measurements: Go to KansasCity.com for a searchable database. Also read previous installments and more.
HOW DID YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD DO?
How did your neighborhood rank in the nearly three dozen measurements The Star used in determining the city’s most livable areas?
Go to KansasCity.com to find out.
You’ll find a searchable database with a complete list of statistics and rankings for the city’s 42 neighborhood clusters.
Here are the top five neighborhood clusters in a few measurements:
Best violent crime
1. (t) Briarcliff
1. (t) KCI
3. Greenhaven-Big Shoal Valley
4. Winnwood-Searcy Creek Corridor
5. Metro North-Gashland
1. (t) Red Bridge
1. (t) Briarcliff
4. Nashua-Northern North Oak
Elementary school math scores
1. Shoal Creek Valley
2. Metro North-Gashland
3. Zona Rosa-East Weatherby Lake
5. Nashua-Northern North Oak
2. Red Bridge
3. Nashua-Northern North Oak
5. Breen Hills-Northwest 64th Street Corridor
Fewest traffic accidents
1. Nashua-Northern North Oak
2. Lakeview Terrace-East Line Creek
4. Shoal Creek Valley
5. Breen Hills-Northwest 64th Street Corridor