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Center Schools cluster leads Southland

Talk about putting down deep roots.

Don Coleman’s grandfather built a two-story stone-trimmed farmhouse about a century ago. Coleman’s father was born in that house. Coleman kept it in the family and then raised his own boys there.

That may sound like a story from the idyllic hills of rural Missouri, but it’s actually straight out of an urban neighborhood in south Kansas City.

“A lot of the people that I knew growing up are still living in the area, and a lot of the kids that my children went to school with have come back and bought homes in the area,” said Coleman, who lives on what was once the Sweeney Farm.

This combination of history, permanence and stability helps explain why the Center Schools cluster of neighborhoods outperformed all other parts of the Southland in The Kansas City Star’s rankings of city neighborhoods.

In The Star’s series on neighborhoods, we are profiling the top-performing cluster in each section of the city, one section each day. Today’s section is the Southland, basically south of 85th Street.

The Center Schools cluster occupies one corner, north of Interstate 435 and west of Blue River Road. It’s called Center Schools because the cluster encompasses roughly two-thirds of the Center School District. But to outsiders, it’s probably best known as the home of Bannister Road’s federal complex or 103rd Street’s car-dealer row.

Ask Southlanders to predict their top neighborhood cluster and many start the same way: “Red Bridge.” After all, that section south of I-435 along the state line contains upscale subdivisions such as Verona Hills.

This is one instance in which richer isn’t necessarily better. Because while the Red Bridge cluster topped the Center Schools cluster in more quality-of-life measures, Center did better in the more important “basics” such as crime trends and high school ACT scores. So over the years, it’s become a place where residents tend to dig in and stay.

In the heart of the Center Schools cluster, more than half the homeowners have lived there at least a decade, considerably longer than the city’s average. And more than one-third of those Center households haven’t moved in two decades.

“People tend to stay here a long time,” said Terry Noel, who has lived in different houses in the same neighborhood off Wornall Road for nearly 40 years.

Why do so many stay and resist the allure of newer housing? It’s not the water — city pipes tend to break here more than almost anywhere else. It’s not the parks — there are hardly any.

Instead, for many, it’s the feeling of connections, to the present and to the past.

Unlike other sections

The Southland is broken up into seven total clusters. In addition to Red Bridge and Center Schools, there’s Martin City, Grandview Triangle-Southern Hills, Bannister, Hickman Mills and the Little Blue Valley east of Raytown.

As a whole, the Southland is unlike any other section of the city.

It offers upscale, J.C. Nichols-developed subdivisions in Red Bridge and Levittown-like boxy slab houses in Hickman Mills. It has some of Kansas City’s oldest history, with Santa Fe Trail ruts, and some of the newest subdivisions, around Martin City. Plus, it has diverse mixtures of whites and African-Americans in schools and on school boards.

Unlike most sections of the city, too, the Southland can make a case that the city government has neglected it.

There’s one official boulevard (part of Red Bridge Road) and none of the city’s official fountains. There’s not much to do — more than half the neighborhood clusters ranked in the bottom 10 in recreation and cultural amenities. Even the streets aren’t well cared for — according to University of Missouri-Kansas City research, almost all the clusters were below average in street conditions.

“I feel the city isn’t standing up for us as neighborhoods,” said Cindy Sullivan, who was president of the Verona Hills Homes Association in Red Bridge for much of this decade.

Now the Southland is getting left behind in an entirely different way: Retailers are closing up.

Bannister Mall has become a ghost town. Benjamin Plaza is losing its big-box stores. Strip centers along Blue Ridge Boulevard are emptying. Even Red Bridge Shopping Center is dotted with vacant storefronts. They’re all victims of outer suburbia’s growth and lures.

“The stores are moving out, and that hurts us out here,” said Bobbie Proctor, president of a block club near Bannister Mall.

Nevertheless, the Southland still serves as something of a refuge for those seeking a safer place and better schools outside the urban core.

The Martin City and Little Blue Valley clusters have among the lowest crime rates in the city, and most other clusters are better than average. In addition, many Southland teenagers attend high schools with ACT scores above the city’s average. And despite Southlanders’ concerns about creeping blight, home ownership rates keep rising in two-thirds of the neighborhoods, a sign of strength.

This past summer, St. Matthew Apostle Church took City Manager Wayne Cauthen on a bus tour of struggling neighborhoods like Ruskin Heights. At the end, as one organizer recalled, Cauthen summed up the thoughts of many longtime Southlanders:

“This is a nice area,” he said. “It just needs a little tender loving care.”

Center Schools cluster

In many ways, the Center Schools cluster mirrors the best and worst of the Southland.

Center is not growing. It’s been losing retail services. And the city hasn’t even located a tennis court or swimming pool in any of the neighborhoods.

Yet, Center is well kept. It offers a wide range of affordable housing and apartment choices. And home ownership is rising in more places than it’s falling.

What sets it apart from the rest of the Southland, though, is something not easily measured: residents’ long-standing connections.

There are connections to schools.

The Center School District started as a one-room schoolhouse and patrons have supported it so consistently that no bond issue in the past 35 years has received less than a majority vote. There also are deep affinities with close-by Catholic schools, such as Christ the King School and Rockhurst High School.

Combining public and private schools, the Center cluster ranked No. 5 citywide in average high school ACT scores.

“People with young children don’t necessarily have to move out” like they do elsewhere in Kansas City, said Ann O’Hare, a Southland historian.

Then there are connections to history.

The Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails passed by. Indian Creek runs through the area. Daniel Boone’s family settled here and owned large plots of land. Today, there’s a school named Boone, and several neighborhoods of post-World War II ranches and split-levels evoke this past in their names, too: Santa Fe Hills, Boone Hills, Indian Heights.

This past Fourth of July holiday, kids in Santa Fe Hills decorated their bikes and trikes with red, white and blue streamers, then followed this parade route: Start by the traffic island at Hiawatha Road and Pocahontas Lane, head to Porte Cimi Pas street, up Minnehaha Lane and over to another traffic island on a corner of Daniel Boone Road.

Some of the adults walked the route, too, wearing T-shirts displaying the slogan: “Hills with History.”

There’s a broader lesson here for other city neighborhoods: Don’t forget your heritage.

People want to identify with where they live, and they want to feel a part of something stable, enduring, even cool. Not every neighborhood has the Santa Fe Trail or an old farm to connect with. But it could be a distinctive architectural style, or remnants of an early settlement, or even the history of an old school.

Having something to rally around can help build kinship among neighbors. Like in Santa Fe Hills.

“People here are aware that this was Daniel Boone’s property, and they’re proud of that. They tell their kids about it,” said Steve Moore, the neighborhood’s president for much of this decade. “It’s something they identify with.”

Maybe next year the T-shirt slogan can be: “History lasts.”

In Rating Our Neighborhoods, The Star compared clusters of neighborhoods in different sections of town. Today’s section of town is the Southland, and the top-performing neighborhood cluster there is Center Schools. That cluster includes these neighborhoods and homes associations: Legacy East, Santa Fe Hills, Boone Hills, Western Hills, Valley View, Lea Manor, West Bannister, Willow Creek, Linden Hills, Indian Heights and Ward Parkway Estates.

DAY 5 of 8

This week The Star is focusing on one section of Kansas City each day. In the Southland, Center Schools is the top-rated cluster. To see Center Schools and Southland corridor maps go to Page A6

@ Go to KansasCity.com for previous installments and more.

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