Time has not been kind to Jersey Creek Park.
There are no pickup games at the basketball court anymore, no one soaring on the rusted swing set. Cyclists willing to brave the bumpy, narrow trail devoid of shade and water fountains are rare.
But after years of neglect and decay, the 24-acre park between Fifth and 18th streets in northeast Kansas City, Kan., is finally catching a break.
Nearly $50,000 in donations will install new benches, bike racks and exercise stations, designed by University of Kansas School of Architecture, Design & Planning students, along the trail in September. A coalition of cyclists, churches and public health organizations is discussing further improvements and planning events.
Organizers hope the park’s ability to address some of the city’s dire needs rather cheaply will propel a resurgence.
Eventually, perhaps in a few years, they’d like to see shady trees and drinking fountains along a repaved, widened thoroughfare where kids could get some exercise and adults could get around, to grocery stores and other destinations. It would even help churchgoers to get to services without having to dodge Parallel Parkway traffic.
Broderick Crawford, community health director at the New Bethel Church Community Development Corporation, couldn’t be happier to see his old stomping grounds making a comeback.
“When I was a kid, riding my bike on the Jersey Creek Trail was something I did every day,” he said. “We would go down in groups of a dozen or more and ride all afternoon.”
They would race from Fifth to 18th streets and back for hours after school, constantly tinkering and swapping parts to gain an advantage.
But Crawford left for KU in 1979, and the city’s population greatly declined in the following decade. His parents moved west to a bigger house for their six other kids. Other families left the county entirely, migrating to Grandview and Johnson County for better schools and nicer neighborhoods. The northeast was devastated.
“If there were 20 houses on one block, there might be four or five still standing today,” Crawford said. “And of course, if you take the kids out, there’s no one to use the park.”
Today, the 1.8-mile remains of the Jersey Creek Trail echo the urban exodus.
“The grade is difficult, the asphalt’s cracked and the grass is overgrown,” said Wesley McKain, program coordinator for Healthy Communities Wyandotte, a city health department initiative.
Cleaning up, repaving and widening the Jersey Creek Trail boasts one huge advantage over other recreation options — it’s a fixer-upper, not a construction project.
“Getting a trail built is hard. You usually have to get easements from property owners, and there’s a lot of policy work involved,” said McKain, also an avid cyclist. “Jersey Creek is one of our easiest opportunities to get something done without all that.”
But it won’t be cheap, and may cost more than $1 million.
Commissioner Harold Johnson, whose 4th District includes Jersey Creek Park, urges park advocates to continue seeking private funds before coming to the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.
“We’ve got to go to any and all organizations outside of government for support with this,” Johnson said.
But District 1 at large Commissioner Melissa Bynum expressed confidence in the organizers, who said grant applications to the Environmental Protection Agency and American Planning Association are in the works.
“I don’t think this is going to be a plan that sits on a shelf for long,” Bynum said.
Health advocates think the opportunity to get residents active on the trail would be well worth the investment.
The disappearance of public recreation and emergence of food deserts in the northeast led to statistics like those presented in annual county health rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and those released in March by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
More than 30 percent of county residents ages 20 and older reported no physical activity in 2011, good for third worst in the state. Nearly 40 percent were obese, easily the highest in Kansas. Premature deaths are 45 percent higher than the state average.
“People are dying too soon in our community,” McKain said. “Not being active enough and not having access to healthy food are big parts of that.”
For public health organizations and park donors like the Latino Health for All Coalition and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, getting people back on the trail could help put a small dent in those troubling trends.
For others, the trail offers potential for basic transportation throughout the county.
Javin Martin, education director at the biking nonprofit FreeWheels KC, sees a revamped Jersey Creek Trail and a planned bike lane on 10th and 12th streets as foundations for a countywide network connecting the urban core to grocery stores, other parks and even shopping at Village West.
Martin conceded that a trail for pedestrians and cyclists alongside Parallel Parkway will take time, but he said the metro area is already more connected than people think.
For example, he can go from 18th Street and Parallel Parkway to the River Market on the Missouri side with just a few gaps in bike lanes and trails.
“A lot of this will just be making people aware that trails are an option,” Martin said.