The block at 31st and Cherry is easy to dismiss, the kind of block you pass through on your way to somewhere else. The only visible activity is often a man pushing a laundry cart, just as men have done for more than a century at Superior Linen.
But behind the faded brick walls of the eight buildings that straddle the north-side intersection of 31st and Cherry, a cadre of makers is bringing life back to this industrial corridor in the Longfellow neighborhood. They come with ink-stained fingers and tool belts slung on hips, eager to reinvent the concrete and brick spaces that have gone dormant.
Over the next eight months, three businesses — Inner Space Yoga, La Cucaracha Press and Maker Village — and one non-profit — the Kansas City Bicycle Federation’s 816 Bike Collective program — will begin operating in a contiguous series of buildings that stretch from 514 to 606 E. 31st Street. On nights and weekends, covered in plaster dust and beers in hand, the informal group gets together to ask the question: Can you rebuild a block by giving people the tools to rebuild themselves?
The first business to open will be Inner Space Yoga, which is moving four blocks from 2763 Cherry St. to 514 E. 31st St. on Sunday.
“The area, particularly around 31st and Cherry, feels like what the Crossroads felt like 12 years ago,” says owner Laura Frank. “There are all these hard-working, energetic young people working on a shoestring budget. As a friend of mine put it, ‘Those people are like ants. They just work and work.’ ”
This will be the fourth and largest space for her 2-year-old yoga practice. With 1,400 square feet available, she has plans to build a small greenhouse in the street-side window, the vestiges of the landscaping business she ran for eight years. In addition to yoga classes, Frank also wants to hold potluck dinners and movie nights.
“It will be like the church basement of the suburb I grew up in,” Frank says. “This is about community building events. And I’m just excited to get in on the ground floor.”
She will, in fact, be on the ground floor of the building owned by Idris Raoufi, a transportation planner with Wilson & Co. Inc., and the outreach coordinator for the 816 Bike Collective — a volunteer-led project to teach people how to maintain and repair their own bicycles. The two were former co-workers at the Broadway Café. Raoufi, 29, lives with his girlfriend, Amanda Gehin, on the floor above after spending the past three years making it habitable.
“Everybody is working and hanging out afterwards. It’s exciting, kind of like show-and-tell,” Raoufi says of life on the block. “We have these inspired conversations about block parties and started throwing around names like ‘Cherry Pit’ for the block.”
The Kansas City Bicycle Federation, the umbrella organization for the bike collective, bought the three buildings at 518 E. 31st St. three years ago at public auction. It’s been no small task to clean out the commercial properties. The bike federation has already filled eight 40-yard dumpsters, roughly the equivalent of 160 living room couches, with trash.
Last September, they raised $32,000 to help fund the construction of the new shop that faces 31st Street. Once it’s fit for occupancy — Raoufi is aiming for this fall — the 816 Bike Collective will move its operation from 3116 Forrest Ave. Above the shop, the bike federation hopes to provide shared community space for like-minded non-profits or entrepreneurs. In the two adjacent buildings, they’re considering developing commercial spaces for non-profits.
“We have all these awesome storefronts that can be activated with not a lot of capital,” Raoufi says. “There is this DIY aesthetic that is really beautiful.”
There have been setbacks. A shed housing bicycle parts on the property was broken into last November. But Raoufi dismisses what happened as “kids being kids,” and instead focuses on the generosity of the community: An outdoor metal bike rack appeared outside the new space in March courtesy of an anonymous donor.
“Perception diverts development away from the East Side,” Raoufi says. “And that gives people like us an opportunity.”
On the east side of Cherry Street, there was caution tape recently around two pads of freshly poured concrete. These slabs will hold the printing equipment for La Cucharacha Press – a screen and letterpress studio run by Jordan Carr and Nicholas Naughton and currently housed in the City Ice Arts complex.
The future home of La Cucharacha sits adjacent to a pair of mud-colored buildings with terra cotta roof tiles. The numbers 604 and 606 are spray-painted clearly in white next to the boarded-up front doors, but Nick Ward-Bopp, 27, and Sam Green, 28, aren’t getting a lot of mail yet.
On a recent Saturday in April, the founders of Maker Village — a “makerspace” in progress — are in their makeshift workshop at 604. A makerspace is a shared space with tools, in this case wood and metal-working tools, that members can access like a gym.
“Our biggest focus is not to start our own things, but help be a catalyst for other people,” Ward-Bopp says.
Ward-Bopp works in student services at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Green is an electrical engineer for Burns & McDonnell. They first partnered in 2011 on the Jarboe Initiative — their self-branded property-improvement project at 24th and Jarboe.
In search of a way to eliminate their rent, they gave a landlord a simple proposal: They would renovate the property if they could live there rent-free. That adventure led to unique projects such as putting together a kitchen island made from reclaimed bowling alley wood and Nordic Track parts, as well as the kernel of the idea for the Maker Village.
“In Kansas City, it’s still fairly easy to make a name for oneself with $10,000,” says Green. “We want to be part of changing the city.”
“We don’t just want to be consuming,” adds Ward-Bopp.
Since they bought the buildings in December, they’ve torn up the linoleum floor, stripped the walls of plaster to expose the brick underneath, and are getting ready to remove a drop ceiling to expose the metal beams hidden above. The building’s utilities had been shut off since 1983 — Ward-Bopp notes that they hung a large sign that told would-be copper thieves they were having aluminum electrical wiring installed. But the water worked when they tried the taps.
The makerspace will be housed at 606 E. 31st St. with long wooden shelves holding saws and drills where piles of doors, wood and hay-bales sit now. This spring, three interns from the Kauffman Scholars program will be helping to raise the Village. Two will be working on the makerspace, and a third will assist Green’s younger sister, Katie — who moved to Kansas City a month ago — on a greenhouse planned for the grass lot behind the buildings.
While memberships will provide revenue to fund the Maker Village, Ward-Bopp and Green will also hold workshops (building bike trailers and rain barrel kits) and work on one-off creative projects. They have already made coasters for the Boulevard Brewing Co. and the sign for the Local Pig butcher shop.
They see partnerships as the key to moving the Maker Village and the “Cherry Pit” forward.
“There’s a synergy; we’re all at the same place with these old buildings,” Green says. “There’s no developer here, just a bunch of 28-year-olds with dreams.”
But Raoufi believes there could be a blueprint for development, one that could extend down 31st Street if a streetcar extension is approved, or be replicated in another forgotten corner on the East Side.
“I want these projects to demonstrate the value of these buildings in Kansas City,” Raoufi said. “Regular people think they can’t afford to invest in a project like this. But this is a chance for us to do this. It’s a chance for people to invest in their own communities.”