A most neighborly place

“Over there, they’ve been here 22 years,” she says.

“And next to them, they’ve been here 22 years. And next to them, 19 years.”

Stiles goes back to stroking her sheltie, Sugar. Stiles and her husband, Mark, are about to take Sugar on their evening walk around the neighborhood, a place where they, too, have lived more than two decades.

Over the years, this stability has built up lasting relationships and resulted in untold kindnesses among neighbors. It’s also likely led to lower crime rates, higher home values and better schools.

Taken together, such qualities propelled Prairie Village to a ranking as the fourth-best place in The Kansas City Star’s analysis of suburban quality of life. It came out ahead of every other inner-ring suburb, from Fairway to Gladstone.

On the surface, Prairie Village wouldn’t seem to offer much that would keep residents there year after year. Many of its houses are small, with about half the square feet of an average suburban home. Some have leaky cement-block basements. Plus, the city doesn’t offer much in terms of recreation or culture. So couples like Brenda and Mark Stiles typically find a starter home and figure they’ll move on in a few years.

Then they stay. Even after their kids grow up, they stay. And the neighbors are big reasons why.

The Stileses live on West 73rd Street near Cherokee Drive in the Prairie Hills neighborhood. They’re known as the kind of people who do anything for anyone.

A neighbor calls from work about an impending rainstorm and Brenda goes to her house and lets her dogs in. Another neighbor likes to borrow movies, so Brenda gives them her garage-door code to get in anytime. An elderly neighbor sees a mouse, and Mark catches it. One couple has to go to the hospital in the middle of the night, and Brenda goes over to baby-sit.

“It’s like an extended family,” Brenda says.

She and Mark are out walking their dog on a late-summer evening. Dogs, in fact, are a big part of what brings residents together here. Dog owners go out walking every day. They let neighbor kids hold the leashes. They stop and chat with neighbors. It all reinforces the neighborly relationships.

The Stileses head down Cherokee. In front of a well-kept gray Cape Cod, the dog stops at two bowls of water left out on the sidewalk. A little girl living there has written a message next to the bowls: “For our dog friends.” The Stileses are joined by a neighbor with a sheltie puppy. As the cicadas hum in the towering trees, their conversation turns from changes at work to what hasn’t changed around the neighborhood.

Brenda points to a house on Cherokee near her block. “That’s still an original owner,” she says, meaning someone who has remained there more than a half-century.

She points next door to it. “That’s an original owner, too.”

All this stability has benefits, academic researchers have found. One study by the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University found neighborhoods with longtime residents tended to produce children with higher high school graduation rates. Another study done for the Fannie Mae Foundation’s housing journal found neighborhoods with long-standing residents tended to enjoy higher housing appreciation.

That’s certainly true for Prairie Village.

Among suburbs around Kansas City, Prairie Village had the second-highest level of neighborhood stability, or the percentage of residents who have stayed in their homes at least five years. And the city also was among the top suburbs in home-value appreciation, in all levels of public safety and in all school performance criteria — including the rate of high school graduates going to college.

In fact, The Star compared local suburbs in nearly two dozen statistical measures, and Prairie Village finished in the top 10 in more than half of them.

If the city could be faulted for anything, it’s for being landlocked. Prairie Village’s worst scores came in comparisons related to open space — new-home construction and park acreage per capita.

Overall, Prairie Village’s allure is pretty simple and straightforward. As Mayor Ron Shaffer puts it: “There’s a sense of living in comfort and convenience, of knowing the important things — your home, your school, your safety — are well taken care of.”

Years ago, in 1949, the National Association of Home Builders named Prairie Village the best-planned community in the country. Ever since then, it’s had steady and stable hands guiding and watching over it.

The J.C. Nichols Co., which built the shopping centers and many of the subdivisions, remained an omnipresent influence for decades, sending an official to sit in on city council meetings. The city’s top administrator, Barbara Vernon, has remained in her post almost three decades.

Then there are the neighborhoods. Almost every neighborhood association leader knows someone who is an original owner. And almost every neighborhood leader has a story about someone who moved “out south,” but then moved back soon after. In Corinth Hills off 83rd Street and Roe Avenue, one family who returned even repurchased their old home, at an appreciably higher price.

“I moved back to Prairie Village because of the same reasons my mother is still there — the love of neighbors, the strength of community and the value we all place on Prairie Village as our home,” says Marsha Bjerkan, whose mother lives in Prairie Hills.

That’s what’s kept the Stileses there, too, even after their daughters left for college.

On this evening, as the couple walked their dog, they recounted some of the kindnesses they typically receive. Neighbors who watch their dog when they go on vacation. Neighbors willing to lend tools. Even a neighbor who baked cookies for Brenda on her birthday last fall because Brenda was alone that day.

As the couple walked back up 73rd Street toward their home, Brenda pointed to homes on her side of the street. “They’ve been here 10 years. Next to them, they’ve been here 35 years ....” And on and on.

Population: 21,729.

History: The city was the vision of J.C. Nichols. After developing the Country Club Plaza, Nichols foresaw a planned community of beautiful homes and neighborhood shopping centers in his native Johnson County. Construction took off in 1949.

Prairie Family Statue: The 10-ton icon, now located at Mission Road and Tomahawk, was designed by a 20-year-old art student who won a competition in 1951, even though one resident questioned whether the pioneer woman’s breasts might distract drivers.

Did you know: With only 1,000 homes built by 1949, the city was named the best-planned community in America by the National Association of Home Builders.