By any measure, Beatrice Lee is a pillar of the Douglass-Sumner neighborhood.
She was born in the northeast Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood. Raised six children there. And when things started deteriorating — when the families started leaving and the drug dealers started lurking and the vacant homes grew more and more plentiful — she remained in the neighborhood, becoming a rare champion for the area and its long history.
So when plans went into motion a few years back to build a handful of new houses in the historic African-American neighborhood — four houses that were recently completed — representatives carrying out the plans learned very early on that it would be wise to ingratiate themselves to the neighborhood’s 84-year-old matriarch.
“Anything that happens in Douglass-Sumner happens either with Ms. Lee’s blessing or it doesn’t happen at all,” said Stephen Samuels, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).
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Over the past quarter-century, as Douglass-Sumner has been besieged by a number of challenges, Lee has been a guiding light in the area’s quest to return to its once-prominent status, a one-woman dynamo whose small stature belies a certain bluntness and passion.
Unlike most current residents, Lee can still remember Douglass-Sumner as it once was — a close-knit hub of activity, where kids rode bikes in the street and families shared recipes and everyone looked out for one another.
It was a bustling area back then, she explained on a recent morning, a neighborhood that produced a number of individuals of note. The musician Charlie Parker was raised here, over near Eighth and Freeman. Same for Ed Dwight, the son of a Kansas City Monarchs second baseman who would go on to become the first African-American trained as an astronaut.
“There were houses on every lot on our block, both sides of the street,” said Beverly Easterwood, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When we walked to school, we knew … the families along the route.”
But time hasn’t been kind to Douglass-Sumner.
Despite its location — it’s just a short walk to the downtown district of Kansas City, Kan. — the area has struggled to attract residents. Over the years, families moved away. Kids left for college and never returned. Houses deteriorated, were rented out to strangers or torn down.
Douglass-Sumner, vibrant as it once was, became a depressed pocket, a neighborhood LISC officials describe as the biggest challenge of the six neighborhoods the organization works with throughout the metro area.
Through it all, Lee watched with displeasure.
But a few years back, Sam Brownback, then a U.S. senator, sponsored a $1.2 million Department of Housing and Urban Development appropriation and, with the help of LISC, plans were set in motion to build a small collection of new homes in Douglass-Sumner.
As the project gained steam, various local groups were brought on to help. Community Housing of Wyandotte County served as the contractor. The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., did work on infrastructure issues.
And representatives from each group quickly got used to seeing Lee’s face — which, by her own admission, is not often adorned with a smile.
“She wanted to be at all the meetings with the architects to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing and those homes get designed the right way,” said Donny Smith, executive director of Community Housing.
It didn’t end there. Among her contributions: participating in a communitywide gathering to help establish the direction of the work; convincing Easterwood, who works in real estate, to sell the homes upon their completion; and, during the design stage, convincing the group that it was important to maintain the neighborhood’s old-fashioned feel, with big front porches and alleyways behind the homes.
“We all decided that that was important to the neighborhood and it wasn’t something we should shy away from, even though it was going to take more time, cost more money,” Samuels said.
“It’s gonna be done right,” Lee explained recently from the living room of her Douglass-Sumner home, “because I’m a stickler.”
Plus, it’s been hard to argue with the results.
The new homes, introduced last month during a ribbon-cutting ceremony, were some of the first homes to have been built in the neighborhood in 50 years. About 75 people gathered to mark the occasion, and the marching band from nearby Sumner Academy was on hand, as was Mayor Mark Holland.
Lee sees the new homes as only a step in what she’s confident will be an ongoing movement toward revitalization.
There’s still a ways to go, certainly.
More than 60 percent of the neighborhood, according to one LISC official, is vacant or condemned property, and many of the homes still standing are in dire need of repair. And as of this week, three of the new homes have yet to sell, though an offer was made on one of them in the past week.
“As we say all the time, these neighborhoods didn’t deteriorate overnight, and they’re not going to be rebuilt in one year,” said Smith. “It’ll take decades to officially, formally rebuild these neighborhoods.”
But there’s reason for encouragement.
Once the three remaining houses sell — for prices ranging from $155,000 to $160,000 — more money is expected for neighborhood improvements.
For her part, Lee has plenty of other ideas. She wants a stone monument built to introduce visitors to the neighborhood. She would like to implement a neighborhood tour, complete with in-ground plaques that would light up when visitors approach, honoring prominent individuals from the community’s history.
And while some have wondered if all of it is possible — “They say, ‘Ms. Lee, that’s so expensive,’” she said — she is far from deterred.
“I tell everybody I’m going to live to be 100,” Lee said Friday morning, not long before running off to another meeting. “So better expect me to be here — and be on your nerves.”