Come a little closer. There’s a story to tell. It’s a story about a Kansas City neighborhood called Waldo and the people who make it home.
It all started in 1841, but let’s jump ahead to this year’s Waldo Fall Festival ...
As children bobbed inside a bounce house, a camera crew wearing aqua blue shirts readied itself in the drugstore parking lot that was the epicenter of the festivities.
Melissa Saubers, last year’s “mayor” of this southwest Kansas City neighborhood, waited nearby to share her Waldo story with the crew.
Saubers described her mayoral tenure as being a “cheerleader for Waldo.” Yet she demonstrates her commitment to the neighborhood without words. Witness her “I (heart) everything Waldo” T-shirt, and the choice she and her husband made to run their businesses out of the area.
“It gets in your blood,” she said.
She later elaborated.
“It’s really the people. The people work really hard, and they own small businesses, and they’ve been here forever. You can’t go anywhere without seeing people you know.”
Saubers’ interview was one of the first recorded for “Our Waldo: Stories From a Kansas City Neighborhood,” a project sponsored through the Waldo Area Business Association. It defines the Waldo area as running from the state line to Holmes Road, between Gregory Boulevard and 91st Street.
“Our Waldo” is an effort to preserve anecdotes and tales from business owners and others to describe an area that isn’t easily pegged or molded to stereotype.
Angie Lile, whose firm LileStyle Productions is capturing the record with “Our Waldo,” learned that over the course of planning meetings. There’s more to Waldo than a hodgepodge of businesses along Wornall Road.
“Someone driving through might think of Waldo as one thing. It doesn’t look like the kind of place that it is.”
The project, she added, “is a way to let people see what it really is with a group of people, the businesses they have and their own personal stories.”
Waldo owes its name to David Waldo, a trader and businessman who in 1841 bought 1,000 acres north and east of what’s now 75th Street and Wornall. It wasn’t until after World War II that the city annexed as far south as 85th Street.
A railway that is now the Harry Wiggins Trolley Track Trail provided an artery for commerce, and businesses popped up over the years. But much of the area retained a rural feel for a long time.
Today, at One More Cup, regulars sip at the same tables at nearly the same time every day. It’s a favorite coffee shop among the green contingent for its nearly zero waste, and it’s a welcome stop for those whose bicycles are a primary mode of transport.
Owners Jeremy and Stacy Neff live in Waldo and describe the shop as “our love letter to our neighborhood” and an extension of their home.
Author LaDene Morton sat outside the shop on a recent morning and explained how the neighborhood unfolded.
“Unlike suburbia, the businesses came first to Waldo, and the houses sprung up around them,” she said.
Although there’s a pretty tight orderliness farther north in the Brookside area, where developer J.C. Nichols held sway, she said, parts of Waldo are industrial.
Waldo was more influenced by developer Napoleon Dible, who employed strategies to keep house prices down. Dible was responsible for the faux English Tudor and Prairie School design seen in Waldo neighborhoods, and his business philosophy differed from that of Nichols.
“For Nichols, the house was important, but most of his company’s deals were about the land development,” Morton wrote in her book “The Waldo Story — Home of Friendly Merchants.”
“For Dible, the house was what mattered. He built the houses on all his properties and was known to help with financing, moving expenses or whatever it took to get a family into a home.”
Morton lived in Waldo during her 20s and 30s and awoke on weekends to the noises of Waldo Grain Co.
Waldo has “managed to remain interesting and funky,” she said. “It’s egalitarian enough that the business owners live there. ... The thing about Waldo is that Waldo can be whatever it wants to be.”
Waldo Grain has kept its little bit of country on Wornall Road. Its interior could pass for a barn, as hefty dog-food bags provide the scent. Cat food, birdseed, burlap bags for $2.50 and udder butter line the shelves.
A steady flow of traffic on Saturday morning brings cars just inches from the door as drivers run in for pet food.
Manager Jon Goodwin has heard various stories about when the company opened, but it is thought to be 1916 and is known as the oldest operating business in Waldo. It has been at its current spot since 1926.
Goodwin’s grandfather came back from World War I and started working at the company and eventually bought it. The family has run it ever since, with the stock evolving as neighborhood demand dictated.
“Now it’s more lawn, garden and pets,” said Goodwin, who has worked there since 1985.
But chicken feed sales are five times what they used to be, he says. Chalk it up to the urban farming movement and ordinances that allow the birds.
Things have come full circle, perhaps, since the famous chicken dinner at Broadway Methodist Church. That’s another Waldo story, one from the early 20th century.
As the tale goes, a man brought two live chickens as his donation for the dinner. With no hesitation, one of the women working took the birds to the backyard to wring their necks, boiled them in water and plucked all the feathers before cooking and serving them to others at the dinner.
Betty Tillotson turned 90 in June and tap-danced at her studio’s recital that same month. Many of her former students now bring their grandchildren to classes to the Betty Tillotson and Lorna Sherer Studio of Dance on Gregory Boulevard, where she still teaches.
Tillotson’s Waldo story goes back to 1945, when her parents moved across the state line because of her father’s job at the Pratt Whitney Aircraft Plant at Bannister Road and Troost Avenue. She remembers waiting in early-morning darkness to ride a streetcar to Park College to earn a degree in history and languages. She stayed in the neighborhood and started teaching dancing classes in the evenings after her job as a secretary. The first recital that her students held was in 1951 at the Waldo Theater.
Tillotson is also known as one of the area’s historians. Her work, “The History of Waldo,” is distributed as one of Waldo’s official records. She is eager to share what she has learned.
Her studio walls provide a look to the past, too. They are adorned with trophies and photos going back decades. Dance rosters, cards and photos of former students.
What makes Waldo Waldo?
“It’s the mom-and-pop stores, that’s what,” she said. “People live here for a long time. Or they grow up, leave and then come back. I go into a store, and someone says, ‘Hi, Betty.’”
Sam Gromowsky was booted from cobbler’s trade school and switched to the printing school at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town.
His business, Almar Printing, began in 1964 with the purchase of a duplicator press. Almar has operated from its location at 77th Terrace and Wornall for more than 30 years.
Gromowsky is board president for the Waldo Community Improvement District,
which has been instrumental in upgrading the area.
The Waldo Area Business Association formed the improvement district in 2007 and uses money generated from an additional half-cent sales tax and a property tax on businesses. The money funds projects that improve the image and aesthetics of the district.
A bike patrol known as the Waldo Roadrunners, improvements of the Waldo fountain and a marketing campaign are among the improvement district’s touches.
One of the biggest changes wrought by the district, Gromowsky said, is a renewed sense of camaraderie among the merchants. Business owners look out for one another, he said, and it’s clear that many are invested in Waldo. Many, including Almar, are heading into the second and third generation. Gromowsky said his son is taking over the printing business.
These places rely on support from the surrounding community.
“The homes are a lot of starter homes with young people or some older couples who have been here many years,” Gromowsky said. “This area is a blue-collar area compared to Brookside (just to the north). It’s unique in that a young couple can afford to live in this area, and you can’t say that about too many safe areas in Kansas City where you can still get a home at a reasonable price.”
The free-form development that marked Waldo’s history can have both endearing and annoying qualities for its inhabitants.
Eating a falafel at Papu’s Cafe in the Shell convenience store on 75th Street or attending a wine tasting in the CVS drugstore on Friday night could be noted as positive eccentricities.
A drive along Wornall Road — with its smattering of payday loan businesses, fast-food joints, chain stores and billboards overlapping billboards — might bring a negative image, however. Longtime Kansas City broadcaster Walt Bodine once called the stretch “the ugliest road in the world.”
But the open-minded zoning philosophy worked well for the neighborhood when a fire in 2007 destroyed the building that was once Westmoreland Theater, then the Waldo Theater and later the Waldo Astoria dinner theater.
Instead of trying to emulate the original structure built in the 1920s, Botwin Commercial Development and El Dorado Architects created the glass and steel Botwin Building at the northwest corner of 75th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s unlike anything else in Waldo, and the modern building is now occupied by thriving businesses.
In the coming years, the Waldo community seems intent on taking charge and shaping its own future.
Health, yoga and Pilates clubs have already created a presence.
A grass-roots campaign has persuaded the Kansas City Public Schools to resurrect the closed Hale Cook school. The latest incarnation opened this fall with Hale Cook kindergarten and first-grade classes at Hartman Elementary School as improvements are made to the Hale Cook structure.
Last month a protest from neighbors helped thwart efforts to bring a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market to occupy the former Bingham Middle School site at 7618 Wyandotte St. About 150 people attended the meeting where school officials announced that the site would not be used for the proposed grocery store.
The school isn’t far from Lew’s Bar Grill, and co-owner Chris Lewellen said the businesses and neighbors know that finding the right fit will affect the area.
“People will start investing when something happens to the school,” said Lewellen, who along with his brother Andy Lewellen took a chance more than four years ago by opening another establishment,The Well, a rooftop restaurant and bar.
The Well, at 7421 Broadway, and nearby establishments are drawing a younger clientele to the neighborhood.
Lewellen’s story on how he landed there mirrors others’. He spent time in the area as child and then settled there to raise his own children. He lives in the neighborhood and has an invested home life to go with the $3 million spent for property acquisition for The Well and adjoining properties and renovation.
Others in Waldo will take risks, too, when something happens with Bingham, he said.
“They will start redoing property in south Waldo, but not until something happens to the school,” Lewellen said.
Former mayor Saubers didn’t hesitate when asked about what would happen next for Waldo.
“It’s Bingham,” she said.
Saubers’ mayoral duties ended with the announcement that businessman Norm Besheer would assume the title. But she intends to continue work with the school district to create a community-centered use for the school property.
Her Waldo story continues, and so does the neighborhood’s.