In the middle of a chilly winter, green shoots grow on Troost Avenue.
Twenty-five years ago, writing that sentence would have been impossible. Troost — the traditional Kansas City boundary separating white from black, well-to-do from poor — seemed a hollowed-out disaster, an unfixable mixture of boarded-up storefronts and broken sidewalks.
Today? Cafes and small stores are slowly gaining a foothold. Important civic investments — a covered bus stop, the Health Department — now anchor a resurgence of homes and businesses along parts of the corridor.
Troost has a long, long way to go to full recovery, but it is coming back. And in its improbable story there may be lessons applicable to other distressed corridors, including Prospect.
Ask Justin and Rashaun Clark, urban pioneers who opened a small restaurant at 41st and Troost about a year ago.
“It was kind of scary,” Rashaun recalled during a recent visit to the Urban Cafe. “But if you don’t take the risk, you’ll never know.”
There are vegan options on the menu. The food is fresh and reasonably priced.
It was — is — undoubtedly a risk. The stretch of Troost from Linwood Boulevard south to Brush Creek Boulevard remains the toughest part of the corridor, marked by graffiti, closed storefronts, aging homes.
But the Clarks persevered, with little direct public help. They’ve invested their own time and money in building their businesses. Activists in the Manheim Park neighborhood are pitching in, too, as is the Chamber of Commerce.
Like the best developments in Kansas City — Crossroads comes to mind — growth along the middle part of Troost must be organic, concentrated and sustainable. Bundles of public cash, with strings attached, might actually do more harm than good.
That doesn’t mean public policy is irrelevant. Strategic public investments along Troost, particularly in the northern stretch near 22nd Street, have been invaluable. Some sidewalks have been improved, thanks to the federally-funded Green Impact Zone. Some curbs and gutters are in better shape.
Those improvements have started to draw families to the area. Those families support businesses. That’s how neighborhoods recover.
Kansas Citians involved in the East Side sales tax are studying Troost to see what lessons might be learned. Some are pushing to use the sales tax money, which is only now starting to trickle in, for low-cost loans and grants for businesses that might provide jobs. The Troost experience seems to support this approach.
Yet the Troost recovery seems fragile. It depends in part on homeowners investing in property repairs and neighborhood amenities. Some East Siders say the new money might better be spent on home repairs, solidifying neighborhoods and increasing property values.
The answer seems to be a mixture of both: Small amounts of cash, sprinkled wisely among businesses and homeowners, will work better than a huge investment in one company or idea.
Some are worried about gentrification and evictions as home prices rise along parts of Troost. The concerns are legitimate. Homes worth more than $500,000 now dot the northern end of the corridor and are far out of the reach of most in the neighborhood.
Yet those worries can likely be managed. Again, the mid-city stretch of Troost shows how: by moving carefully and deliberately, rebuilding affordable homes and low-cost storefronts at the same time.
But here’s the thing. If Kansas City can fix Troost — and, to be clear, there is still much to do before the work is finished — then Prospect can be upgraded. And if Prospect can be improved, there is hope for impoverished neighborhoods throughout the Kansas City area.
So there is much riding on the success of the Urban Cafe and the nearby start-ups working to repair Troost.
“It starts,” Justin Clark said, “in places like this.”