Forgive Jessica Ray if she’s a little protective of her corner of Kansas City.
When she told her new coworkers at Hallmark Cards she was living in Pendleton Heights, they gasped.
But tales of handguns and hookers stalking Independence Avenue are part of the past now, just like the Kansas City elite who settled her northeast neighborhood in the 1880s. The Italians who replaced them are mostly gone, too.
It’s a lively neighborhood on the upswing now, and she likes it that way. Kids — young Somalis, Mexicans, Bhutanese, Vietnamese, Burmese — pass their summers playing ball in the streets and parks, filling the air with shouts and laughter.
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The latest newcomers are often 30-something whites looking to turn old houses into their dream homes.
And there’s plenty to boast about the new Pendleton Heights once they get settled.
There are neighborhood watches on most blocks. Its people, of every color and creed, look out for each other.
Trash that once littered Brooklyn Avenue, where Ray’s parents moved in four years ago, gets picked up by volunteers every Saturday.
There’s a community garden, monthly events organized by the neighborhood association, which Ray heads, and plenty of sidewalk conversation.
“We’re very candid with people calling about moving in,” Ray said. “You’re going to be living in close quarters, you’re going to have immigrant neighbors and you’re going to get to know people.”
Aby Olbera came to Pendleton Heights from Mexico City in 1994, when she was 16. She met her husband, Marcos, there at a wedding one year later.
He was a year older, and they had never crossed paths at Northeast High School. But he only needed a dance and some jokes to make an impression.
“He was taller than me and made me laugh,” Olbera said. She accepted invitations to Sunday dinners, and saw how good he was with his nephews and helping his mother around the house.
They’d meet up at the apartment complex pool on the corner of Brooklyn and Independence avenues on hot summer days. One of the complex buildings blocked the view from the porch where Olber’s mother sat, so Marcos Olbera could lean in for a kiss without fear.
Abdi Sheikh joined a thriving Somali community in the northeast in 2000, after refugee resettlement in Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, didn’t work out.
When he’s not cleaning midsize sedans for National Car Rental, he’s usually under the hood of one of his friends’ rides, plying the trade he learned as a young man in Mogadishu.
His kids grew up playing in his huge front yard and on a concrete basketball court Sheikh poured himself.
“I’m working, I own my house and I have my family,” Sheikh said. “I have everything here.”
What began as an enclave for lumber barons and banking magnates fleeing Quality Hill became an immigrant neighborhood in the 1920s. The East Bottoms started heating up with railroads and industry, and job-seekers fresh from Europe plugged the gaps left by elites migrating south to Hyde Park.
A heavily Italian neighborhood lasted until the mid-1970s, and there are still old Sicilians with stories of the Mafia and bootlegging during Prohibition.
But when young Italians moved north to new developments and left their childhood homes behind, it emptied the neighborhood. By 1990, the vacancy rate had reached 24 percent.
The Don Bosco Community Center, erected by the burgeoning Italian bloc in 1940, became a conduit for refugees from Vietnam, Burma, Bhutan and East Africa.
The bus routes, access to government offices and cheap rent turned the northeast into the city’s Ellis Island.
Latino migrants, mainly from Mexico, came for the same reasons.
But the breakneck transition took some detours between then and now. Neighborly familiarity vanished. Crime crept up.
“It was bad,” Marcos Olbera said, pointing toward Independence Plaza Park at the intersection of his street and Independence Avenue. “People would pull up in the park and just start dealing. Prostitutes would hang out there, too.”
The melting pot was growing, but new arrivals thought of it as a launchpad — the neglected low-income apartments framed the northeast as a place to live before one made it in America. Parents told their kids to escape the neighborhood when they grew up and find a better place to raise a family.
Bobbi Baker, a real estate broker who moved into an apartment on Maple Boulevard in the mid-1990s, recalled neglectful landlords squeezing every penny out of vulnerable tenants. Up to 18 people were crammed into one apartment, trash littered the streets and gunshots rang out in the night.
“It was just all so wrong,” she said.
When Baker started managing properties in 1997, she treated her tenants fairly. On occasion, she’d compromise with a family who needed their rent money for food.
It was important to her that no one felt alone in Pendleton Heights.
Eventually, adventurous urbanites from cities around the country began moving in without preconceptions of living east of Troost.
“One step at a time, each home gets better,” she said.
Tim and Merrie Ford, Ray’s parents, know that process well.
After they saved their Brooklyn Avenue home from demolition in 2011, they found mold everywhere and the walls had to go. Marijuana plants in the backyard and attic needed weeding.
But Tim, 58, who started working on houses as a teenager with his father, was undeterred.
“You just have to get started and go room by room,” he said. “You don’t worry about rebuilding it all at once.”
That’s how this neighborhood will move forward, he said.
Because like his house was, Pendleton Heights is a work in progress.
Sirens and flashing lights come through less than they did two decades ago, but Aby Olbera still has to shoo shady figures off of her porch at night.
Dozens of homes remain in disrepair.
That’s why it’s hard for Tony Garbo, 82, to welcome any so-called renaissance. He and his wife, Josephine, arrived from Sicily in 1977 and watched unfamiliar faces, languages and coinciding strife replace holes left by friends and neighbors.
“The older generations died or moved away, and the younger generations didn’t have any respect for the neighborhood,” he said.
His garden, which sits across the street from his home, has been his oasis for the last 25 years. In it he grows every fruit, vegetable and spice a Sicilian kitchen needs. He’ll check on his cilantro, oregano and basil, then pick some blackberry and rest in the shade of a peach or pear tree.
He’d worry about people taking food if it wasn’t guarded by Monique, an enormous Siberian husky.
Tim Ford understands that the new Pendleton Heights will never match the quiet, homogenous Italian neighborhood older residents remember.
But, he added, “If they are not hopeful, then I haven’t done my job well enough.”
Ray and the neighborhood association sometimes shrug off calls to instigate more rapid improvement.
Some residents have expressed wishes for a Costco, Wal-Mart or a Starbucks in the northeast, but so far preferences for preserving the Somali and Mexican cuisine have won out over lattes and bulk sales.
“Sure, a Wal-Mart would do well here, but it would destroy the smaller markets and immigrant businesses,” Ray said. “Not to mention three blocks.”
The neighborhood’s diversity is also protected by some of its biggest landlords, a housing nonprofit and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Together they administer more than 300 low-income units, a fifth of Pendleton Heights’ housing stock, insulating future newcomers from rising rents.
And 136 of those units at Northeast View are preparing for a $400,000 renovation to ensure substandard conditions don’t scare away a potential Abdi Sheikh before he can put down roots — and a down payment.
The neighborhood association can’t do much for those living in neglected apartments run by out-of-town landlords, though. Much of the revival has relied on the commitment and kindness of neighbors.
Someone struggling with a collapsing roof can call on any number of handy neighbors for tools or a helping hand.
Tim Ford is more than willing to negotiate with stubborn old-timers for a house they left behind, and he’s endured more stories about the old days than he can remember.
“Sometimes it’ll be two or three hours before we get to talking price,” he said.
But any amount of time is worth it if a second-generation Somali moves in and starts his own Jubaland Grill, a local favorite on Independence Avenue.
Or the next Elvira Arizmendi, who opened a bakery in 2003 after her cakes got rave reviews from her Pendleton Heights neighbors.
And when Tim Ford found out Marcos Olbera was between jobs, he asked him for help renovating other houses in the neighborhood.
It was the kind of thing good neighbors might have done back in the old days. A gesture absent in the 1980s and 1990s.
“If we want this neighborhood to really thrive and stay diverse, we have to appeal to people as they’re coming into their own,” Ray said.
Marcos Olbera eventually got a job painting for a local remodeling company, and now he’s thinking about the future of the neighborhood, too. He’s rented the house he lives in for seven years, but he knows his wife loves living near her mother, who’s still in the house across the street. His 7-year-old daughter, Yaretzy, loves her Somali friends and the family bike rides down Cliff Drive to the north.
It’s time to start renting to own.