On a Saturday in April, five tour buses carried into several urban neighborhoods 160 people curious about talk of revival.
They rumbled past vacant lots and dilapidated housing to reach historic Spring Valley Park.
Upon arriving at 27th Street and Woodland Avenue, the view brightened across 33 acres. Scenic and well-tended, Spring Valley boasts a newer padded playground, a walking trail, a popular shelter and a pyramid made of ropes for climbing.
In late May, fountains in the play area will burst to life, spraying youngsters from vertical jets at their bare feet.
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In the valley below, they can fish at a lake designed for children.
And on opposite ends of the park, two spruced-up baseball diamonds show where Frank White learned to play the game as a child.
“The activity down there used to be suspect” until recent years, said the former Royal and current Jackson County executive, who grew up two blocks east of Spring Valley. “Now you have families and church groups using the shelters on a regular basis.
“Fishing derbies, book fairs, Easter egg hunts. ... A few years back, the park hosted the first baseball teams playing in uniforms in 35 years.”
Before then, around 2010, parents of a youth shot and killed there were urging the city to close Spring Valley.
Some credit for the turnaround goes to the city for issuing almost $1.5 million in public improvement grants. Some credit goes to the neighborhood group Key Coalition and its president, Karen Slaughter (whose husband played ball with White when both were boys), for organizing cleanup projects and safety meetings to address crime concerns.
Some credit goes to the Police Department’s new East Patrol Division for locating just north of 27th and Prospect.
Sponsoring the first-of-its-kind bus tour was Urban Neighborhood Initiative Kansas City, a nonprofit formed by the United Way and Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce to promote private investment and mixed-income housing in 10 neighborhoods in the city’s core. The Area Transportation Authority provided the wheels.
On board: Realtors, developers, civic types, startup-business owners and potential residents.
Many came to check out the Kansas City Neighborhood Academy, 24th and Vine streets, a charter grade school that the Urban Neighborhood Initiative opened last fall under the sponsorship of Kansas City Public Schools.
“The people we were targeting were those who don’t usually come to the urban core or never have,” said the initiative’s president and chief executive, Dianne Cleaver, wife of U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the Kansas City Democrat. “We know there are lots of problems. But what people don’t know is that positive things are going on in these areas, which have some lovely areas.”
The park was developed more than a century ago as part of Kansas City’s vaunted parks-and-boulevard system. Old postcards depict well-dressed visitors dipping into Spring Valley’s cool natural springs, then numbering six, against a limestone backdrop.
A cave once there has long been sealed.
Amid so much change, the Urban Neighborhood Initiative bus tour stirred fond memories in Cleaver, who grew up Dianne Donaldson a block west. She ice-skated on the lake and hunted crawdads. A lone diagonal road winding from the park’s northwest corner to the southeast still traverses the valley.
“What a little hidden jewel,” the bus riders told her.
“To the tour in general,” Cleaver said, “the biggest reaction was, ‘I had no idea.’ ”
Spring Valley Park
Address: East 27th Street and Woodland Avenue
Hours: All day
Directions: From downtown loop, take U.S. 71 south to the 27th Street exit. The park is two blocks east of the highway.