As ‘welcoming community,’ Olathe excels

“It’s a great place to raise your children. It’s a safe environment.It’s a friendly place to live. It’s what anyone would look for.”

Sylvia Romero, a pastor at Center of Grace Church in Olathe

For decades in downtown Olathe, the West Side Diner served as a slice of Americana with its turquoise-and-white 1950s decor, soda-fountain counter and menu of chicken-fried steaks and meat loaf.

Now that storefront on Kansas Avenue, right across the street from the Johnson County administration building, is a Mexican restaurant called Mariscos Veracruz, featuring Spanish-language beer posters and TVs with Latino shows.

It’s symbolic of a change sweeping across the county seat of Johnson County. And it’s a change that helped boost Olathe to ninth place in The Kansas City Star’s analysis of suburban quality of life.

Olathe was the only large, growing, outlying suburb to score high in a sociological gauge of racial interaction called an exposure index. It estimates the likelihood that a white resident will come in contact with a person of color during a day. Olathe measured 13.5 percent from the 2000 census, and that figure has certainly swelled since with the city’s ballooning Hispanic population.

“When we think of Johnson County, we think of vanilla ice cream, and that’s not the case here,” says Olathe City Councilwoman Marge Vogt.

When it comes to diversity, Mayor Michael Copeland says, “It is our strength. We’re regarded as a welcoming community.”

Overall, The Star compared local suburbs in some two dozen statistical measures, and Olathe did well in all the criteria of growth and prosperity. It finished first, for instance, in single-family housing construction.

Indeed, Olathe in recent years has been the fastest-growing city in Kansas — its population has nearly doubled since 1990 to nearly 110,000. Just this decade, the number of jobs has jumped 20 percent, according to county figures.

Because growth is happening so fast, however, the city has the feel of an overgrown small town. Trains still cross main streets. Low-slung buildings from different decades are spaced out along Santa Fe Street west of Interstate 35.

There’s not much, then, that visually separates this city from most other home-building, job-gaining, road-widening, big-box-shopping Big Suburbs. Except for one noticeable thing — the increasing diversity of its people.

Latinos made up 5 percent of Olathe’s population in 2000, about twice the African-American population. Now Hispanics are climbing toward 10 percent, but whatever the level is, Olathe has a higher concentration than any suburb in Johnson or Jackson counties.

And they’re seen around town every day. On the roofs of homes under construction on the east side of town. Living in apartments on the west side of town. They’re part of the melting pot of students at schools, and reflected in the smattering of Spanish-language business signs on Kansas 7 and Santa Fe.

Their presence is spreading, and while they sometimes face discrimination, this city of bedrock values is making extra efforts to accommodate them.

A place to aspire to

Olathe has always been a little different from most local suburbs. It’s never been a mere bedroom community. It has its own water supply. It has its own public housing authority.

All this ends up as a burden on residents and the city government. Despite the city’s conservative political reputation, The Star found Olathe ranked above the suburban average in property taxes.

Yet, it’s this range of services and opportunities that has been drawing Hispanics to Olathe.

They primarily choose Olathe because of available jobs. They end up working as construction laborers and landscapers, restaurant cooks and hotel housekeepers, machine operators and mall janitors, according to surveys by El Centro, an outreach organization in Kansas City, Kan.

They choose Olathe, too, because of its affordable housing, because relatives are there, because of the schools and because of the community’s lack of crime.

“It’s the same reasons the rest of the people who pick Olathe like it,” says Sylvia Romero, a pastor who runs a Hispanic ministry at the Center of Grace Church. “It’s a great place to raise your children. It’s a safe environment. It’s a friendly place to live. It’s what anyone would look for.”

Actually, Olathe has that image south of the border, too. It’s known as a destination, a place to aspire to.

This past summer, one newly arrived immigrant got across the border, then hitchhiked. When drivers asked where she and a friend were going, they simply answered, “Kansas.” They didn’t know anyone here.

“I had heard it’s a nice place,” the woman said through an interpreter at an Olathe elementary school.

Many ways of welcome

For both new immigrants and longer-established Latino residents, Olathe offers a lot to make them feel accepted.

There’s a Spanish-speaking church funded by prominent congregations like Olathe Bible Church. Other predominantly white churches present separate services and Bible studies in Spanish. Some have formed Hispanic ministries with food pantries.

“I am amazed at the outpouring of support and compassion from the faith-based community toward Hispanics,” says Jim Terrones, chairman of Olathe’s human relations commission. “It’s not about race. It’s not about whether you’re legal. It’s reaching out to those in need.”

Elsewhere, there are nightclubs featuring Latino bands. The city government sponsors Hispanic-themed festivals. The First National Bank of Olathe has Spanish-speaking loan officers. Libraries allow book-request forms to be filled out in Spanish.

And schools have English language classes for adults.

One afternoon, a half-dozen Latino women gathered at an elementary school classroom for one of those classes. One had been in this country for 15 years. Another arrived just two weeks before. They all sat at kids’ desks looking over a list of foods in English. They’re learning to pronounce them.

Such as fried eggs. One of the women, Lorena Tarin, explains that she goes to Denny’s on weekends for breakfast and always orders scrambled eggs because that’s the only English word she knew for eggs. Now she can say the type of eggs she likes.

“No more scrambled,” Tarin says in English, smiling.

Life in Olathe, however, hasn’t been all sugar and spice for immigrants.

El Centro reports that when they find work, their wages are so low they still live below the poverty line. They also face housing discrimination, such as excessive rent charges, and Olathe’s fair housing office is on pace to file a record number of complaints against landlords this year.

Nevertheless, at the end of the recent English language class, the teacher asks the Hispanic women how they liked Olathe. Tarin, the egg eater, pipes up: “It’s calmer and more tranquil and safer,” she says through an interpreter. “It’s better for the kids.”

Population: 108,390.

It took a while: In 1880, the city had 2,400 residents. By 1954, Olathe was still home to only 6,110.

Weird name: Olathe means “beautiful” in the Shawnee language. An early resident thought it was after seeing the prairie blooming with wild flowers.

Did you know: The cowboy boot may have been invented in Olathe. In 1876 a cowboy asked shoemaker C.H. Hyer to make him some boots, which became wildly popular.

Film trivia: John Anderson Jr. of Olathe was the Kansas governor who denied clemency in the Clutter family murders, recently recounted in the “Capote” movie.