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Long considered KC’s racial dividing line, Troost Avenue is diversifying

Imagine canoes being transported along one of urban Kansas City’s busiest thoroughfares.

That’s how Troost Avenue began in the 18th century. The Osage Nation used it as a canoe trail and hunting path until 1808, when most Native American land was sold.

In the mid-1800s, the Rev. James Porter owned a sprawling plantation that straddled the corridor from 23rd to 31st streets. Slaves helped clear forests for the 365-acre spread.

Troost — which in Dutch means “comfort” — was named for Kansas City’s first resident physician, Holland native Benoit Troost. He and his wife, Mary Gillis, were influential in the 1840s and 1850s.

The corridor became home to elaborate mansions and arts venues: jazz, the Isis Theater and Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Gram animation studio at 31st and Forest Avenue.

Until the 1950s, Troost was a vibrant commercial and residential district. Then came the era of blockbusting, white flight and disinvestment in the urban core.

Troost then became a symbol of urban crime and all that was wrong with race relations here. It was Kansas City’s racial dividing line.

A walk down Troost reveals that the avenue still faces formidable economic challenges, but many agree the dividing line is less sharp now. It’s a place for black and white, young and old, gay and straight, artists and mechanics.

Hope is the common thread. For a stronger, more cohesive community. For economic development to build on efforts like the Bancroft School Apartments and the Green Impact Zone.

For outsiders to understand that Troost isn’t a scary place.

For momentum.

“Our metro is weaker when it is segregated,” said Eva Creydt Schulte of Communities Creating Opportunities and Faith Voices of the Heartland at 2400 Troost Ave. “We achieve less. Our economy grows less. We limit our true potential.”

Schulte notes that even today, the average child born west of Troost will live 16 years longer than a baby born in a neighboring ZIP code east of Troost.

“We have to speak truth to the economically motivated decisions that used racial fear and isolation for profit, especially along Troost,” she said.

“Too many people look at the violence or the deterioration ... and conclude that residents brought this on themselves.”

Before picking up again farther south, Troost Avenue runs from just south of the Missouri River to Bannister Road, where the 310-acre Bannister Federal Complex is set for the wrecking ball beginning in 2016.

Twenty blocks north of Bannister, at 7130 Troost Ave., is Soil Service, a gardening emporium that Howard Wilson Archer Sr. founded in 1934.

“There’s a stigma attached to Troost, definitely,” said Archer’s great-grandson, company president Matthew Archer. “We often have people here for the first time with a wide-eyed look because they can’t believe this is the same Troost they’ve heard about.”

Over the decades, Soil Service has expanded to include retail, warehouse, stockrooms, a flower patio and space to showcase glazed pottery.

Across the street is Soil Service Nursery, opened by Matthew Archer’s aunt and uncle in 2002.

Aside from losing a couple pottery pieces each season, Archer says, his business has never been robbed.

“Both businesses have been very successful in this part of Kansas City. We grow happiness. People like that.”

A few blocks north is the Southtown Planning Center at 6814 Troost Ave., comprising the Brookside and Waldo business associations and the Southtown Council. It’s been headed for the past 27 years by Marti Lee.

Lee acknowledges that Troost suffers from a perception problem, although that is being chiseled away.

“At one point there were fast-food places going up everywhere. Then it was convenience stores and then the drugstore wars,” she said. “Next came pawnshops, and now we have the dollar stores. The trends are market-driven, and we don’t really have control over that.”

But if shops and people can be likened to organisms in a petri dish, business interests along Troost have taken a significant step to improve the substrate.

They formed the Troost Avenue Community Improvement District, which since January has been collecting an extra half-cent sales tax to pay for physical enhancements, events and promotion.

The CID, Lee said, provides a trash cleanup crew three times a week from 46th to 75th streets, and an “area awareness officer ... who drives and walks, visiting businesses, running off panhandlers and familiarizing himself with the area’s needs.”

Lee said the Waldo area, around 75th Street and Wornall Road, “blossomed” after launching a similar effort. The Troost CID is expected to generate about $200,000 annually.

“This is a good place to live, work and do business” Lee said, “and that will be spotlighted even more in the coming years.”

Meanwhile, Lee is pleased with improvements — including sidewalks and curbs — made by large organizations along the corridor.

“The Kauffman Foundation, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Research Medical Center, Rockhurst University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City are instrumental to Troost,” she said.

In Lee’s view, the Cleaver Family YMCA, which opened in 2006 at 7000 Troost Ave., shows that optimism is not misplaced.

“Many were concerned people wouldn’t come,” she said. “It’s been the exact reverse. All colors and ethnicities go that Y.”

Niecie’s Restaurant, at 6441 Troost Ave., is near capacity as server Myra Clemons delivers heaping platters of chicken and waffles and homemade sweet potato pie to a trio of giggly sisters.

“We’re here at least once a week,” said Bianca Patrick, nodding toward her sisters and two young nieces. “Niecie’s has a nice homey feeling.”

Denise Ward, who owns Niecie’s along with her husband, Perry, relocated here in 2009 from Prospect Avenue after the Citadel Plaza project failed. From a booth she surveyed the lunchtime customers.

“Niecie’s was recognized as Missouri’s top breakfast place in the February issue of EveryDay with Rachael Ray magazine,” said Denise Ward, who owns a second location in Raytown.

“What great publicity for us and the area. Troost has been a good move — lots of traffic and a diverse clientele.”

Ward looks forward to the future.

“There are positive things happening along the corridor,” she said. “Certainly problems, too, but that’s part of life.”

Blue Star Motorcycles is not on Troost by accident.

“I scoured Kansas City for seven months, looking for the best location, and I know north-south streets are usually the busiest,” said owner Jim Hoke, who opened the full-service fabrication and repair shop five years ago.

Hoke lives in the River Market with his wife and daughter, and he likes urban settings. He was attracted to 5508 Troost Ave. by the visible storefront and a location that’s equidistant from the east and west suburbs of Kansas City.

“This was a family-owned hardware store before I bought it,” he said. “Lots of misconceptions about Troost. Never judge a book by its cover.”

Hoke said the CID’s security foot patrol and regular sidewalk trash pickups have enhanced the area’s image.

“I view Troost as a blending line, though, not a dividing line.”

Need evidence?

Right next door is Sara “MissConception” Glass, a writer, lyricist and performance artist with three hip-hop albums and regular slam poetry performances.

Originally from Overland Park, MissConception founded the Vibe Tribe at 5504 Troost Ave. in October 2012.

“The Vibe Tribe is a multipurpose art studio that houses a collective of performance artists and painters from around the city,” she said.

“We specialize in fire spinning, teach workshops and perform at local festivals. ... But we also have yoga classes and belly dancing and a costume shop.”

MissConception envisions other arts groups filling some of the empty Troost storefronts.

“We have a unique opportunity here,” she said. “As an advocate of sustainability and equality, I feel strongly about events that bring people together. People start to understand one another through conversation and dialogue.

“We need to celebrate the past and learn from it — and most importantly, not hold it against one another.”

Rockhurst University students — with hoodies tied around waists and backpacks slung over shoulders — congregate in clusters, chatting and texting, around the 55-acre campus at 53rd and Troost.

Founded in 1910 as Rockhurst College, the school bases its mission on the Jesuit tradition of learning, leadership and service. Community building is part of its strategic plan.

“As Rockhurst’s president likes to say, we’re ‘in the city for good,’ 

” said Matt Heinrich, associate vice president for facilities and technology.

“That means we have no plans to go elsewhere, but we also feel we have a great deal to offer in continuing to improve our surroundings.”

Rockhurst is active in the Southtown Council and the CID, and has a community center and campus initiatives such as the Prosperity Center for Financial Opportunity. Rockhurst also solicited community input as it designed a new campus master plan.

“That engagement helped us create a better plan than if we had done it in isolation,” Heinrich said.

“We have caring neighbors who want the same things any other community wants: close friends, stability, a chance to grow and prosper.”

Over at Mike’s Tavern, at 5424 Troost Ave., patron Sandy Priest sits on a stool and sips a beer. It’s about two hours before Rockhurst students invade the bar for the evening’s Power Hour.

Mike’s opened in 1964, and its customers hail from both sides of the state line.

Priest and her husband returned to Kansas City three months ago after 25 years in New Orleans. She lives in her childhood home west of Troost, within walking distance of Mike’s.

“It’s amazing how things haven’t changed,” she said. “I didn’t see a dividing line when I lived here. Some of my best friends were on the east side of Troost, and one still lives there.”

Mike’s general manager, Avery Bailey, lives east of Troost. He moved back to Kansas City after living in San Francisco for four years and enjoys the diversity.

“The whole neighborhood really takes care of one another.”

St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit-based church at 52nd and Troost, is often called the “fish church” because of its oval design.

The Rev. Rafael Garcia came here four months ago from the El Paso, Texas, area. He has seen similarities between the needs of the Troost community and those he encountered along the Mexican border.

“Unfortunately, our history as a nation with Judeo-Christian values has included a constant pattern of exclusion and marginalization, connected with race, nationality and economic status,” said Garcia.

Garcia sees positive results from people of faith working with those on the margins in the St. Francis parish, which draws a racially mixed crowd on Sundays.

“There is a well-grounded and solid belief that God is with them ... and thus, perseverance to continue and try to build a better future,” he said.

Colleen Simon, pastoral associate for justice and life at St. Francis Xavier, manages the food pantry that monthly serves 70 families.

“For the most part, these families live east of Troost,” said Simon. “We address social issues, too, which is what God calls us to do. Why do people need this, and the emergency assistance we offer to help pay a bill?”

A rainbow-striped flag flutters in the breeze outside St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran church, a limestone structure at 3800 Troost Ave. that has anchored the corner since 1914.

The Rev. Donna Simon hoisted the flag as a sign of welcome and inclusion two months after arriving in 2011.

The openly gay ordained minister is married to Colleen Simon, who works at St. Francis Xavier. They live just east of Troost.

“It’s always interesting the things that become noncontroversial, like the flag,” said Donna Simon. “In the back of my mind, I thought it might be stolen or vandalized.”

She glances out a smudged and water-stained window. “That flag hasn’t been touched in three years.”

Simon ministers to a tiny congregation of 40. Through neighborhood canvasses and forums, she discovered people who were hungry and people who were just fine.

“We found healthy families and young people afraid to go home after school,” she said. “We found hope, and we found need.”

Although most nearby homes are well-kept, shootings have occurred at a bus stop just two blocks away.

St. Mark now leads or supports ministries such as an orchard at 33rd and Forest and the Bus Stop Ministry where drinks, snacks and warm clothes are distributed weekly at the city’s second-busiest MAX transfer point at 39th and Troost.

The church houses organizations such as the Workers Organizing Committee Kansas City, which fights low pay for fast-food workers, and the Traditional Music Society, which promotes community cohesiveness through dance and music.

One recent day, the society was rehearsing for an upcoming performance with kids 5 to 18.

Artistic director Bird Ellington Fleming beat softly on a drum while dance director Ima Terri Brown delivered a semi-sermon on self-confidence, motivation and staying active.

“No sitting in front of an Xbox or television,” said the barefooted Brown, swaying to the rhythmic percussion, arms upraised. “Move. That’s important for life.”

At 31st and Troost, a modern art piece dubbed “Catalyst” towers above a standing-room-only MAX bus stop. A 100-foot Alexander Austin mural depicts Troost’s history.

Across the street are two nonprofit agencies whose Troost roots run deep. Operation Breakthrough supports 500 kids with meals and day care. Reconciliation Services provides emergency assistance and therapeutic services.

The vibe here has similarities to the south end, but decay is more visible. Payday loan businesses. Graffiti. Boarded-up windows.

Yet this intersection is home to the annual Troost Avenue Festival. It’s organized by Troost Folks, founded by midtown resident Rae Petersen. The festival’s origins date to a meeting she and her husband, Fred Culver, attended at the Kauffman Foundation in 2004.

“We were charged with forming action groups,” she explained, “and Fred and I got involved in one focused on race relations.

“There were seven of us, and we looked at each other and realized aloud, ‘Here are seven white people sitting around talking about race relations.’ 

The Rev. David Altschul, founder of Reconciliation Services, was asked to join the team.

“We brainstormed and decided to try and get people within the community to do something around 10 areas of concern, such as art, community, communication, education, resources, science and spirituality,” said Petersen.

What emerged was a homegrown festival planned by people from both sides of Troost.

This year’s festival was Saturday.

“Kind of rebellious,” Petersen said, “shutting down Troost for a day and inviting people to a party, don’t you think?”

Filmmaker Kevin Bryce’s documentary “We Are Superman” describes the history of Troost and efforts by Petersen and others to erase the racial dividing line.

Bryce says he’s “just a witness” to the changes taking place.

“But the work that’s being done — for the people, by the people — is encouraging.”

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