Gary Wilson was born two years after the Civil Rights Act, so he doesn’t remember when the stretch of Quindaro Boulevard where he runs a pizza shop was off limits to African-Americans.
But he has dedicated his life to helping build a better post-civil rights black community.
“My father told me when he was a kid they could only come from Third Street up to 10th Street, and they couldn’t go any farther,” Wilson says.
White flight in the 1960s reversed the demographics, and for a while, Quindaro Boulevard continued to flourish with businesses, shops and restaurants catering to blue-collar black families.
But by the 1980s, drugs, gangs and unemployment gained a foothold, creating problems equal housing laws could not address. Crime rose.
In 1991, frustrated that pizza chains would not deliver to the neighborhood, Wilson learned how to make pizza, took over a neighborhood market his father had opened in 1979 and turned it into a pizza shop: Wilson’s Pizza and Grill. (His father moved across the street and opened a hardware store, which he still operates.)
For the next 20 years, Wilson watched as the Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood continued to deteriorate.
“When I opened, in the area from Seventh and Quindaro to 27th and Brown, there were five grocery stores: two Safeways, a Kroger’s, an A&P and Food Fest,” he says. “Now there are none.”
On his block, Wilson has seen a beauty school, a shoe shop, a print shop and a doughnut shop go out of business. He considered moving his eatery to the prosperous western part of Wyandotte County as friends suggested, but he ruled it out.
“I feel an obligation to the neighborhood. My role is more than a shopkeeper. People come here for more than a burger or pizza,” he says.
“What I really enjoy about being on Quindaro is: You know how kids like to let their pants sag? The first thing they do when they see me is pull their pants up. Or, if they don’t, I’ll say, ‘Pull your pants up.’ And they’ll do it.
“One young man used to come around, he was about 14, had a really hard-knock life. But he looked up to me and mimicked me more than my own children did. He went into the Army and became a drill sergeant, got married. He lives in Germany now. I feel good just thinking about that young man.”
Wilson’s sense of community responsibility came from his father.
“When I was 24 or 25, this lady owed my dad money. She would walk on the other side of the street. One day she came back and needed credit again, and I said, ‘Daddy, don’t give her any credit! She owes you over $200.’ He said, ‘Son, I’m not worried about that. That woman has kids, and they still need to eat. Feed her, whatever she wants.’
“That one thing he said turned my whole life and my way of thinking all the way around. I have never thought selfishly since then,” he says.
A recent fire in an apartment upstairs caused extensive smoke damage in his shop, forcing him to close. Again, some friends advised him to take the opportunity to move west. But Wilson is busy cleaning up and plans to reopen in July.
“I can make a difference on Quindaro,” he says. “I will never give up.”