House & Home

Historic Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood revels in a rebirth

Posing with their work in 2014, students from the Kansas City Art Institute showed off the art they created to decorate the vacant Scarritt Elementary School at 3509 Anderson Ave.
Posing with their work in 2014, students from the Kansas City Art Institute showed off the art they created to decorate the vacant Scarritt Elementary School at 3509 Anderson Ave.

On a warm winter day, you will find the Concourse Park in Scarritt Renaissance swarming with kids and parents riding on carpets and towels down 50-foot embankment slides. Nearby residents want you to come too.

They helped create the unique experience because they believe visitors to the park are an important part of the future of their neighborhood.

It wasn’t that long ago that the population in this park would have been a lot of transient, overnight sleepers bringing crime. It was not a picture easily reconciled with the soaring stone and brick mansions standing watch nearby.

Scarritt Renaissance is bounded on the north by Cliff Drive, the south by Independence Avenue and the west by Chestnut. It is within walking distance to hundreds of acres of parkland, sits in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the city and houses some of the most architecturally interesting houses in town.

Residents of Kansas City’s Northeast area are working hard to make the area welcoming and safe. In the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood, that means partnerships with the Police Department and the city, neighborhood holiday gatherings and the creation of a new playground.

Leslie Caplan, president of the Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Organization, found her house in 2010 while bike riding on Cliff Drive. She knew the area from her work in social services. Although she grew up in the suburbs, Caplan found, as an adult, she loved the gracious lines of older homes. Scarritt offered her the opportunity to live in a Victorian home. She already understood the dynamics of living in an historic neighborhood.

“It takes a certain personality to live in an old neighborhood. It’s a small-town feel, because everyone is more dependent on each other than they are in the suburbs,” Caplan said.

Caplan’s home is a three-story Italian Romanesque built in 1895. The house served as a convent for 40 years, during which the front parlor was turned into a chapel. A series of owners returned the home to a single-family dwelling by the time Caplan purchased in 2010.

About 7,000 people live in the Scarritt Renaissance area, which many Kansas Citians are only familiar with if they have taken a trip to the Kansas City Museum. Homes include the big Victorians side by side with apartment buildings, abandoned homes, bungalows, standard two-story homes and ranch houses.

Mary Jo Longstreth and her husband Dan have lived for 20 years in a 1920s airplane bungalow on Gladstone Boulevard. They were looking for a smaller home after raising children and found themselves doing more things downtown.

Both Longstreths grew up in the Northeast area and had maintained a fondness for it, but did not expect the close community they found when they moved into Scarritt Renaissance.

“I can look out my window and know the people across the street and down the street. There is just a feeling of community,” Mary Jo said.

Over the years they have seen more young families move in, which Longstreth enjoys. She gets questions from people about crime, but she always feels safe and believes the area is on an upswing.

“There were things that were dismaying like trash and run-down areas, but you just take the good with the bad. You realize you have more in common with more people than not, and that people are working to make it better,” Longstreth said.

Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association has spent a lot of time in recent years on rebirth, crime control and absentee landlords. It also has expanded its social offerings. The neighborhood has held a Halloween event for over 20 years on Gladstone Boulevard which draws about 9,000 trick-or-treaters. It now also holds an egg hunt at Concourse Park the Saturday before Easter, as well as a Fourth of July laser light show and holiday luminaries.

The new playground was also a community effort. Neighbors worked on fundraising and applied for and received a grant from the city’s Public Improvements Advisory Committee for a Kaboom playground. They had 150 volunteers show up for a build day. Old tennis courts now serve as two basketball courts and two futsal courts. Plans for a second playset for younger kids, a walking trail and lights are still in the works.

“You would be amazed any time of day you drive by there,” Caplan said. “There are kids and families of all nationalities and ages. They all come together and support each other. It has really been what we wanted it to be.”

Another success project in the neighborhood is a recently completed mural project at the closed Scarritt Elementary School, which was being vandalized and sprayed with graffiti.

Hector Casanova, assistant professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, worked with neighbors, the Kansas City School District and his students to create murals that act as a graffiti deterrent.

“We had a lot of skeptics at first, but ever since the project got momentum, it’s been positive feedback,” Casanova said. “It has been awesome. The neighbors are so thrilled because they sense there is an investment of energy and beauty to the neighborhood. Where before it was an eyesore, now it is a genuinely remarkable visual landmark.”

The Kansas City Museum is also on the upswing, with $12 million in upgrades to begin soon.

“We are creating a history museum, and we will be architecturally restoring a good portion of Corinthian Hall to be used for exhibitions and programs, which we are really excited about,” says executive director Anna Marie Tutera.