If this had been my childhood home, this project would have been simpler. That neighborhood was gone, replaced by a shopping center. The story was over. This block, however, continued to change, even as I began to write. Were it not for the flexibility of the computer, I would not have been able to change the text as the neighborhood around me changed.
Another advantage of computerized writing is that it allows me to decide later whether or not I want to use real names for the people I talk about. As I write it, I am using real names. Those are the names I know the people by. I would have trouble keeping track of that many pseudonyms. People more knowledgeable than me have told me that, if I ever hope to get this thing published, I will have to change the names to prevent a lawsuit.
When I began to write this account in 1994, it was to be a short collection of vignettes about the many people who inhabited the block, how they interacted, what they were like. As events evolved, however, it became a story of how a historically corrupt city deals with questionable activities by its leaders. What began as little stories of social workers, alcoholics, artists, welfare recipients, teachers, machinists, and public servants living together on a unique city block became an account of how the ambitions of a few city and state officials can destroy the nice things in a city.
Although most of what follows is a personal recollection, I have asked some people to refresh my memory on some incidents, dates, and names. One thing I have not done is to ask for behind–closed–doors gossip. What I am putting down here are incidents that anyone could observe, not the hidden secrets.
When I mentioned that I was putting together a book about my block, I received various reactions. A typical comment from somebody who lived on the block was, “Shi–i–it.” A friend who did not live there thought such an enterprise would be a great opportunity to expose the shortcomings of the city. He thought that the deterioration of a block is inevitable when a city government forgets what it is there for.
I hope that the reader will realize that our block, like any block, was not simple and the complications cannot be neatly described. I also hope that everybody realizes that, unlike fiction, reality is never a symbol for anything. Any lessons that come from reading what I am writing must come from the reader himself.
Finally, if I have insulted anybody in the following pages, I hope they were the people that deserved it. If I have embarrassed anyone else, I sincerely apologize. I won’t try to defend such boorishness as an obligation of artistic integrity. I won’t even say that I don’t have to defend what I do. All I can offer is that I wrote what I meant to write, and they can’t throw me in jail for that. I’ve checked.
The official documents list the block I lived on as Davis Place. Our section of Virginia Street ran south from 47th Street to Brush Creek. There is also a street called Brush Creek that is a block north of 47th, but the south end of our block was the actual creek. The creek’s primary claim is that it was paved by Tom Pendergast’s concrete company back in the 1930’s, when Kansas City was contending to be the most corrupt city in the country. The pavement is flat, except for a two–foot wide gully down the center that carries away all but the most torrential rainfalls. Unlike the block itself, which was under various jurisdictions of the city—Codes Administration, Police Department, Street Department—the creek and its banks were and are under the sole jurisdiction of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
In 1977, when Kansas City had its worst flood in history, much of the block was under water. Water lines were still visible in some of the living rooms twenty years after the flood. Many of those who lived on the block bought their homes after the flood, when owners were selling what was left of their properties for a couple thousand dollars. Some of the buyers knew they could repair the houses themselves, and felt they had found cheap housing. Others bought the properties intending to repair and resell the houses. I bought one of those houses. A minister, Hans Frick, who had been rehabbing low income houses as part of his ministry, bought the house after the flood, and sold it to me for $12,000.
At the time I bought the place it was occupied by a couple of students. I agreed to let them stay there until the end of the school year so they wouldn’t have to move while they were trying to study. I had never been a landlord before and was shy about asking for rent every month. I had always paid my rent on time and thought maybe I was just a little naive in expecting the tenants to do the same. Every month I would stop by to ask for the rent, and the tenant would say, “I didn’t think you needed it, because you didn’t ask.” I was scheduled to move in at the beginning of June 1980. I had rented a truck and asked friends for help. When I arrived with the loaded truck, the tenants hadn’t moved. They asked if it would be possible for them to stay a little longer. I said no, since this was all arranged a month ago.
I felt like a heel since I wasn’t very good at telling people no. I had gone to the pound and adopted a dog. The apartment where I had been living did not allow pets, so I had to move into the house. I adopted Doobie because I was afraid of the neighborhood’s unsavory reputation and felt a dog would provide some security. The dog I adopted was not a solution to any security problem, but he was a good companion. I found out after I moved in that the tenants had caused some problems on the block. Their main offense was noise. In fact, when I moved in I noticed that the front door was damaged. The tenant told me she had left the music on while she spent the night at a friend’s. Her mother was concerned when she didn’t get an answer on the phone and had come around to look for her. She heard the music but got no response from knocking. She broke the door down.
Shortly after I moved in somebody called the codes enforcement department on me. They cited me for several minor infractions which I corrected immediately.
Shortly after I moved in I decided to explore the attic. From the 1950’s to the 1970s the house had been owned by a family named Sims. My exploration of the attic showed that Mrs. Sims had been a hat maker. There were several containers of scrap felt, patterns, and other materials used in making hats. I also found a box of papers. Most of the documents concerned the family’s son, who apparently had some problems with discipline. He spent some time in mild detention. I asked some neighbors if they knew the family. Yes. The parents had passed away. The son was now a municipal judge. I called him and told him I had found some of his family’s papers. He picked them up, but didn’t seem very friendly. His thank–you was half–hearted.
In 1979 the creek bed was designated a bicycle path, and an entrance to the path was built at the south end of Virginia. During a heavy rain storm in 1982 large hunks of the concrete broke loose from the bed, leaving huge gaps and spiraling sheets of reinforcing screen. The water also washed away the asphalt ramps that allowed bicycle passage over sluice ways. Although the concrete was eventually repaired, the ramps were never replaced, and the creek bed was not used again as a bike path. Instead, the entrance to the creek bed provided access to trucks that needed to get upstream for improvements that were taking place there. The weight of the trucks cracked the pavement on the block. The city never repaired those fissures.
Apart from the truck traffic, the paved creek bed provided a convenient shortcut for those living south of Brush Creek. There was a steady flow of pedestrians crossing the creek to get to the liquor store at the north end of the block. Although the south bank of the creek was fairly steep, years of negotiating the hillside trampled clear pathways. Since the only water in the creek most of the time was confined to the two–foot gully in the center, it was easy to cross the creek. Those of us who lived on the block tended to be suspicious of some of the people who walked down our block. Sometimes gangs of teenagers, complete with rottweilers, swaggered down the street. Sometimes there were plain old drunks, mumbling or screaming, or trying to engage neighbors in conversation. Most of us developed a non–committal nod and a “How’s it going” to acknowledge non–residents without seeming as suspicious as we felt.
The 4700 Block of Virginia comprised 20 houses and lots that were built in the 1920s. The homes had similar layouts, although some details were different. All were two stories, most with two bedrooms, although some homes had additions at the back to add a third or fourth bedroom. Some were frame, others stucco; some had single peaked dormers, some had double peaked dormers, and others had flat dormers. All had field stone pillars at the two front porch corners. The lots were officially 35 by 112 feet, although the lots on the east side of the street lost some of their length to erosion into the creek that backs their lots. Whatever garages had been standing were destroyed by the flood. Most of the houses retained the concrete pads where they stood.
One story is that when the Electric Park, an amusement park northeast of the block, was built in the late 1910s, developers used some of the lumber they cleared from the site to build these houses. The main beams were hewn from timbers cut at the Electric Park. According to the same story, many of the first residents were carnival workers who found the homes within easy walking distance of the amusement park.
Most of the houses had small problems. Some had leaky roofs and others got water in the basement. A few had cracks in the walls or plumbing problems Most needed painting every four or five years but didn’t get it that often. Some of the houses, especially those not occupied by the owners, deteriorated until somebody called the codes enforcement department.
The homes were, and always had been, lower middle class. The people worked in a variety of occupations—social workers, independent business people, drug dealers, food service workers, nurses, machinists, clerical workers, construction workers, surveyors. When somebody on the block needed a clothespin, they didn’t have to go to a craft shop or a kinky sex outlet. The grocery stores there had them, since very few people there had dryers.
Until the late 1980s most of the residents owned their homes. Those who didn’t had rented for a long time. Then the ratio of renters started to increase. Of those most were short tenancies. Soon the number of children also increased. Often the residences housed more people than they were designed for.
The north end of the block emptied into 47th Street, which was usually too busy to cross. The corners that abutted our houses were occupied by a liquor store and a gas station. Just to the east of the gas station was an automotive accessory company called AAA Royal Auto.
To the west of the liquor store was a lot. At one time there was a gas station there, but that was long ago abandoned. A Pizza Hut went in there. Before construction, the company had to get approval from the neighbors to serve beer, and most didn’t object. The Pizza Hut was there for a couple of years. It never did a lot of business, but it was apparently staying solvent. But it did close after an extremely violent burglary, that included the kidnapping–rape of a clerk and the shooting of an off duty police officer. After standing vacant for a few years, a seafood restaurant opened on the site.
A block over from Virginia was the supermarket. Across 47th street were Duke and Bob’s Muffler shop, an abandoned car dealership, and Midwest Auto, a repair shop that was a subsidiary of a nearby funeral home. Midwest also sold hearses and Lamborghinis.
The street just to the west was Tracy. That block was zoned as residential, but most of the houses were abandoned and condemned in the early 1990s. There were two exceptions. One was a house that one of the residents of our block used as a shade tree mechanic’s business. Another was a string of three houses at the south end of Tracy that a couple bought as distressed property. They put more than $120,000 into buying and renovating the properties. In the world of real estate that might not seem like much, but in this neighborhood…. Several of us on the block spoke to the man at various times. He was not crazy. He was very pleasant. He might have been a little bit of a blue collar dreamer.
Our block was isolated. To the south was a creek; to the north and east were busy streets, and to the west was a mostly abandoned block. We sometimes wondered whether we were insulated or marooned there. We often hovered between a sense of community and paranoia. We got a certain security from knowing that, unlike people in other areas of the city and suburbs, we knew our neighbors. We also figured that serious criminals knew better than to look for real money on the block. Still, those looking for a quick ripoff for a bottle of liquor or a rock found us convenient.
Primarily because of an increase in crime, we organized our block. At first, we were interested in just having a block watch, but, in order to qualify as an official block watch neighborhood, we had to register as an official neighborhood group.
We started to hold regular meetings in the summer. We invited city officials to answer our concerns. During these meetings we discovered that city agencies had developed half a dozen plans for our area, most of which required destroying all or part of our block. Some of those who had lived on the block for many years said that they had been hearing about those plans for years and so far none of them had actually been carried out.
Among the most loyal of the city officials to visit us was Dan Cofran, who was then a first term council member. He tried to attend every meeting, and when he couldn’t, he asked his assistant to attend and report back to him. We were at the very poorest edge of a district that was mostly middle to upper middle class. We were also probably the smallest neighborhood group in the city. We all appreciated Dan’s conscientiousness. Unfortunately, redistricting moved the district lines so we were no longer in his district. Even though we were no longer in his district, he continued to help us when he could.
The new councilpersons were Ken Bacchus and D. Jeanne Robinson, who had both been neighborhood organizers. Although very nice, they were completely overwhelmed by the demands of their new offices. Ken Bacchus had confided to friends that, had he known how complicated his job would be, he would never have sought the office. Although we did meet with him one time, we did not feel that he was comfortable or confident enough to handle our problems.
We had approached him with a proposal to make property owners criminally responsible for illegal activities on their property. We had developed a system which we thought was logical and would be effective, including provisions for proper notification of criminal activity and opportunities for mitigation. Councilman Bacchus felt that such an ordinance would never survive landlord lobbying. He suggested instead that we write letters to neighbors of irresponsible property owners, exposing the delinquencies. He said if that failed, we might try picketing in front of the property owner’s residence. Although we appreciated the advice, it was clear to us that he was more confident in community activism than in legislative remedies.
Later we tried to contact Councilwoman Robinson. Among us we called nearly forty times and never succeeded in actually meeting with her. Once, her assistant agreed to meet with us, but never was able to find time for us in her schedule. Years later Councilwoman Robinson was indicted and pled guilty to various corruption charges, including bribery and extortion.
Over the years we as a group fluctuated between trying to get help from our government and developing extravagant, usually illegal solutions to our problems. Various residents had their own concerns. Some were most worried about litter; others drugs; still others noise or illegally parked cars or broken curbs or street lights. We resented the weatherman on television who told us how the warm and clear weather would be a blessing for the weekend. We yearned for rain or snow or cold, because bad weather meant quiet streets. In bad weather people were much less likely to blare radios, scream obscenities from their porches at one another, break into houses, urinate on the streets.
Quiet hours were always rare on the block. Stereos with very heavy bass blared regularly. Sometimes cars on 47th Street or in the liquor store parking lot opened speaker–loaded trunks to blast their oppressive bass rhythms. Loud cars on 47th made enough noise as they passed Virginia to disturb us. Many of us wondered why noise was not classified as assault. To many of us the noise was the most oppressive feature of life on the block.
A popular summer activity was to gather in the middle of the street or on a porch to devise solutions to our current concerns. Often the talk focused on whichever house was causing the most problems at the time. And the conversations usually developed into intricate schemes for solving the problems.
One house that was a problem for a long time generated conspiracies that would have bewildered most intelligence agencies. We had appealed to the absentee home owner to evict the tenants, but she had told us it wasn’t her problem. Naturally, our response was to make it her problem. We discussed buying the property next to her own home and choosing the tenants for that property to reflect the tenants she had inflicted on us. We didn’t have the money to do that. Even if we had, we probably wouldn’t have actually carried out that little plot. It was one of those fantasies that never would have worked the way it was intended to. We thought of picketing her home (as Ken Bacchus had suggested) and making harassing phone calls to her. We actually did call her several times, and she actually did get angry, which was a small victory.
Although there were rare racial tensions on the block, they were the exception. Still, there seemed to be patterns that differentiated between the blacks and the whites on the block. For many years the neighbors were about half black and half white, but those who owned their own homes were almost all white, while the renters were almost all black. The homeowners tried very hard to encourage stable blacks to buy homes there, but those who were interested in buying preferred to live away from the drugs and crime that seemed to increase in later years. They bought houses in the suburbs or in quieter sections of the city.
Another distinction was that a relatively small number of the black residents had phones, while almost all the whites were hooked into the grid. Some of the blacks expressed fear that if they got phones people would think they were dealers. Dealers often negotiated sales over the telephone, and some people feared being so stigmatized. Another reason so few blacks had phones was that, since many of their friends did not have phones, it didn’t make sense for them to get them. Who would they talk to other than sales people and political pollsters, maybe a bill collector every once in a while?
When it came time for neighborhood activities, there was no distinction. The block parties and meetings were usually universally attended. Although there was some awareness that there were blacks and whites on the block, during those events, it was hard to see the differentiations. In fact, after a while it no longer even sounded strange to hear blacks singing country songs or other tunes that were not traditionally associated with blacks, especially in the center city, or to hear whites singing along to what the listings euphemistically called “urban contemporary” music.
Those of us who were white and who worked probably understood best what it meant to live on that block. When we told people where we lived, they said, “Why? How could you live there?” The questions were invariably from whites. It became easy to understand how many blacks come to feel that all whites are racist. I’m white and I started to feel that way. The implication was that no self–respecting white person would live east of Troost, where all the poor blacks lived. Most of us didn’t move there to make a statement. We moved there because it was cheap and interesting. We could own homes there, whereas we never could have in the more secure areas of the city. Though many of us came from middle class families, we didn’t feel particularly comfortable in the suburbs. Although there were clearly problems on the block, there was also a sense of community that sometimes seemed to be missing in more prosperous areas. Casseroles and foil–covered bowls of food traveled from one house to another fairly regularly. Neighbors talked. People shoveled one another’s walks in winter and mowed one another’s lawns in summer.
What we didn’t have were some of the trappings of suburbia. Christmas carolers didn’t sing in front of our houses. Trick or treaters were rare. We didn’t have the luxury of implicitly trusting everybody who moved in next door. We didn’t enjoy the expectation of quiet and uninterrupted sleep.
We did hear a lot of gunshots. (During a nearby gunfight, children as young as six years old were able to identify the weapons to the police from the sounds they made.) We did expect our belongings to disappear if we weren’t especially careful. We did expect frequent confrontations with people walking along our block. We did feel responsible for friends from the better parts of town who visited us. We did expect that new neighbors might not be around long enough to establish friendships.
While those in more prosperous areas might expect neighbors to stop by to borrow cooking ingredients, our neighbors borrowed bail money. Relations between neighbors were tentative at first; if newcomers got along with the neighbors, the relations developed into friendships.
It is hard to remember all of the people who lived on the block since 1980. Some residents moved away before anybody knew their names. Some, although they lived there a long time, never got to know the others on the block.
Cousin Ken (Normile)
Ken was already living on the block when I moved in. He had a decrepit old German shepherd named Bozo that still managed to bite people when they turned their backs. He lived in a gutted structure at the south end of the block between Steve and Cathy’s falling–apart structure and a couple of lots that had been vacant since the flood cleared them in 1977.
Ken had a girlfriend who shared the structure with him. She moved out shortly after I moved onto the block, before I had much of a chance to know her. Ken was devastated by her loss. He drowned his sorrows in his neighbors, in courses at the community college, in karate, in reading books, in self–discipline.
Ken looked bookish and a little bit rustic. He was tall and lean and wore black–rimmed glasses. He spoke with an Ozark twang, which was pretty hard to explain, since he was reared in Kansas City. After his girlfriend left, he started coming around to visit. He worked as a machinist, although he was also trained in philosophy, literature, and later in physical therapy, occupational therapy, carpentry, plumbing, and electricity.
The first floor of his house didn’t have any flooring. He navigated by walking on the floor joists. He had installed some gym equipment in what would have been his dining room if there had been walls.
Cousin Ken attended karate classes most evenings for a couple of hours. His goal was to be able to take kicks in the groin without losing his breath. He often returned from his classes proudly announcing that he had been kicked in the balls half a dozen times and was getting good at it.
He had a long hand gun that he carried up and down the street. He patrolled the block hoping for the opportunity to do away with an outlaw or two. It never happened. In fact, once he was robbed of about $70 by somebody who came up behind him. He was stoic about his loss.
He had a series of girlfriends. Occasionally he would get a crush on somebody and dedicate himself to wooing her. He talked about his methods, usually byzantine plots that he hoped would result in the woman falling hopelessly in love with him. That was how he got into his physical therapy program at the community college. He was the only male there and, therefore, got to be worked on by some of the women in the lab sessions. But he claimed that all of them were too stupid to carry on a decent conversation. Even though there weren’t as many women in philosophy, he could talk to them.
Most of the time he worked for one machine shop or another. It was easy for him to get jobs, since he was very competent. He also was an accomplished EDM operator, which at the time was an unusual talent. At one job his boss was evidently difficult. “I’d kill him,” he said once, “but I’m afraid I’d go to jail. Hell, I might even lose my job.” Sometimes he would apply for jobs on his lunch hour, and he almost always received offers from those applications, even though he sometimes wrote bizarre and ridiculous responses in the blanks.
He spent a year in Arkansas working for Skil, the maker of power tools. Shortly after he returned, he moved out. He had hooked up with a woman who, he swore, was the real one for him. She was Korean and didn’t speak much English. He teased her a lot about sexual attitudes of Korean women. They won a piano in a drawing, so they decided they should buy a place that had a floor capable of supporting the instrument. He moved away. They bought a place up north of the river that had some land.
He sold his place to Ollie Gates, the developer and barbecue king who was intent on buying as much property as he could on the block. Shortly thereafter, heavy equipment came to tear down the structure.
Walter was born in the house next to mine more than fifty years before I moved there. It had been his parents’ home. Walter looked distinguished with white hair, a well–trimmed goatee, and tall, straight posture.
He converted his house into three apartments. At first he lived in the basement unit and rented out the other two. For a while his daughter lived in the upstairs unit. She often brought boyfriends home. She was so loud during sex that many neighbors would gather on front lawns in the middle of the night, deciding if the noises were too loud to be natural. We discussed calling the police, but we never did. Walter wasn’t one of those who gathered, since his hearing was not very good, especially when he had drunk himself unconscious, which was frequently.
A young couple, David and Melisa, was living on the ground floor. I asked them if the noise from upstairs had bothered them. They said they hadn’t noticed it until I had mentioned it. After that Melisa said she was afraid that people would think it was her making the noise.
Walter built a huge carport under which he parked a motor home. He moved into that motor home so he would be able to rent out the other three units.
He didn’t seem to be too particular about whom he rented to. He also wasn’t very sympathetic to complaints, either from neighbors or tenants. There are still bullet holes in the walls from the days when a resident on the ground floor had a dispute with a drug customer. Since then, other bullet holes have appeared in those walls.
A succession of tenants seemed to love noise. The neighbors dreaded seeing the pickup trucks unloading a new tenant’s belongings, because the property invariably included huge bass speakers that would boom a torturous, unrelenting rhythm. Since Walter’s hearing had deteriorated, he didn’t seem to notice the noise. His only suggestion to complainers was that they might try calling the police.
He had a dog that he kept in a run in the back yard. The dog, named Dogg, barked constantly. In fact, the only time she didn’t bark was when he allowed her to roam the block loose. When she did that, she seemed oblivious to traffic. Walter’s response was that he would understand if somebody ran her over. When it came down to it, after all, she was just a dog and whatever happened happened.
Walter also had a large black cat. The cat was usually very friendly, but sometimes seemed a little bit moody. It was only several months later that we discovered there was another cat who looked identical to Walter’s. We called the second cat The Impostor. The Impostor ate out of his clone’s bowl and went into Walter’s home in his stead. When the black cat appeared less frequently, we assumed something had happened to one of the cats. Later there was no black cat around at all. We never knew if it was Walter’s cat or The Impostor who was the first to leave.
During a neighborhood meeting Louis Dudley, who had recently moved onto the block, said that he was speaking for his landlord, Ollie Gates, when he said they would be willing to talk to property owners about buying their houses. Walter was the first to corner Dudley after the meeting. Apparently, Walter had long dreamed of taking his motor home on the road for a long journey through America. Soon afterwards, Walter left. He didn’t have to pack, since his belongings were already in the motor home. He just called Dogg to hop inside and drove away.
Juanita and Loren (Utt)
Juanita and Loren had lived on the block since long before the flood of 1977. In fact, they had been among those who sat on their roofs with rifles to prevent looting. Still, rather than buying their home, they had continued to rent for their entire tenure. It was hard to tell which of the two was tougher. They both were born and raised in the Missouri Ozarks and, when I moved in, they were in their fifties.
Loren worked for the gas company. Juanita did telephone sales. Since Loren had been with the utility for more than twenty years, he was eligible for retirement. He made enough money that Juanita didn’t really have to work, but she did for a little extra. Since I didn’t have a car at the time, Loren often gave me a lift to work if he saw me standing at the bus stop.
Even though they didn’t own their home, they spent a lot of money maintaining it. They kept a garden and tried to keep their lawn as nice as possible, considering it was hard to keep neighborhood kids from trampling it.
In many ways, they served as block sheriffs. They were usually armed. They were not shy about pointing their weapons at people who walked in front of their house. They didn’t mind that strangers on the block were afraid of them. The crazier they seemed, the more satisfied they would be. In fact, as long as the couple lived on the block, there was almost no crime.
Juanita was jovial. Loren was much quieter, but they were both very well liked by the neighbors. They often kidded about their exploits with would–be criminals.
When their son, who still lived in the Ozarks, was paralyzed in a car crash, they moved down there to help take care of him. Several of us tried to persuade them to stay on, but they had decided.
Several years later, when Ollie Gates was demolishing some of the property he had bought, a gas company truck came to cut a line. Dave Paarmann and I were talking to the utility workers and we asked if they knew Loren. The older of the workers remembered him as one of the people who had been caught having sex with a prostitute in a company truck while on duty. The man hadn’t kept track of Loren.
Debbie Harrell and Her Family
When the Harrells moved in, we all welcomed them. Our first impression was that they were a struggling family, trying to keep things together. Debbie’s brother, Henry, was disabled. We weren’t sure exactly what the problem was, but he didn’t seem to think quite right and had scars over his body, as though he had been in a fiery car crash or something. Debbie had three children, from eight to eighteen years old.
Soon after she moved in, neighbors started to comment on the constant traffic going into and out of her house. We tried to ignore our suspicions and include her in block activities. When she brought a delicious potato salad to our block party, we rationalized that anybody who could make such a fine potato salad couldn’t be dealing drugs. That reasoning could only make sense to those who yearn for neighborhood cohesiveness. A couple of times I gave her brother a lift to work.
When Dudley moved across the street from Debbie, he established an immediate dislike for the family. He told everybody that, when Debbie had lived in the projects, she was a prominent dealer of marijuana. Dudley would have us come over to sit on his porch to observe the deals. The police were unable to do anything about what was going on at the house without actually making several buys there. Since Debbie had a police scanner, she was aware of all dispatches. Besides that, she often had her children make deliveries to buyers at the liquor store or the gas station at the corner.
When Debbie started to suspect that the neighbors were out to get her, she was indignant. She came to my door several times asking me what I had against her. Since I was the block captain, I made most of the calls to the police. I also called animal control several times to complain about her dogs running loose. Eventually, I started taking Polaroids of her dogs running loose. When she came to my house, she often had her older son with her. He would get in my face and threaten me with everything from arson to death.
We contacted the owner of the property, Pam Sorrisso, who absolutely refused to do anything about her tenants. She hung up on several of us. Once, Dudley and I went to the police station to discuss the situation with a couple of the police representatives. The police offered to talk to Mrs. Sorrisso, but even they became frustrated by her obstinacy.
Eventually the neighborhood became divided between the opponents and the supporters of Debbie. Some said that we should just let her be. What she did in her own home was nobody else’s business. The rest pointed out that, since Debbie had moved onto the block, the noise level had increased, the amount of litter on the street had increased, and the number of burglaries increased. Several times burglars ran directly from the sites of their break–ins to Debbie’s house.
Most of the neighbors agreed that she and her family would have to go. We even discussed a “Zippo rehab.” A Zippo rehab is burning a house down. When the authorities and property owners are unable or unwilling to remedy problems with a piece of property, there often aren’t any alternatives. Before we took that step, though, we decided that there were a couple of other possibilities. As block captain it was my job to carry out some of the options. We called the Housing Authority and the codes enforcement division. Those agencies did not respond.
As a last resort we decided to sign a complaint with the animal control department. We had taken pictures of Debbie’s dogs running loose. I signed the complaint and appeared in court. Debbie appeared with a huge, severe man whom I had not seen before. The two of them stared at me, evidently trying to intimidate me. I offered the Polaroids of her dogs as evidence.
When it was her turn to testify, she showed pictures of other dogs, saying that other dogs also ran loose on the block. The judge told her that the fact that other people also violated the law did not vindicate her.
That same afternoon she let her dogs out again. I took more pictures. She came to my house that evening, again bringing her oldest son. She repeated that what she did was none of my business and that I’d better watch my step. She also called me names, apparently designed to impugn my manhood. I actually took some pride in that maneuver, since to me it meant she was running out of weapons. I repeated that we weren’t going to be intimidated, and that she would be best off just moving away. She said she was never going to move.
Nevertheless, a month later we saw the signs of somebody preparing to move—old furniture out on the front lawn, bags of trash at the curb, trucks loading up. They moved away. Even after they left, they stopped by the block several times a week, usually to make drug deliveries to the customers they had established while living here. The people who replaced her had to put a sign on their door: “Debbie doesn’t live here any more.” As it turned out, the new tenants were no better than Debbie and her gang had been.
Several years after they moved away, after Ollie Gates had bought most of the property on the block, I saw Debbie and a friend driving down the street. She was not driving a van. She was pointing out sights to her friend, including the fact that the house she had lived in was no longer there.
Dale and Michelle Talbott
The Talbotts lived next door to Loren and Juanita. In many ways they were similar, although much younger. Dale was a security guard at the state hospital, and, about a year after they moved onto the block, Michelle got a housekeeping job at the same hospital.
Like Loren and Juanita, they enjoyed protecting the block. Dale was huge, more than 300 pounds. He was very kind, but he had a strong sense of basic decency. Michelle shared that sense. Though neither had gone very far in school, they were both very intelligent, especially Dale. A friend of mine worked at the hospital with them. She was deaf, and both Dale and Michelle learned enough sign language that they were able to communicate with her.
Michelle found out she was a grandmother while she was living on the block. She had given a daughter up for adoption when she was a teenager. That young lady had traced her birth mother and they had reestablished their relationship. The daughter had a daughter of her own and Michelle and Dale had debated whether or not they would like to strengthen those family ties, knowing that the chances were good that somebody would end up being badly hurt. Michelle at first seemed ashamed to tell us about her past, but, as she realized that the neighbors saw nothing to be ashamed of, she became more comfortable with the revelation.
Occasionally, drug customers mistaking their house for that of Debbie, who lived next door (in the house vacated by Loren and Juanita), walked into their house. Dale would greet them by poking a shotgun at them. Although these threats did not put a dent in the drug traffic, they did prevent customers from walking into the rest of our homes without knocking.
They had the neighbors over on New Year’s Eve for black–eyed peas and other goodies. At midnight Dale fired his shotgun off his front porch into the air.
Dale and Michelle were able to laugh at the goings on in the drug house next door to them. They ridiculed Debbie’s business sense, her customers, her fundamentally pathetic existence.
After Michelle had passed her probation period on her job, they decided that they would like to buy a home of their own. We had hoped they would consider buying the house where they lived, but they decided to move to an area away from drug houses, noise, and the stresses of living in a neighborhood that could fall apart at any time.
They bought a place in Raytown. I ran into them a couple of times when I was visiting my friend at the hospital. They said they were doing very well.
Steve and Cathy LaRue
Steve and Cathy lived next to Cousin Ken near the south end of the block. Their marriage was not stable. He was a steady drinker, and they screamed at each other. Supposedly, Cathy was severely depressed. Steve was tired of being married. The sadder Cathy became, the more Steve felt burdened, and the less he cared about saving his marriage.
Cathy worked at a public relations office, but was trained as a classical violinist. She often said that she would like to buy an Amati violin some day, although that would probably be a long time coming, since she spent most of the money than she made on clothes. (She was very well dressed, and seemed somehow incongruously attractive in this neighborhood.) It would probably be a while before she was able to scrape together the four or five hundred thousand dollars it would take to buy an Amati.
Steve was a surveying assistant. I only talked to him once, when his dog attacked mine. He seemed much more articulate and much more intelligent that I had believed. He knew about the arts, history, physics, all sorts of practical arts.
Ken told me that Steve got drunk regularly and went cruising for women. The story was that he took a gun with him in case he wanted to pick someone up that didn’t want to be picked up. After talking to Steve it was hard to believe he was capable of that kind of violence.
They had three dogs, Spike and Grunt, who stayed in the back yard, and Rainbow, who stayed on the front porch. Rainbow was the one who attacked my dog. I was walking my dog when Rainbow forced the porch door open and got my dog by the neck. It took 57 stitches to repair the damage. They also had a few cats. Cathy seemed to spend much more time with the animals than her husband.
Steve sometimes disappeared for days at a time. Ken observed what was going on at his neighbor’s house, mainly because Spike howled all night and he couldn’t sleep, so he spent time looking out his window. The way he explained their lives was, “She comes home for a few minutes and then goes out to find some guy to play with. Then she comes home and changes clothes and finds another guy to play with.” Ken and Cathy did not get along. After a particularly noisy argument, Ken said, “I guess this means she isn’t going to be fucking me.”
Eventually, Steve moved out for good, leaving most of his belongings behind. He remarried. Cathy stayed on. She didn’t spend much time at home, though. She said the house held a lot of sad memories for her.
She checked in at home, but usually just long enough to feed the dogs and change clothes. She cut off her hair, which had dropped down to her waist, to a short bobbed cut.
Steve and Cathy had at one time been friends with Rick and Lennie who lived down the street. Since the break–up of Cathy and Steve’s marriage, they had kept their distance. There were some rumors about Cathy and Rick being interested in each other, but the rest of us didn’t have any evidence of that.
Eventually, Cathy’s house fell into such terrible disrepair that the repairs would have cost more than the property would ever be worth. She moved into a rental property, although she kept some of her belongings at the home. She stopped by every week or so to pick up mail. Eventually, she sold her house to Ollie Gates, who tore it down.
Rick and Lennie
Rick and Lennie had been married for about six years when they moved onto the block, about a year and a half before I moved there. Lennie never adopted Rick’s last name. They, especially she, retained much of the idealism and many of the affectations of a more idealistic time.
They rehabbed and remodeled their house. They kept a vegetable and herb garden. They shared chores.
They both worked in the social services, he as director of a government agency and she as a social worker at a home for young people. She became disillusioned after being beaten or kicked a couple of times by the clients. She went to work for a company that made more effort than most to be responsible to the community and the world.
Lennie was active in the block’s affairs. In fact, she was an officer in our neighborhood organization. Rick rarely showed up at the meetings. She tended to be solicitous to everyone, praising every idea, no matter how outlandish, commenting how wonderful it was that so many people from so many diverse backgrounds were getting together to solve mutual concerns.
Rick and Lennie seemed to separate fairly regularly, once for more than a year. It was Rick who moved out when things weren’t working. Nobody on the block ever mentioned anything to Lennie. Lennie often made snide comments about Cathy. But when someone else mentioned her name, she became ashen.
Once at a meeting, she told the group that security was an issue. She claimed to have spotted a prowler outside her window. She described the incident in detail—where the man had come from, where they spotted him, how they had frightened him into escaping into the creek. They had had a similar incident just a week before.
The group discussed several options: installing barbed or electrified wire along the creek to limit both access to and escape routes from our block; pressuring police to increase patrols; rotating block watch duty.
We tried to make an extra effort to keep an eye on their property after that. Since prowlers were such a common feature of the area, we didn’t have much hope of finding out who was responsible for the incidents at Rick and Lennie’s. He could have been any of a number of people who lived on the block and elsewhere who supported themselves and their habits by breaking into our homes.
A couple of weeks later Dave Paarmann told me he didn’t know about the first incident at Rick and Lennie’s, but he had seen the second, or at least part of it. The part he saw was Rick throwing Lennie across the kitchen and Lennie gingerly sneaking towards the phone. Several minutes later the police arrived. Dave and I assumed the story about the prowler was Lennie’s way of explaining the presence of the police without having to tell everybody about the discord in her marriage.
At about the same time, Lennie said that she and Rick had bought a home and would be moving there as soon as they got the new place ready. During the next several months they spent most of their evenings at their new home, cleaning, painting, repairing.
At first they said they would be looking for a responsible buyer for their home. Just before they moved, though, they seemed to parry questions about how much they were asking and when the house would be available. We deduced they had decided to retain the house.
They moved in a U–Haul. A few weeks later, Lennie called to say that she and Rick were getting a divorce. She was very depressed, dangerously depressed. I tried to call her several times over the next few weeks just to make sure she was all right. I wasn’t able to get in touch with her. When I left messages for her at work, she didn’t return my calls.
About a month after they vacated their house, Rick moved back in. Cathy moved in with him. Rick became much more active in block activities than he had been. He assumed responsibility for monitoring codes and drug violations, and often reported dangerous situations to local authorities. Cathy attended block meetings too, and shared Rick’s concerns.
Later Rick told me that Lennie was remarrying. She and her new husband were going to buy some acreage about 30 miles north of Kansas City. They were going to build a house and rent the land to nearby farmers who would be raising hay.
Bette lived on the block since 1950. Hers was the nicest house. Since the architecture of all the homes was basically the same, the differences are in the lawns, the decorations, and upkeep of the property. Bette took enormous pride. She had a rustic sign on her porch pillar that said “Bette’s Cottage by the Creek.” Her home was featured in an article in National Geographic about the block’s extraordinary efforts to rebuild after the 1977 Kansas City flood.
She often tried to plant flowers and shrubs on the easement between the sidewalk and the street. The plants usually lasted a few days before they were destroyed by neighborhood kids, cars trying to make Y–turns, or loose dogs. Still, she continued to plant them.
Her father lived with her before he died. She always had lots of guests, often from her church discussion group. Her children and grandchildren visited often.
On trash day she went up and down the street cleaning up, mostly debris from the liquor store at the corner. Sometimes, if the weather wasn’t too bad, she also swept the gutters.
Whenever there was a neighborhood meeting, she fixed popcorn and tea. She was friendly to everybody on the block, entertained the children with games, kept everybody informed of the news of the block. She was the one person on the block with no enemies.
During one of the meetings concerning the proposed development of our neighborhood she mentioned that she had divorced two husbands over the house. The first, a professional wrestler and window salesman, left her because she refused to move; the second lasted only a short time and ended for the same reason.
At another meeting she told of when the Kansas City schools were first integrated. As an employee of the schools, she grew close to many of the children. She invited a number of the young girls to her home for a slumber party. One of the girls’ father called her to ask if she was sure his daughter was to attend the party. Bette didn’t understand, since the whole class was invited. The man wanted to make sure that Bette knew his daughter wasn’t white and wanted to be sure that wouldn’t be a problem. When she told the story, Bette said she had run into that little girl and she wanted to know if Bette still lived in the same house. She assured her that she did.
Bette’s brother (or boyfriend, we were never exactly sure which and were too embarrassed to ask) visited her a couple times a week. He lived in a slightly more secure neighborhood than ours. Once, after a break–in on our block, he explained to the victim how he had handled a similar incident. His home was broken into, and he was 90% certain that the burglar was a certain young man who lived on his block. He asked the presumed culprit to return his belongings, and the young man denied any knowledge of the break–in. Bette’s brother paid some people to grab the young man, take him to an isolated part of the park in the middle of summer, strip him, and stake him spread–eagled. He was there for two days before he was found and freed. Bette’s brother asked him again for his belongings. The young man still denied any knowledge. Two weeks later, the young man’s house burned down.
Norma was one of the long–timers on the block. She owned the house immediately to the south of the gas station. She also owned a house on the west side of the street. That was where her mother lived. She sold that house to Ollie Gates several months after her mother passed away.
Norma was chronically nervous. She was nervous about everything: her lawn having gone a couple days too long without a haircut; children playing in the street; dogs sniffing whatever was stuck to the curbs. Her constant agitation was a little bit of a joke among the other neighbors.
She had worked for the electric company most of her adult life. She was in customer service. For years she had worked at the main office downtown, but as her mother’s health failed, she moved to a nearby satellite office so she could come home at lunch time to check on her.
A man showed up at Norma’s house regularly. He backed his car into her driveway. Kansas cars don’t have front plates, so, by backing his car into the drive, he obscured his identity. The rumor on the block was that he had a wife who had been in a coma for years, and that, although he visited his wife almost every day, his active relationship was with Norma. The boyfriend always wore a hat. It looked like one of those things golf players wear. The only time the rest of the neighbors spoke to him was once when he had bought a new car. The car had a defect that caused the accelerator to stick. As he tried to leave Norma’s, the car accelerated across the street, through Joel and Mike Brooks’s yard, and into the liquor store wall.
I was among those who pulled him out of the car. There was some blood, but not enough to disguise his face. Still, I didn’t recognize him as the man in the hat who visited Norma regularly. He was all right and had just bumped his head a little bit. Needless to say, it was Norma who needed medical treatment, mainly in the form of extra doses of anti–anxiety medicine.
A couple of times she asked some of us to help her with her mother. Sometimes she fell out of her chair or just couldn’t get from one place to another, so we would help put her where she was supposed to be. For some reason, the closest Norma was to being calm was when she was helping out her mother. When mom finally died, Norma was disconsolate for months. In fact, she backed out of selling her mother’s house at the last minute several times. She just couldn’t bring herself to have anybody else living in the house where her mother had spent her last years.
When she decided to go ahead and sell the place, she sold it to Gates, who proceeded to rent it to anybody who asked. The tenants usually didn’t last more than a few months, since they often stopped paying rent shortly after they moved in.
Norma began to feel uneasy on the block, largely because of the tenants in the property she had sold. She started to spend time away from her house, although she never actually moved away. She moved in with her boyfriend, whose wife had passed away.
She continued to come by the block to check on her property. She asked several of the neighbors if they would be willing to maintain her lawn for her. Once, she had somebody come by who was to repair her side door that somebody had tried to break in.
When she came, she usually stopped by to visit some of the old–timers who still lived here. She maintained contact with Bette and Janice especially, but she often checked in with some of the rest of us.
Three years after she moved out, there was a break–in at her place. The burglars had taken a lot of her furniture and appliances. They had also turned the heat up to 90°, used the toilet, and slept in the bed.
The police did a cursory walk–through of the house but felt there wasn’t much they could do. A couple of days later somebody visiting Bette mentioned that somebody was coming out of Norma’s house again, this time carrying a television set. Somebody who was staying next door to me was standing lookout for the theft. Bette and a repairman who had come to fix the damage from the prior burglary went in the house. They found a man in the closet. He told them he didn’t want to hurt anybody. He evidently had been asleep, since his shoes were off and he seemed groggy.
After that several neighbors helped Bette move the rest of Norma’s furniture into her home. She had agreed to buy it and was just waiting for some help to get it moved out. Shortly after that Diane Adams, who lived a couple of doors away, told Rick she had seen a pizza delivery truck at the place. Rick went to look, but it didn’t look as though the house had been broken into again.
Janice moved onto the block several years before I did. She was in her 40s then. She had two grown children who visited often. Sometimes, if their own lives got too complicated, they stayed with her. Janice had a boyfriend when I first moved in, but he moved out within a couple of months.
She wasn’t terribly judicious about keeping her house in repair. Weeds grew around her front stairs. When I offered to cut them for her, she said no, and pointed out that she had some marijuana plants growing there and didn’t want them chopped down.
She left her job at Social Security after twenty years of service. Somebody convinced her that she could make a lot of money by breeding tropical birds; there was a limitless market for pet birds of all kinds.
Her house would need some modifications before she could breed birds successfully. She paid a fortune to install a new ventilation system and other climate control features to allow her to support the delicate homeostasis of tropical birds. She filled the basement and every other unused space in the home with cages. She installed a water filtration system.
Starting with half a dozen breeding pairs, her home was filled with birds. At one time she had 700 birds in her house. The houses on the block are not mansions, averaging perhaps 1,000 square feet. In addition to parakeets and canaries, she had larger birds, including cockatoos, cockatiels, and several varieties of parrots. Although we often think of birds as singing or tweeting, the neighborhood soon discovered that they, or at least these, were more likely to screech and squawk. Some found the constant din irritating; others got used to it.
At the same time, she heard somebody say that her Lhasa Apso dogs were a hidden gold mine. She started breeding her three dogs too. The dogs were no quieter than the birds.
After four or five years of her breeding business, she started asking people if they were interested in buying a lot of birds. She said she was losing her shirt on the birds. What was she thinking? Who was going to buy all those birds that were multiplying in her house?
Somebody on the block suggested that her problem could be solved pretty easily, since there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken right around the corner. She laughed, nodded, and said that she would certainly consider that option. Later, she brought her favorite cockatoo to one of the neighborhood meetings. It was a beautiful and seemingly very smart bird. The neighbors kidded her, asking how much it would dress out to.
Janice called frequently about her neighbors. What were we doing to get rid of them? Was someone calling the police about all the cars coming around day and night? She said she didn’t want to do anything herself because she was afraid of retribution. When they finally moved away, she grew a semi–permanent smile.
Although she had often said she couldn’t afford to move, she later changed her mind. Three of the occupants of one of Ollie Gates’s rental properties on the block moved into Norma King’s house. They turned the heat all the way up, sold appliances and furniture she had stored there, and slept on her bed. Once they ordered pizza and had it delivered.
When Janice found out what had happened, she said, “That’s it! I’m getting out of here.” She sold her place to Ollie Gates.
Joel and Mike Brooks
The Brooks brothers moved into the house their father owned. It was at the north end of the block and abutted the parking lot of the liquor store at the corner. They adopted a dog named Bear who had lived with their neighbors before they moved away. Both brothers claimed they cared more about Bear than they did about each other.
Mike was a sales representative for an office machine company. Joel didn’t work. He said he had a learning disability that prevented him from working. Both Mike and Joel were very affable. Nevertheless, they were constantly at each others’ throats. Their arguments tended to the petty:
“Why won’t you throw that damned microwave out? It hasn’t worked in a year.”
“The clock works. It’s the only one we have that works.”
Joel said he wanted to work. I mentioned an opening for an attendant at a nursing home. He said, “I’m not going to clean up incontinent old ladies, no way.” He heard about many jobs, and for each one, he had an excuse.
He said that he hoped to get on as a property appraiser with the city. His father had contacts that would walk him through the process. He got a real estate license, because everybody seemed to think it would look good to those who hired the appraisers. While waiting for the appraiser job to come along, he got a job with a local realtor that specialized in distressed property, a euphemism for foreclosed or abandoned houses. People who knew Joel begged him to help them find property, but he claimed he wasn’t really interested in selling property. Besides, his employer had screwed him out of a huge commission.
In real life, what Joel enjoyed most was hanging out with the people on the block, or with those who sat on the wall between his property and the liquor store and drank. Joel was a remarkable combination of social ineptitude and likability. People could simultaneously find him very irritating and still fun to be around. He was awkward and a little bit of a know–it–all. There was no subject, scientific, historical, philosophical, or personal, to which he was unwilling to contribute. He wanted to be an intellectual, but was not ashamed to hang out with the low–lifes who were in the neighborhood only because that’s where the liquor store was.
Mike shared his brother’s affability, but was much smoother. He wore expensive suits to work and was knowledgeable in the electronic technologies that were just starting to conquer the business world. In fact I bought my first electronic typewriter from him. He and Joel seemed both concerned and embarrassed about one another. Mike and Joel competed for synonyms for “stupid” to call each other. Mike also consistently complained about Joel not contributing to their home. He was getting tired of his brother not working.
Mike changed jobs a couple of times while he lived on the block. The office equipment business was dynamic at the time and he moved between companies, as did many salespeople. He never seemed to have problems finding new jobs.
When he first moved in, he wasn’t around too much, but then he and his girlfriend broke up, so he spent more time at home. I asked him if he was upset about the break–up and he said, “It slowed me down for a day or two.” He went to the gym a few times a week, using a counterfeit pass.
Mike intimated that they might be moving away before too long. Joel confirmed that their father, who had been letting the brothers live there free, was negotiating with Ollie Gates to sell the property. At the time Gates had spread the word that he would like to buy as much property as possible on the block. By then it was hard to imagine the block without the bickering Brooks brothers.
Months later Mike said they would be moving out shortly, that Gates had actually bought the house. I asked if he and Joel would be finding another place together, and Mike said, “No way.” They did move away, but still stopped by to visit every once in a while.
Their father owned another house on the block, and Joel was in charge of repairing it. He came in paint–splattered clothing and a working cap. He usually hung around for a few days while he worked on whatever needed doing. He said he was mainly doing property management work for his father, whom he called by his first name.
Later, Mike announced that he was gay. When he told his parents, they disowned him. Joel and his father almost started hitting each other over the way the father was treating Mike. Mike remained estranged from his father, but Joel grudgingly continued to work for him.
Clifton spent a summer on the block. He was from England and had decided to spend some time in the States. Rather than visiting the post card sites, he wanted to live as the people here lived. Through family connections he met Joel and Mike Brooks. The brothers invited him to stay with them.
Clifton attended block meetings and took as much of an interest in our concerns as we did. He offered to help out in any way he could, and seemed genuinely interested in the interaction between neighbors, as well as the way government officials were willing to actually visit and talk with residents of a small, politically inconsequential block.
He was in the country on a tourist visa and, therefore, could not legally work. He had been a construction laborer in England, so some of us whose homes needed repairs found some things for him to do. We paid him cash so the authorities wouldn’t have any record of any illegalities. He helped me paint my house; he did a lot of work for Rick and Lennie. He enclosed the lower part of their front porch and did some concrete work. Long after Rick, Lennie, and Cathy were gone his name was still clearly written in the concrete of Rick’s walkway.
Pat moved in with a man named Terry who lived in Walter Haake’s place. She had three sons and the place was too small for all of them, so when another house on the block became vacant, she moved in.
She soon became active in the neighborhood. She was a very direct person. She was very firm with her three sons. The oldest, Antonio, who everybody called Little Bit, was one of the brightest kids I’ve ever met. He was about 12 years old, but had better reasoning ability than most college graduates. He was able to look at a piece of machinery and figure out what it was supposed to do. The middle son, Mario, who they called Tater, was much quieter. Apparently he got into trouble a lot, since Pat sent him to Chicago to live with relatives when she was no longer able to handle him. The youngest was Little Terry. He was either an imp, a brat, a cut–up, or a bonsai criminal, depending on who was describing him.
Pat was strict with the boys, but appreciated them very much. She and Big Terry had their problems. Once she knocked on my door and asked for help. She had locked her keys in the trunk and wanted to know if I could help her retrieve them. She had lent the car to Terry, who had taken it on a fishing trip. He had put his catch in the trunk. In the middle of summer. Without ice. Then he forgot it was there. When she opened the trunk, she was so pissed off she threw the keys at the fish and slammed the lid down. Only then did she realize the consequences of what she had done.
We managed to dismantle the car’s back seat and get into the trunk. Shortly after that, Terry was gone.
Pat got a job in the accounting department of a company downtown near where Lennie worked. They rode together and became friends. Pat expressed concerns about her sons, especially the two older ones. Her brother had moved down from Chicago and was staying with her. There were some rumors that he was dealing drugs.
The rumors were true. In addition, he had recruited the two older boys to work with him. Traffic on the block increased. The sales became blatant. Mario went out to cars at the curb in front of their house and handed packets to passengers in exchange for money.
Meanwhile, Pat became circumspect in her conversations. She was away from home most evenings. Often in late afternoons I saw her carrying casseroles to neighbors’ homes. Once, when I spoke to her, she said that she had become active in her church and was spending as much time as possible there. She said she had been doing as much charitable work as possible.
Lennie said that Pat had given her brother and her sons an ultimatum. They could either straighten up or move out. When they did not accept either of the options, she secretly found herself an apartment. Soon, the familiar piles of belongings appeared at the curb, indicating another neighbor moving away.
After she moved out, she stopped by the block a couple of times, mostly to visit Lennie or Bette. She seemed more peaceful. She and Little Terry were living in mid–town. She had done her best, tried to do what was right.
Dave moved onto the block in 1988. He was moving to Kansas City from Colorado, where he had recently broken up with his girlfriend. I knew him because I had dated his sister for a couple of years. He was in town for a wedding, and when I mentioned how inexpensive the houses were in the neighborhood, he decided to buy.
The house he bought had been occupied by a woman who moved into a nursing home. She had kept cats and dogs, but had not kept them very well. The cat odors made the house almost uninhabitable. Dave had owned a contracting company and, using sanders and chemicals, was able to get rid of the odor.
Dave had majored in art in college and made his new house into a project. He built a covered patio in the back yard, installed a decorative walkway, painted the house, and made some other repairs.
When the neighbors saw how talented he was, they called on him to help them out with their construction projects. He found it hard to say no. Meanwhile, Dave had decided to get into the social service profession. He was very good with people and enjoyed that work. Until then, he had worked at various temporary positions.
He got a job at a group home for troubled youth in Kansas City, Kansas. The group home had a bad reputation in the community, but Dave thought it would be a good start. He had to work a couple of nights a week and then switch to days. He said that if the organization didn’t get closed down, somebody wasn’t doing their job.
Eventually he lost that job. He didn’t tell me until much later what had happened. Apparently, the group home was unable to retain staff, so he was left by himself with fifteen teenagers. While he was tending to a resident who was having a seizure, half a dozen of the other kids were out in the yard getting oral sex from a young lady who was in another of the organization’s programs. Somehow, the administration found out about the incident and told Dave he would have to go.
He applied for unemployment insurance while looking for another job. He found a job with another organization, this one with a much better reputation. At first he worked as a fill–in for one of the organization’s group homes. Eventually he was hired full time, working at the same group home. As usual, he did more than he had to. He built furniture and cabinets for the group home and some of the organization’s other facilities.
One day when I came home, I found his mother waiting outside his house. I went over to say hello, and she said that Dave had been arrested. We had no idea what was going on. I went to the bank to get some cash for bail.
His mother and I, as well as other friends panicked. It turned out that he was arrested for not having informed the unemployment office when he was working on–call. He was eventually extradited to Topeka, Kansas. After 36 hours of incarceration, he made his way back. His first words were, “Well, here I am, back from jail.”
He had been arrested on thirty counts of fraud. He had not reported his on–call position to the unemployment office, since his hours were patchy and never really enough that he considered himself employed. Eventually, after a couple of hearings, he agreed to pay back the overpayment, and the charges were dropped. He said he would recommend a short jail stay to anyone. It was an interesting experience.
Dave was very adept at getting things done. He not only refurbished and improved his house, but he completed art projects, built guitars, and succeeded in getting a couple of dangerous buildings on the block torn down. He also got the city to agree to update and increase the lighting on the block. He accomplished these latter two things by calling city hall, filling out forms, and keeping at it until things got done.
Still, he did not want to be a leader. He repeatedly refused any official position in the neighborhood group. But when it came time to clean the street, chop weeds on vacant lots, supervise P.O.W.s (the neighborhood’s name for people sentenced to do community service in exchange for reduced jail sentences), Dave was the one who did it.
He also spent a lot of time at the gym. In the summer he used the pool, and the rest of the year he did the other exercises. He met a girl there. They started seeing each other, so he spent less and less time on the block. Still, when his truck pulled into the driveway, there were usually neighbors waiting to ask his advice or his assistance.
Shari moved onto the block in the mid–1980s. The early rumors were that her parents were very wealthy and had paid cash for her house. The reality was a little more prosaic. Her parents had co–signed her loan.
Our first impression of her was that she was a work–a–holic. She held two full time jobs while finishing her master’s degree in education. One of the jobs was as a telemarketer for Kirby vacuum cleaners. The other was as a counselor at a women’s clinic. Besides that she brewed (and drank) her own beer, wove fabrics, cared for half a dozen dogs and cats, maintained her herb, vegetable, and flower garden, and taught brewing at the Communiversity. Shari also smoked like a chimney.
Every year she had a back yard party, to which she invited the neighbors and her co–workers. She roasted a pig or a lot of beef and provided plenty of home–made and store–bought beer. The guests brought the rest. Sometimes people from nearby neighborhoods crashed, but everyone seemed all right with it. The only real conflict arose from the parking limitations. Visitors from off the block left their cars wherever they could find a space, legal or not. Invariably, somebody who needed to get into or out of a driveway called the police, who asked everybody to move their cars to legal parking spots. After a lot of car shuffling, somehow there were just as many illegally parked cars as before.
When Shari got her master’s degree, she started to look for teaching jobs. She found one, but it didn’t work out. It was a private school that let her go after one term. They told her she just didn’t fit in.
After that, she got a temporary job with some city agency that did research on public policy. She stayed there until she got a full time teaching position.
There were three things that somehow distinguish Shari: her housekeeping, her proneness to crime, and her commitment to often unpopular causes. A couple of times she asked me to care for her pets while she was out of town, so I had occasion to go into her house. As a non–housekeeper, I tend to judge other people’s cleanliness liberally. Her house required more than liberal judgment; it required communist–nazi–Maoist judgment. The stench was overpowering—rotting food, dog and cat droppings, dead rodents, molds, stale beer. Walking from the living room to the kitchen, where the pet food was, took minutes—a long time to travel less than twenty feet. The reason was that there was no floor space that was not obscured by crumpled newspapers, books, or animal droppings. The dishes had been sitting in the sink so long that the pots were thick with rust. Beer bottles were everywhere. Most were full of cigarette butts.
She was victimized by crime more often than anyone on the block. She had her purse snatched at the grocery store; her house was broken into three or four times. One evening, when I was walking my dog, I heard her honk her horn. A minivan was behind her car in the driveway. I didn’t pay attention, since the van looked like her father’s. Then I saw a man in a ski mask standing at her driver’s door. He kicked in her window and Shari screamed that he was robbing her. I ran over, but he was already back in his van, driving away.
Shari was interested in a variety of issues that extended beyond the 4700 block of Virginia. She often wore T–shirts. When she was gardening, she wore old, faded shirts that called for peace; other times she wore new shirts with feminist messages. The dimness of the colors of her shirt was like a core sample of her interests at various times, through various laundry cycles: anti–war sentiments, environmental issues, education, and various stages of feminism from conciliatory to radical. Despite the stereotype, Shari seemed to maintain a sense of humor in the face of hostility toward her politics.
Nevertheless, some of her mannerisms could be irritating. She had a subtle but relentless way of boasting that grated on the nerves. When her dog was diagnosed with diabetes, she would tell everyone, even strangers, that it was time to go give her dog her shot. That was her way of informing the world that she had mastered the skill of injecting insulin.
Another irritating habit was her tendency to stretch conversations almost beyond endurance. Shari didn’t answer any question “yes” or “no.” Her responses generally included the historical background leading to her conclusions, the circumstances that led to that history, and lame attempts at humor, presumably to make the responses a little easier to bear.
Despite her problems, Shari was one of the friendliest people on the block. She stopped having her annual parties in the early nineties, mainly because she was out of work and could no longer afford them. Still, she worked as hard as anyone to make things go on the block; she was always willing to help with whatever needs doing; and she was one of the people that the block could depend on to try to bring things together when they started to fall apart.
She was a person that almost nobody was drawn to. Still, she somehow contributed to the general atmosphere of affability on the block. In her way she was a Joel Brooks, except she had a job.
Dudley (Louis Dudley, Jr.)
Louis Dudley was the first of the Ollie Gates contingent to move onto the block. Shortly after he came, he announced at a neighborhood meeting that he was there as Ollie Gates’s representative and his employer was interested in buying any property on the block that was or could be for sale. He offered to help anybody with any problems they were having with any of the places Gates owned.
Dudley—we called him Dudley even before we knew that everyone had called him that his whole life—was a tall, heavy, lumbering man. In his youth he had been a basketball player and his knees weren’t in very good shape. He moved slowly if he had to move at all.
He liked to present himself as a thinker, an analyzer. He explained that he was hoping to provide inexpensive housing for Gates’s employees. The reality was that Gates’s headquarters was going to be bisected by a change in the road system; Gates wanted nearby property for a new barbecue place.
Dudley had been married a couple of times and boasted about his connections: his former wife was a city official; his brother–in–law was a state senator; his mother was a high level administrator for Gates.
Dudley’s work history consisted of having been a bricklayer, a mechanic’s assistant and a bouncer. He had worked as a bouncer at Ollie Gates’s night club most of his adult life. People who knew him then said he was notorious for hitting on every young lady who entered the night club.
He brought prostitutes home whenever he had some extra money. He said, “I like to treat myself to a special woman, just like any good red–blooded man.”
Cars were one of his passions. He favored Cadillacs. He had half a dozen of them in his back yard. He also had a pick–up truck and a couple of other vehicles. He sometimes had one of his cars running. He did that by cannibalizing the other vehicles or by scraping together enough money to get parts. Then he would sit in a sturdy lawn chair and direct neighborhood kids or adults in the repairs. He never actually asked anybody to fix his car for him. Instead, he used a thousand different ruses.
“Come over here a minute. I want to show you something.” He would say and proudly display the brake shoe or distributor gear or blinker flasher. “It fits right there…just pull that wheel off and I’ll show you…there are some tools in the trunk you can use…that’s it…now you just have to pry that cap off and pull that cotter key…see how that works?” He would continue with his instructions, just to show how the job would be done if somebody really wanted to do the repair. He thanked his victim for his assistance and claimed that he never intended to actually make the repair that day, but, now that he got it done, there wasn’t much sense in taking it all apart again.
He did the same with his home. He decided he wanted to enclose his porch. Using the same devices as he did with the cars, he had neighbors frame the structure and put up paneling. The lumber was scavenged from everywhere and none of the paneling matched.
He retrieved an old Huffy bicycle from a trash pile somewhere and asked me to fix it up for him. He said that he was going to try to get back into shape. The bike was missing everything—cables, spokes, tires, brake handles, brake shoes. It had a chain, but it was so rusty that the links wouldn’t flex. He told me he really liked my Cannondale and thought it wouldn’t take much to put his bike in the same condition. Later, when I told him his bike would never be very good, he said he was going over to the bike shop to see about getting himself a real Cannondale.
He borrowed money and cigarettes from anybody he could. When he needed a little more money, he would offer to sell some of his things. Actually, what he was asking for was a token amount so that people wouldn’t feel bad about taking the things he was giving them. One day he decided to give away his stereo system. He asked one of the neighborhood kids to go get Dave Paarmann. Dave went over and up to Dudley’s bedroom. The room was dominated by a king size bed. Since none of his kitchen appliances worked, he ate in that room. A card table held a hot plate along with the remains of a bucket of chicken. A chest of drawers supported a score of liquor bottles.
When Dave got to the room, Dudley was lying in bed, wearing only his underwear. He told Dave that, although it pained him, he was thinking of selling his stereo. It was a very expensive system that he kept hidden in a closet behind his wardrobe of business suits. The system was a record player from the 1960s, one of the very first stacked component systems. The controls consisted of a few bakelite knobs and a couple of bass and treble adjustments. The tone arm didn’t have a needle in it. Dave pulled a ten dollar bill from his pocket. From that moment Dudley’s eyes focused on the bill. As he stared, he asked Dave to run over and tell me about the windfall, so that I might have an opportunity to own a share in the wondrous instrument. Several neighbors said they would buy the system for a few bucks, and asked Dudley to hold it for them until they got a chance to pick it up.
In his younger days Dudley had run an organization called The Coaches Council. The Council was supposed to help young people stay off the streets by offering basketball and mentors to keep them occupied. Dudley thought that he would like to restart the Council, fifteen years after it had gone under. He recruited several neighbors to serve on the board. He also recruited prominent business people and government representatives. He intimated that, in addition to the young men he had helped during the first incarnation of the organization, he would like to help out some of the poor prostitutes who were ruining their lives with drugs and alcohol.
The first board meeting took place at a swank office on the Country Club Plaza. Dudley showed up in his finest funeral outfit. He sat at the head of the room with several of the more distinguished board members. He expressed his gratitude to everybody who showed up. He also announced that the organization had been granted tax–free status. The city had been willing to donate an abandoned YMCA building. All we would have to do would be fix it up. Fixing it up would have cost several million dollars, but nobody on the board realized that until they looked at the structure.
He insisted that he didn’t want a leadership position on the board, but hinted that he would be willing to accept a paid position with the new Coaches Council.
The board met a couple more times and then disintegrated. Nobody besides Dudley was very interested in his project. Shortly after that, Dudley moved away. He hadn’t paid his rent in months. He had an open offer to return to work for Gates, but refused, because he felt the organization had treated him unfairly.
Instead, he moved back in with his mother. He was well into his 50s and moved back in with his mother. He claimed that he was doing so because his mother needed him around to help her, although most people believed that was the only place he had to go.
Several months later, he died. I heard about his death from a co–worker who had crossed paths with Dudley while he was a bouncer at the nightclub. She said that the rumors were that he had died of syphilis of the brain. I didn’t go to the funeral. I can’t remember why I didn’t. People who did go said it was well attended, and that the service was not one of those loud screaming, weeping affairs. It was, instead, a chance to reminisce about what all Dudley had done in his life, how he had done it, and how, even in death, something was ironic about the man.
David lived in the upstairs apartment of Walter Haake’s former place, now owned by Ollie Gates. His sister had a place on the next block over, and David used her garage for his auto–mechanic’s shop. His shop was almost bucolically shade–tree. Old parts littered the back yard. David had rigged a primitive heating system to allow him to work year around. He had very basic tools, none of the electronic diagnostic equipment that most modern repair shops have. Still, he was able to do most of what his customers needed: brakes, clutches, tune–ups (on pre–electronic ignition cars), some engine work.
He had a knack for keeping cars going. As a result, his customers and friends of his customers called on him at any time. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, people would bang on his door or scream his name to come out and help them get their cars started.
David was almost solicitous in his courtesy towards his neighbors. He had a strange speech pattern, slightly stuttering, somewhat jerky, but very soft. He was a large man, 6’3″ and 230 pounds. He never participated in any of the formal neighborhood activities, but he was concerned. He did try to keep up on the crises. When he heard gunshots or saw police on the block, he called to find out what was going on. When his downstairs neighbor was blasting music too loudly, he intervened.
When his sister, the one whose garage he used, got a job as a school bus driver, he began getting up in the middle of the night to take her to work. When I asked him if she appreciated what he was doing, he said, “She doesn’t have to appreciate it; she’s been letting me use her garage all along.”
One incident seemed to conflict with his usually docile demeanor, though not by much. We were in front of the house talking when a young lady came by. She apparently wanted to borrow ten dollars from him. Since he was an independent businessman, some people thought he must have a lot of money. David reached for her neck and removed a gold chain she was wearing. The woman protested that the chain was worth some outrageous amount—I think it was $600. David said he would lend her the money and hold onto the chain. In a week, if she didn’t repay the loan, he was going to sell the chain. The woman was perturbed, but went along with the deal.
When the woman had left with her ten dollars, David shrugged and continued the conversation. I think the conversation was about a box of .38 caliber ammunition we had found in some shrubs in my front yard.
Several of the neighbors tried to persuade him to buy a house on the block, but he wasn’t interested. He has said he preferred to avoid all the obligations that go with home ownership. When Ollie Gates informed all of his tenants that he intended to demolish their homes, he found a new place that had both living quarters and a garage.
The Homeless Man
For several years a man made his home in the brush above the north bank of the creek. We never did find the exact spot. We didn’t find anything that looked like a clearing or a tent. We assumed he covered himself with leaves for warmth. He was a short, very quiet man. He wore many layers of clothing, even in summer. We never learned his name. He emerged from the creek in the mornings and walked down the street towards 47th. Although several of us had tried to engage him in conversation, we never got much more than a nod. Sometimes, rarely, he would say hello.
We couldn’t tell much about him just from how he looked. He was usually clean shaven, but we didn’t know where or how he shaved. We couldn’t tell his age or his race. He could have been anywhere between 30 and 60 years old; he could have been black, white, or Hispanic.
Occasionally he swept sidewalks at nearby businesses. Somebody said that nobody would give him indoor work because his body odor was overpowering. I hadn’t noticed that.
Starting in the early 90s, we saw him less frequently. After a long absence, we thought he might have died or moved away or been committed to the state hospital. Then he reappeared, but only for a few days. Then he disappeared again. We assumed that he had found a different place to live or at least a place to rest.
Brian moved into the house Dudley vacated. He weighed 350 pounds and was missing his upper teeth. He was very bright, very perceptive, shy, and not quite sane. His conversations usually lasted about ten minutes before they degenerated into ravings about the various plots that controlled the world. He might start talking about some problem or other that was plaguing our block. Eventually, he invariably started talking about who is really running things. Among his claims: a group of powerful people in Switzerland announced that Bill Clinton was going to be the president long before the 1992 election; most of what happens in Kansas City is decided by bigshots in Washington; satellites keep track of what every human being is doing at any given time. What was interesting about the conversations was that they didn’t start out as paranoid ravings. It was very easy to carry on a conversation with him. The evolution of the discussions was so gradual and so subtle it was hard to tell when things moved from problems of trash pickup to satellite inspections of our daily activities for the purpose of eventual control of our lives.
Brian did not have a telephone. Until he met the rest of the neighbors at a block meeting, he had not spoken much to any of us. After the meeting he started coming around to visit. Often he asked to use the phone or borrow a smoke. Sometimes he complained about his wife. She was giving him a hard time or he didn’t know what she wanted from him.
Once he called a neighbor from the state hospital. He had been admitted after a drinking and gambling episode during which he lost a large portion of his savings. He had become suicidal and wanted his wife to know where he was. He stayed there for a couple of weeks and then returned. His job was not waiting for him.
Brian went through jobs regularly. When he first moved in, he worked as a security guard at “Live Girls Live,” the porn shop around the corner. When he was fired from that position, he went from neighbor to neighbor seeking legal advice. Had he been wrongly terminated? He was vague about the proprietors’ reasons for letting him go, but he contended that he had been a good and reliable worker. Wouldn’t the fact that the shop was, through several dummy companies, owned by the mafia work in his favor? We pointed out that if organized crime was involved, it might work in his favor legally, and his heirs might well benefit from any lawsuit.
He went to work for the neighborhood supermarket. He lasted there for a couple of months and was fired for chronic tardiness. The grocery was less than 100 yards from his front door, so he could not claim transportation problems. Even so, he spent several weeks trying to find a legal angle.
During this time we had a gunshot incident on the block. A series of half a dozen shots were fired in the front yard of one of the Gates homes. I went over to investigate. Brian came out too. We called the police and they said it would be up to two hours before they were able to come.
Brian borrowed my phone to call them back. He bargained the dispatcher down to fifteen minutes. When the police still hadn’t arrived, he called them back and told them to get their lazy asses over here. We went back over to the house and tried the doors. Everything seemed to be locked up. We couldn’t find any spent casings or bullet holes.
When the police finally arrived, they flashed their lights over the property, but refused to investigate any further. Brian was disgusted and shook the door of the house, trying to get in. He said, “I’m not afraid of them.” He wasn’t being courageous, just stating a nervous fact: He didn’t mind confronting whoever was firing gunshots on our block. We circled the house several more times, but never did find out who was responsible for the gunshots. After a while, we just called it a night.
Brian got a job at one of the fancy hotels. After his first day of orientation he called me over. He recited the hotel’s credo, saying that all employees were expected to remember the eight or ten paragraphs that constituted the pledge. Brian was very proud of working for an outfit with such a commitment to quality. He was also proud, but less so, that he had memorized the doctrines of the hotel. Two years later he was still working there. Then he got a job as a guard at a nearby clothing and wig shop.
His wife, a soft–spoken woman, cornered me once to ask if I would like to read a book she’d written. I told her I would enjoy that. Right then, the book wasn’t actually complete. If she wrote out the outline, would I be willing to flesh it out? I told her I didn’t have time to write her book for her, but I would love to read it, and I would put it on the computer so we could print it off more easily. So far she hasn’t brought it over. The two of them are still together. When Gates began eviction proceedings, they found a new place. Since the new house was Section 8, they had to wait for it to pass inspection.
He told me that he had received notice from Gates several months earlier that he was not to pay rent any more. He felt it was unfair to use that against him in an eviction proceeding. Besides, he had continued to pay Buddy Reynolds his rent, and had receipts to prove it. Nevertheless, he moved shortly after Gates got a court order to evict him and the other tenants.
Buddy Reynolds (Maurice Reynaldo)
Buddy was Ollie Gates’s official manager for the property on Virginia. He had worked for Gates for years. His official title was Chief of Security. Buddy was born in Cuba as Maurice Reynaldo. He and Dudley had been “Gates boys” since they were teen–agers. He called Dudley “Tree”, a nickname from their younger days.
Buddy always seemed very friendly and affable, but everybody who knew him when he was younger said he had been tough back then. He had been convicted of armed robbery but didn’t serve time in the penitentiary. Apparently, the change in his demeanor arose from serious health problems when he was in his fifties. He had a bad kidney attack, and the doctors told him he might not live much longer. Whatever treatment they gave him worked. He never seemed anything other than a mild and courteous neighbor.
As a property manager, however, he was less than ideal. His own backyard held half a dozen cars in various states of disrepair. He rented the properties to anybody who had a down payment. He usually had to make monthly visits to each of his tenants to collect the rent. Then, he often only collected after threatening eviction. And eventually he usually carried out those threats. The tenants invariably left the properties in worse shape than they had found them. Since code compliance was never one of Buddy’s priorities, he could then rent only to people with lower standards than those whom he had evicted.
He also had a strong tendency to blame those who complained about his properties or their tenants for the problems. When a group of occupants broke into one of the homes, he responded by claiming that people should know better than to keep valuables in their homes in this neighborhood.
Buddy had a son, Darryl, who stayed at Buddy’s. In fact, he was there more often than his father. Buddy seemed to spend as much time staying at some of the other properties as he did at the one on the block. Darryl was a heavy drinker. He was also one of the neighborhood beggars. He hit us up for cigarettes, liquor, a few bucks, use of electrical outlets, food. He went to church every week, but never learned to tie a necktie, so he came by my place every Sunday morning to tie his tie for him. At the same time, he usually asked if he could use the outlet on my front porch to iron his dress pants. Buddy seemed to barely tolerate his son. I never saw them talking to one another for more than a few minutes.
The thing that was most striking about Buddy, more than his property management, though, was his affinity for both animals and children. Every morning Buddy brought a box of scraps from Gates and left them out for the dogs and cats on the block. Whenever Buddy was around, there were half a dozen dogs nearby. Often there were just as many children. And nearby, there were usually cats and kittens that seemed to want to be near him, but feared the dogs. When the dogs became occupied with the food Buddy brought, the cats usually gathered around him in the same way. It’s hard to say why the children seemed so drawn to him. It could have been that they were originally drawn to the animals that hung around him. Or it could have been that he sometimes had treats for some of them, or that he spoke to them as though they were adults. Many of the kids did not have fathers living with them. Sometimes there were men in the household, but not men that had done much with their lives. By comparison, Buddy was successful. And he was willing to spend some time with the kids, talk to them, answer their questions, and not call them names or hit them.
Despite his basic gentleness, something about him intimidated his tenants. It could have been the fact that they were often staying beyond their paid–up rent only because of his largesse. His tenants called him “Mr. Reynolds.” They sometimes complained about him, but never to his face. He seemed to be the one person that they should never mess with.
A couple of times, I overheard a neighbor ask Buddy’s advice on some odd people who had moved into his place. I heard Buddy laugh and say, “You gave them a place to stay. All you can do now is get them out of there.” Buddy wasn’t concerned as much as amused at how somebody could be so naive. The tenant had been drinking on his front porch when this intruder joined him for a malt liquor. Before long, he had just sacked out on the floor and had stayed for weeks.
None of us knew whether Buddy actually reported back to Gates. Neither Buddy nor Ollie Gates discussed who was responsible for the properties. When the neighbors had a concern about the houses, we generally had to check tax records at City Hall to find who was currently responsible.
Danny was drunk. Always. Once, several months after he came to the block, he disappeared for a few weeks. He had been hospitalized, diagnosed with diabetes. He returned to the block sober; within days he was drinking again. I asked him once if he was taking his insulin as he was instructed to. He said in his stretched speech, “No. The doctor told me alcohol don’t mix with it.”
Danny was a unique character. Besides his drinking, he could be loud, sometimes even violent. Once he found a handgun in the house where he was rooming. He was angry about something and came running out of the house waving the gun over his head, talking incoherently. His wiry body seemed incapable of running a straight line. The amateurish home–made tattoos on his forearms (a lopsided naked lady, a sloppy heart, and a couple of others) made him seem either ominous or pathetic.
Inferences from these descriptions would probably be wrong. Danny was also an aesthete, almost consumed with keeping the neighborhood beautiful. He routinely went up and down the block mowing every lawn, trimming and shaping every bush, picking up every piece of trash. His own home was ornamented with foliage, potted plants, and flowers.
He had worked for Ollie Gates, the barbecue king, as a landscaper for years. He sometimes complained that people were always taking advantage of the Flower Man. He didn’t say “Flower Man” as though it were some sort of street name, but as it if it were ironic that somebody named Danny Flowers was the one people called on to keep their landscaping beautiful.
And people did take advantage of him. Once I asked if he would help me clean up my backyard for a few bucks. He brought his girlfriend and her son along to help. As we were working, he asked his girlfriend if she knew where his gloves were. “Danny, don’t you remember, you gave them to that dude that come around here yesterday.” He had given his gloves away to some homeless man who had wandered onto the block, and had forgotten that he had done it.
Despite his drinking, despite his sometimes impolite language, despite everything, Danny was almost saintly in his kindness and generosity. I feel bad that once I had him thrown in jail. He and Dudley were fighting on the street and Dudley asked me to call the police, since Danny had a bench warrant out on him. I called and the police came. At the time I knew Dudley much better than Danny and was a little bit intimidated by Danny’s drunken ravings.
When Danny returned from the county farm, he said to me, “Man, why did you call the police on me?” He was sincerely plaintive, as though he didn’t deserve what I had done to him. I felt terrible.
Later, when Dudley died (supposedly of syphilis) Danny went to the funeral. I told him that I had not been able to make it to the service. Danny said, “Yeah, that was real cold how he died. But, you know, he looked better than he has in years.”
Unlike many of the people who lived on the block, Danny never asked for anything for himself. He never asked to borrow money or a cigarette. He never asked anybody to help him do his work. When the lawn mower threw a rock into a neighbor’s window, she became angry, even though he was mowing her lawn for free, just to be a good neighbor. He paid to have the window repaired. Never complained, never argued.
On a muggy summer night, he asked me if I would drive him downtown to bail somebody out of jail—he had long since watched his driver’s license float away on a river of alcohol. It was 11:00 o’clock, and I had to work the next morning. Still, I figured, why not? He was even drunker than usual. I was having some trouble understanding his speech, since he was mumbling. When we got into the car, another man, one I didn’t know, got into the car with us. As it turned out he was able to interpret for me, since he was only half drunk.
On the way downtown, I asked Danny who this was we were bailing out. “Oh, some dumb whore,” he said. Apparently, she was his girlfriend’s brother’s girlfriend (although it took me nearly an hour to figure that out).
By the time we got downtown, where the bail bond companies were clustered several blocks from the police station, the air was getting very heavy. Rain was inevitable. Danny sent the interpreter in to arrange the bail. The first bondsman refused bond, since the woman had skipped out on him before.
Danny and I got out of the car to have a smoke underneath an old hotel marquee. When Danny pulled his cigarettes out of his pants pockets, several bills came out with them and fell to the ground. That part of town in the middle of the night was seasoned with unsavory characters. I picked up the bills and told Danny to be careful about his money, since the two of us would not be able to fight off some of the people who took a liking to his money.
The interpreter went into a second bond shop where he was able to get bond on the woman. From there we had to go to the police station to get the release papers that the county farm would accept as redemption for the prisoner. That was when the rain started. The downpour hid the street completely. I made my way the several blocks to the police station mainly by ricocheting back and forth between the curbs. After the 40 yard run from the car to the police station, I was drenched.
Halfway out to the county farm, the rain let up. By then most of the liquor in Danny had metabolized. The interpreter went in to get the woman checked out, since Danny had outstanding warrants. As I later deduced, Danny wouldn’t have minded going to jail—he kind of liked the place—but he didn’t want to appear so stupid as to actually walk into jail while there were warrants outstanding against him.
While the interpreter was inside, Danny and I stood outside the fence, smoking a cigarette. “That’s where I stay when I come,” he said proudly, pointing out a newish brick building, partly hidden by a larger similar building. He pointed out the lawn and the shrubs that he maintained whenever he was put up there. He explained that they kept him and the other older guys away from the younger, often more violent, often more boisterous prisoners. He liked that arrangement, since, when he was at the farm, he liked to be comfortable and relax.
A sign at the gate said, “All Prisoners Must Enter Through Sally Port.” I asked Danny what the sally port was.
“Come over here. I’ll show you,” he said brightly, excited that somebody was so interested in seeing his home. He was as proud of the county farm as a person whose place is selected for the annual homes tour. From what I could gather, the sally port was an intermediate lockup that allowed prisoners to transfer from the wagons to the jail without having a chance to escape. Danny never did explain why it was called the sally port.
It took nearly 45 minutes to get the woman bailed and processed. The woman complained all the while back that she had been trying to get out for four days. She had been arrested for shoplifting something from the Osco drug store. She said, “The only reason I keep getting busted is that black cop. He wants to get into my pants and he hauls me in every chance he gets.”
Danny didn’t respond to anything she said. He was already weary from being sober for nearly an hour and didn’t particularly care to hear what she had to say. Finally, as we got close to home, he said, “You’d better have your black ass in court this time or I don’t get my money back.”
She explained that she never missed a court date and that bondsman who claimed she had didn’t get the message from the police that she was in custody. How could she be in court when the police had her somewhere else? It was all a mixup.
“Just make sure you have your black ass in court,” he repeated.
When we got back home, he thanked me. The interpreter thanked me. The woman was too indignant about the injustices she had endured to thank anyone.
Once, the neighbors gave Danny a special award, a framed certificate thanking him for all he had done to beautify the block. Several times since he received the award, he has mentioned how much he cherished it.
He had been seeing a woman named Julia for a long time. They lived together on the block off and on for a couple of years. Julia had once mentioned that she spent $80 a week on lottery tickets, because she needed the money. At the time she was working for minimum wage when she worked at all. Just before they moved away she got a job at a hospital as a nursing assistant. She often proclaimed how she loved Danny with all her heart.
Danny moved away from the block. He still stopped by every once in a while. He usually sat around on a front porch, drinking with whoever happened to be there. He seemed to be losing weight. Somebody said they thought he looked like he had AIDS. He didn’t look healthy, and, when I didn’t see him for a few days at a time, I looked for his name in the obituaries.
He was sitting on the porch next door to me, the porch of the house where he used to live. He and the current residents were drinking. I asked how he was doing, where he was staying these days. He said he was homeless. I thought he was kidding, but he said it was true. He didn’t have any place to stay. I was walking my doggie at the time. When I came back in, I debated whether I should give him some money. I ended up not giving him any, probably because I was too lazy, or because I didn’t want anybody seeing me giving out cash.
A few days later I heard him outside my window, calling me. It turned out he needed a lift. He was staying with his daughter, a daughter I didn’t know existed. She lived not too far from the block, but it was raining and he didn’t want to walk the distance in the weather. During the ride home I asked him if was doing something about his weight loss. He told me he was down to just over 100 pounds, and that he was going to have to do something about it, but he was spending all his money on liquor and didn’t have enough left over for food. He said he usually wasn’t hungry anyway.
I asked him how Julia was doing. He said she was a bitch. She was on crack and was dating some Cuban guy who was dealing. That surprised me, since the last time I had seen her was when I was with a friend at the emergency room of the hospital where she worked. We had a long wait and she had brought us some water. I told Danny that I was shocked, and he said, “She’s just a bitch.”
In October of 1995 Danny died. Pat Jake had run into Dave Paarmann and told him that Danny had died. We weren’t able to find out the details of the funeral until it was too late. Apparently, Ollie Gates had paid for the service.
Danny had used his pickup truck to help some of Gates’s tenants move their belongings when they were evicted to allow the houses to be demolished. During the demolition one of Bobby Gunn’s brothers was collecting aluminum windows from the empty structures. The demolition team had claimed that they were entitled to that scrap. Danny had intervened, outraged that the wrecking crew was denying the poor fellow a few extra dollars. Eventually, Bobby’s brother prevailed.
One day shortly after that dispute, Bette Rhule and I were talking on the sidewalk. Danny came over to explain what had happened. Then, he started to reminisce. “I still have that award you people gave me. That meant a lot to me. Now, Bette, she’s always been everybody’s friend. Me and Ralph, we had some problems at the beginning, but we got to be friends. I just want you people to know that. I mean, we ain’t going to be around forever.”
Bette said, “Oh Danny, don’t give up on us. You’re too young to give up.” But all three of us knew that, the way he looked, he wasn’t going to be around much longer.
I had maintained this fantasy that I would some day sit down with Danny and a tape recorder and put his life story on paper. A couple of times I toyed with the idea of offering him a few dollars an hour to tell me about himself, but that never happened.
PeeWee didn’t live on the block very long. Shortly after he arrived he introduced himself. He said he had just been discharged from the state hospital. He proceeded to tell me how he had come to where he was in life.
Several years before he was staying at a motel on the East side of town. A friend, a double amputee, stopped by to visit him. The friend didn’t have any place to stay and asked PeeWee if he could stay there with him until he got on his feet. He agreed, but when the motel manager found out, he told PeeWee that he would have to pay extra to have the friend stay there.
Since PeeWee didn’t have any extra money, he decided to go downtown to see if he could come up with some extra cash. He spied two elderly women coming out of the convention center. He put his hand in his pocket and demanded their money. The women screamed and PeeWee ran. The police caught him a block away.
He was sentenced to several years in prison. PeeWee, in telling the story, said, “I don’t think I should have had to go to the penitentiary, because, first of all, I didn’t really have a gun, and, second, I didn’t get any money from them.”
I said, “But PeeWee, you scared those two women.”
“Well, they scared me a lot more than I scared them and nobody’s sending them to the penitentiary.”
While he was in prison, his mother became terminally ill. PeeWee asked for a leave to see her before she died, but his request was denied. By the time he got out, his mother had died. He climbed on a bridge over the river threatening to jump. Rescue crews spent several hours talking to him and finally persuaded him to come down. That was how he got to the state hospital.
He wanted to get involved in the block activities. He insisted on having a neighborhood meeting, which we arranged. Starting several hours before the meeting, he went from door to door on the block talking to the neighbors about their concerns and taking copious notes in a spiral steno pad.
An hour or so before the scheduled meeting, he came to my house to report everything he had learned about the block, its relationships, its politics. It seemed that his notes had inflamed his passions. He was overflowing with ideas: cordoning off the creek at the end of the block to prevent migration from the other side; more frequent meetings; block parties; a neighborhood bank to help out those who needed a few bucks to get by. He suggested preparing an agenda that would include the things he had come up with.
I told him I appreciated all the work he had put into organizing the meeting, but I had to take a few minutes to eat before we got started. The meeting was set to start in fifteen minutes.
He arrived so slobbering drunk that he was completely incoherent. He kept trying to sit next to Pat, a neighbor who had evidently caught PeeWee’s eye. Bette tried to get him to sit next to her. PeeWee respected Bette and she was able to calm him down enough that he passed out. A couple of us dragged him over to his porch, where he stayed quietly during the rest of the meeting.
PeeWee, following Danny Flowers’ example, volunteered to mow lawns in the neighborhood. He especially wanted to mow Pat’s down the street, since he very much wanted to impress her. He used my lawn mower, which was stored under my back porch. One day he asked me to come back there with him. A cat had had a litter of kittens and was protecting them in the storage place. Eventually he took the kittens in, giving them all names, and sleeping with them piled around himself.
One Saturday morning, as I was leaving, I spotted what was left of his belongings on the front lawn (many of his things had been stolen during a series of break–ins). I asked him what was going on. He decided to move to California and was going to sell his things to get the money. Brand new and retail, the total worth of everything on the lawn might have been $150. In the condition they were, he would have been lucky to get ten bucks for all of it. Nevertheless. By the time I returned home, PeeWee was gone for good. He took the kittens with him.
Bobby and Lynda Gunn
Bobby introduced himself the day after he moved in. He had been living in Alaska and claimed his profession was a culinary, which, as he described it, was the same as a chef, but without the license. I asked where in Alaska he had lived. He said all over. He mentioned Prudhoe, where he had served the crew of the Exxon Valdez its last meal before it set off, only to run aground, causing the infamous oil spill in Prince William Sound.
Before Alaska he had lived with a large family in a nearby neighborhood. One of his brothers later moved in with him. I spoke with the director of the neighborhood organization where he had been living. She said that the whole family was nothing but trouble. She said that their gain was our loss.
Bobby seemed affable enough. A couple of weeks after he moved in, he said, “I’d like to ask you a favor. I was wondering if you could hold some money for me, about thirty bucks.”
I asked him why. He told me that if he held it, he would just drink it up and it was his last thirty dollars. And when he tried to hide it from himself, he always found it and ended up drinking it away. I suggested he put the money in the bank.
“I can’t do that.”
“Because the government would take it for child support.”
“Well why aren’t you paying your child support?”
“If you owed $76,000 in child support would you want them taking your last thirty dollars?” He had a sixteen year old daughter in Alaska and he had never paid any child support. Now the social service people were trying to get it all back from him. He repeated his request that I hold his money for him, and I declined. I just didn’t want to get into that.
After a short time, the neighborhood director’s cautions seemed to make sense. Bobby’s front porch became a center, where people gathered to get drunk, scream, and use drugs. Bobby himself tried to be friendly to everybody, but he didn’t want to alienate the people who had come to visit him, so he went along with what they did. He mentioned to Buddy Reynolds, his landlord, that he didn’t like all those people hanging around his house. Buddy said there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
Bobby had been living on the block for about five months when his wife returned from prison. I had forgotten that he had a wife, since I had never met her. He mentioned that he was hoping she would find a job, since they wanted to save enough money to move back to Alaska. I asked him what kind of work she had done. He said, “Something with computers. I think she was an auditor.” What had she been in prison for? It would be hard for her to get a job in her field if she had been convicted of a property crime—bad checks, embezzlement, larceny. He said, “Oh no, nothing like that. She just stabbed a guy.” Not to worry. She hadn’t jeopardized her career.
A couple of days earlier we were standing on the street talking. A middle aged man who looked like an addict (skinny, nervous, constantly looking around) walked past us. He went onto the porch of an abandoned house at the end of the block. We noticed him doing something with the porch posts. Bobby said, “I’ve got a brother who’s a crack–head. They do stuff like that, look for stuff that isn’t there.”
As we observed the man, we noticed he had a tire iron. The posts were decorated with wooden card suits. He was using the tool to pry them off. Bobby called down to him, asking him what he was doing. Then he started to walk towards him. I told him he was crazy. The guy had a tire iron. Bobby said he was going to his house to get his own iron, meaning a firearm. I told him it wasn’t worth shooting a guy for some spare parts off of an abandoned building. He said, “I don’t want to kill him. I was just going to cap his knees for him. If we let him get away with it, he’ll be walking up and down this street and get every house on the block. He saw us watching him. We’ve got to do something.” As we talked, the thief walked away, carrying a couple of hearts and a spade. Bobby asked me if I had been scared. I smiled and informed him that our block’s motto was, “We laugh at danger.”
Lynda moved in with their two children. She soon became notorious as the neighborhood beggar. Once I got up in the morning to find my front porch light bulb missing. I rigged a contraption out of bent bicycle spokes and lamp cord that looked like it would shock anyone who tried to steal the light bulb again. A couple of months later Lynda begged me for a light bulb, which made me wonder if she was the thief.
Brian Leigh claimed to have seen her having sex with guys on the front porch for money. He also claimed that she and her family had been banned from the liquor store for soliciting for prostitution in the parking lot.
Several of us had called the city to complain about the condition of the house. Bobby and Lynda complained to us that somebody had it in for them and swore that they were doing all they could to keep their place up. They didn’t have water and carried pails from Rick’s place to do their laundry. Sometimes they stood next to Rick’s place and washed their hair there.
Bobby got a cat for the kids. They named her Muldoon. He said he was going to have a diamond stud put in the cat’s ear. I told him he was crazy; if anybody saw a cat with a diamond in its ear, they would either steal the cat for the jewel or cut its ear off. He acted as though he hadn’t thought of that before, although I imagine he couldn’t have actually afforded such an extravagance.
About five months after Lynda moved in the couple had a fight and she moved out. Ollie Gates claimed that the home was scheduled for demolition. Despite eviction notices and court orders Bobby and some of his friends continued to live there. Even after he found a place, he came over regularly to ask me to open a can of food for the cat he was not yet able to accommodate in his new place. He claimed to have found a home to buy and he would be moving in there as soon as it was vacant.
For several weeks after he moved, he stopped by to borrow my can opener. He said he had to leave Muldoon the cat at the place until he could make arrangements for the cat to move in with him. It was only after the house was half demolished that he actually took Muldoon with him.
Shortly after the demolition of the house began, I found a letter on the sidewalk in front of their house:
Well today is Monday, 16 1994. Another day!
I really wish I could hear from you, so bad. If I could get one letter from you I would sleep with it every nite!! Every nite!!
I miss you so much! I got to see Ronda, Ricki, & Shatka Sunday!! For a whole 5 darn minutes! She asked me—is daddy in there too? I said no, daddy’s working at another job! She asked to see you!!
Honey please save $ to come see us!! I’ll try to see if the name can be changed on the ticket so you can come down!! Shatka would love that!!
Anyway, have you found a job yet? I hope so! Will you send me money I need to get an out of town lawyer babe!! There’s a new law called “First offenders act” which will get me probation!! But—an attorney has to apply for it for you!
I have to have at least 35000 as retainer fees! Please ask Stan to help!
It has to be in a postal $ order!
Well love remember I love you and please be good, please! I’d hate to have to kick butt when I get out!
I don’t know for sure that the letter came from Lynda, especially since some of the people named were not the names of her children. The rest of the letter does seem to correspond to what I knew of their story.
Nanook was a strange presence on the block. She was a dog, a husky, who appeared on the block in 1992. Shari Paulsell named her Nanook to reflect her northern heritage.
Of all the creatures on the block, she could well have been the most paradoxical. She was shy around people, but never ran in fright; she didn’t like to be touched, except sometimes when she would cross the street to be petted; she was very independent, but waited patiently on the front stairs of those who left food for her; she seemed to be a leader, since the other neighborhood dogs were drawn to her, but she often would wander away from the group to be alone; she was calm, as though she had been with people before, but even though she wasn’t at all skittish, she was wary of people.
We don’t know where she came from. When she first appeared, we assumed she had strayed away from a home somewhere. We looked in the paper for a lost dog that would match her description. In the meantime, some of the neighbors—Buddy Reynolds, Dave, Bette, Shari, Cathy—fed her. Eventually she let those people pet her. Sometimes when I walked my dog, she would come over and try to engage him. A couple of times she nuzzled me, wanting a pat or an ear rub.
Sometimes she disappeared for long periods. We assumed she was gone, another of our neighbors who stayed with us a while and then moved on. But she always returned. She remained a presence, somehow seeming to look over what was going on on the block. Something remained eerie about the beautiful dog, as though she was wise. Even though it doesn’t usually make sense to see real life as symbolic of anything, Nanook somehow seemed to be a Greek chorus for our block.
Since I wrote the description above, Nanook died. We don’t know what happened. Dave Paarmann stopped by one evening to chat. One of his clients who had disappeared a couple of months earlier had been found dead in a park. And Nanook was dead. He had noticed her stretching out a couple of days earlier, as though she was getting ready for a new day. Later that day he saw her lying in a pile of autumn leaves in his back yard. She often rested in that pile. But this time she didn’t seem to move. He went over to see if she was all right, and she was dead.
We set aside the next evening to dig her grave and bury her. Dave marked out an area near the back of his yard, a spot that overlooked the creek. Working with a digging fork and a square shovel, we dug her grave and carried her over. By then she smelled so bad that it was hard to concentrate on the sadness of her death. I shoveled as fast as I could to cover her. Dave was more gentle, sprinkling the dirt respectfully on her body.
Dave said that some time later we might put a marker on her grave, but there was no hurry. Of the many dogs who used to run together, there were only two left. One was black with German shepherd markings; the other was tan. The two were siblings, and both were friendly.
Some of the Others
In compiling these short profiles I keep remembering more households that have been on this block. In fact, after I had finished the third or fourth draft, a woman came into the office where I was working. She looked vaguely familiar and reminded me that she had lived in the house later occupied by Dale and Michelle Talbott. I had seen her several times over the years, but she had lost weight and changed her hairstyle so I didn’t quite recognize her. She reminisced about some of the incidents that had occurred during her stay. She remembered some of the people who I had forgotten and some incidents I never knew about.
The fact that I had completely forgotten about this woman who had lived on this block for a number of years made me realize that there were probably more than two hundred households on the block during the time I lived there. Some were only here for a short time. Of these, many were here for too short a while to establish themselves. Still, many were, for good or bad, a part of the block for that short time.
At the south end of the block was a building that was on the edge of condemnation. It housed a group of people whom we never got to know except as criminal types we didn’t want on our block. There were about three brothers and whatever women they could corral for a few days. All were blond and tattooed. They owned a pick–up truck, which they apparently used to pick up trash, either for payment or because they had found something valuable in it. When they picked up trash for money, they backed their truck into the creek and emptied it there. Once I saw them doing it and called the police. They threatened to kill me. I called police again. They took turns walking in front of my house. They would stop and just stare at me or make new threats. I called the police each time. Once, Pat Jake saw what they were doing and confronted them about it. She told them (and when the police arrived repeated) that we didn’t want them around this block. Shortly after that, they moved away. A woman lived with them. She was Mexican and didn’t speak much English. Her job was to crush the beer cans the rest of them emptied. They had installed a can crusher on a porch post, and the woman stood for hours crushing cans and filling trash bags with them for later redemption. An older man also lived there. He was missing a leg. When the others went on their foraging trips, they loaded him in the back of the pickup and had him sit on one of the bags of crushed cans.
They left a woman named Margaret and her two young sons living there. By this time the structure was not really fit for habitation. Most of the plumbing was gone, probably in the possession of a metal recycler. The threesome seemed pleasant enough. They participated in neighborhood activities. Margaret didn’t work, so she kept an eye on what was going on around the block. After a break–in at Dave’s house, she said she had seen somebody carry a trash bag from his house to Debbie’s drug house. Nobody ever got proof, but we were grateful for her conscientiousness. A few days later, her sons knocked on my door to ask to borrow a dollar just until their mother’s relief check arrived. Later in the day I discovered they had knocked on every door on the block with the same story. Surprisingly, they did repay the money, but a couple days later they returned. The knocks on the door and the two pathetic children became a daily, dreaded ritual. The repayments stopped. People stopped answering their doors, or said they were out of money. The family moved away.
The next family—actually an unrelated group of people—lasted less than a week before the codes enforcement department condemned the building. A week later the house was bulldozed.
A couple with a young child moved into the place next door to me. They were nice. The first day they moved in, the woman knocked on my door. She was frantic because she was planting some flowers and was surrounded by a swarm of bees. I had an old can of wasp spray, but it had lost its propellant and wouldn’t work. It is hard to describe what was so special about the small family, but they just seemed extraordinarily warm, genuine and friendly. They had recently moved to the area from North Dakota and were unfamiliar with city life. They only were on the block for two months. Most of us had hoped they would stay, maybe even buy a house on the block.
Dorothy had lived on the block for many years. She was feisty and outspoken, but she was frail with age. She had three dogs and half a dozen cats, all of whom stayed in the house with her. She took them all, cats and dogs, on leashes out to the front yard. When she found people were coming up into her back yard from the creek, she planted a hedgerow of poison ivy along the back border of her property. The weed still causes Dave Paarmann, who later bought the property, to have several outbreaks every year. As her mobility waned, she often failed to get the animals leashed and walked before they relieved themselves. Her only relative was a nephew who eventually decided that Dorothy was no longer able to take care of herself. He found a nursing home for her, and put her house on the market. Because of the animal odors, they had to sell the house cheap, even though it was otherwise in decent condition.
Alex Templeton and his brother originally shared Dudley’s house. They were his nephews. Alex was extremely bright, but there were rumors that he dealt drugs. His brother was insane. He spent large parts of his life in the state hospital. Sometimes, when his behavior became threatening, he was arrested. Alex had a girlfriend who also lived at Dudley’s, but he eventually threw both of them out. Dudley later claimed the reason was that they were too messy—a startling claim, given Dudley’s life style. They moved down the block into the house where Norma’s mother had lived. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of traffic there, but Alex attributed it to musician friends coming over to practice. Once, he asked his girlfriend to invite me over to discuss the allegations some of the neighbors had made. He swore that, even though he had been irresponsible in his younger days, he neither used nor sold drugs. He said he would welcome the police bringing drug–sniffing dogs into his home. I explained that the appearances were suspicious and he surely understood why people had questions. He acknowledged that. He continued to participate in neighborhood activities. He was very perceptive in his analysis of some of the block’s problems and his insights were very valuable. Still, the suspicions remained. When his girlfriend got pregnant, the couple moved out. The brother was in the hospital, and Buddy rented the place to new tenants.
The Mendenhalls were among Gates’s early tenants on the block. The parents and their four children lived in the house that Alex had vacated. The father had been a school teacher in St. Joseph, but now was working for Gates. We guessed he had been involved in some sort of scandal in St. Joseph, since he was very reluctant to talk about his past. The whole family seemed to be cultured. They had a four–year–old son who was deaf. Most of the family knew how to sign, but the deaf son was just starting to learn. Several residents who worked in the social services knew how to sign a little bit and tried to communicate with him, but he didn’t seem very receptive. The oldest son was in his late teens and was applying for work. Eventually he got a job with the city, helping with surveys. Soon afterwards, the parents, realizing that the children were being subjected to bad influences, decided to buy a house in the suburbs.
Danelle moved in in 1987. She was very quiet, still is. There were all kinds of rumors about her. The first thing we heard was that she was a nurse. That wasn’t true. Then we heard she was completely deaf. That wasn’t true either. She did come to a couple of the neighborhood functions, but stayed in the background. Sometimes she would have visitors, but we never got to know them either. She seemed friendly enough, but very quiet. The first clue I had to what she did was when I was having lunch with a friend at Wendy’s. She was bussing tables there. Then, later, she was working as a cashier at the gas station. Once, when she was walking home from work, her purse was snatched. A couple of us helped her secure her house, since her keys had been in the purse. Even then, though, she was very reluctant to talk. We’ve all concluded that she is just a quiet person.
A woman, whose name we never learned, moved in across the street. She brought with her a couple of teenage children. The daughter could have been a beauty queen, so the neighborhood kids loved to hang around. Later the woman’s boyfriend moved in. He brought a large fishing boat that he parked in the back yard. He fancied himself a major league criminal. When he persisted in parking his truck on the front lawn, a violation of city ordinance, we called the police and had him ticketed a few times. He was outraged, threatening to blow up the block and everyone on it. He continued to park on the lawn and continued to get tickets. Once, he backed his truck into the gas meter that was just in front of the porch. Emergency crews came to repair the damage. He apparently was cited again. Soon afterwards, the whole family moved away, leaving the boat to cover some of the back rent.
A very large woman named Diane Adams lived just to the south of Rick. She operated a day care center out of the home. She usually cared for four or five children at a time. Her own son, Rico, was what people who love kids call a character. He was chubby and resembled his mother. Once when he was three he asked Dave if he could pick a flower from his garden. He said he was trying to impress a woman and he had always heard that flowers were the way to do it. Rico was the leader of the children in day care and usually, to his mother’s dismay, was the one to show the other kids the shortcuts around the block, the tricycle tricks, and the ways most likely to upset Diane. The parents who brought their children seemed to think the world of Diane.
A young woman moved in next door to me. She was pregnant. While she was moving in, she came over to my place to use the phone. Later that day, she came back. This time she just sat down and didn’t say anything. I asked her when her baby was due and some other innocuous questions. Later she asked if she could borrow a cigarette. She finished moving in, and a month later her boyfriend moved in with her. There was a lot of screaming. The boyfriend was an avid churchgoer, and she wasn’t interested. There was a lot of screaming, broken glass, police calls, name calling. Once, the fighting moved onto the front porch and somebody went flying over the front rail. The front windows somehow got shattered. People across the street were looking out their windows. It was cheap if slightly insensitive entertainment. Shortly after that fight the woman moved out with her new baby. The boyfriend, who remained, stopped by every once in a while to use the phone. Then, he moved. Except in order to get his rent deposit back he had to fix the broken front windows. I helped him, since he had never replaced glass. He was grateful for the help.
A family moved into the house where Norma’s mother had lived. It was supposed to be the last family in that house. Ollie Gates had bought the house and rented to progressively less responsible tenants There were children from infancy to eight years old. The oldest was an outgoing, friendly girl who seemed to smile a lot. A couple of teenagers who were related to some of the other residents stayed there occasionally. The younger children, even the infants, ran loose on the streets with no supervision. The children’s mother was quiet and we didn’t see her very much. The man of the house was more than six fee tall and barely 120 pounds. He was on a diversion program after several convictions for drugs and other offenses. The volume of foot and car traffic indicated to us that drugs were passing through the place. Some of the neighbors reported the household to the Division of Family Services. In addition to the complete lack of supervision, the children suffered from the thin man’s volatile temper. Since it is illegal to evict tenants while a woman in the household is pregnant, Gates waited until the woman had her latest baby to evict them. Gates’s representative promised that the house would be razed.
Instead, the house was rented to another group of people who threatened the block. After we complained numerous times to Ollie Gates, his representatives, and the city codes department, the house was finally vacated. Gates hired wreckers to demolish the house, but, until the last splinter was removed, the property continued to be used as a base for drug transactions.
Holiday Wine and Liquor Store
The liquor store at the corner was a problem for our block for years. It was the site of numerous drug deals and a source of trash, noise, and violence. An outdoor phone booth at the corner of the store served as a call–in service for dealers in contraband, including drugs and weapons. Howard Levin, the owner of the store was adamant in his refusal to remedy the situations.
Once we asked to meet with the police and the owner to see if we could find a solution. We asked him if he would be willing to hire a security guard to make sure the area was secure. Mr. Levin refused, saying that would break him. We asked about improving the lighting. Too expensive. What about a “No loitering” sign? No way. It wasn’t his fault that people liked his business. After all, why should he suffer for being a good businessman?
He finally offered to have his sales staff chase the rabble away. All we had to do was call over to the store and they would take care of the rest of it. We said that we thought it was unfair of him to expect us to be his security patrol. He shrugged and said that was the best he could do.
We responded by calling to the store thirty or forty times a night to tell the clerks that people were loitering. The clerks did chase the people away. Unfortunately, however, we lost our resolve before the store owner caved in and hired a security guard. We didn’t have time to monitor his property.
Instead, we sat on one front porch or another and concocted various revenges. We considered painting urinals on the back wall to accommodate customers who relieved themselves there; we wondered how much trash we could stuff through the mail slot during the hours they were closed (we then discovered that the store didn’t have a mail slot); we sent trash collection bills to the owner of the store; when he did not pay the bills, we considered hauling all the trash to Mr. Levin’s suburban home and depositing it on his lawn; we also considered picketing his home. Most of our ideas were fantasies, and, like all fantasies, there was something inside of us that prevented us from carrying them out.
After the meeting with the police, there were a few more patrols than there had been. After we stopped calling the store clerks for help, we started calling the police directly. That put a little bit of a dent in the problems, but it didn’t solve them. The liquor store continued to serve as one of the major illegal drug outlets in the area.
Later, when Ollie Gates was trying to acquire all of the property in the area for a development, it was Howard Levin who was among the most adamant and articulate spokespeople for keeping the city government out of the process. Even so, it was sometimes difficult to get the neighbors on the block to see him as an ally. Eventually, however, most realized that, despite the troubles we had with his business, it made sense to realize we were on the same side on that particular issue and work with him. In fact, although I didn’t know it at the time, Howard Levin would become my last and only ally when the city tried to condemn my home and give it to a developer.
Vickers/Total Gas Station
The gas station on the northeast corner of the block was in many ways the opposite of the liquor store. Although ownership of the business was vague, we generally found the management to be responsive to our concerns.
When we complained about customers using the station’s back wall as a toilet, they erected a fence and installed floodlights. They put up no–loitering signs. They removed the pay phone. They also had employees regularly sweep and wash the concrete.
In 1989 the gas station applied for a license to sell beer. The liquor store protested that it would be unfairly impacted by a competitor across the street. It also claimed that selling alcoholic products at a gas station would encourage drunken driving. The station argued that, if that were the case, the liquor store should not have a parking lot. The gas station won and began selling beer, although it never served as the hangout that the liquor store did. In fact, the gas station tried very hard to keep the place clean and free of the disturbances that were common just across Virginia at the Holiday Wine and Liquor store.
The Kansas City Power and Light Company owned about a half acre at the south end of the block. The property was adjacent to a power substation to the west. For a number of years, the utility rented the lot to the nearby university as a parking lot.
When that lease expired, the company started using the lot for storage. At first, it was heavy equipment—Ditch Witches, dozers, graders, tractors—that they used in their operation. Later they began to pile other things around the inside perimeter of the surrounding fence. Some of us were concerned, since among the items were about a dozen old transformers. During that period the utility was replacing old transformers that were made with PCBs with newer models.
At that time we were having regular block meetings. The guest at one of the sessions was our city councilman, Dan Cofran, who brought zoning plats for the block. Alex Templeton, one of Gates’s tenants, looked at them and pointed out that zoning specifically excluded storage.
Dan agreed to find out if there was any explanation for the apparent violation of the zoning by KCP&L. He notified us that the zoning board would take up the issue and invited us to testify. The zoning board and KCP&L came to an agreement on a plan for removing everything from the lot within three months.
Afterwards, the two attorneys who had represented KCP&L came up to me and apologized for having caused us problems. They gave me their cards and invited me to call them with any concerns I might have. I told them that our primary concern had been that the transformers contained toxic or carcinogenic materials. They assured me the transformers were not the type that contained PCBs. Nevertheless, the next day, long before the deadline, the transformers were removed.
A few years later somebody mentioned the transformers again. After all, we had merely taken the company’s word that they had not contaminated our neighborhood. We checked with several local and federal government agencies, all of whom assured us that there had been no PCB transformers on our block. All of the agencies said they had checked the company’s records and found no evidence of PCB. None agreed to actually test the site. Still, the assurances made us feel secure, at least about the environmental health of the property.
The lot remained vacant for a long time after KCP&L removed their property. Then the lot was used for overnight storage of preformed concrete members for construction sites on the Country Club Plaza, a mile and a few million dollars to the west of us. Kids and dogs have found ways under, over, and around the fence. Later, when Ollie Gates proposed building a shopping center that would include the KCP&L lot, we found out that the utility planned to use the lot to expand its substation.
We did not have any problems with the utility after that. KCP&L always maintained the grass growing on its easements and complied with whatever the law demanded.
Milgrams/Plaza Food Mart/Piggly Wiggly
Although the supermarket was not on our block, it was a part of the neighborhood culture. It was the next block over and for many residents was the only place they bought their groceries. In fact, I was on my way to the Milgrams store when I found the house I ended up buying.
The store changed hands several times. When Milgrams retrenched in the early 1980’s the store was sold to an independent grocer who operated it as Plaza Food Mart. Then in 1991 Piggly Wiggly announced its plan to expand in the Kansas City area. A Piggly Wiggly franchisee bought and operated it.
The store had a liquor department that was separate from the main grocery. The main part of the store was managed by a tall thin bald man named Harry. Harry seemed to be there at any time the store is open, which was a lot of hours.
There were some incidents at the store. Once a friend was there when somebody tried to walk out without paying for something. My friend yelled, “Freeze!” and the shoplifter stopped and surrendered to the manager. There were also muggings in the lot. Shari Paulsell stopped patronizing the store when her purse was snatched as she got into her car.
With each change in ownership the product line changed. After the store became the Plaza Food Mart, the owners added a deli and bakery. When it became a Piggly Wiggly, the deli and bakery were removed; the new owner put more than $100,000 into renovations, although he still did not fix a leaky roof that had plagued the building for at least ten years. The owner said that he would like the grocery to be a primary anchor that would draw customers from both sides of Troost. He feared, however, that unless the city ensured security, it would not be realistic to expect people from the more affluent areas to shop there.
Later, when a redevelopment plan for the area included an upscale grocery store for the site, the owner, Don Gipson, commissioned a survey of nearby residents. The poll indicated that most people would not shop in the area even if the groceries were free.
AAA Royal Auto Seat Cover
Royal Auto Seat Cover was one block east of our block, at the corner of 47th and Paseo. It was founded in 1955, when people routinely protected their car seats with slipcovers. At that time their was plenty of business in installing seat covers and convertible tops As car interiors changed and car companies reduced the number of convertibles, the company expanded its line. They began specializing in exotic adornments for cars. If anybody ever wondered how pimpmobiles came to be, the would find the answer at AAA Royal. The company could add gold colored wheel covers, neon undercarriage lights, naked lady grill adornments, furry interior appointments, musical horns, landau side emblems, super speakers, custom chrome, or sequential license plate lights. They had dozens of ways of enhancing the smell of the interior, from scented cardboard nudies to timed aerosol dispensers. They could chrome plate engine parts and redesign the body to make it look flashier.
In many ways the business was ideal for the residents of the area. Most did not own the homes where they lived. For many, their cars were their most valuable possession. A man may never be able to afford a Mercedes, but for $35 he could have a Mercedes hood ornament riveted to his ten–year–old Dodge. Maybe later, when he gets a few more dollars, he would be able to get his windshield tinted or a fancier side view mirror or an extra light somewhere on the body. And then he could get a horn that played the song that he shared with his very first girlfriend.
Although there was never much interaction between the business and our block, we saw its handiwork. We saw the cars, and we saw the people who dreamed of making their cars nice.
In late winter of 1995 the owners sold the building to Ollie Gates, who tore it down. AAA Royal moved to the western part of midtown.
The Cost of Living
The residents of our block, like most in the predominantly black sections of town, found it almost impossible to get insurance. Car insurance cost about twice as much as it did in more affluent areas; very few companies were willing to insure property in the area.
Red lining, the practice of denying insurance based upon area of the city, is illegal. So is speeding. The difference is that nobody is ever prosecuted for refusing to sell insurance.
Everybody who lived on our block received at least one cancellation notice from an insurance company. Agents swore on their grandmothers’ lungs that there was no such thing as red lining. And we all knew different. Many people who lived in the same areas of town receive cancellation notices on the same day. Usually the insurance companies were the same.
Every insurance agent had the same story: the company was cutting back on policies all over. When we pressed, they said inspectors looked at our properties and found them to be dangerous. They were never able to specify the dangers. Many of us would have liked to know what was so dangerous about our houses.
Several of us called various agencies that were supposed to police illegal insurance practices, but nothing happened. Sometimes we received mail solicitations from insurance agencies that went by the owners’ first names like “Al’s” or by low class car dealer names like “Sure–Right.” These insurance companies offered auto and home policies at low weekly rates. Many of the rates might have been low if they were monthly. For most residents, it would have been cheaper to pay off a fine for not having insurance, or even go to jail.
Most of us spent more for security than did people in other areas of the city. Because the police generally did not take an interest in our area, most of us took extra precautions against burglaries. They included alarm systems and window bars. Some of us also booby–trapped our homes, which was neither cheap nor legal, but gave us a sense of revenge against those who might want our property. None of the traps actually caught or injured anybody, but we continued to fantasize.
Some things on our block were cheaper than they would be in other parts of town. We lived close enough to the bus line that we didn’t absolutely have to have a car to get around. We were within walking distance of a grocery store. Our lawns and sidewalks were small enough that we didn’t need riding mowers or snowblowers. Most of our homes weren’t air conditioned, so we didn’t pay as much in electricity as we could.
Daily living expenses were the same as anywhere else—we didn’t get a discount for living there. But because our homes were so inexpensive, many of us were able to get by on jobs that would lead us to poverty if we lived elsewhere.
The Horn Honkers
One thing that really griped many of us on the block was people—usually people who lived elsewhere—who paged people by honking their horns. Evidently some people felt it was perfectly all right to let people know they had arrived by leaning on their car horns. Sometimes, rather than just leaning on the horn, they honked out cute little rhythms. “A shave and a haircut, two bits” was a popular honk.
We asked people to not honk their horns. Although it was illegal to sound a horn for anything other than an emergency, enforcement of that law was not a police priority. In fact, I would guess that nobody in Kansas City, Missouri has ever gotten a ticket for honking, certainly not on the 4700 block of Virginia. In fact, on the rare instances when the police were on the block, people didn’t refrain from honking.
Although the sound of a car horn might not seem terribly significant, like most noises in the area, the effect accumulated. After years of subjugation to the tyranny of noise, we started to realize that even the short lulls were oppressive. We knew that every moment of silence was just a taunt that would be ended by the inevitability of new noise.
We realized that getting the city to help us with anything was next to impossible. To even mention the noise problem was absurd. Even though for many of us noise was no less oppressive than any other physical assault, it wasn’t as poetic, as elegiac, as professionally pleasing as blood splatters.
One evening, when one too many horns disturbed us, we decided to do something. Actually, the actions were nowhere near as deliberate as deciding. We reacted. It seemed that every evening at about eight o’clock somebody was pulling up to the east side of the street and leaning on the button for a couple of minute–long screeches. Apparently somebody was staying at the house who the driver wanted to come out and play. Every evening.
I happened to have a pencil in my hand. I stood at my front door and wrote down the license number. The next evening I went out on the street and wrote down the license number. Before I finished, the car left. The third night I stood directly in front of the car and wrote down the number. This time the driver noticed. The woman he was trying to reach had come outside but wasn’t in the car yet. The driver said, “What the fuck you doing?”
I said, “It’s all right. We’re just taking down the licenses of people who honk their horns on the block.”
The driver called me a lot of names and threatened me. Meanwhile the woman who was about to get into the car jumped in front of the license plate to block my view.
I said, “It’s all right. I got it,” and gave a howdy salute.
The driver leaned on the horn for a solid minute. Then he peeled away. We didn’t see that car on the block again. Others took its place, and, when we weren’t too weary to bother, we took down license numbers.
Brush Creek Charlie
Brush Creek Charlie was a mythical creature that lived somewhere down in the creek bed. Unlike some urban legends, Brush Creek Charlie took many forms. Some children on the block claimed to have seen him regularly. One of them said to me, “Yeah, I’ve seen him. I don’t know why everyone is so afraid of him. He’s just a regular dude.” Another laughed when I asked if she had seen him. “You kidding? Would I be here talking to you if I’d seen him?”
Some of us speculated that Brush Creek Charlie was actually the homeless man who lived at the end of the block for years. Some people claimed that the story went back long before the homeless man was around. I have heard Brush Creek Charlie described as everything from a huge hairy half man to a tiny bent creature that may or may not be human.
The Block Party
Soon after we established our neighborhood club we decided to have a block party. We went to the city to get a permit to close off the street. They lent us barricades and gave us permits. We invited Dan Cofran, our councilman, and Donna Standley, the police community relations representative, to come. We made lists of who would bring what food.
Dudley agreed to get the meat and bread. The rest of us brought vegetables, chips, desserts, plates, cups, plasticware, and the condiments. Bette brought balloons, sticks, and other supplies for picnic games.
A few days before the party, Dudley’s brother was shot. Although the newspaper described the incident as a robbery, the rumor was that the shooting resulted from a disagreement with a gay lover. The morning of the party, Dudley’s brother died. He said he would still bring the bread and meat he had promised.
The council and police representatives didn’t come to the party. We would have been surprised if they had, since it was a Sunday afternoon and they had families of their own. Janice’s son came as did several other residents’ guests, but mostly it was just those of us who lived here.
Dudley dropped off his supplies solemnly. Then he went to the funeral home.
We set up a string of folding tables in the street, built fires in a couple of grills, and laid out the table. It was a surprising, incongruous sight. Just looking at the spread, it reminded me of a rural church picnic, but it was on a block in an area of town many people wouldn’t let their children visit, much less live. It was nice just to see that much of the party.
Even the neighbors who generally kept to themselves showed up. Danelle was there; Janice; Norma. Debbie, who ran the drug house at 4716 brought potato salad that could have been as addictive as the illegal merchandise she was selling. The Brooks brothers and Dale Talbott took care of grilling the meat.
Some of the teenagers from south of the creek kept running down the block. They stood behind the gas station and threw rocks and glass our way. Janice’s son and a few others of us went over to confront the kids. As we approached, they scattered. They got back together when we left, and scattered again when we neared. That happened several times. We called the police. The kids were still there when they arrived, but denied having done anything. The police ordered them to go home.
After the police left, they gathered again. This time, half goofing and half angry, we decided to put an end to the teasing. Half a dozen of us walked in step, growling, snarling, making angry almost inhuman sounds. For us it was a joke, but it worked. The kids left and didn’t return. The incident wasn’t at all serious. It was for us part of the entertainment.
The rest of the entertainment, besides the food, was the games that Bette had arranged. We tossed water balloons to see who would be the last to miss a catch. We raced, carrying eggs on a spoon. The children really got into the games. The adults enjoyed watching how much fun the kids were having. Some of the kids asked if we could do it again next week.
A couple of people mentioned what had happened to Dudley’s brother, but we decided to defer doing anything for him until later. By the time Dudley got back from the funeral home, we had cleaned up the street.
One night after eleven a friend who lived on a nearby block ran into my house and yelled, “Quick! It’s gonna blow!”
Since I was getting ready for bed, I got dressed and ran downstairs. “What’s going on?”
What was going on was that a driver being chased by the police had tried to evade his pursuers by detouring through the Vickers station. In the process he amputated one of the gas pumps. Then he continued eastward on 47th Street.
The neighbors gathered at the station. We discovered that, although there had been a small fire, there was no danger of explosion. The pumps were designed to shut off if there was ever any structural damage. Still, the incident provided us with something different to think about.
The attendant had called the police to report the damage to the pump. The officer who arrived was later to become a community relations specialist. Her first name was Donna; her last changed several times as she remarried. This was one of her first calls and she was abjectly bewildered. We tried to explain that the car that had taken out the gas pump was the same one that her squawk box was describing as the subject of a high speed chase. Once she understood, she tried to explain to the other end of her radio, but headquarters apparently decided that, since there were two dispatches, there must be two criminals.
The Brooks brothers, Janice, Shari, and a few others of us waited around the station, drinking cocoa and coffee. Donna was starting to laugh, since the whole thing seemed so strange to her. She passed the time trying to get as many statements as possible from witnesses. Then she talked back to the station several times, trying to get them to understand what had happened.
Meanwhile, three miles east, the pursuit vehicles had captured their suspect. He had also caused damage west of us, including crashing into a couple of other cars.
The Basketball Hoop
During one of the block meetings, Antonio and Mario, Pat Jake’s older boys, said they would like to have a basketball hoop on the block somewhere. We suggested they see if they could ask neighbors and friends for donations to help them buy the hoop and backboard.
Dudley said, “Now, if we’re going to do this, we’d better do it right. You don’t want to be just hanging some piece of wood on a tree.”
The kids agreed to let Dudley oversee the installation of the hoop. Since the complete set—basket, backboard, and ball—only cost about $40, it didn’t take long for them to get the money. At first they were going to install it in front of Dave’s house. When Dave objected that that placement would be too disruptive, they moved to the south end of the block.
Dudley was there with his measuring tape. Actually, it was someone else’s tape, since Dudley borrowed everything he owned. Dave helped with the placement and attachment of the backboard. Dudley offered ongoing critiques and advice. “A quarter inch might not sound like much, but in basketball it could be the difference between winning and losing.”
After the basket was up and lines drawn on the pavement, Dudley went over the basketball rules with the neighborhood teenagers. They weren’t interested, not even a little bit.
Somehow, within hours it seemed the whole city knew about the basketball goal on Virginia. 40 or 50 kids gathered around. Some were shooting baskets. Some were drinking liquor. Some were buying, selling, or using drugs. Cars sat near the court, blasting music. Cathy, who had the nearest house was constantly angry. She called police half a dozen times because of cars blocking her driveway or noise making her life unbearable.
We called a meeting to ask Antonio and Mario what they intended to do about the problem. Antonio said that they didn’t know what to do, since most of the kids there were bigger than they were, and they couldn’t make them leave. None of us had the heart to tell the kids that the goal would have to go. We decided to post rules for using it: only block residents; no alcohol or other drugs; no playing after dark; no noise; no fighting; no littering. Antonio and Mario agreed to the rules, but they were uncomfortable with them. They couldn’t enforce them, and if they asked any of the adults to help, they would lose face with their contemporaries.
As it turned out we didn’t have to worry. A $40 dollar basketball goal is not designed for long street life. Within two weeks, the basket had been pulled down to a vertical position. Although the kids bent it back into place, it was soon twisted. Welds separated; metal rod fatigued and broke. The kids tried to reestablish their goal, using everything from bushel baskets to bicycle wheels as hoops.
They tried attaching their makeshift goals to various trees and poles on the block. Each time kids from outside the neighborhood would come and take over. And each time the new basket would last a couple of days before it was unusable. After a while, everybody, those who wanted basketball and those who didn’t, realized that there would not be a permanent court on our block.
Our block seemed to have a lot of people who like animals. In fact, in the years I lived here I can’t remember anyone who wasn’t fond of animals. Pat Jake, when she first moved here, was afraid of dogs, but she eventually got a dog that she cared about.
Besides the domestic animals, there were always some feral animals around. An opossum lived on the block for about a year. It wasn’t a friendly animal. It attacked a neighborhood dog once and caused it severe injuries.
Every year we got crows in the trees. One year the crow population became an impediment to the grain businesses near the Missouri River. The owners of the businesses sprayed them with detergent, which destroyed the heat protective coating on their wings, causing them to freeze to death. It was true the birds could be noisy and they could mess up car finishes, but they were fascinating to watch. They seemed to be very intelligent. They seemed to know where they were going and what they were doing. When we saw thousands of the birds in the trees, and then saw just one of them move, we knew that all of the birds would be moving. Other than that, we never did figure out the patterns of their movements.
Janice Brackenbury also had her birds. We called them chickens, although they were really parakeets, canaries, parrots, cockatiels, and cockatoos. Some people were really irritated by the noise they make.
In general, the noisiest animals were the dogs. One of Cathy LaRue’s dogs was named Spike. Spike was a bizarre looking mix of a labrador retriever and a basset hound. Spike used to howl outside of Ken Normile’s window. Ken used to say, “I’m going to kill that damned beagle.” Ken thought calling Cathy’s dog a beagle was overpoweringly insulting. It seemed to work, since Cathy became angry and frustrated whenever he complained about her beagle.
Probably the most irritating bark belonged to Blue, a black lab that Danny Flowers had rescued from the pound. Blue originally stayed in the dog run that Walter Haake had built in his back yard. At the time, Danny was living in the house. Then he moved to the county farm. Other people took care of Blue, usually either Buddy Reynolds or David Fields.
When Danny returned from jail, he would come by to visit Blue. Whenever Blue saw his rescuer, he started to bark. His bark was shrill, ear–bursting, almost unbearably loud. People more than a block away could hear him. Buddy moved him to a chain under the carport that Walter had used for his motor home. That didn’t quiet him down.
Janice, besides her birds, had three Lhasa Apsos. They were barkers too. Somebody mentioned that a wise entrepreneur could make a fortune developing a product called “Aps–Away” to help get rid of bothersome Lhasa Apsos.
Although the block was generally dog friendly, there were some exceptions. A group of people that lived in a condemned house at the south end of the block kept a ferocious rotweiller chained to their porch. Once, the dog tried to attack a police officer who had come because of a complaint. The police ticketed the dog owners and the court ordered that the dog be contained and the property be posted as housing a dangerous animal. The owners moved shortly thereafter.
Getting the Liquor Store
Lennie was more vocally perturbed than the rest of us by the litter on the liquor store lot. Before the law changed to allow Sunday liquor sales, the lot was vacant on Sundays.
One Sunday Lennie filled several trash bags there. She stacked them neatly against the store’s back wall. I told her she should bill the owner for cleaning his lot. She said she couldn’t do that since she didn’t have a contract. We talked for a while and decided that if she had taken somebody’s sick child to the doctor, the parent would be obliged to pay the bill. A parent has a legal obligation to care for a child. The liquor store owner had a similar obligation to care for his property, so we could bill on the theory that we were fulfilling his legal responsibility in his absence.
We talked for a while and decided that, unless we were willing to pursue the owner for payment, we probably would look like fools. We sent him a bill for Lennie’s cleaning the lot. The bill was very simple—no politics, no reasons. It was a simple statement: These were the services he received and the cost for those services was $60. We had a notice on the bottom of the bill that said we expected payment within 30 days.
When the money failed to arrive, we sent another bill. Then we forgot about it. We didn’t have a lawyer; we didn’t have the time or the energy to go to small claims court. We just let it go. Lennie just stopped cleaning the lot.
Once the owner of the liquor store hired somebody to spray weeds on the lot. In the process they also sprayed the garden on the Brooks’ property. Mike had spent a lot of time planting and tending the decorative plants at the border between his place and the liquor store.
Mike and Joel planned revenge. Plotting against the liquor store was something a lot of us did. The brothers’ idea was to camouflage some chicken wire at the stone wall between the properties. Then they would electrify the wire. When liquor store customers urinated on the wire, which they surely would, they would get a jolt. They never carried out the plot for a couple of reasons. One was that nobody knew how bad the shock would be that traced the stream up to the customer. The other reason was that we were too lazy to find out, much less to actually construct the trap. Instead, Joel and Mike continued to complain about the liquor store. We all did.
We thought we had a good chance at victory over one of the banes of the block when the city council passed a new liquor license law. The liquor control board, which grants liquor licenses, would now have to consider what a neighborhood has to say before granting or renewing a license. In the past, liquor licenses were automatically renewed every three years.
We called the board to get a copy of the law to make sure we would follow all procedures correctly. Nobody at the liquor control board knew anything about the law. They claimed there was no such provision. We called the city council. After several broken connections, secondary referrals, and rebukes from bureaucrats, we got a copy of the law.
We started to sense that, even though the law required the board to consider what we had to say, that might not actually happen. We figured it was one thing for the city to ignore the law; it was another to deny that the law even exists.
Several of us wrote letters in accordance with the law. We included a copy of the law. The liquor store never got so much as a warning, much less a suspension. Actually, we can’t say that for sure, since nobody from the liquor board ever answered any of our letters. All we know is that the liquor store remained, still allowing people to sell drugs on its parking lot, still a market place for stolen goods, still unkempt, still unguarded.
The Revenge Pole
A revenge pole was an elegant weapon of nonviolent vengeance that became popular when Danny Flowers was living on the block. The tool was made of 1″ diameter steel. The top end was a T–shaped handle; at the bottom were two prongs. The purpose of the revenge pole was to shut off utilities.
When Danny lived next door, he had one of three apartments in the building. Although the house was divided into three units, there were only utility meters for two. Danny’s meter was charged with the gas, electricity, and water for two apartments. He asked his co–tenants several times to pitch in on the utility bills. When they refused, he used the only revenge pole on the block to shut off their utilities.
Unfortunately, the access holes to the shut–offs weren’t clearly marked. He wasn’t sure which valve to shut off. To be sure, he closed all the valves that might be supplying his house. As a result, not only was his water shut off, but so was mine and that of several other neighbors. Those of us who had paid our bills called the utilities, who came out promptly to correct the mistakenly interrupted service.
Some people tried to use the revenge pole for the opposite purpose—to turn their utilities back on after they have gone a few months without paying their bills. The utility companies got wise to that a long time ago. When they suspected that somebody was tampering with the valves, they put new covers over the access holes. The tools to open the lids, large five–sided sockets, would cost more than the delinquent bills, so the revenge pole didn’t work very well as a tool for larceny.
Keeping an Eye on 4716
The house at 4716 was a problem for the neighborhood for a long time. In many ways the aggravation of dealing with the situation there brought us together as much as the block parties, the meetings, and the clean–up days.
When Debbie and her family moved in, Dudley said they were well–known around the housing projects as suppliers of marijuana. In summer some of us sat on Dudley’s porch, which was directly across the street from 4716. A typical conversation would start with his saying, “That boy is delivering some dope to the gas station. Don’t look. Just keep it cool.”
Of course those of us sitting there would try to look, and he would repeat his admonition. He said that every afternoon Debbie parked her van in front of one of the projects and sold to whoever came by. He claimed that Debbie chose her business hours to take advantage of kids coming home from school.
It was hard for some of us to believe that Debbie was really selling drugs from her house. After all, she seemed to be a devoted mother to her children; she was a good cook; she seemed willing to participate in block activities.
But soon even the most naive among us conceded that the house was not just a quaint urban home. Cars came, stopped in front of the house, and minutes later left. Often the drivers would not even turn the engines off. Sometimes they sent passengers in to do whatever it was they were there to do.
Dudley continued to point out the activities, even after we all acknowledged that he had been right. Meanwhile, Debbie had become friends with Pat Jake. The two women had children about the same age, which gave them something in common. Some other neighbors didn’t mind the activity at 4716. Some felt the heavy traffic and the disturbances were the price they had to pay for easy access to recreational drugs.
With these exceptions, however, the block was unified in its resolve to get rid of the tenants at 4716. Rather than Dudley’s quiet surveillance, however, we thought we would be better off letting Debbie and her clan know we were keeping an eye on them. We sat on Dudley’s porch and just stared. Or we walked up and down in front of the house. Sometimes, when Debbie sent one of her children to the corner to make a delivery, we would follow them. We all realized that, if we were wrong about what was going on, we were perpetrating an injustice. We weren’t wrong. Even though the police were not able to make a buy, and even though Debbie and her family vehemently denied selling drugs, and even though Debbie said it wasn’t anybody’s business what she was doing in her own home, and even though none of us had actually had drug–sniffing dogs investigate, we weren’t wrong.
Most of us who were active in the neighborhood tried to be cool about what we were doing. Debbie often brought friends in from the old neighborhood to try to intimidate us. It would be nice to think that we were being exemplary citizens, even heroic. Instead, it was for us a frantic survival struggle. Our homes were being burgled by people who wanted money for the wares at 4716. Our driveways were blocked by cars just running in for a minute to pick something up. Many of the customers blared their radios; some honked for curb service. We were angry, weary, besieged. Most of us could not afford to abandon our homes and find somewhere else to live. So we didn’t have a choice.
Although our efforts to get rid of Debbie and her gang seemed to be going slow, we persisted, because we didn’t know what else to do. The police representatives had been sincere but ineffective. Debbie kept insisting that if we didn’t like the way she did things, we’d better move, because she wasn’t about to.
We persisted. We were, frankly, desperate. After several calls to the owner of the property, the codes enforcement department, and animal control, we succeeded in getting rid of her. After she left, she continued to drive her van to our block almost daily for several months. Then, she stopped coming.
It’s hard to say why she moved. She denied that what we did had anything to do with her decision, but we took pride in not believing her.
The 4th of July
Independence Day was fearsome on our block. Although fireworks were illegal in Kansas City, many nearby communities allowed their sale. Although most of the residents didn’t buy or use them, there seemed to be a contingent that turns our block into a free fire zone.
Interestingly, it wasn’t those who most enjoyed the independence the holiday celebrated who set off the fireworks. It was usually those who were the poorest, often those receiving government benefits, who spent huge amounts of money on sparklers, bottle rockets, roman candles, helicopters, flares, parachutes, and various magnitudes of firecrackers.
The noise usually started a couple of days before the 4th with a few stray explosions. On the 4th the block became impassable. Flares and explosives began before the sun goes down and continued until early in the morning.
The noise was constant. Bottle rockets landed on our roofs, and we went up there to put out fires. We tried to get the police to come to confiscate the fireworks, but those were hopeless requests. The dispatchers were getting hundreds of calls about illegal fireworks, and, unless there was immediate danger to life or property, the calls would be dispatched in the order in which they came in. During a single Independence Day holiday we estimated that residents had made more than 170 complaints, none of which was answered.
On one Independence Day I went to watch professional fireworks. When I returned I found some burned fireworks on my enclosed front porch. I assumed that was an attempt by some of the neighborhood drug dealers trying to get rid of one of their problems. For some reason the fireworks had not caught the house on fire.
The morning of the 5th our block looked like a battle field. Wooden and cardboard fireworks casings were scattered across the pavement. Charred spots stained the street, sidewalks, and the lawns. We never measured the debris left over from the 4th, but we could estimate it at more than a hundred pounds. Some of the carbon remained permanently bonded to the concrete.
Since ours was a dead end street, we were often at the bottom of the city’s snow clearing list. The only legitimate traffic on the block was going to one of the few residences there.
When we got any accumulation of snow, we assumed we would have to either take care of the snow ourselves or wait for warmer weather. It was not that the snow plows never came, but it was rare for them to come before the cover was packed down too hard for the snow plows to do any good.
There weren’t too many snow shovels on the block. One year Steve LaRue borrowed a snow blower, but that was just before he moved away, and we didn’t get to take advantage of it.
So when it snowed, those of us who have snow shovels usually didn’t stop scooping at the ends of our property. If the predictions were for warm weather, we usually didn’t bother shoveling at all, but if it looked like the snow would be there for a while, we shoveled until we get tired. In summer, the same thing seemed to happen with lawn mowing. The person who had a working lawn mower mowed a few lawns at a time.
In 1992 the snow was particularly heavy, over the axles of most cars and some trucks. The north end of the block, which exited onto 47th Street, sloped slightly upwards, so if the ground was slick, it was hard to get out. Diane Adams’s son–in–law had cleared the snow from the north end of the block to her house, by hand.
When Dave and Shari got home, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to get off of our street unless we continued the clearing all the way down the block. We spent three hours with our snow shovels, scooping, and then trying our cars on the surface to see if our tires had enough of a purchase on the ground to actually travel in our cars. The next morning, a plow clearing 47th street had created a snow ridge. We had to shovel that pile away before we could get out.
The South End of the Block
The 4700 block of Virginia dwindled away as it neared the creek. Until the flood of 1977 houses went to within 30 feet of the creek bank. The flood washed the last two homes away on both sides of the street. Those adjacent to the vacant lots were in worse shape than those further north; the water had come higher and stayed longer in those structures. A couple of the houses still standing were on the edge of condemnation for years.
The southernmost place on the west side of the street was condemned half a dozen times. The house was off its foundation, sitting askew on the basement. Each time the owner sold it to a relative to stay the demolition. Then, when it was condemned again, the new owner would transfer ownership back. Because of this maneuver, the house remained standing until the early 1990s.
Ever since the flood, we tried to keep an eye on the creek level. During wet years we went down to the end of the block and watched water rise. Since the end of the block wasn’t a bank, but rather a slope designed for bicycle access, we could watch the creek rise and fall fairly dramatically. When the rains came down, several of us would go down there to watch. Occasionally the water rose onto the block. A couple of times water came in through basement windows. But we didn’t have any serious flooding since then, none that required structural repairs to any of our homes.
The first year that Debbie Harrell moved onto the block, her brother Henry came down to watch the creek during a storm. He seemed to be getting too close to the water. Somebody told him to be careful or he’d wind up in New Orleans. He didn’t understand what we were talking about. We explained that the creek eventually flowed into the Missouri River which in turn flowed to the Mississippi. He still didn’t get it. Several of us spent twenty minutes trying to explain that what we were trying to say was that, if he got too close to the water, there was a danger of being carried away by the powerful stream. When he still didn’t seem to understand, we just told him he should stay back from the creek. That was all he really needed to know.
When the water was low, there is a lot of activity in the creek. We saw chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, and various kinds of birds. Sometimes we saw fish, usually dead, who had made their way upstream to our neighborhood from the river into which it emptied.
The creek bed was also a place for human activity. People walked their dogs there. Once Shari had a new puppy that got too close to the channel at the center of the creek. It tried to make its way upstream to catch up to Shari, but it was too deep for his feet to touch the bottom. Eventually Shari had to pull him out.
Later, after the invasion of criminals, that end of the block became mostly desolate at night. Cars looking for isolation often parked there. Sometimes prostitutes had customers park down there; other times drug dealers conducted business from their cars there. When it came time to clean the block, we found condom wrappers and used condoms there; we found drug paraphernalia. We found stolen cars there.
We asked the police to patrol the area. When we called in the requests, the department’s policy seems to be that they would set their own priorities, thank you. When we met with the public information officers, they promised they would increase patrols, but that never happened.
Once I called to report a suspicious looking car there. I thought it was suspicious, since people were inside at midnight, lighting a lot of matches and screaming at one another. I also thought I saw a hand gun. The dispatcher asked for the make, model, and tag number of the car. I told her that I didn’t get all those details, but I would be satisfied if they investigated any car in which people were doing drugs and threatening each other with guns. The dispatcher said that it would be up to two hours before they could get a car out. I thanked them.
It was difficult to be angry with the police. They had a lot of work to do. But at the same time, we didn’t feel we got the service we paid for. Criminals, unfortunately, were not considerate enough to freeze their activities for two hours.
Sometimes, when we felt particularly brave or especially suicidal, we walked down to look more closely at the cars parked there. Oddly, none of us was expressly threatened by people in the cars, but we did get plenty of mean looks.
High Centering at the Vickers
Until the early 1990s we had cheap, slightly sadistic entertainment by watching the cars at the Vickers gas station at the corner. Cars often tried to back off onto the Virginia side. The lot sloped steeply down to the street, except for a high curb right at the end of the drop. Looking out the rear window of a car, it was easy to think the slope led into a continuation of the curb cut–in.
At least a couple of times every night cars would back down the slope, thinking they were going to back smoothly onto the street. Instead, their rear wheels dropped off the curb and the car’s frame prevented them from contacting the ground. At that point the cars were, as we called them, turtles on their backs. The wheels spun, and the drivers swore. The term around the block was “high centering”, and if we saw it happen, we cheered. From where we were it looked funny. Although in our heads we knew that that wasn’t the kind of mistake people make more than once, we had this odd feeling that it was the same person doing the same stupid thing again and again.
If the drivers looked helpless, we sometimes would help them out of their predicament. Sometimes getting them free would be relatively easy. If the cars were short, we could sit on the rear bumpers and get enough weight on the wheels to give the car some traction. But those situations were rare. Usually, the cars were long enough or the fulcrum far enough back that the bumper would hit concrete before the wheels caught.
When that happened, we would have to use either heavy boards wedged under the wheels or a complicated sequence of jacking and pushing to get the car free. Drivers were usually too steamed, too embarrassed, running too late, or all three to thank us. Most of the cars suffered some damage, either to the bodies or the frames.
Eventually the gas station put a guard rail along the steep drop to keep cars from high centering on the curb. A few of us speculated that they added the rail because of a lawsuit, but we don’t know. Amazingly, some cars still managed to get stuck, but nowhere near as often.
The Laundry Sack
Diane Adams always tried to keep track of the children she takes care of. Sometimes they get away, but not for long. Because of her obesity, it is sometimes hard for her to keep her eye on everything.
One Tuesday afternoon she asked with embarrassment if she could talk to me for a minute. She had gathered her young grandson’s clothes to take to the laundry and put them in a trash bag. Unfortunately, her older son had seen the trash bag and, since it was trash day, reasoned that the contents were trash. He set the bag out on the curb, and the sanitation truck carried it off to the landfill. Diane asked if I knew of someplace she could get some more clothes for Rico, since the contents of the bag included everything the boy had, except what he happened to be wearing at the time.
I laughed. It just seemed so funny. I told her I’d ask around. One woman at work said she had just given her grandson’s old clothes away. Another said she was sure there were some old clothes around. She just had to dig them up. Over the next few weeks I kept telling Diane that the clothes were on the way, but they never did come. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t come through. By then, the clothes wouldn’t have fit anyway.
The Bottle Law
One of our biggest concerns was trash, especially glass. Most of the glass that ended up on our street came from the liquor store at the corner. We had whined to city hall until they agreed to send us weekly legislative hearing agendae.
That was how we heard about a proposed bottle deposit law. Under the law people would pay for bottles at their grocery or liquor store. The grocer would then refund the money when the buyer returned the container. It seemed like a good idea. It was hard to imagine how anyone could oppose it.
I went to the city council hearing and signed my name on the witness list. The room was filled. I thought it was great, since there was no way the law could fail with so much support. My one miscalculation was that of those people only one was in favor of the law. He was the first speaker, who demonstrated the need for the law by displaying a trash bag full of bottles he had retrieved from his lawn over the previous week.
The rest represented liquor store associations and groceries. Somehow one of them knew that I was going to testify in favor of the ordinance. He said, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” He had a grim smile, and he seemed to be almost threatening. One grocer said that keeping track of the bottles would cost him $100,000 a year. I was prepared to take care of it for him for half of that. The claims were amazing: a trade organization representative said that unemployment would go up to 30% if the law were enacted; another said wholesalers would move out of the area forcing the cost of food up; the law would present major health risks.
After three hours they called my name. As I got up to speak a couple of the law’s opponents glared at me. By the time I made it to the microphone, I was paralyzed with nerves. I could barely get the words out and had to cut my comments down to a single quivery sentence. To add to the humiliation, the city taped and broadcast the entire hearing on community cable TV.
Needless to say, the council tabled and eventually killed the law. The litter of bottles continued. Sometimes, at those rare times when the liquor store was closed, we collected the trash and dumped it on their lot. It was the least we could do.
We had several strings of burglaries. Some of us installed alarm systems; others window bars. We often had our suspicions about who commited the burglaries. Sometimes those suspicions fell on neighbors who seemed sneaky for one reason or another: drugs, no job, unusual hours.
When we suspected that somebody on the block was responsible, we sometimes took extra precautions. Dudley spoke of an uncle who kept an air horn in his house and set it off occasionally to make neighbors think he had an alarm. Sometimes we asked neighborhood children to help us look for mice. We told them we needed the mice to feed our snakes. We hoped they would pass the word around the block, so whoever was burgling might have reservations about invading our homes.
The most dangerous times for burglaries seemed to be during breaks in cold spells. During one of those stretches, we had three break–ins. The police had a standard routine when investigating. They would walk through the house and nod their heads a lot. They went to their cars to get their fingerprint kits. Then they would dust door knobs and other smooth surfaces and look chagrined that there weren’t any good prints.
During one intensive run nearly half the houses on the block were hit. We were pretty sure the culprit was the son of a woman who rented the house between Bette and Shari. The woman was very kind and very personable, but her son was addicted to drugs. She had tried to get him to move out, but he wouldn’t do it. One night PeeWee saw him and a friend carrying his mother’s console television down the street.
When the woman moved out, another woman moved in. She had a boyfriend who moved in with her. He was in and out of jail, and during the times when he was out, we had burglaries. Once, Bette’s house was hit. Because of the circumstances, we were pretty sure he had done it, but we didn’t have proof.
At about the same time I noticed a car parked between two of Gates’s condemned houses at the south end of the block. The car had Kansas tags and clearly didn’t belong there. We had seen people go to and from the car a couple of times since it appeared. In fact, it was not in the same place it had been that morning, so evidently whoever stole it was using it for transportation.
A couple of days after that Dave’s house was broken into for the second time. We suspected the same person, but didn’t have any proof. When the police officer came, he did the usual routine: looked at the broken screens and door frames, dusted for prints. I mentioned the alien car. He said he would look at it.
We walked over and he said, “Bingo.” From then on he was completely involved in the car. He knew it had been stolen because of the broken steering wheel column. He asked for some long nose pliers and said, “Watch this,” as he demonstrated how easy it was to start a car without the key. Then he radioed in the license number and found who the owner was. While he was waiting for that information he put the car in gear to move it.
We suggested that, since the people who stole the car were apparently using it as a base, maybe it would make more sense to wait for them. He said they didn’t have enough officers for that. He moved the car in front of Dave’s house and made out his report on the burglary.
A couple of us went back to the place where the car had been. The spot was surrounded by the leavings from stolen purses. We asked the policeman if he wanted any of those things—they might have fingerprints or give some other idea about who had stolen the car. He said there wasn’t a chance of getting any useful information from the things on the ground. A few of us went over with flashlights to look through the stuff. We found some names on some of the papers. Later we notified the people we could find. Most of their valuables were gone, but there were still some personal items that people wanted.
The policeman called for a tow truck, since headquarters wasn’t able to get hold of the owners of the car. He still seemed very proud of his accomplishment in getting the car started. When the tow truck hooked up and removed the car, he looked at it longingly, as though he were a hunter looking at his latest kill going off to the taxidermist.
A month later the couple who lived in the house between Bette and Shari had a fight. A bad fight. She ended up calling the police, who took the man away. When they arrived, she pointed out several items that had mysteriously appeared in the house during the time her boyfriend had been there. Among the items was a typewriter stolen from Shari’s house during the recent string of burglaries.
The man was charged with the burglaries and was put away for, oh, a week or two. Then he was put in a diversion program. Basically, it diverted him from jail. He continued to drink and take drugs. And when he was drunk or high, he continued to yell at the children and his girlfriend.
Buddy tried to evict the family, but the woman was pregnant, and there was a rule against evicting a pregnant woman. After she had her baby, we saw the traditional piling of belongings on the curb. And then the family was gone.
The Naked Man
In late winter of 1994 a preformed concrete company from Marshall, Missouri started using the KCP&L lot at the end of the block to store huge components for a couple of construction projects in the Country Club Plaza area. The truck and tractor rigs were up to 65 feet long, so they all had motorcycle police escorts.
In preparation for the operation the construction company had added a swinging gate to the fence surrounding the lot. The first driver each morning would unlock the gate and the last driver at night would lock it.
The preformed concrete was tied down to the long bed trailers with log chains. Each evening, one of the truckers replaced the logging chains with plastic tie–downs. Some of the chains had been stolen, and the company preferred to keep them locked up when they weren’t in use.
One cool April evening Cathy LaRue was looking out at the rain. She noticed a truck driver removing the log chains from a couple of the trailers. Then he drove his own vehicle out through the gates, got out, and snapped the padlock shut on the chain, and drove away.
What Cathy noticed about the man was that he was naked. Not just from the waist up. Not just from the knees down. He was completely, totally without clothing of any kind on any part of his body. She had checked with binoculars, just to be sure. When she was sure she had seen what she thought she did, she figured he must have removed his clothing so he wouldn’t have to drive all the way back to Marshall in wet clothes. Still, she thought it inconsiderate of the man to expose himself like he had.
She called the company and found out who the driver had been. She confronted him. He was much more embarrassed than apologetic.
A Deadly Explosion
On November 29, 1988 there was a huge explosion at a construction site about a dozen miles from our homes. Six firefighters died in the explosion. It was the middle of the night, about 4:00 a.m. The concussion caused our homes to shake and woke us all. Terry, Pat Jake’s friend, was living next door to me. The way the house was set up, he had an exit from his bedroom onto a flat section of roof.
I was groggy, but I could hear Terry and a friend of his out on the roof asking what was going on. I slid my window open and asked if they knew what had happened. Since none of us seemed to know what was going on, we all went out into the street, where most of the neighbors had come out.
We were accustomed to noise. It usually was in the form of loud music, screaming, car horns, or gunshots. This was clearly different. Somebody had brought a portable radio. It was getting light by the time we found out what had happened. It was almost time for some of us to go to work. We shook our heads. There wasn’t much we could do, but it was one of those times when people were drawn together. For those of us who didn’t have families nearby, the people we were drawn to were the people who lived on our block.
A Block Away on Tracy
The nearest inhabited block was north of 47th Street and one block west of Virginia. The housing to the south of us was separated by the creek; to the west was mostly commercial or vacant property; to the east was Paseo. The part of Virginia that lay across 47th consisted of a Taco Bell, Midwest Automotive, a funeral home, and several vacant lots.
The 4600 block of Tracy was so different from our block that it was hard to reconcile the proximity of the two neighborhoods. There were probably more criminals living on that block than on any block in the city. Drug dealers competed through price and intimidation. Children ignored their mothers committing acts of prostitution several feet away from them. Other children vandalized the property of those who have the gall, the arrogance to try to maintain their homes.
The constant, relentless boom of bass speakers made it impossible to read or to conduct any kind of quiet activity. In order to sleep, people had to turn up their own radios to drown out the noise. Many of those making the noise had been doing so for so long that their hearing had deteriorated; they got louder noise machines to compensate.
Most of the block was single family structures, but the north end of the block was taken by a large apartment building. That building housed many of the block’s criminals. Many of the owner–occupants of the single family units moved out when things started to get bad on the block. Nobody was interested in buying their homes, so, to cover the cost of taxes, the owners rented the houses for whatever they could get.
Norman Frank, a friend of mine since junior high school, bought his house there before the block became unlivable. Norman had been to law school, but he never graduated. He went to work for the Social Security Administration. He had a wife and a daughter, although they maintained separate residences. Although he cared about his wife, he found sharing a home with her led to conflict, or, as he said, insanity. Nevertheless, he spent several nights a week at her place. After spending a few days away from home, he was afraid to come back, because he knew that some of his property would be destroyed or stolen; he didn’t want to know what it was this time. Neighborhood kids trampled his garden, broke his windows, threatened him, vandalized his cars, dropped trash in his yard. The police did not resolve the problems. If they responded to his calls at all, they just took notes and filed them away. More often they just didn’t show up. Even when he called as people were breaking into a neighbor’s home.
During the city planning hearings on development of the area, one of the primary objections to a shopping center was that people wouldn’t want to come to the area as long as that block was a war zone. One meeting attendee suggested that several problems could be solved by moving our homes on Virginia to that block, replacing the blight with a stable neighborhood. We weren’t interested, since one of our main reasons for wanting to stay where we were was that ours was about to become valuable beach front property.
None of us knew why the 4600 block of Tracy was the way it was. Some people blamed the designation of much of the property as Section 8 housing. Under Section 8, tenants paid a maximum of one–third of the rent and the federal government paid the rest. Many landlords listed the rent as much higher than it really was. That way if the tenant did not pay his share, the landlord still got his full rent. There were no sanctions against either landlords or tenants who acquiesced to this arrangement. Most of the tenants also received other benefits, including general assistance and food stamps. To complicate the situation even more, if the beneficiaries got jobs, they threatened their benefits. If they wanted anything more than the benefits, they had to get money that did not leave records for the government to find. That work was illegal. Although that could theoretically include gray market jobs, such as doing chores for unreported cash, it more often was more criminal than that—drugs, prostitution, burglary, car theft, armed robbery. Often the recreations that went along with those vocations were also illegal. Those living that kind of life looked at those who didn’t with suspicion. That included not only police and welfare agency representatives, but also neighbors who didn’t conform. After all, any of those people could turn them in and make their lives even more complicated. They were very likely to see any actions to get rid of the rule abiding residents as self defense.
Gradually, established residents started to move away. First, it was older residents who felt the fear. They were often victimized, by taunts or burglaries or vandalism, sometimes by arson. Then, some of the younger people who had decided to take a chance on a block that banks and government agencies were targeting for rehabilitation started to leave. As time went on, property owners found it harder to sell their homes. Several of the houses were abandoned and became overgrown with weeds and litter. The owners didn’t have the money to demolish them. They could no longer get insurance, so they didn’t burn them down. They were frustrated enough that they wouldn’t have qualms if they thought it would help them somehow, but it wouldn’t.
And, of course, the city and county still wanted their property taxes. When they didn’t get them, they seized the property. They auctioned the properties for back taxes, and, if there were no takers, they offered the houses to the public at low prices. Owners of adjacent properties got first dibs, but, now that their own property was more of a burden than an investment, they saw no reason to add to that burden.
So the homes were left to completely disintegrate. Sometimes people would use the deteriorated structures for shelter, either from the wind so they could light up, or from the other elements so they could sleep. That property and most of the property nearby became a wildelandt, complying only with the ferocious laws of nature, oblivious to any notion of commonweal, charity, caring, responsibility. The people who lived there, instead, were interested in survival, comfort, and pleasure.
That is one theory of what happened. A more common theory is that a bunch of assholes moved in and messed up the block.
Whatever happened, it was clear that the block has fallen apart. Ours had not. There was still a preponderence of residents who would do what they had to to feel safe. It seemed that there was a critical point when those committed to an area were too few to overcome the outlaws. For a number of different and personal reasons, we had a core of people who stayed on the 4700 block of Virginia. The drug houses, the shootings, the noise, the litter, the abandonment by the city, the lack of street repairs were not enough to make us go away. We had inexpensive housing close to a bus line and convenient to many of the services we needed.
When we heard gunshots, we weren’t afraid; we just hoped that whoever was shot deserved it. Helicopters hovering over our back yards assured us that there were people on the right side of the law who were not just doing paper work. Loud arguments, complete with broken windows, were perversely entertaining.
We liked to think we had something special on our block, but in the end it didn’t take much to turn our block into what that block of Tracy had become. A couple of people decided to sell their houses to a developer who rented to not–very–nice people. Corrupt city officials decided that their jobs were more important than the city they were supposed to serve. So they worked with the developer to assure that our block would become unliveable. We found ourselves in the same combination of noise, nuisance, and crime that has destroyed the 4600 block of Tracy.
We told each other that we intended to stay. Janice Brackenbury for a long time insisted that she couldn’t move because of the investment in bird–keeping adaptations for her house. But she did sell to Ollie Gates after some of his tenants intimidated her. Someone said that Rick hoped to turn his house into a bed and breakfast once the Brush Creek redevelopment project was done. He envisioned taking people on tours of the waterfalls and fountains in the creek. Bette Rhule lived on the block long enough that she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
By the end of 1996, the block had all but disappeared. In fact, I was the only one who had not sold out to Gates. Bette, Shari, Rick, and Dave had all agreed to sell their homes to Ollie Gates. I had refused.
The block that had once been the most stable in the area, one of the earliest to integrate, the most neighborly, was now mostly weeded over. Diane Adams remained in her house, although Gates had bought that property too. My dog had died in May of that year, and my cat died in September.
One day when Dave Paarmann was moving things out of his house I looked out my window. A small dog was behind his truck. I ran outside to stop Dave from running over him, since the little fellow was invisible from the driver’s seat. After Dave had driven away, I went back into my house. The little doggie was with me. I gave him something to eat and let him back outside. Several minutes later I heard a knock on the door. The doggie was banging with his snout to get in. I opened the door. He had obviously lived with someone; he had ribbons in his hair and had recently been groomed. Nevertheless, I was unable to find who he had belonged to, so I decided to let him stay.
I talked to the doggie every day. I hoped he would understand when we had to leave our home too.
There had long been rumors that developers were looking at our block. Even though we were on the wrong side of the tracks, we had heard that we would be bought out by somebody looking to build a shopping center, restaurant, a high–rise apartment, or an office park. The rumors persisted mainly because large business interests had already bought many homes in the area.
The University of Missouri–Kansas City had long owned residential property several blocks away. The University was a notoriously neglectful property owner. As a result, when it was time to take over the properties it did not own, it could claim the properties were blighted and, therefore, not worth much money.
Missouri and Kansas City have several ways of allowing not only public entities but private interests to acquire property without the owners’ approval. One of these ways is the 353 statute. Under 353 a property, indeed an entire area, may be declared “economically blighted.” The way the courts have interpreted that term is that any property may be declared economically blighted if government revenues could be increased by a different use of that property. Therefore, if somebody proposes to build a department store on a site where 15 modest homes are located, the government can condemn the homes, since the store would bring in more revenue than the homes. Other local and state statutes offer alternative options for an investor that wants a piece of property. The result is that, as long as local governments cooperate, private business interests have the same property rights as governments.
Still, some of us were skeptical about any halfway sane investor taking our homes away from us. The standard line about any property is that three features are important in real estate: location, location, and location. The 4700 Block of Virginia boasted none of those virtues. Not only did we have a reputation as an unsafe area, but we were bounded on the south by a creek that occasionally flooded, and on the north by an almost impassably busy thoroughfare. Many have been paid for by the Army Corps of Engineers. City planners and engineers, however, shared efficiency goals with many surgeons: “If we’re going to go in anyway, we may as well….” The city’s plan included landscaped banks with recirculating waterfalls, ornate bridges, walkways, parkways, and simple access from areas alongside the creek. Since the creek was already under the jurisdiction of the Department of Parks and Recreation, it seemed logical to have improvements in the creek bed include those recreational uses.
That is where Ollie Gates’ company became involved. Not only did he own a large barbecue business whose headquarters was going to be destroyed by the creek diversion (or rather by a rerouting of nearby streets necessitated by that diversion), but he was president of the Board of Parks and Recreation Commisssioners. He began to buy properties on our block. He bought properties on nearby blocks.
Originally, Dudley said that Gates wanted to buy as many houses as possible on the block so the workers at his restaurant would be able to have inexpensive housing close to work. Later, Dudley had a falling out with Gates. The new story was that Gates hoped to buy all the land because the creek development was going to take the restaurant; Gates wanted to keep his business in the area where it had thrived. If he could get all the land on the block, then he would have his new restaurant site.
Ollie Gates himself was prominent in community activities other than Parks and Recreation. He has appeared on national television as a representative of Kansas City culture. He donated money and ribs to many charities. In contrast to his image, however, many of his employees on the block described him as everything from an exploiter to a bloodsucker. I must admit, I never personally saw him be anything other than cordial and courteous.
Many of us were apprehensive about the people Gates was bringing onto the block. Although most were nice enough, it seemed that that was just lucky. As far as we could tell, nobody was screening tenants. Many of the properties were deteriorating, and it seemed that, unless the property was actually cited for codes violations, Gates was not making any repairs. Even then, Gates delayed compliance as long as possible.
In the summer of 1994 Shari Paulsell said she had heard that Gates was planning to develop a twenty–four–acre area into a shopping center. The development would require destroying our homes. Shari found out that the city’s planning department was going to meet about the proposed development. Shari made a few calls to find out what was going on. The commission’s representative said that, had they known about us, they certainly would have solicited our input. They asked for our representation at subsequent meetings.
The meeting was held at the University of Missouri administrative center. Several neighborhoods sent representatives, as did several community organizations. Since we were on the city’s computerized list of neighborhood groups, we knew that our exclusion from the invitation list was deliberate. The tenor of the meeting was what would be the best layout for the proposed development. When we mentioned that the development was in conflict with our homes’ existence, the city representatives said that wasn’t what this meeting was about; that issue would be one of acquisition and not of development. They basically said that our concerns were inappropriate at that meeting.
Meanwhile, the discussions revolved around the aesthetics of the development, accessibility of stores, and care of decorative plants on the site. Ollie Gates attended as the developer responsible for the proposal, along with his architect, his property acquisition specialist, and his legal representative, Jim Threatt, who had been an assistant city manager and was long active in community affairs.
Attendees were supportive of the idea of a nice development in the area. Some people said they were concerned that some of the businesses in the area would drive people away: the liquor store, a nearby porn shop, a check cashing business. But the planners assured the group that those issues could be resolved. Actually, the liquor store and the check cashing business would be razed as part of the development. In addition, all present agreed that the area just to the north of our block, specifically the war zone block on Tracy, would prevent anybody from coming to the area. The consensus was that any development that did not consider the conditions on that nearby block was doomed to failure.
One of the city planners agreed to speak to our neighborhood group. We invited all property owners. Gates was represented by Jim Wilson, the acquisition specialist. Pam Sorrisso, who owned the property at 4716 was there. So was a couple that lived one block away. They had invested more that $100,000 in their property. The city planner presented the same information that we had heard at the meetings.
But a new issue had arisen. Part of the land that Gates wanted to develop was owned by Kansas City Power and Light. KCP&L had a substation a block over and wanted to retain the vacant lot it owned at the south end of Virginia to expand that substation. Despite the liberal interpretations of public interest that the city had used in condemning and acquiring property, the city could not acquire KCP&L. Since the electric company was a public utility, it was under the jurisdiction of the state, or, as the planner said, a “superior sovereignty.”
At the next city planning meeting, Gates’s architect presented revisions to accommodate some of the aesthetic objections presented at the earlier sessions. The city planners described the area as “prime real estate.” Or at least it would become prime real estate when the Brush Creek beautification was done. During the meeting, a neighborhood group presented Jim Threatt with a trophy for his commitment to civic improvement.
Because of the newly discovered problem with the KCP&L property, the planners decided to suspend all consideration of the plan until they and Ollie Gates could negotiate a solution. The planners promised they would contact all attendees when something new happened. At the end of the meeting, Ollie Gates made a short speech, in which he described himself as “Just a poor barbecue cook who is trying to build a new and exciting shopping area out of what is a blighted neighborhood.”
When I related that comment to my neighbors, they were furious. After all, it was Gates himself who had methodically blighted the block. Rick Gilkerson, who had become more interested in the block’s fate than he had ever been, began calling the codes enforcement office to complain about the Gates properties. Others also complained.
Rick asked me to draft a letter to send to Ollie Gates. He asked to devise a letter that would be conciliatory, but would express our concern about his properties. The original letter was not very conciliatory. I modified it and we asked all the signators to review it. Rick thought the letter should be a little softer; Dave Paarmann thought it should be tougher; Bette thought it was just right. We sent the letter:
Dear Mr. Gates:
We are home owners on the 4700 block of Virginia. We first would like to commend you for the positive steps you have taken on the block. For example, we appreciate your demolishing the blighted houses at the south end of the block.
Nevertheless, we have concerns about some of the property you currently own. There seem to be lapses in the screening process you use in renting the properties. As a result, some of your properties have become centers for use and distribution of illegal drugs, fencing operations (property stolen from neighbors’ homes was found in the house at 4728 Virginia), and all–night parties. Our own properties have been trampled, littered, vandalized, and invaded by your tenants. We are assaulted by noise from properties you own. We must point out that these are not isolated incidents; they are daily and constant.
This deficiency in your screening procedures has changed our once–comfortable block into an insecure and dangerous place. In addition, many of your properties themselves have, during your ownership, fallen into such disrepair that our block, which was once a model of center city pride, is now (in your own words) “blighted.”
We are confident that, as a concerned citizen, you will remedy these concerns. We realize that, just as we do, you have an interest in having the 4700 block of Virginia be a viable and well maintained neighborhood. We would appreciate your cooperation in assuring that: 1) Your properties will be brought into compliance with city codes; and 2) You will screen tenants to assure us the security that you enjoy in your home.
Thank you for your assistance and cooperation.
Sincerely,Bette Rhule Rick Gilkerson
Dave Paarmann Ralph Levy
c: Gates Property Management
Att: Jim Wilson
Kansas City, MO 64110
We didn’t get a response from either Ollie Gates or his representatives. We continued to call in building inspection requests. His properties continued to deteriorate. We sent several more letters and still received no response.
One Friday evening there was a knock on my door. It was Jim Wilson, Gates’s representative for real estate acquisition. He said, “Ah yes, Mr. Levy. Ollie is out in the car and he would like to talk to you. ” Looking past Mr. Wilson, I saw Ollie sitting in his Cadillac in front of my house. I was taken aback, since I had never been summoned by a godfather before. I told Mr. Wilson I was busy, and if Mr. Gates wanted to talk to me to give me a call and I’d set up a meeting with him.
Several weeks later I got the call from Jim Wilson. I agreed to meet with Mr. Gates at his office one evening. I also told him that if he wanted to meet with me about buying my house he was wasting his time, since I had no intention of selling. Mr. Wilson said they just wanted to talk about some of the things going on in the neighborhood.
The meeting was cordial. Ollie began by apologizing for the problems his tenants had caused. He said he was concerned about the remaining homeowners having to live in that situation. He was hoping he could find a way to move us somewhere that didn’t have those problems. He asked me how much it would take to buy my house. I could name my price. He said he was close to finishing negotiations to buy Janice Brackenbury’s and Shari Paulsell’s houses. It turned out that, although he had bought Janice’s house, he hadn’t even had any serious discussions with Shari about buying hers.
I told him that I like to think of myself as an honorable person and would feel as though I was betraying my neighbors if I were to make a deal with him. As president of our neighborhood group it would be unfair for me to make some kind of deal that might be perceived as the end of the block. My presidency was more like an act of contrition than an honor. Nevertheless, Ollie said, “We figured we’d go right to the top. I like to think I’m an honorable person too, and hope we can deal as a couple of good people doing what’s best.”
We discussed his development plans for a while. I walked into the meeting determined to make one point. I said, “Now, of course, if any of your property is seized by the federal government for drug activities, the development will be out of the question.” He asked if there was drug activity on any of his properties and seemed surprised when I informed him there was, despite the fact that we had detailed those activities in several of our letters to him. He again apologized for his tenants and repeated his desire to get us out of that horrible situation.
We ended that part of the conversation by agreeing to have Ollie meet with the five remaining resident–owners. We agreed that would be the only fair thing to do. Then we talked about all kinds of other things: computers, his new vegetarian burger, his son, his interest in the agency for which I was working at the time.
It was raining that evening. As I left, Ollie asked if I was walking. When I said I was, he insisted I take an umbrella with his company’s logo on it. He said jokingly, “That’s a bribe.” I told him I don’t do bribes and he laughed and waved me on.
We arranged to hold the meeting at Bette Rhule’s place. Since hers was the nicest house, and since she was the most accustomed to entertaining, we almost always had our meetings at her place. Bette always had popcorn and soft drinks for us.
The meeting was scheduled for 7:00 p.m. Ollie and Jim Wilson finally arrived at 7:30. We considered leaving at 7:15, but we were afraid they would show up and we would be leaving Bette to explain everything to Ollie. A few minutes after Ollie and Wilson arrived, there was another ring of the doorbell. It was Jim Threatt, a former assistant city manager who was working with Gates in some unspecified capacity. Then Craig Watson, the development’s architect, arrived.
Gates repeated the claim he had made at the city planning meetings that he was just a poor barbecue cook trying to do something good for the city. He hated displacing people from their homes. It was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
Jim Threatt said he would be willing to research what relocation funds were available. Gates, Wislon, and Threatt talked about appraised value, how the city’s condemnation procedure worked, and how much sympathy they had for us. The area had already been declared blighted, he claimed. Rick pointed out that he had learned from calls to the city that the money had not been appropriated for a blight study. Gates said that was a technicality and the blight study had indeed been done.
Gates said the only fair way to determine the values of our homes was to have a professional appraisal done, which he offered to do at his expense. Since each house was different, the appropriate thing would be for each of us to speak with Mr. Wilson individually and come up with a fair price.
After the meeting the five of us talked and concluded that we had been conned. We had long since decided that we were going to stick together: negotiate together, if necessary litigate together, and, if it came to it, settle together.
We decided to hire a lawyer, which wasn’t all that easy. Several admitted they were unwilling to take on Ollie Gates. A couple were too busy. We had sent a letter requesting services from an organization called the Landmark Legal Foundation. Landmark handles property issues for free. We later found out the organization was considered ultra–conservative. Its director and founder was a man named Mark Bredemeier, who had run unsuccessfully for Attorney General of Missouri. We never heard back from anybody at the organization.
Finally, Rick got the name of Joe Borich, an attorney who specialized in representing homeowners in property acquisition issues.
After our first meeting with Joe (at Bette’s house) we were all a little skeptical. He was brash and not particularly charismatic. He was somewhere in his forties. During his presentation to us he made it clear that we could fire him whenever we wanted. We agreed on a contingency basis, 10% of any settlement we finally got. The alternative would have been 25% of any money above the fair market value of the property. We figured that would have complicated the calculations.
After that, we told him that we were hoping to get $500,000 for our homes. Joe shook his head and said, “No way.”
I had already called the Parks Department to ask about minutes of the meetings in which the Brush Creek river walk was discussed. We were contending that, as president of the Parks Department board, Ollie Gates was enriching himself in two ways: first, he was adding to the value of properties he already owned in the area; and second, he was making his proposed development a beachfront plum. In addition, his plan was causing him to profit from the blight he himself had created. Since Gates was a powerful member of Kansas City’s government clique, we felt we should be well armed to prove a conflict of interest.
At about the same time a city councilman had pled guilty to accepting a bribe from a developer in exchange for a favorable vote. Our contention was that Ollie Gates was avoiding the middleman, since he didn’t have to bribe anyone and could cast the vote himself. Basically, though, what he had done in regards to the river walk was the same abuse of official power.
Meanwhile the Gates properties were deteriorating. The city had finally issued several citations for violations of property maintenance codes, but Gates got continuances, saying the properties were going to be demolished.
He intended to first take down the house occupied by Danelle. He sent her and the other tenants a notice to vacate in 30 days. About a week after the notice, Jim Wilson knocked on her door, but Danelle didn’t hear him. The following day the wrecking crew Gates had hired broke down Danelle’s door and started to remove her belongings. They also took out the water heater and some of the other plumbing fixtures. By the time she got home, someone had already called the police. The wreckers showed them the contract they had on the building. They returned some of her belongings, but claimed they hadn’t taken the others. We all told her she could get rich off of a situation like that, but she chose to have the city arbitrate the dispute. By the time the hearing came up, she had moved away and her house had been leveled. Rick and Dave Paarmann rototilled the lot and planted grass seed.
Brian Leigh was willing to bet that the last houses to be vacated would be the two most active in criminal activities. In fact, long after demolition began on those properties, people were still using the shells of the structures to conduct drug trade.
One Sunday afternoon a photographer from the Kansas City Star called to ask if he could take some pictures. It turned out that a reporter named Diane Stafford had come across the request for a blight study on our neighborhood. She was doing a story and had already spoken to some of the neighbors. Rick had told her everything, including our suspicions about Gates’s methodical blighting of the neighborhood, city complicity in the blight, and Gates’s conflict of interest in profiting from his position on the Parks Commission.
She interviewed most of us several times. The article was to have appeared the following Sunday. It didn’t. A couple of weeks later Diane called to apologize. She said there were some delays. Over the next few weeks she called several more times. She said she had been a reporter for twenty years and had never faced anything like this. I asked what she meant. She said the editors were cutting most of the meat out of her story.
I asked if it would help if I wrote a letter to the editor. What I meant was one of the letters that appears on the editorial page, but she thought I was proposing a personal note. She said, “I’d be fired if they even knew I was talking to you.” There had been meetings of half a dozen editors along the paper’s chain of command. I asked if that included Art Brisbane, who was the paper’s vice–president and editor, she said, “Especially Art Brisbane.”
When I asked her if the paper’s lawyers were involved, she said she didn’t know, since she wasn’t allowed to attend the meetings. When I asked her if all of the problems were because of fear of offending Ollie Gates, she said, “What do you think?”
I asked her if I could have the opportunity to write an op–ed article. She told me she was going to continue to fight to get as much as she could into the piece. On Sunday, June 25, 1995 there was a front page article about the river walk opening on the Country Club Plaza. That was the first complete section of the new scenic walkway along Brush Creek.
The festivities included a ribbon cutting by the mayor and Ollie Gates, pictured on the front page of the paper. The text included only vague references to our concerns about the river walk and how Gates had exploited his Parks Department position to enhance the value of his property in this area. The metro section had a separate article entitled “Property Owners Weigh Buyout.” The article included our allegations about Gates. They also included Gates response that he was only doing what any developer could have done. The article was much more favorable to our position than we had expected, especially given the reporter’s reservations. The next day I called Diane to thank her for having jeopardized her position for us.
After the article appeared, I got several phone calls. One was from a woman who owned some rental property near Gates’s newest restaurant. Buddy Reynolds wanted to rent from her. She said that after reading the article she would never rent to anyone who worked for Gates. I told her it was unfair to blame an employee for some of the things his employer might have done. We talked for a long time, and she said she was disgusted by the way Gates operated.
Howard Levin, the owner of Holiday Wines and Liquors called too. He felt he had been victimized by Gates as much as we had. He said that the fact that Gates’s architect on the development project worked for the same company that designed the river walk was strong evidence of a conflict of interest.
In late July the residents received a notice that we each had a certified letter waiting postage due. It turned out to be a letter saying the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority—one of those city agencies whose primary purpose is to make business interests happy—had declared our area blighted. A couple of hearings were scheduled and we were invited to attend.
That same week we received a letter from the city’s Planning Department inviting us to a program at which they would present the blight study and answer our questions. The remaining homeowners showed up, as did Diane Adams, and three business owners: Howard Levin from the liquor store, John Langle, who owned the large Ice House and the plumbing supply business in it, and Bo Steed, who owned a cabinet shop/remodeling business behind the grocery store.
During the meeting the representative of the P.I.E.A. and Lynnis Jameson went over the process that led to the blight study. They explained why it was necessary to develop the area, claiming the future of the city depended on the development of this area. P.I.E.A. commissioned a blight study. The two city representatives emphasized that individual properties were not blighted, only general areas.
John Langle asked if it was true that any area could be declared blighted, since there evidently were no specific criteria for blight. The city representatives did not answer. I mentioned that there might be some clean hands issues, since the city itself was complicit in much of the blight. As an example I mentioned long standing requests for curb repairs that were never addressed and the continuing code violations by the developer that were not addressed by the city.
Lynnis Jameson got angry. “That is a legal issue, and we are not able to answer questions like that. Those are questions that would have to be addressed in a legal way, not in this forum. If you think the city is complicit…”
I asked who would be able to address those questions. She repeated that it would have to be somewhere else.
Later they snapped at Joe Borich about something he said. He seemed proud that he had irritated them.
Shari Paulsell had, since word first came that our homes were to be condemned, driven everybody nuts by endlessly claiming that moving would cost her the perennial plants she had slaved over. The evening of the meeting, however, she was subdued. Earlier in the day, her English sheepdog had died. She had asked me to drive her to the meeting, and during the trip, she had trouble maintaining her composure. During the proceedings, she occasionally hid her head in her hands, as she wept. Just before the meeting ended, she raised her hand. “What about my perennials? I have thousands of dollars in perennials. Will anyone compensate me for them?”
After the meeting, I asked Joe how rankorous the meeting had been compared to others he had attended. He said that on a scale of 1 to 10, this one was a 1. He had been at meetings where people threw coffee pots and tried to strangle one another.
A couple of days later I called the Missouri Attorney General’s office. It seemed to me that Lynnis Jameson had, by stressing that our concerns were legal issues, encouraged us to report our suspicions to higher authorities. It turned out the Attorney General’s local office didn’t know who to talk to about these issues.
I called the U.S. Attorney’s office. That was the office that was prosecuting a couple of former city council members for bribery and other corruption. The person I spoke to said they were handling the prosecution but the F.B.I. was responsible for the investigation. I called them and gave them the information. What I saw as the primary offense was the conflict of interest that Ollie Gates had as both developer and Parks Commissioner. They asked how he was personally profiting from those two roles. I explained that he was about to get our property for next to nothing and they said they would check it out.
During this time the tenants at a couple of Ollie Gates’s properties continued to cause problems. Late one night Bette heard some noise on her front lawn. A fight among several of the tenants was taking place, including swearing and fights with 2 x 4s. The next day Bobby and Lynda’s son asked Bette if she was going to move. Bette told them she had lived in that house for 45 years and intended to stay there.
A similar incident happened after Bobby moved out. The wreckers had started to tear down some of the internal structure. Three people who had never lived in the area were on the front porch doing drugs. They were loud and not at all meek about what they were doing. As I went out to walk my dog, they asked me if I was going to sell my house. I said I didn’t intend to move.
On September 5, 1995 the City Planning Commission scheduled its hearing to ratify the blight study. We were supposed to be first on the 10:00 o’clock docket. Our lawyer, Joe Borich, asked to meet with us at 9:30 to go over what we were going to say. We had prepared a written statement and four of us had signed it. Rick could not sign it because, as a city employee, he would have jeopardized his job. As it turned out, our item didn’t come up until 12:30 p.m. We agreed that one of us would have to mention Ollie Gates by name as a contributor to the blight. After we had all spoken, Joe would offer a summation of our position. Since I am extremely nervous when speaking in front of groups, I agreed to read our statement into the record rather than offer ad lib testimony.
To City Plan Commission:
We live on the 4700 block of Virginia. We have all owned and lived in our homes for many years. During those years we have faced numerous challenges. Since the late 1980s those concerns have grown.
One of the main causes has been the proposed development of the area bounded by Paseo, Troost, 47th Street, and Volker. A potential developer has bought property and allowed it to deteriorate. The city has been extremely lax in its enforcement of city codes on those properties, despite numerous requests by residents. We have requested curb repairs for years. Our requests have been futile.
For the city to claim at this point that our block is blighted would be, to say the least, disingenuous. The city, through its failure to provide basic city services, is itself the agent of much of the blight that exists in the area. The owner–occupants who remain on the block have maintained our homes; we have taken pride in our neighborhood. Some of us have voluntarily cleaned properties owned by the potential developer so that our own homes would be more livable.
As a further, perhaps collateral, issue, we would like to point out that, during planning meetings in summer of 1994, the potential developer offered his designs for the area. Those plans were adopted by the Planning Committee. The consensus during those meetings was that no development plan for this area should be considered unless it included plans for the blocks directly north of 47th Street, an area now in a state of extreme decay. Constant criminal activity in that area would frighten potential patrons from any businesses in the development. The fact that the current recommendation does not include those areas, seems to us to indicate that, indeed, a developer has already been chosen, a developer with no interest in addressing the problems of that adjacent area.
We feel that the city would, by declaring our homes blighted, be sending the message that it is willing to methodically blight any property on which a developer has designs. We would therefore appeal to the Commission to reject the finding of blight and, instead, abide by its obligation to correct the conditions which the city itself was complicit in creating.
Because of the lateness of the docket Dave Paarmann had to leave. One of the business owners also had to leave. Bette Rhule and Shari Paulsell made short statements, but none of us had mentioned Ollie Gates by name. Howard Levin agreed to mention that sacred name. He spoke very bluntly of city complicity, Gates’s designs on the neighborhood, and the unethical way in which the whole process was being conducted. Joe then spoke, recapping what we had said. He also added that there was precedent for judicial review of blight studies.
Then John Langle of Liggett & Langle Plumbing Supplies (located in the Ice House) asked for some specificity in the blight study. The city’s representatives offered only the document called “Plaza East Area: Factual Evidence of Blight.” That 57 page booklet consists of a recap of the P.I.E.A. authorizing legislation, a brief summary of percentages of blighted properties in the area, and 47 pages of dark photographs of the properties. Mr. Langle protested that nobody seemed to be willing to say what constituted blight. The city representatives repeated that individual properties are not blighted; areas are blighted. By what? A variety of factors. What factors? Well…property use; deterioration; vacant land. In that case what made his property blighted? His property was, in fact sound. Which properties weren’t? It wasn’t a question of individual properties. This Kafkaesque description of the blight procedure left all of us in the redevelopment area bewildered and angry.
We considered it a small victory that the Commission agreed to postpone a vote on the blight study. Apparently that was unusual.
We had contacted the PitchWeekly, an alternative newspaper, about our situation. Bruce Rodgers, the managing editor, came to the meeting and wrote an editorial. The first paragraph ended with “But when the use of those government powers [eminent domain] appear to benefit a particular businessman or developer, any argument about ‘public improvement’ and ‘getting rid of blight’ begins to take on a stink.”
The process continued through a couple of postponements and the commission eventually recommended the finding of blight to the city council. The council referred the issue to the Plans and Zoning Committee, which was chaired by Ken Bacchus, one of the representatives from our district. He did not attend the first meeting of the committee, so discussion was postponed until the following meeting.
Nevertheless, we spoke, repeating our concerns about conflict of interest, the city’s failure to remedy the conditions that caused the blight, the dishonesty of city staff, and the duplicity that seemed to characterize the entire process. Dave Paarmann read a statement I had prepared but was too nervous to read. Howard Levin presented some of the evidence he had gathered which showed the dirty doings.
Rick and I set up a meeting with Ken Bacchus to discuss our concerns about the project. During that meeting, a couple of hours before the Plans and Zoning hearing, Ken claimed that he had only vaguely heard about the project. He said he hadn’t discussed the project with Ollie Gates or anyone else for that matter. He claimed that the city had not participated in any way in any of the planning prior to the series of official meetings. When I mentioned the meetings the planning department had conducted during the summer of 1994, he laughed and said that many people naively believed that, just because city employees were involved in a meeting, the city was some how sanctioning the process. I told him that the meetings had been announced on city letterhead. He laughed again and said that didn’t necessarily mean the city had anything to do with the plan. I happened to have one of the meeting announcements with me. As he looked at the letter, his face dropped. “Well, I guess you’re right.”
Then he said that it was unfair to blame Ollie Gates for the blight. After all, he had maintained some of his properties in the area, so the fact that he hadn’t maintained all of them shouldn’t be held against him. Later, it occurred to me to ask him if he was also willing to endorse Ted Bundy because of all the people he didn’t kill.
He also repeated that a developer had not been chosen. I said that maybe we could develop the property ourselves. He said, “Sure, why not?”
In the four years since we had first met with Ken, he had not only overcome his awkwardness, but he had become, in our opinion, monumentally arrogant. As we left the meeting, Rick said, “I don’t believe for a minute that he hasn’t spoken to Gates.”
At that afternoon’s meeting of the Plans and Zoning Committee, Ken greeted us. Joe Borich, our lawyer, didn’t show up. He later apologized. His schedule had simply gotten away from him.
As at all the meetings, Lynnis Jameson, the city planner responsible for the project, presented her department’s recommendations. She claimed that the community was generally in favor of the proposal, that a representative of the block had participated in the planning process, that no developer had been selected. The committee nodded politely.
When John Langle spoke, Ken was brutal. He criticized where John was standing, berated him, shouted, and was generally rude. Then Dave read another statement I had written but was, again, too nervous to read:
“One of the primary points of the planning department during this process has been that the process has always been open and continues to be open. The planning department claims that any developer is free to submit proposals for the area where we have made our homes.
Technically, that is correct, but it is extremely deceptive. What this development plan boils down to is a custom made suit of clothing, designed by and sewn for a single development interest. Yes, anybody can bid on it, but who else would? Who, but the person whom it fits would have any interest in the suit?
What happened here is very clear. A developer wanted a piece of land. He wanted it because, once he used his official position to make the property into “prime real estate”—his words—he felt he could get rich from the land. He did not feel he could acquire all that land through fair bargaining, so he invoked his connections with the city to get it for him.
Part of the process required that the area be declared blighted. That was easy enough. After all, he owned enough of the properties in the area that he could assure blight, which is exactly what he did. He did not screen tenants. Indeed, several of his properties were drug houses, and some of our stolen belongings were found in his property. He did not make even the most basic repairs. Some of us provided water to his tenants, since the plumbing was not usable.
We as homeowners feel that we have endured enough and are entitled to some serenity in our lives. If a developer wants to deal with us, we are willing to talk. But we want to deal without the threat of condemnation, without the city’s gun to our heads. If there is a profit to be made from our properties, we feel we are as entitled to a share of that profit as a developer who has used dirty tricks, threats, and finally his influence with the city government to achieve his goals.
Frankly, we feel as though we have been mugged.
Again, we would ask that you reject the finding of blight, the general development plan, and the accompanying powers of condemnation.”
Later Howard Levin again offered his evidence that the entire process was corrupt. He distributed copies of the article in which Ollie Gates said he was going to need the city’s help to acquire property in the area. He mentioned serious ethical and legal issues. Although the committee was not aware of it at the time, Howard had filed complaints with ethics commissions at the local and state levels. In addition, both Howard and I had contacted the FBI, which had recently conducted an investigation that led to criminal charges against two council members.
Then I got up and said, “Every time you have one of these meetings I promise myself I’m not going to get up here and speak, but then someone says something that makes me too mad to ignore. First of all, what might be a hair splitting point, but Mr. Bacchus spoke of the river walk as though it were a part of the flood control project. They are separate projects, for separate reasons, and paid for with separate money. Second, Ms. Jameson claims that we were included in this entire process. The reality is that we found out by accident about the planning meetings and essentially crashed them. When we got there, we were not allowed to speak. And finally, the current proposal does not address the concerns of those who did participate.” I repeated some of the points that Dave had made about the consensus being that no project in the area would succeed given the security issues in the surrounding areas.
Ken Bacchus asked Lynnis Jameson if it was true that the community at large was opposed to the development if the adjacent areas were not also developed. She acknowledged that, but said the city was developing the areas a little at a time.
Bette Rhule got up and invited the members to visit our neighborhood now that the blighted houses were gone. As she had before, she expressed her concern that our homes were being declared blighted and unsanitary.
Ken Bacchus spoke in favor of the proposal. Despite the claim he had made in our private meeting that he knew little about the proposed project, he now said that he was very familiar with the Plaza East plan.
Everet Asjes, one of the other two council members present for the committee meeting, then spoke against the project. He said that he thought the notion that there was no developer was a preposterous fiction. He also said he felt that what the city was doing to property owners in the area was unconscionable. If it was true that the area should be redeveloped, then the developer should negotiate with property owners. If he couldn’t do that, then maybe a development wasn’t really feasible after all.
When Ken Bacchus started to respond, Asjes got up angrily and paced the chamber. He was angry enough, red–faced enough, that some of us were concerned about the health of our only apparent ally on the council.
Ken called for a vote, which came out two to one. The passing vote assured that the city council would adopt the measure declaring our area blighted and in need of redevelopment. The full council passed the measure by seven to four, with one member abstaining. The fact that the proposal was not adopted unanimously was another small moral victory.
Still, we had exhausted our remedies within city government. We had asked our lawyer to look into filing suit against Ollie Gates. He said he would not be afraid to do so, but he would have to do some research to find precedents and legal theories on which to base a suit.
He consulted with some other lawyers. He told us that he was still willing to pursue a suit if that was what we wanted, but the other lawyers were skeptical.
At about the same time there was a minor dispute between Rick and the other four owner–residents on the block. Since we had agreed to negotiate as a group, we would eventually be getting a lump sum for our five properties. Rick thought we had agreed to divide that money according to proportions determined by the property appraisals.
The rest of us remembered discussing some kind of formula like that, but none of us remembered agreeing to it. We were fairly sure that that was just a hypothetical way to divide the money. Rick was adamant. He was angry, saying that this was more than just a misunderstanding; he had looked each of us in the face and asked if we agreed with that kind of division. Now he was wondering if he could trust us. He might even consider backing away from the rest of us. Dave and I looked at each other a couple of times, since it seemed that Rick wasn’t quite rational.
We spent another forty–five minutes calming Rick down and devising a new formula. If we received $375,000 or less for our five homes, we would divide the money according to appraised values. We would divide anything above that amount equally.
Meanwhile, we were hoping to get some publicity for our situation. Bruce Rodgers, the editor of The PitchWeekly, one of two major alternative papers in Kansas City, had spent a lot of time to prepare a cover article. We talked to him occasionally, and he said that every time he found out something about Gates, it led to more intrigues. We had sent letters to network news departments asking if they were interested in our story. We never got responses.
Howard Levin spoke to investigators from the Missouri Ethics Commission. They questioned him about the allegations he had made and asked for more information. He sent a graphic timeline and a narrative explaining what we felt were the tawdry activities of city staff, elected officials, and, especially, Ollie Gates.
By the fall of 1995, Ollie had torn down all of the homes he owned on the block. As Brian Leigh had predicted, the last of Ollie Gates’ tenants to leave lived in the house with the most drug activity. The only households left were Diane Adams’, Bette Rhule’s, Dave Paarmann’s, Shari Paulsell’s, Rick and Cathy’s, and mine. Since I had met with Ollie, we had decided to work together as a group. Our lawyer, Joe Borich, had agreed to take on Ollie, which we appreciated, since we had the feeling that most lawyers in town were not interested in confronting such a powerful force in the world of Kansas City politics.
We had gone to half a dozen public meetings, including several with city council committees and one with our council representative. Although we had the feeling the development had already been considered, bought, paid for, and approved, we continued to present our contentions that the entire process was tainted.
Chris Vedros, Director of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, and Lynnis Jameson of the city’s Planning Department continued to insist that there was no developer and that the entire process had been completely open and independent of any private developer’s influence.
Howard Levin, the owner of the liquor store, and those of us who remained on the block continued to present evidence to the contrary. The fact that a developer had already been selected was important. In addition to showing that Lynnis Jameson and Chris Vedros were willing to lie, the fact that Ollie Gates was already the developer was crucial. He was the person most responsible for the blight from which he was proposing to profit. Furthermore, he was clearly in conflict of interest as both parks commissioner and financial beneficiary of the Parks Commission’s actions. As long as his pals continued to insist there was no developer, then Ollie’s actions were irrelevant to the proceedings. If, however, he was already the developer for the area, then we would be able to show the project was tainted by conflicts of interest, city complicity in the blight, and illegal profiteering and, therefore, should be stopped. Although there might not, as the lawyers endlessly intoned, be a precedent for overthrowing a blight study, there were plenty of precedents for preventing somebody from profiting from illegal activity.
We all realized that our efforts with the city council would be futile. Nevertheless, we felt it was important to go on record as being opposed to what we felt was a confederacy of corrupt officials, self–serving staff members, an arrogant developer, and his shills on the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. We (except for Rick, who could not speak out because he worked for the city and feared losing his job) spoke at every opportunity.
Occasionally Joe Borich, our lawyer, also spoke, but his presentations were usually unprepared and disorganized. He seemed to offer stream–of–consciousness colloquies on the nature of development in general with collateral allusions to what was happening in the Plaza East development area.
Late in the winter of 1996 Howard Levin got word from Jefferson City that the Missouri Ethics Commission was going to investigate the charges against Ollie Gates. The Kansas City Star ran an article about the investigation. Reporters interviewed Howard, Ollie, and Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver. Howard’s lawyer had advised him not to talk to the press. Ollie said that the commission would have to make its decision. The mayor said, “It’s ridiculous. Ollie just did what I told him. He isn’t even paid for his service on the Parks Board. It’s just ridiculous.” When I heard that, I thought of a bank robber claiming astonishment at being charged with his crime on the grounds that he was volunteering to be in the bank.
The day after the announcement of the investigation, I called Chris Vedros, director of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, to ask if P.I.E.A. would be postponing its designation of a developer. He blew up at me. “I and this authority resent the implications of that. There is no developer. Anyone could be the developer. Donald Trump could come in and offer a development plan. You could be the developer.”
“I could be the developer?”
“Sure. We don’t have a developer.”
“You think I could come up with $30 million in the next ten days?”
“Well, we don’t demand that all the t’s be crossed and i’s be dotted.” He repeated that anyone could be the developer. “When are you coming down to pick up your packet?”
I called Joe Borich. He wasn’t there, so I left a message. Then I called Bruce Rodgers, the PitchWeekly editor who had been covering our story. He thought it was great that Vedros had blown up at me; it showed, he said, that somebody was getting nervous. Later, when Joe called, he said the same thing. I told Howard Levin about the telephone confrontation, and he too felt that bureaucrats don’t ordinarily lose their cool unless they are cornered.
I agreed to get the development packet the next morning, but nobody was at the office. A couple of hours later somebody—not Chris Vedros—showed up and handed me the packet. The third paragraph of the first document in the envelope began: “A task force consisting of the developer and his consultants, and representatives from neighborhood organizations, UMKC, Health Midwest, and City departments, developed additional guidelines in draft form that the developer will use to design the project….” The document was dated September of 1994, almost two years before Chris Vedros told the world that there was no developer.
As soon as I read that, I left a message for Joe. I ran down the block to show Howard the packet. Then I took a copy to Bruce Rodgers.
My greatest fear was that the packet I had received was especially prepared for my benefit, that the P.I.E.A. would later claim that I had somehow falsified the document to show that the P.I.E.A. had lied. I asked a few people to pick up packets that we would leave sealed, but for some reason, it never happened.
The Missouri Ethics Commission’s investigation was proceeding. Laurence Smith, a retired judge, conducted all the interviews. I gave him copies of the document that showed that Ollie Gates was the developer long before city officials claimed. The document showed that, not only was Gates the developer, but he had actually designed the project, and that the city was basically designating the area as a development project at his request.
Bruce Rodgers wrote another article for the PitchWeekly. He asked Vedros how it was that, if there was no developer, his own packet spoke of the developer having designed the guidelines. Vedros said that his office hadn’t written that particular document. How was a potential developer to know that? Well…there was no developer. Who had written the document? Probably the City Planning Department. Bruce called Lynnis Jameson, who said she might have written those guidelines. If there wasn’t a developer, why did the paper say there was? “That’s a good question.” Later she offered a dizzying sequence of bureaucratic feints, such as, “The fact that we have identified Ollie Gates as the developer does not mean that he is the developer in any formal or informal sense, only that he, just as any other citizen could conceivably become a developer in general or the developer of this project in particular.”
Meanwhile, our lawyer, Joe Borich, had met with Ollie a couple of times. The five of us had asked for a congregate amount of $500,000 for the five owner–occupied properties.
Joe told us that Ollie had offered to pay for an appraisal by the appraiser of our choice. I was opposed to that, since I didn’t think our properties’ value depended on their value as housing stock. What made our property valuable was the fact that it sat on prime development property adjacent to the river walk, dominated by waterfalls and fountains.
Howard Levin called me regularly to tell me what was happening from his end of the process. Some of the others were still suspicious, since Howard and his liquor store had been our nemesis for many years. I contended that on this matter we were allies, and if we were to have any chance against the city, we would have to stick together. At one point I told Howard that we probably disagreed on most issues, but on this one we were on the same side.
In the past the Missouri Ethics Commission had made its recommendations during the meeting following its receipt of a report from an investigator. Since the commission was only a couple of years old, we weren’t all that concerned that it was taking so much longer. Howard and I felt that the investigation would work in our favor, that Gates would be willing to negotiate seriously rather than risk losing the entire project to an ethics investigation.
On the other hand, Rick feared the entire process. He said he had worked for the city long enough to know that it always got what it wanted. If, because of the ethics investigation, Gates was knocked out of the process, the city would go ahead and take the property. He said the city was vindictive enough to get back at anyone who got in its way. For that reason, he asked Joe Borich to talk to Ollie and tell him we were ready to settle.
Joe spoke to us on the phone several times concerning the progress of his negotiations with Ollie. Ollie had offered $250,000 and he would pay Joe’s fees. Joe also mentioned that he was willing to offer Gates his services in negotiating his own property settlement in exchange for a favorable offer for our properties. I was starting to feel uneasy, as though our lawyer was getting too close to one of our adversaries in the whole process.
After three months of negotiating with Gates, Joe asked us to meet in person. We met at Bette’s. at that meeting he told us that Ollie had come up to $275,000 for the properties. He said for the first time he felt that we were in danger of coming out worse if we refused the offer than if we accepted it.
He also announced that he would not represent us in a lawsuit against Gates, that he felt such a suit would represent an ethical conflict on his part. He did not elaborate on the nature of that conflict. I argued against such a settlement. Joe said he was willing to present Gates with an offer of $337,000, but he wanted to know what our bottom line was. I didn’t talk, since I felt I was already outnumbered. The rest of the group agreed that they would be willing to accept $300,000 if Joe made an earnest effort to get the $337,000, we would agree. I made a side bet with Rick that Joe would not get one penny above $300,000, which is exactly what happened.
I was heartbroken. My reason for wanting a lawyer in the first place was not to negotiate a deal—we didn’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars for that. In fact, we could have negotiated ourselves. What I wanted was someone who was willing to do legal research, file actions, and represent us in court. I felt lonely and forsaken by the rest of the gang of five.
Shortly after we started working with Joe, my brother called from Virginia. We were talking about what was going on and he asked me if our lawyer was any good. I said, “No, a good lawyer wouldn’t have taken this case.” Now I was starting to wonder if Joe was a lawyer at all. I tried to find the Bar Association’s phone number but couldn’t find the listing. Later I did find out that Joe Borich was indeed a lawyer. I had perhaps been spoiled by what I knew lawyers could be. In the late 1960s my brother had refused induction into the army and was represented by Lou Gilden, who was willing to fight for my brother’s freedom. Eventually, he won the case at the appellate level. In fact, that appellate case was one of Harry Blackmun’s last cases before being elevated to the Supreme Court.
I spoke to my friend Norman, who lived a block away on Tracy. He said I didn’t have to go along with the deal. He felt that, if anything, it was the rest of the group that had deserted me. I said I felt that I was reneging on the agreement to work with the other four as a group, to abide with the group’s decision. He said that if the rest of the group would lose their opportunity to settle with Gates because of my pulling out, then it would be a different story. We agreed that there was no way that Gates would refuse to buy the other properties just because I wasn’t selling. We also agreed that it was best not to tell Joe that, since if I was willing to equivocate, then Joe would most certainly report that if I didn’t go along, the whole deal was off.
The next day I spoke to Howard Levin, who was the only other person in the development area who seemed to be willing to fight to the end. Howard agreed that I was not under any obligation to sell my house just because the rest of them had. He thought that Joe was willing to accept a quick amount of money rather that fight for us on the chance he would make a few thousand more.
When Joe called me to ask if I was willing to go along with the $300,000 deal (I assume he started his conversation with Gates by saying, “Their bottom line is $300,000″ and never even suggested the $337,000 figure), I said no, that I had lost my confidence in him. I told him that when we had engaged him, we understood that he was willing to fight for us. If anything, our negotiating position was better now than it was then, given that the Ethics Commission seemed to be taking Howard Levin’s allegations quite seriously. He didn’t argue with me.
A couple days later Shari stopped by. She wanted to know if I would be willing to meet with the rest of the group. I told her I had already made my position clear. She said the rest of them wanted closure. I told her I would be willing to talk to them, but if this was going to be some sort of deprogramming session I would be very offended.
The day of the meeting Rick called. He told me he had great news. Ollie had agreed to deal with just the four of them. I said, “That doesn’t surprise you does it?” He said it did. I told him I would have been willing to deal if backing out would queer the deal for the others, but I wasn’t about to tell Joe that, since I no longer trusted him. He told me that the evening’s meeting was no longer necessary, since Shari had hoped that the four others would be able to persuade me to accept Ollie’s offer.
I was pissed.
The rest of them agreed to sell. Meanwhile, I started looking for a new lawyer. Eventually, I got to the same firm that was representing Howard Levin. I asked Howard if he would have a problem with that. He was agreeable. So was his lawyer. Actually, on the day I was to meet with the lawyer, he was busy, so I ended up working with one of the partners, John Roe. It was going to cost me money out of pocket, but, as I told anyone who would listen, we don’t get too many chances in life to make a difference. This was mine. Yes, it was true I might end up with a little less money than I would have, but at the same time, I might be able to make a small dent in the corruption in the city.
The Missouri Ethics Commission was being very secretive about its actions. The Commission’s representatives refused to speak to the press; the only information I got came from Howard. As the complainant, he was privy to the commission’s progress. Even that though didn’t give us much information. We didn’t know what the members of the commission were thinking. The best we could get was a few cryptic remarks from the staff. “I think you’ll be pleased,” they told Howard.
The projected date for a finding kept moving back. Finally we (actually Howard) received word that the Commission had appointed a new judge. The commission had rejected Judge Smith’s report on the grounds that it found violations of local law but not of state law. The body thought the conclusions were too ambiguous to be useful. The new judge, a man named Kelso, lived in Nevada, Missouri, a small town about eighty miles south of Kansas City.
Shortly after the judge’s appointment Ollie Gates and his assistant, Jim Wilson, knocked on my door, asking me if I was ready to talk yet. My cat had died that day and I was disconsolate over that. I told Ollie I was in no mood to talk. I told him he could talk to my lawyer if he wanted. Ollie said, “What do you need a lawyer for? Can’t we just talk like a couple of people?” I didn’t think fast enough to ask him if he had a lawyer. Instead, I gave him John Roe’s name and number.
When I spoke to John the next day, he told me that Ollie had already called. He said he had done some research and had not found any cases in which a finding of blight was overturned. I asked him if there were cases in which any action of any kind was overturned on the grounds that a person could not profit from illegal activity. He said he would have to think about that.
The block was basically gone. The four other home owners had all moved out, and the scavengers were wandering through their houses, looking for the carrion of once–comforting homes. Ollie had not maintained his vacant lots, which were overgrown with weeds, especially poison ivy.
Diane Adams and I were the only households left on the block. Mike Brooks drove down the block one day. He said his father had repossessed Diane Adams’ place and had sold it to Ollie the week before, meaning I would soon be the only resident on the block. Howard had already alerted the police that they could expect illegal activities on the 4700 block of Virginia.
Howard had an appointment to meet with Judge Kelso. I agreed to stay home that day, just in case the judge wanted to speak with me during his trip from Nevada.
As it turned out, it was another week before I actually met with the judge. My new lawyer, John Roe, had sent me a note that Ollie Gates was now willing to pay me $70,000 for my house, including relocation expenses. I called John and we had a long conversation. He said, as he had at our initial interview, that the condemnation process didn’t have any provisions for bringing up issues of wrongdoing on the part of either developers or city officials. The only evidence permitted in a condemnation suit was that which had some relationship to the value of the property as housing stock. Those values might be determined by a certified appraisal or by the cost of recently sold nearby properties.
The appraiser Joe Borich had recommended had appraised my house at about $23,000. John didn’t understand why I was unwilling to accept a price triple that amount. I told him that I didn’t believe the appraised value of the property was at all relevant, especially since we were pursuing the possibility that Gates and the city had violated the law.
I asked John if, in an extreme case, a developer threatened homeowners with violence in order to acquire their property, the courts would not prevent the developer from proceeding. John said, “That’s an extreme case, but the answer is that the courts would probably agree with you. All I’m saying is that I don’t know where that kind of an action fits in with what we’re doing.”
He asked me what I would like to do about Gates’ offer. I told him I would like to wait to see what the judge said about the ethical questions. John was frustrated—I assume because he felt I was needlessly complicating what was basically a very simple property settlement negotiation.
I met with Judge Kelso in his room at one of the nicer hotels in town. Howard Levin came with me. The judge’s wife had come along to Kansas City, but was spending the day with their daughter and son–in–law.
Judge Kelso was one of the more entertaining people I had encountered in this whole process. He was a self–described “old country lawyer”. He had run for prosecuting attorney shortly after graduating from law school, mainly because he had no clients and thought a political campaign might give him some free publicity. To his dismay, he actually won the election against two experienced attorneys. He said, “That made me wonder if it really was a good idea to have people vote.” Eventually, he became a circuit court judge. He remained on the bench for forty years.
During that time he also worked his ranch. After a long night of rescuing some cows who had been stranded by high water, his wife gave him an ultimatum: stop ranching or else. They compromised by his retaining the ranch and renting out the land to others.
When I spoke to him, Judge Kelso was 85 years old. He had Parkinson’s disease and spoke slowly, but seemed to have a tremendous grasp of the issues in our case. This, despite his proclamations that he was just a small time fellow.
Howard had already met with him and given him most of the background. The judge said that, based on the on–the–record information in Howard’s original complaint, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that a conflict of interest existed. I related my story, as I had with Judge Smith and half a dozen others since this all started.
He said he thought he was going to recommend that Ollie Gates be removed from the parks board. I said that I appreciated that, but it wouldn’t make us whole. In fact, at this point, now that Ollie had what he wanted, he no longer needed that official position anyway. Both Howard and I said that we thought there should be some attempt on the Ethics Commission’s part to make us whole. He listened and seemed interested in what we were saying.
During the rest of the day, Howard drove Judge Kelso to meet with some of the others involved in the case: Bo Steed, John Langle, and Bruce Rodgers. That evening, Howard called to tell me the judge wanted us to put together what we thought should be in the report. After working with Howard and Rick, one of his employees, we came up with this:
Complaint by Howard Levin against Ollie Gates and others, concerning declaration of blight of area generally known as the Plaza East Redevelopment Area by the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority of Kansas City, Missouri and approval of that declaration by the City Council of Kansas City, Missouri.
Findings of Fact:
On July 23, 1981, the Army Corps of Engineers presented its initial flood control plan for Brush Creek. As a direct and inevitable result of the plan, Ollie W. Gates’ corporate offices and restaurant would be destroyed. In the fall of 1981, Mayor Richard Berkeley appointed Ollie W. Gates to the Board of Parks and Recreation. From 1981 through 1988 the Board of Parks and Recreation held numerous meetings to develop plans to add a beautification component to the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control project. During this period of time the city hired Groves & Associates of San Antonio, Texas to design the river walk concept. On March 26, 1988, Groves & Associates made its final presentation to the Board of Parks and Recreation. On April 15, 1988 the Board of Parks and Recreation had a joint meeting with the City Council and approved the preliminary plan of the second phase of the plan (the extension of the river walk to include areas east of Troost, an area that was not included in the original plan).
According to Mr. Ralph Levy, 4720 Virginia Avenue, Mr. Gates closed on his first property on the 4700 block of Virginia on May 13, 1988. One of Mr. Gates’ employees moved into the property and stated at a neighborhood meeting that Mr. Gates would be interested in buying any property on the block. Between 1988 and 1995 Mr. Gates acquired all of the residential properties on the block with the exception of one rental property and five owner–occupied properties. According to Mr. Levy, Mr. Gates’ representatives approached the remaining property owners about buying their properties. According to Mr. Levy, some of the tenants of the properties owned by Mr. Gates were convicts on work–release programs, alleged drug users, and alleged drug dealers. Beginning in 1989, Mr. Gates reportedly received numerous citations for violations of city building codes on the properties he owned in the development area. During this period Mr. Gates also acquired several commercial properties in the proposed development area.
Early in 1991 Ollie W. Gates was appointed president of the Board of Parks and Recreation by Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver.
In the summer of 1994, the City Planning Department held a series of meetings at which the Parks and Recreation staff, Mr. Gates, and Groves & Associates architect, Craig T. Watson (now of Watson and Associates, architects for O.G. Investments’ Plaza East Area General Development Proposal) presented the current Plaza East plan. At these meetings Mr. Gates and representatives of the City Planning Department claimed that the area was blighted. Mr. Gates announced his plan to develop the area, since the beautification project will make the area the most attractive part of Brush Creek. Representatives of surrounding neighborhood groups were invited to the meetings were asked to attend the meetings to offer comments on the proposed plan. Representatives of the affected area were not invited to attend. When one representative of that group attended anyway, he was not allowed to address the issue of the involuntary forfeiture of their property.
According to Mr. Levy, in early spring of 1995, Mr. Gates apologized for the condition of the residential properties. He said that he had evicted all of his tenants and would demolish his properties on the block. In April 1995, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (PIEA) issued a finding of blight for the proposed development area. A July 1995 newspaper article quotes Mr. Gates as saying he will need the city’s assistance to acquire the remaining properties he hopes to develop in the Plaza East area.
Mr. Levy said in the summer of 1995 the housing deficiencies in Mr. Gates’ properties had not been corrected. Drug activities, burglaries, noise, and property deterioration continued on the block. Several of Mr. Gates’ properties were declared dangerous buildings. Mr. Gates claimed in defending himself against the building codes violations that he was going to demolish the offending buildings so he could develop the area. According to Mr. Levy, a pattern developed in which break–ins and disturbances were followed by contact by Mr. Gates or his representatives asking property owners if they would like to sell their homes.
In August of 1995, residents and business owners in the area were notified of the finding of blight and were invited to attend a meeting to discuss relocation provisions. Several residents and business owners stated their belief that Mr. Gates was responsible (with the city’s complicity) for methodically blighting the area, and that to reward him with the city’s assistance in property acquisition would not be equitable. Staff members from the City Planning Department and Planned Industrial Expansion Authority stated that no developer had been chosen. In late summer 1995 the City Planning Commission held a series of hearings to determine whether to accept the PIEA’s recommendations. The City Planning Commission approved the finding of blight by PIEA.
In early fall 1995, the remaining Gates properties on the block were demolished. According to Mr. Levy, when the buildings were partially demolished, the shells were still being used as drug houses. Those allegedly using drugs asked property owners if they were going to sell their homes to Mr. Gates.
In the fall of 1995, the Plans and Zoning Committee of City Council took testimony from city planning staff and from other interested parties. Councilman Evert Asjes expressed strong reservations about the propriety of a city official using his position to decrease value and then acquire property for his personal gain. Since committee chair, Councilman Ken Bacchus, was not present, the vote was postponed. Councilman Bacchus chaired the next meeting. The measure to recommend the finding of blight to the full city council passed 2 to 1. The full council later accepted the committee’s recommendation in a split vote.
Ollie Gates was appointed to the Kansas City, Missouri Board of Parks and Recreation in 1981 . He was elevated to President of that body in 1991. On July 3, 1991 the city of Kansas City entered into an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction of a flood control project along Brush Creek, which had flooded in 1977. An immediate and inevitable consequence of the flood control project was that Mr. Gates’s current business headquarters would be destroyed. The project included the area adjacent to the Plaza East area. From 1981 to 1988 the Board of Parks and Recreation held numerous meetings to further develop the river channel. The Board hired Groves and Associates of San Antonio, Texas to develop a river walk along the creek bed. The river walk was to include walkways, waterfalls, and ponds.
On May 13, 1988, Mr. Gates purchased his first property on the 4700 block of Virginia, the only block in the development area with direct access to Brush Creek. In the summer of 1994 the City Planning Department held meetings with representatives of neighborhood groups surrounding the development area. Residents and business owners who lived in the development area were not invited to attend. At those meetings, Mr. Gates was introduced as the developer. His architect, Craig Watson of Groves and Associates presented the plan for development of the area. The proposal by Mr. Gates and his associates was, with minor modifications, accepted as the development plan for the area.
Between 1988 and 1995, Mr. Gates acquired all but six of the residential properties in the area and all but three of the commercial properties. Beginning in 1989 Mr. Gates received numerous citations for violations of city codes in the property he owned in the development area.
In 1995, Mr. Gates indicated his intention to acquire the remaining properties by using the condemnation powers of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. In August of 1995, residents and business owners in the area were notified of the finding of blight and were invited to attend a meeting to discuss relocation provisions. Several residents and business owners stated their belief that the developer, Mr. Gates, was responsible for the blight in the neighborhood and that to reward him with the city’s assistance in property acquisition would not be equitable. Staff members from the City Planning Department and Planned Industrial Expansion Authority stated that no developer had been chosen.
The City Plans Commission held hearings in the summer of 1995, at which it voted to proceed with the project. The Planning Department of the City Council voted to accept the finding of blight by the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. During this testimony, staff members again stated that no developer had been chosen. The committee, and later the full council voted to accept the findings of blight.
The Planned Industrial Expansion Authority advertised for developers in the Kansas City Star on March 27, 1996. The development packet included a document entitled “Design Guidelines for the Plaza East Project.” The document was dated September 1994. The second paragraph of that document began, “A task force consisting of the developer and his consultants, and representatives from neighborhood organizations, UMKC, Health Midwest, and City departments, developed additional guidelines in draft form that the developer will use to design the project….” This would seem to indicate that a developer already existed as of September 1994.
Mr. Gates, doing business as O.G. Investments, was one of two parties to submit a development proposal for the area. On May 30, 1996 the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority held a meeting for bidders. At that meeting, the second potential developer was told he did not meet the city’s guidelines for the development project. A second meeting was scheduled for June 26, 1996 to allow Mr. Gates to produce documentation that he would be able to acquire land over which Kansas City did not hold the power of eminent domain, namely property owned by the University of Missouri—Kansas City and by Kansas City Power and Light. On or about June 20, Mr. Gates met with representatives of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, the University of Missouri, and Kansas City Power and Light to present evidence of agreement with those agencies. The second potential developer was not notified of that meeting. On June 26, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority formally named Mr. Gates as developer of the area.
Mr. Gates has used his position as a member and as President of the Board of Parks and Recreation to increase the value of property which he then sought to acquire through collusion with the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority and the City Planning Department. Furthermore, it seems apparent that the entire development process was carried out for the benefit of Mr. Gates and that the actions of the City Planning Department and the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority constitute a fraudulent exercise of legislative and administrative power, since those agencies, rather than fulfilling their mandates to encourage economic growth of the community, have done nothing more than offer an expedient for a single developer to acquire property without the requirement for true good faith bargaining.
It would also appear that, by permitting Gates to become the developer despite numerous violations of city codes in the affected area, the city has not acted with clean hands. Were it not for the city’s negligence in enforcement of codes against the eventual developer, it is not at all clear that the area would be eligible for a finding of blight.
Although at this time, many former property owners have already sold their properties because of the impending condemnation, it would seem equitable that the city should be required to do all possible to make affected parties whole. For that reason, the recommendations would be:
1. That the declaration of blight be reversed on the grounds that its recommendation was based upon collusion between the city’s Planning Department, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, and the developer, Ollie W. Gates. In addition, the actions of those entities constitute a fraud and a conflict of interest.
2. That the city be prohibited from retaliating against property owners. This prohibition would include exercise of eminent domain on any of the properties still standing by any entity, including the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, the City Council, or any agencies under direct or indirect control of either of those entities.
3. That Ollie W. Gates be removed as a member and as president of the Board of Parks and Recreation of Kansas City, Missouri.
4. That the city be prohibited from naming Ollie W. Gates, his family, or his associates as the developer of the project or any project that includes any portion of the Plaza East area.
5. That the Attorney General of the state of Missouri be apprised of the above recommendations to assure compliance.
The version that Howard eventually submitted to the judge was slightly different. His recommendations asked for a ten–year moratorium on development rather than an outright ban. Basically, though, it was the same as what I had offered.
At the end of October 1996 Diane Adams, the last remaining resident of the block besides myself moved out. The same day that she and her family moved out, the siege started. Within two weeks, my home was burglarized three times. The first break–in cost me my VCR and lawn mower. The next morning I went out to replace the video tape recorder. When I returned from the store, there was a rock through my living room window and no electricity in my house. At first I assumed the black–out was coincidental, caused by the high winds that day that had knocked out power in several areas of the city.
Later I walked around the house to check to see if a power line was down. I discovered that the thieves had stolen my electric meter. I assumed they did that to disable my burglar alarm. Because of the widespread outages it took the electric company a couple of days to restore my power.
When I discovered what had happened to my electricity, I went to the liquor store to talk to Howard. I told him I wouldn’t me a bit surprised to hear from Ollie. When I returned home, I got a call from one of my lawyer’s associates. Jim Wilson had called and he wanted a response to Ollie’s latest offer of $70,000 for my house.
I told him about the break–ins and that I had been expecting a call from Ollie. I also told him I wasn’t going to be intimidated into selling my house. I told the associate as I had told John Roe that I would be willing to settle for $90,000, but that offer would only be good until the Ethics Commission delivered its report. At that point we would have a good chance of overturning the declaration of blight, which would mean he would have to deal with me without the threat of condemnation.
For the next couple of days I rode my bicycle to work, assuming that the burglars were checking to see if my car was there. I had become paranoid and was writing down license numbers of vehicles that didn’t seem to belong on the street.
A few days later somebody fire bombed Diane Adams’s newly vacant house. I heard a few pops, but didn’t pay attention, since they just sounded like gunfire, one of the common background noises in that part of town. A few minutes later I heard the fire trucks and looked out to see the house directly across the street completely ablaze.
Since the weather reports were predicting rain, I drove to work the next day. When I returned, my home had again been burglarized. This time they took my television. It turned out that one of the officers who came to investigate was the ex–husband of a friend of mine. He seemed to be much more sympathetic than the previous investigators had been.
My friend Norman, who lived a block away on Tracy, had been burglarized numerous times. Since he tends to be very opinionated and judgmental, I am usually reluctant to tell him things, especially things upon which he will offer advice. His advice tends to fall into the “I’ll tell you what you should do, you should have locked up your television set” subset of useless and irritating counsel. Nevertheless, I told him what had happened. He immediately came over and offered his advice. While he was there, there was a knock on the door. Norman dropped to the floor, thinking he had heard gunfire. The knock turned out to be one of Diane Adams’s sons–in–law, asking for money. I wondered if he had been breaking into my house and checking to see if I was home. I didn’t give him any money. I had come to the point in my charitable life that someone had to come up with something better than “I ran out of gas” before I would give them money. Especially when that someone might have been breaking into my house and taking my stuff.
By then I had boarded up most of the windows that were accessible from ground level. I locked up my guitars and other valuables, at least those that I considered irreplaceable. I considered putting in burglar bars, but decided that they represented a huge investment, considering that I probably wouldn’t be living in the house much longer.
Howard Levin kept in contact. Originally, the administrator at the Ethics Commission said that the group would meet sometime during November to resolve the issue. Later, he told Howard that they might not meet in November after all. I was getting restless, since I didn’t know how long I could bear to live in the midst of what I considered a reign of terror.
I had been getting the real estate catalogs from the supermarket. It didn’t seem that I’d be able to find anything decent for the $70,000 Ollie Gates was offering. In addition, there were numerous moving expenses. Still, I was getting to the point where I couldn’t really think of staying much longer.
During the previous several months both my dog and my cat had died. Another doggie, who I later named Jackson, literally walked into my house one afternoon and adopted me. The constant break–ins were hard on Jackson. He hid upstairs and didn’t come down until I returned from work. I was concerned that one day the burglars would harm him.
Early one morning Jackson barked, which was unusual for him, but I didn’t investigate. Later in the morning he began barking again, so I went downstairs to see what was happening. A man was on all fours on my front porch, scratching the door frame. It was cold out—in the twenties—and he did not have a coat on. He was barefoot. I called 9-1-1. By the time I got off the phone, I saw him crawling across the vacant lot where Walter Haake’s house had once stood. The police arrived and told me the man was incoherent, didn’t know who he was, much less what he was doing there. I asked if I should get some blankets for him, but the officer said he had called an ambulance and the paramedics would warm him. When I returned from work that evening I noticed there were blood smears on the frame of my front door, apparently from the dog man.
A month and a half later my home was burglarized again. I had a meeting that evening and was waiting for my ride in front of the liquor store. A man struck up a conversation with me. He told me he was hoping to check into the Veteran’s Administration Hospital shortly to overcome his cocaine addiction. He said he knew who I was, where I lived, and was curious why I stayed there. He didn’t wait for an answer. When I returned from the meeting, the windows in my front door had been broken and my bicycle stolen. I was certain it was the man to whom I had spoken, since he knew that I was not at home even though my car was in the driveway. During the course of our conversation he had told me his name and where he lived. I gave that information to the police, but they never contacted me to tell me what had happened.
I felt a strange sympathy for the man who had stolen my bicycle and possibly my other belongings. He had no prospect of ever succeeding at anything. The same thing is true of many people, but rarely as obviously or as certainly. During his conversation with me he took breaks to urinate on the side of the liquor store and to make crude comments to a young woman going to buy her evening’s refreshments. He mentioned that he had a few kids, but he couldn’t remember where they were. He didn’t even pretend to be a good person, not beyond claiming that he was not a criminal. He said that to me several times. Then he asked me if I was a policeman.
Shortly after that break–in, Jim Wilson came to visit. “I’m not trying to go around your lawyer, but I thought we could just get all this taken care of.”
I told him that my attorney was only doing what I asked him in offering to sell my house for $90,000. John, unlike Joe Borich, was not working on a contingency basis and would gain nothing by urging a high price. Jim said, “$90,000 is a lot of money for a fifty–foot strip of land.” I told him he could probably buy a fifty–foot strip of land for much less than that, just not this 50–foot strip. I told him I wasn’t trying to be vindictive. I hadn’t voted for the appraisal, I told him, because I didn’t think the appraised value of the property was relevant.
In fact, the city had just come to an agreement with Gates to buy his property, the restaurant and other properties which were going to be bulldozed. Using the formula by which he was paid, my property would have been worth not $90,000 but $160,000. I told Jim that the only reason the others had settled for the amounts they did was because of the threat of condemnation.
Jim said, “Who’s talking about condemnation here? We’re just talking about how much it would take to get you to sell.”
I said, “Good. It would take $90,000.”
The conversation was cordial and unthreatening. He thanked me for my time and said he would tell Ollie about our talk.
Two and a half weeks later I got a bill from John Roe. The last item mentioned a conversation with Jim Wilson in which Jim had offered me $90,000 for my property. I called John to ask him what that was about. Yes, Gates was offering me $90,000. He hadn’t called me earlier because he was out of town.
John asked if the $90,000 was still acceptable. I told him that my offer was my word. I intended to accept that amount. But I would insist that the real estate contract would not necessitate my relinquising any other rights. I wanted to reserve the option of further legal action if the Missouri Ethics Commission found any wrongdoing in the process. John said, “Don’t you want to just put this all behind you? Get some closure?”
I told him that I intended to reserve my rights. He told me again that there was no basis for any kind of legal action. For one thing, what were my damages? I was already getting much more than my property was worth. I didn’t want to rehash all of my arguments again, especially since he was charging by the minute. He contacted Gates, who agreed to my conditions.
One afternoon as I was walking my dog, a couple of teenagers accosted me and started throwing things at me and hitting me with sticks. It was winter, so I was wearing a coat and they didn’t do any damage. I called the police, asking if they would like to take fingerprints from a beer can the kids had thrown. They declined, instead telling me that maybe I shouldn’t be walking my dog in that area. Instead, I started carrying a huge chef’s knife under my coat whenever I went out. The blade was nine inches long and, since it was in my belt line, prevented me from moving freely as I walked. During one early morning walk with my dog, a man seemed to be approaching. I kept my hand on the knife’s handle, but did not pull it out. Instead, I just said, “How’s it going?” The man said, “Not bad,” and walked past me, as had hundreds of others suspicious characters during my seventeen years on the block.
I had become paranoid. Any car on the street other than my own made me suspicious. If the car stopped rather than turn around and head back out, I called the police to come and investigate. If the car parked, especially at night, I noted the license numbers, that is if I could see them. If it was night, I rarely ventured close enough to read the tags. Noises which before had been irritating now became threatening. I had friends who had been in Vietnam, in an environment where trust was a scarce commodity. That was what the 4700 block of Virginia had become.
The block was dead. It was easy to find people to blame. In the interest of fairness I tried to figure out what I could have done differently. But for once in my life I felt pretty much blameless. I felt that, just as the summary for the Ethics Commission said, our block was the victim of a developer who felt he was entitled to any property he lusted after; it was also the victim of city employees, commissioners, and council members who refused to say, “This is wrong; it’s illegal; I won’t do it.”
I began looking for a new place to live. I realized that, even if Gates hadn’t agreed to my price, the block was becoming too hazardous a place to live. One thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to live in the city of Kansas City. A friend who lived in Liberty, a northern suburb, gave me the name of a realtor, who showed me several houses, one of which I eventually bought. Several friends helped me move. I had already taken about fifty boxes to the new house, so the move was relatively painless. It took me several weeks in my new home to realize that it was possible to live without gunfire, burglary, constant sirens, being accosted on the street daily. In fact, the day after my first night in the new place I went back to the old place to get a couple of things I had forgotten. As soon as I neared the block I realized how frightening a place it was. It had snowed and there were already footprints into and out of my house, the tracks of scavengers who had gone to see if I had left anything for them.
I came to the sad conclusion that, despite the good intentions of many people, Kansas City is fundamentally corrupt. It’s possible that all cities are that way. Many of those who go into politics do so out of a drive for immortality. Immortality doesn’t come from good deeds as much as from buildings, memorial parks, street name signs, and plaques on fountains.
During the first week in my new house, Howard Levin called. He had spoken to the director of the ethics commission, who relayed that he had had a long conversation with the Attorney General. There were more delays in the ethics investigation. The Ethics Commission had asked a third judge to review the evidence and have a report by March 4, 1997. That judge declined to take the project on, claiming that such a review would take at least three months, even if no further investigation was necessary. And chances were, given the complexity of the case, somebody would have to do some more digging, one way or the other.
The commission appointed yet another judge, the fourth. That man agreed to render some sort of a decision by March 4, 1997, the date of the next scheduled meeting of the Ethics Commission.
On February 11, 1997 the last of the houses on the block were demolished. Mine was among those. At the same time the newscasts began broadcasting tributes to Gates Barbecue. The restaurant was going to close.
Hearne Christopher, columnist for the Kansas City Star, wrote a tribute to Ollie Gates and his restaurant. Howard said he couldn’t call the columnist to complain, since he was still involved in the legal dispute, so I called. I left several messages on the reporter’s machine. Eventually, I caught the columnist. He told me that whatever ethics investigations were going on weren’t relevant to the column. Basically, he was just writing a column about the various social happenings in Kansas City and didn’t get into the area of politics. He just wanted to write an article about the closing of Gates’s restaurant which was, after all, a cherished landmark to many Kansas Citians. I told him that seemed like talking about the 1972 presidential elections without mentioning Watergate. Christopher told me he was running against a deadline and would get back to me. He never did.
The Ethics Commission engaged a couple more judges before they found one who was willing to take on the challenge of Howard Levin’s case. He was supposed to present a final report to the commission at its March meeting. Again there was an obstacle. The judge, after retiring from the bench, had gone into the marine salvage business, retrieving old anchors from the sea and selling them for scrap. His partner in the venture had absconded with the company boat. Just as he was to investigate the situation and present his findings to the commission, he had to go to New Orleans, where his boat had been spotted.
Meanwhile, Howard had received a certified letter from the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, directing him to get an appraisal on his property. After consulting with his lawyer, he ignored the letter. He contacted Mike Reid, the director of the Ethics Commission, telling him that time was getting short and that the city was proceeding with condemnation. The director invited him to have his lawyer subpoena his records. They would show, he assured Howard, that two judges had already concluded that there had been numerous violations, both ethical and criminal. Since there was not at that time any legal proceeding, it was impossible to subpoena the records. Howard asked why, if those judges had already found wrongdoing, was the process taking so long? Because there were powerful forces at work and they had to be absolutely certain that their case was beyond dispute. Would that mean they would have to appoint every judge in the state? He thought this third judge would be sufficient.
Howard’s lawyer, Sherwin Epstein, had told him that the ethics investigation wasn’t really relevant, since those charges would be considered extraneous to the condemnation process. That was the same thing John Roe, Sherwin’s partner, had told me. And I told Howard the same thing I had told John Roe, that illegal activity is an issue in any lawsuit. I expressed my concern that Sherwin had so mastered the condemnation process that he might not have the imagination to look outside that process for remedies. Howard asked if I was still thinking about suing. I told him I certainly was, even if it was only for some nominal sum, and he assured me that he would do the same, but only after everything was settled with his business.
In April of 1997 an article appeared in the Kansas City Star that quoted Ollie Gates as being dissatisfied with the $2.3 million he had received in compensation for the condemnation of his restaurant. The same article quoted him as saying his new restaurant would cost about $1.6 million. He was asking for a total of $3 million. Both the city and Gates were appealing the $2.3 million awarded by three commissioners for the property. Gates claimed the amount was too low, the city that it was too high.
Howard thought the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority’s letter demanded some response. His lawyer sent a letter to the in which he said that no representative would be allowed on Howard’s property for any reason, including purchasing liquor.
The Ethics Commission was still delaying. The commission’s executive director told Howard that there should be some resolution within two weeks. Howard told him that he was running out of time. The ruling would not have served its purpose if he lost his livelihood in the meantime. Howard had alread spoken to a state legislator who had contacted the commission. The next step would be to contact the governor directly. Since Howard’s lawyer, Sherwin Epstein, knew the governor personally, and since the director knew that, he knew the promise was not idle. Sherwin asked Howard to wait for those two weeks to take any further actions.
I asked him what those further actions would be. He would contact the governor and, if necessary, Bruce Rodgers from the PitchWeekly newspaper. Sherwin had told Howard to just relax for a couple of weeks, which was tough to do. The rest of the block was already leveled. The city was about to award Ollie Gates the street itself, leaving only a narrow strip of Virginia for Howard’s customers to use. He went to an Ozarks retreat for a couple of days.
While he was gone I got a call from a woman who introduced herself as Barb Shelly from the Star. I assumed she was trying to sell me a subscription, so I was not terribly friendly. She told me she was a columnist and seemed perturbed that I didn’t recognize her name. She wanted to do a story to counteract the numerous articles and television news stories sentimentalizing Gates Barbecue on the occasion of the closing of its flagship site. She asked me a few questions. I asked her if she had contacted Bruce Rodgers of the PitchWeekly, who was the only journalist in town who had seriously questioned the actions of Ollie Gates and the city government in acquiring our homes. She wasn’t aware that Bruce had followed the story. She also didn’t know that the Ethics Commission investigation was still going on.
I cautioned her that one of her colleagues, Diane Stafford, had tried to write a similar article and had nearly lost her job trying to fight the editors at the Star. Barb said she was in a different situation. The editors did not have the authority to edit her article. I told her I thought our block had been special.
“What made it so special?”
I told her about this book and offered to email what I had written so far to her. Her article ran a couple of days later.
“For Gates, progress is a two-way street”
By BARBARA SHELLY Columnist
Date: 05/06/97 21:31
I suppose that I, too, should wax sentimental about the closing of Gates Bar-B-Q at 47th Street and the Paseo.
It was there I got my first taste of Kansas City barbecue, and I nearly jumped out of my skin when the woman yelled, ‘Hi, may I help you?’
It was also there that I fainted, for the only time in my life, while waiting at the counter for my beef-on-bun with fries. I’m told the crew never missed a beat and just barked ‘Next! Next!’ while my friends dragged me out of the line.
With memories this rich, how could I not join the chorus of lament about the passing of this institution?
Well, as Ollie Gates himself says: Can’t stand in the way of progress. Or, as some other people put it: What goes around comes around.
Gates, you see, is unhappy with Kansas City’s move to condemn the property that holds his restaurant, administrative offices and the ‘Rib-Tech’ employee training facility. The city says it needs the land for the Brush Creek redevelopment project.
Gates isn’t willing to accept the $2.3 million that three experts decided his property was worth. He wants $3 million.
It’s not just a matter of fair market value, Gates said. The restaurant, his first, has a special place in his heart and in Kansas City’s barbecue history.
‘Why would I want my flagship sunk?’ Gates said. ‘I gave that 27 years of my life.’
But not long ago, Gates was taking over people’s homes.
The houses were in a small residential pocket between Volker Boulevard and 47th Street, and Troost Avenue and the Paseo. This is where Gates soon will start construction on a restaurant and shopping center.
For years Gates had purchased houses in the area. In 1996 the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority made him developer of the site. It was time to acquire the remaining properties.
The toughest holdouts were a close-knit group of neighbors in the 4700 block of Virginia Avenue.
One of them, Ralph Levy, has written a journal about life in that block.
‘We did hear a lot of gunshots,’ Levy wrote. ‘We did expect our belongings to disappear if we weren’t especially careful.’
But he also wrote that ‘there was a sense of community that sometimes seems to be missing in more prosperous areas.’
Neighbors accused Gates of dragging down property values by mismanaging the homes he had purchased and rented.
Gates denies that. The area was beset by a flooding Brush Creek, commercial intrusion and urban blight, he said.
‘That was a deteriorating neighborhood, and I’m not the cause of it.’
People also said Gates used inside information he had gained as a parks board commissioner to acquire property with commercial potential.
Gates disputes that, too. He said he had always purchased all the property he could to buffer his commercial interests.
Five of the homeowners hired a lawyer. He explained their options. They could settle with Gates or wait for the city to begin condemnation proceedings.
In the end the homeowners settled, although a liquor store owner on 47th Street remains a holdout.
The settlements were fair. Homeowners don’t deny that.
Still, they were wounded. For them, too, the issue was more than fair market value. It was the memories, the friendships, the perennials in the back yards.
Levy moved to Liberty, bitter because he thought the city had put the interests of big development above the individual.
And now it’s Gates saying much the same thing.
She called me the afternoon after the article appeared. I thanked her for the sympathetic evaluation of our dispute with the city and mentioned that I was astonished that Ollie Gates was now denying that he contributed to the blight on our block. In Diane Stafford’s article he had been apologetic about what he had done to the block, no hint at all of denial. I asked Barb what Diane’s reaction had been. She too was surprised at Gates’s denial.
A couple of days later Howard called. He had seen the article and thought it was good. I asked him if anything new was happening with the Ethics Commission. He had decided that if the Ethics Commission didn’t do something within two weeks, he was going to take other actions. His lawyer had mentioned that he knew the Governor personally and if the Commission kept delaying its action, he would contact him.
Then Howard said something that shocked me. He preceded his comment with his usual caution that what he was about to say was for my ears only. “Sherwin said that the governor’s ear might cost me a lot of money.”
“What do you mean?”
“He said that Governor Carnahan might expect a $5,000 contribution to the Democratic Party in exchange for his intervention with the Commission.”
“Sherwin said that’s how the game is played.”
“The ethics game is played with bribes?”
“I know. I think Sherwin could probably get into trouble for even suggesting it.”
I told him, “That information is yours. You paid for it.” I told Howard that Sherwin was charging him $175 per hour to tell him to pay a bribe to get the attention of the governor. He was not under any obligation to keep that information secret. I suggested that Howard start recording his conversations, especially any conversations he might have with any representative of the Governor’s office or the Democratic Party.
Howard was starting to realize that his lawyer was starting to act more or less like a lawyer. He might have to defy Sherwin’s advice and take other action. We both knew that action would have to be giving the media the information. I told Howard that I thought it was only fair to give Bruce Rodgers permission to proceed with the story. He was the one journalist in town who had been willing to challenge the city, Gates, and the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. Howard was afraid that the PitchWeekly wasn’t a big enough paper. A story in an alternative newspaper wouldn’t have the impact he needed. I told him that if a story was big enough, the Star would pick it up, as would the TV stations and the other alternative papers. I gave him several examples of stories that had started in the underground press and become major articles in the mainstream press.
He asked me if I could ask Barb Shelly to call the Ethics Commission to find out why it had not made any progress in its investigation. She told me she had tried to contact the Commission, but the director had declined to even acknowledge that the investigation was still going on.
Mike Reid, the director of the Ethics Commission, had promised Howard that there would be some sort of action by May 16 of 1997. Howard had vowed that he would not wait any longer than that. I had asked him what he intended to do after that deadline. He said he would probably contact Mike Reid as a courtesy, but then he was prepared to either go to the media or initiate a legal action.
A few days after the deadline I spoke to Howard. He said that Mike Reid had dropped by his store. He was in town in connection with the trial of Bob Griffin, a former Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives who was on trial for bribery and various other misdeeds. Reid walked around what was left of the block. He promised Howard that the current judge had a June 2 deadline to complete his report to the Commission. Howard felt that the Director’s voluntary visit showed good faith. He would respect the new deadline. He didn’t feel bound by that pledge if the city proceeded with condemnation of his store. Besides, Sherwin Epstein was out of town on business for a couple of weeks and Howard didn’t want to precipitously alienate him.
Shortly before the deadline Howard called me to tell me he had spoken to Judge Kelso. The judge was surprised that the Commission had not yet delivered its opinion. The new judge, a man from Cape Girardeau named Cersey, could not possibly come to a different conclusion from that delivered by Judges Smith and Kelso. Judge Kelso also mentioned that the St. Louis Post–Dispatch was running an investigation on the Ethics Commission. Howard didn’t know what that investigation was about and asked me to check on it. It turned out to be one of those perrenial disputes among providers of computer services to a state agency.
On June 10, 1997, Howard called to say he had spoken to Mike Reid again. Reid had been in contact with the Attorney General, who was planning on holding hearings. In addition he was deciding on criminal charges. I told Howard I hoped the charges would include Lynnis Jameson and Chris Vedros, the city officials who had facilitated the whole process.
I told Howard that I thought that either criminal charges or a hearing would be sufficient for a judge to enjoin the city from continuing with the condemnation. Howard’s lawyer had told him, just as he had earlier told me, that any injunction would require that Howard post a bond of up to $10,000 a day to compensate the developer for construction delays. I said that, despite what the attorneys might say, I couldn’t believe that a judge would not allow an injunction to prevent what was basically a criminal enterprise.
In the last half of June 1997 the Kansas City Star mentioned Ollie Gates in connection with a couple of small scandals. One began when a panel recommended a light rail system for Kansas City. Part of the route would include parts of the boulevard system. Gates had said that it was presumptious of the panel to make recommendations about the boulevards. He was quoted as saying, “When they’re going to use your property, shouldn’t they ask you?” The inference most people drew was that Gates and the other commissioners considered the boulevards their property. Barbara Shelley wrote a tongue in cheek reflection on the Board of Parks and Recreation, which she called the “Board of the Fiefdom”.
The other scandal involved the use of the city’s golf courses. A bureaucrat at Parks and Recreation had issued a memo ordering golf course staff to allow Gates and other Parks and Recreation officials to play the golf course without paying, without signing any documents, without using complimentary tickets. Furthermore, staff members were admonished that Gates was not to be addressed while he played, that he was not to be subjected to the rules of the courses, and that he was not to be criticized for any actions on the golf course. The memo outlined that violations of the memo’s provisions could result in disciplinary action.
Barbara Shelley wrote another column about what she called “the fiefdom.” In it she suggested that maybe it was time for Ollie Gates to step down from the Board of Parks and Recreation.
I didn’t know why the Star was starting to print critical articles about one of Kansas City’s most prominent citizens. Yes, it was still printing the laudatory pieces about the great tradition that was the Gates Barbecue empire, but it was at least willing to address blatant wrongdoing. The paper had recently changed ownership. Some of the reporters had expressed relief that their employers were now the Knight–Ridder chain, a group of papers that didn’t seem to shy away from either investigation or controversy. It is possible that had something to do with the Star’s tentative attempts at boldness. I did hope that the paper would be willing to actually report on the upcoming hearings by the Ethics Commission.
The commission tentatively scheduled its hearings for July 15 and 16 of 1997. Shortly after Howard received unofficial word of those dates, he received an official notice of a hearing by Kansas City’s Plan Commission—the group that had originally told us that there was no legal challenge to a declaration of blight. The notice said that on July 15, the first date of the ethics hearing, it would be holding a hearing to consider the rezoning of the Plaza East area from residential, light industrial, and commercial to an Urban Redevelopment District.
Howard asked me if I would attend that meeting. I told him I’d attend but wouldn’t feel comfortable testifying, since zoning was a technical issue and I would have been completely lost if the commissioners asked me questions. Howard did say that it was his understanding that the Missouri Attorney General would be asking the City Plan Commission to delay the zoning hearings.
A week later I received the same notice concerning the zoning meeting. I called Howard to tell him I had noticed a couple of interesting things about the notice. The first was that anybody could ask for a continuance. He told me he was aware of that but his lawyer had advised him not to personally request a delay, since the commission would ignore any such request unless it came from somebody of the Attorney General’s stature.
The second thing I noticed was the map included with the notice. It outlined the area that was being considered for rezoning. What I found interesting, however, was that a thoroughfare that did not exist was drawn on the map. It was called Brush Creek Pkwy and emptied directly into the parking lot of Ollie Gates’s proposed new restaurant. The designation “Pkwy” indicated to me that the new street was under the jurisdiction of the Board of Parks and Recreation. That meant that Gates was again using his position on that Board to enrich himself.
The Attorney General declined to request a continuance on the ground that he did not have standing to do so until there was an official finding of wrongdoing by the Ethics Commission. Mike Reid did agree to send Howard a letter which said that the process was still under investigation. We thought that letter might persuade the City Plan Commission to grant a continuance. When Howard went to City Hall to request that continuance, he found that the hearing had already been continued for some reason.
Meanwhile, I put together a statement for the Ethics Commission. I had looked up the statutes on administrative hearings and found that any citizen was entitled to submit a written statement. Howard gave me Mike Reid’s address and suggested I send my statement to him to present to the Commission:
First of all, I would like to thank you for allowing me to present my position to the Ethics Commission. I lived on the 4700 block of Virginia from June 1980 until January 1997. During that time I saw a uniquely neighborly block become, through the designs of a developer and the complicity of city agencies, an uninhabitable wasteland.
Lynnis Jameson, the city planner responsible for the Plaza East development, and Chris Vedros, director of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, worked with Mr. Gates to design a plan that would allow him to acquire our properties without messy and possibly costly arms–length negotiations. They held public meetings at which Mr. Gates along with his architect, Craig Watson of Groves and Associates, presented his vision for the area. The development would be anchored by a bank and a large grocery store. Among the other amenities would be a restaurant. A Gates restaurant? Not necessarily, although that was one possibility.
Although neighborhood groups surrounding the Plaza East area were invited to attend, those of us within the affected area were not. When we came anyway, we were not allowed to present our concerns. It didn’t matter, since the consensus recommendations of the attendees were ignored.
By the time those of us in the area received any official notice of the proposal, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (P.I.E.A.) had already conducted its blight study. This, despite the fact that that City Council had not yet authorized such a study.
What made this area so valuable, so tempting that city officials were willing to violate the law to acquire it? The property was adjacent to Brush Creek, which was being redesigned as a river walk, including water falls and fountains. Our properties were about to become valuable beach front property. And what body had jurisdiction over Brush Creek? The Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners. And who was president of that board? Ollie Gates, the developer.
Meanwhile, the properties Mr. Gates already owned on the block deteriorated. We complained. The Neighborhood Services Department assured us that they were issuing citations for violations of city codes. Those of us who remained on the block tried to maintain our surroundings as much as possible. We planted grass and mowed vacant lots owned by Mr. Gates. We provided water to those of Mr. Gates’s tenants who had none because the plumbing did not work. We never found out how the city disposed of the codes violations.
Mr. Gates did not screen tenants. Many of his properties were drug houses. Indeed some of his tenants claimed they had been recruited for tenancy at the nearby Probation and Parole office.
On November 15, 1995, Mr. Vedros and Ms. Jameson testified before the City Council that no developer had been chosen. Yet a document prepared by Ms. Jameson and distributed by Mr. Vedros boasts, “A task force consisting of the developer and his consultants…developed additional guidelines in draft form that the developer will use to design the project….” That document was dated September 1994, more than a year before Mr. Vedros and Ms. Jameson testified that there was no developer. Mr. Vedros and Ms. Jameson lied. They lied to conceal the fact that the whole process was a sham for the benefit of Mr. Gates. It was never an open process. Mr. Gates was not only the putative developer; he was the only developer. Nobody else was seriously considered. The project was designed by and for the benefit of Mr. Gates. Mr. Vedros and Ms. Jameson’s role was to assure that Mr. Gates succeeded in his plans.
These people were acting unlawfully and they knew it. They knew they lied; they knew they were suborning a conflict of interest; they knew the blight they had declared was primarily the work of the business interest they were promoting. They should not be allowed to cloak themselves in the immunity of city employees when they clearly operating outside the law. They must be held accountable.
Our block has been bulldozed flat. The homes we loved are gone. A sign proclaiming the new home of Gates Barbecue now stands at the entrance to our block. Mr. Gates, Ms. Jameson, Mr. Vedros, and a majority of the city council succeeded in wresting our houses from us. Somehow what Mr. Gates did seems less egregious than what the others did. After all, he was a businessman who did what he could get away with. Ms. Jameson and Mr. Vedros, however, are different. I as a taxpayer paid their salaries. They were the ones who should have said, “No, this is wrong; it’s illegal; I’m not going to do it. And, furthermore, I am going to do what I can to see this stops right here and right now.”
Instead, they facilitated Mr. Gates’s actions. They told him how to present his proposal in such a way that the process would appear to be open. They conducted seemingly democratic meetings to demonstrate the openness of the process. They rationalized their transgressions at City Council meetings.
As a result, we lost our homes, our neighbors, and our faith in Kansas City. I no longer live in the city limits. If there is one thing I look for in a city, it is honesty.
There was a three month period during which I was the last remaining resident of the block. During that time my home was burglarized five times. I lost many of my possessions and my home was vandalized. My personal safety was threatened. Some of my friends asked why I didn’t go ahead and sell my home to Mr. Gates. I told them that we don’t get too many chances in life to do what is right, that we don’t get too many chances to make a difference. I feel that this is another opportunity to do what is right and to make a difference.
I believe that you now have the opportunity to do what is right and to make a difference. You have the opportunity to tell Mr. Gates, Ms. Jameson, Mr. Vedros, and the majority of Kansas City’s city council that the city is not a candy store at which those with enough power can choose which properties they want and take them. I urge you to take advantage of that opportunity.
The Ethics Commission held its hearing on July 16th and 17th of 1997. Although Howard did not attend the hearing, he did contact Mike Reid. He called me to tell me that the hearings had consisted of a telephone conference with Ollie Gates’s lawyers. The last Mike knew, the lawyers and Ollie were negotiating for an admission of culpability in exchange for no criminal prosecution.
Howard was elated, but I was furious. To me it sounded as though Ollie was working yet another back room deal in which he would come to a quiet settlement with the Commission, the public would not learn anything, and the culprits in the Planning Department of city hall and the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority would not even be mentioned. I told Howard that I felt that it sounded like the end result would be that Ollie would be the only one to suffer any sanctions at all. And the city would in its vindictive way go ahead and condemn Howard’s property.
I told Howard that after my settlement with Gates I continued to show an interest in the activities for a reason. I wasn’t out to enrich myself. All I wanted was the opportunity to make a little bit of a difference. If all that came out of this long struggle was another sweetheart deal, then what was it all for?
He assured me that Mike Reid had promised him that there would be an equitable outcome. I asked him how that could be. The way he was describing the process Gates would end up going to the principal’s office to be chastised, but nobody would ever find out what had happened. The city would be completely vindicated and would be free to continue its junta tactics. He said he had assurances from Mike Reid that equity would be done, and for the time being he didn’t want to alienate the Commission by challenging its judgment.
The next week Howard spoke to Mike Reid again. He didn’t know how the negotiations with Gates were going. Howard asked how the outcome would fit on a scale of one to ten. Mike told him they were shooting for a ten but might have to settle for an eight or nine. The Attorney General’s office was doing the negotiating and the Ethics Commission wasn’t directly involved. I asked what a ten would be. Howard said to him it would mean overturning the declaration of blight, enjoining the city from any condemnation in the Plaza East area, and Ollie being prosecuted. I asked what an eight would be. He thought an eight would be the same, except for the prosecution of Ollie.
Meanwhile, the City Plan Commission had rescheduled its hearing. Howard had asked Mike Reid to have the Attorney General contact the Plan Commission to inform them that the process was under a serious cloud. Mike said he would. Howard said that if Mike was unable to have the Attorney General intervene, he should contact him directly.
Howard still didn’t want the rezoning hearing to proceed. His lawyer had advised him to go on record as requesting a continuance, but that request would probably be ignored by the commission. I went to City Hall on the day of the meeting. I had already told Howard that I wouldn’t be testifying, since I was too ignorant of the rezoning process to make any intelligent comments. Nevertheless, I prepared a few notes, just in case I changed my mind.
When I arrived at the chambers a few minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, Howard was already there. I noticed that neither Ollie Gates nor Chris Vedros of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority was there. I assumed that meant the commission had already decided to continue the case. Howard had submitted a written request for a continuance, which he had hand delivered to the Plan Commission.
Just before the meeting was scheduled to start, he approached one of the commission staff members to make sure his request had been considered. As soon as the meeting was called to order, Whitney Kerr, the chair, announced that the case would be continued “off the docket”. According to a city staff member who was riding in the elevator with Howard and me as we left the building, “off the docket” meant that the item was not placed on an upcoming agenda.
After the meeting, Howard and I stood outside of city hall discussing what had happened. He considered it a victory. I told him that if the Ethics Commission disciplined Ollie without addressing the complicity of the city or the P.I.E.A., his situtation would be even worse than it was. The P.I.E.A. would have to condemn his property, if only to show that Gates was not the driving force behind the project. Howard agreed, but he was confident that the Ethics Commission would stop the entire process.
The next day at work I got a call from Rick, my former neighbor. He worked for a city agency. I had done some computer work for him, and he called regularly for help with the system I had set up. This time, however, he said he was calling to find out what was happening with the Plaza East project. He said he had received the notices about the rezoning hearings and thought it odd that Lynnis Jameson was apparently no longer involved in the project. It was his understanding that city planners customarily followed projects from inception to completion of construction. I told him I didn’t know why her name was not in the meeting notices. My assumption was that, since the Plan Commission was technically a voluntary advisory board and not a city agency, she might have decided not to participate. Of course, my secret fantasy was that the heat of the Ethics Commission investigation had caused her to retreat.
Eventually, Mike Reid told Howard that he would be in town on August 27. At that time he would tell him what the resolution was. He indicated that he would be giving Howard a paper of some kind. Both Howard and I drew the inference that the paper would indicate the disposition of the case. On the afternoon of the twenty-eighth Howard called to tell me that there still was no resolution. I was becoming impatient with the delays. Although I no longer had a direct interest in the matter, I felt a need for vindication.
Howard called me again a few days later to tell me he had spoken to Mike Reid again. There were further delays in the negotiations between Ollie Gates and the Attorney General. Howard mentioned, as we had discussed, that just pulling Gates out of the picture wasn’t going to help him, the city would merely appropriate his property for a park. It was important to get the city out of the land grabbing business, at least in this instance. Mike told Howard they would take care of the city after they got Gates. I was relieved that the Ethics Commission saw that Gates was only as culpable as the city allowed him to be.
Then Howard hesitated for a few seconds and told me that Mike Reid had also told him something in the strictest of confidence. I wasn’t to repeat it to anyone. I assured him that, other than writing what he told me in this journal, I wouldn’t tell anyone what he told me. What he said was that the FBI had contacted Mike Reid concerning their own investigation into Gates’s abuse of his public trust.
It was nearly two years since I had made my first complaint to the FBI and a year and a half since Howard had reinforced that complaint. I asked Howard if he thought the FBI was finally following up on our complaints. He didn’t know. We spoke a little more. Bob Griffin, the former Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives, had recently pled guilty to several corruption charges. I speculated that Steven Hill, the federal prosecutor responsible for that and several other recent corruption investigations, was probably ready for a new challenge.
Later in the week Howard called again. The Ethics Commission had decided to appoint yet another judge, or as I was starting to call it AFJ—Another Fucking Judge. Howard had had a conversation with a former state senator in which the politician mentioned that Ollie had engaged in some sneaky doings to acquire land near his restaurant. Howard mentioned the conversation to Mike Reid. The Ethics Commission decided that it had to investigate this latest allegation too.
Howard told Mike that he felt it unfair that he was being penalized for being a good citizen. Mike said in order for this thing to work, the investigation had to be as comprehensive as possible. It was important to show that the Plaza East project was not the isolated result of a city official’s accidental transgressiion but rather a part of a pattern of abuse of power. Howard asked Mike to speak to Sherwin Epstein, his lawyer.
Mike then spoke to Judge Henry Copeland, who had been appointed to conduct a hearing. He asked him to expedite the process. The judge held the hearing on October 7, 1997 at the county courthouse. Howard was to present his case at 9:30 in the morning and Ollie would be speaking to the judge the same afternoon. Mike relayed to Howard that he could bring whoever he wanted, but he wouldn’t need a lawyer since it wouldn’t be an adversarial proceeding. I was a little bit concerned that Ollie would not be seeing us testify, since he might later claim that he had the right to face us and therefore the process was tainted. The judge later assured me that, since this was a fact finding hearing and not a criminal proceeding, it wasn’t necessary for all parties to be present.
Howard had asked John Langle from the ice house, and Bo Steed, the cabinet maker to attend. He also asked me to come, since I represented the homeowners from the area. Neither John nor Bo attended, although Bo Steed did fax a statement to the judge. Howard’s wife, Sharon, and Rick Newhouse, who managed the liquor store, also were there. I hadn’t met Sharon before. She was, extremely outgoing, personable, and pleasant. Rick had been active in local politics for most of his adult life and had done much of the research to substantiate the claims Howard had made in his original complaint. He was taking law courses and had always seemed a little bit insecure about the fact that he earned his living by operating the cash register of an inner–city liquor store. Howard brought him because he thought the judge might ask for background on the allegations, which Rick would be best able to provide.
We met in the judge’s chambers. Actually, it was another judge’s chambers, since Judge Copeland didn’t have an office in the building. Before we started he indicated that if the defendant that the office’s regular occupant was trying changed his plea to guilty, we might have to find another place to talk. As he was telling us that, the court deputy came in to say the defendant had decided against a plea bargain and was going to trial, which meant that we could stay where we were.
The free lance court reporter hired to record and transcribe the proceedings took several minutes to set up her equipment. As she did so, the judge explained the rules of etiquette for a recorded proceeding: we should each spell our names for the reporter; we should not interrupt or speak at the same time as others; we should try to speak as clearly as possible. As the reporter continued to set up, he mentioned that the second judge we spoke to, Judge Kelso, had recused himself because he knew an attorney that worked for one of the firms representing Ollie Gates. Then he swore us in and identified the case for the court reporter.
Howard reiterated his case as he had done before the City Plan Commission, the Plans and Zoning Committee of the City Council, and the two other judges who had listened to our story. Judge Copeland said that he had reviewed the records very thoroughly before talking to us and was familiar with most of what he was hearing but still wanted to hear it all directly from Howard and on the record. He told us that all the evidence we had was circumstantial. That didn’t mean it wasn’t good, but he wanted to know if there was any proof.
Howard said that there was undeniable proof that Ollie was the chosen developer long before he or any other public official acknowledged that fact. It was also certain that he was on the parks board, that in that capacity he voted on improvements to the area adjacent to our block, that at the same time he acquired property in the area, and that he intended to profit from those acquisitions.
The judge said, “Was there anybody who heard him say that he intended to condemn people’s property?”
I raised my hand for the first time. During most of Howard’s testimony I had been glancing at the court reporter, partly because she was distractingly gorgeous and partly because I was amazed that it was possible to take down the testimony at conversational speeds.
When I first heard there was going to be a hearing, I had prepared a statement to read. I asked if I could read the statement first and then respond to his question. I apologized that some of what I had to say was a repetition of what Howard had just said, but I prepared it without knowing what would come out before I presented my statement:
“First of all, I would like to say that I have no personal animosity towards Mr. Gates. In fact, he has always been cordial towards me. I should also say that I have no personal or financial stake in the outcome of this investigation. My only interest is that I feel that this is an opportunity to right a wrong.
That said, I would like to briefly tell you about what I believe to be a pattern of methodical blighting of a neighborhood, conflict of interest, and complicity by city staff, staff of a quasi–governmental agency, and Mr. Gates himself. The entire story is very long, but a summary of what happened might help you to understand why I am so adamant in my belief that the history of Plaza East project is one of unabashed corruption.
I was a resident of the 4700 block of Virginia from June 1980 until January 1997. When voters approved a sales tax for a wide variety of public improvements known as the Cleaver Plan, one of those improvements was beautification of the Brush Creek basin, including the area adjacent to our homes. Following the devastating Brush Creek flood of 1977, the Army Corps of Engineers had initiated a plan to widen and deepen the creek’s channel. The improvements offered in the Cleaver plan would have taken advantage of those flood control measures to add waterfalls and fountains along Brush Creek’s length.
Those of us on the block were elated that our block would now overlook amenities previously enjoyed only by those in wealthier areas. Indeed, one homeowner enivisioned our homes serving as bed and breakfasts for those wishing to enjoy what would be our new surroundings.
At about the same time Mr. Gates began buying homes on our block. Originally, he claimed he was buying the property so the employees of his nearby restaurant would have affordable housing. Some of us were a little suspicious. Mr. Gates as chair of the Parks Board had the ability to inflate the value of the properties he was buying, since that body had jurisdiction over the soon–to–be enhanced creek. Furthermore, as a property owner he had the ability to deflate the value of our property.
We later discovered that his plans for the homes on our block were not quite as benign as providing affordable housing. As part of the construction surrounding Brush Creek his nearby flagship restaurant was going to be demolished. He would need a new site for his business, and our block was the area he chose. It was not in his interest to maintain his properties on our block, since a finding of blight in the area was necessary before he could acquire condemnation privileges. His properties were cited for city codes violations literally hundreds of times. He did not screen his tenants. Several of his properties were notorious drug houses. In a June 1995 article in the Kansas City Star Mr. Gates acknowledged that “In that area I guess I haven’t been a good neighbor.”
In July of the same year Mr. Gates was quoted in an article in the Wednesday Magazine as saying that he would need help in acquiring land for the project. Mr. Gates indicated that he intended to use the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority to fill that function for him.
In the summer of 1994 the city’s Planning Department held a series of meetings at the University of Missouri—Kansas City. Although our neighborood organization was on the computerized list of recognized community groups in the area, we were not invited. We did find out about the meetings, though, and I attended most of them. The purpose of the meetings was to introduce the Plaza East project to the community and get suggestions for improving the design.
The meeting was convened by Lynnis Jameson, the city planner reponsible for the project. She introduced Ollie Gates as the developer of the project and Craig Watson, an architect hired by Mr. Gates to design the project. At that meeting and all subsequent meetings it was clear that Mr. Gates was the developer. Although suggestions on improving the project were taken by the city’s Planning Department, few were incorporated into the staff’s recommendations to the City Plan Commission and the City Council.
At this point all three entities—Mr. Gates, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, and the city’s Planning Department—faced a dilemma. They could not identify Mr. Gates as the developer. In order for the plan to proceed, the P.I.E.A. had to make a determination of blight in the area. If Mr. Gates was the developer, then the fact that he was the agent of the area’s blight would mean he could not be the recipient of the dividends of that blight. Furthermore, as Parks and Recreation Commissioner, he could not benefit financially from his actions in that capacity.
On the other hand the record was clear: Mr. Gates was the developer of the Plaza East project.
Chris Vedros, Director of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, and Lynnis Jameson, city planner, had only one option. They had to lie. They had to testify before the City Plan Commission and the City Council that there was no developer. By doing so, they prevented us, the victims of this corruption, from bringing up the issues of methodical blight and conflict of interest. And that is exactly what they did.
Mr. Gates, through the city planner and the P.I.E.A. representative got the City Council, to declare our block blighted. During the process both Mr. Vedros and Ms. Jameson denied that there was a developer. They maintained that anybody could apply to be the developer, this, despite the fact that the development plan submitted to the City Plan Commission and the City Council had been designed by and for Mr. Gates. In fact, the development packet given to potential developers of the Plaza East project included the phrase, “A task force consisting of the developer and his consultants…developed additional guidelines in draft form that the developer will use to design the project….”
Under the threat of condemnation the remaining homeowners sold their properties to Mr. Gates. I believe that none of us received what we would have in an arms length negotiation. In addition, some of us lost belongings to burglaries. Our homes were vandalized. Our safety was threatened.
Although it might be obvious why Mr. Gates engaged in the conflict of interest and the other transgressions, it might be less clear why Ms. Jameson and Mr. Vedros participated. My statement so far has consisted of facts which are indisputable and provable. I would like to make it clear that my opinions about these people’s motives are not facts, rather my supposition about why people would be so blatant in their dishonesty.
Mr. Gates is a powerful man in Kansas City. He counts among his friends the Mayor, members of the City Council, and numerous officials at the state, local, and national levels. The Mayor responded to the current Ethics Commission investigation of Mr. Gates by saying, “That’s crazy. He isn’t even paid to serve on the Parks Commission.” To me that sounded like excusing a robber because he volunteered his time to be in the bank.
Mr. Vedros and Ms. Jameson might have felt that to work against the interests of Mr. Gates might have endangered their jobs. I personally don’t believe that excuses their actions. On the contrary, I feel that, as civil servants, they had an obligation to say, “No, this is wrong, it’s illegal, and I’m not going to do it. And furthermore, I’m going to see that it stops right here and right now.”
At this point much of the damage has been done. I do believe that the only proper course at this time would be for the Ethics Commission to make a strong statement that it will not sanction this sort of corruption. I feel that the way to do that would be to recommend overturning the declaration of blight and accompanying powers of condemnation. Although the Ethics Commission cannot undo the damage to those of us who lost our homes, it can prevent unfair loss of property by the remaining landowners.”
Judge Copeland interrupted my statement to ask about the break–ins and other threatening situations I had found myself in during the last couple of months on Virginia. When I was done he asked me some more about the various incidents and the police response. I started to say, “Some people have suggested that…” and he stopped me, saying I probably didn’t want to say what people might have suggested. I assumed that meant he knew that I was about to say that many people assumed Ollie Gates was behind at least some of the crime.
He asked if I had sold my home. To Gates? Did I get a fair price? Yes, but less than I would have received in an arm’s length negotiation.
Then I told him about the meeting I had had with Ollie at his restaurant at which he said that he hated displacing people from their homes. It was the hardest thing he ever had to do. I mentioned that it was during that conversation I heard of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority for the first time. I wasn’t sure if that statement would amount to anything, especially since there was nobody to corroborate it. Ollie Gates sure wouldn’t and Jim Wilson, the only other person there, wouldn’t.
The Judge moved some papers on his desk and pulled out several handwritten sheets of paper. He said he had asked an investigator (the one Howard had mentioned several weeks earlier) to look at the minutes of the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners. Those minutes, he said, substantiated Howard’s contentions. Then he read several instances of Ollie proposing, moving, and voting on projects that would affect the value of the property in the area of the 4700 block of Virginia. Then he asked if anybody had anything else to add.
Nobody did, but I did have a question. I wanted to know if either his report or the findings of the Ethics Commission would ever become public. He didn’t know for sure, but he guessed that, as a public agency, the Commission would have to make the information available at some time. Then Howard asked if what we said would be the basis of what he asked Ollie in the afternoon.
“Yes,” he said, “If he shows up.” We asked what would happen if he didn’t show. Then he would have to make his report without Ollie’s testimony. Judge Copeland also mentioned that he would have to advise Ollie of his fifth amendment rights. The court reporter interrupted to ask if we were still on the record and he said we weren’t. Then Howard asked what would happen if he took the fifth. The judge would still have to make a report. What if he sent his lawyer to talk for him? “I don’t want to talk to a lawyer.”
We thanked the judge for his time and Howard and Sharon asked if I wanted to go eat with them. We ate at the Savoy Grill, probably the fanciest place I’ve ever eaten. On the way over and during lunch Sharon and Rick said they thought what I had said was important, that the fact that I had endured what I did lent credibility to my contention that I was willing to do what was right. We talked a lot about Sharon’s love of home decorating and other things that had nothing to do with the case.
When we finished eating we considered going back to find out if Gates showed up at the Judges but decided against it. The next day Howard called to say that he had spoken to the judge’s deputy, who told him that Ollie had appeared with his lawyer.
Howard was due to have hernia surgery in a couple of weeks. He was anxious to get the Ethics Commission’s findings before he went in, so he wouldn’t have to worry about losing his business during his recuperation. He spoke to Mike Reid, who informed him that he had been chastised by the Ethics Commission for sharing information about ongoing investigations with outsiders. He did say that the commission was scheduled to meet on November 20, but they might elect to move it forward, possibly a week or two earlier. The commission had been impressed by the thoroughness of Judge Copeland’s investigation.
I was concerned that rather than coming to some conclusion by the twentieth they would choose to delay their consideration even more; the process could extend well into the next year. Public agencies essentially close down between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day each year. Howard said that, if there was no resolution by the end of November, he would have to consider going to the press. He feared that the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, which technically was the body that had the power to condemn his property might go ahead and condemn his store if the commission didn’t act soon. It might not respect the traditional moratorium on governmental activities during the holidays.
The Ethics Commission met on November 17 and 18, 1997. This was to be the moment of truth. Howard had received notice that he could not sell his property to anyone other than Gates or the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. I told him that, if the Ethics Commission ruled in his favor, he would have a cause of action for slander of title, the wrongful prevention of somebody selling property.
He had also received a notice that the condemnation hearing was set for December 5. That gave him about two weeks to stop the condemnation, and that was only if the Ethics Commission ruled in his favor. I suggested that he contact one of the three or four council members who were honest to prepare them to introduce a bill overturning the declaration of blight. Howard said he would wait until after the Ethics Commission ruled.
On the evening of November 18 he called Mike Reid. To Howard’s relief the commission had indeed reached a conclusion concerning the complaint. Unfortunately, Reid was not at liberty to say what that conclusion was. Howard did get him to say that Judge Copeland had agreed with the other judges who had investigated the case. He also said that the Ethics Commission was concerned that the Attorney General was becoming overly involved with the case. He feared that the Attorney General would try to usurp the commission’s authority by asking them to hold their opinion until he had the chance to get indictments. Again I urged Howard to talk to the city council. It took time to draft legislation and whatever council member he approached—probably either Asjes, Dannaher, or Finley—would need some time. If it took another week to get a ruling, it might be too late, especially since Sherwin Epstein, his lawyer, was going to be out of town for almost a month. I though he should proceed immediately to, if nothing else, get a continuance on the condemnation hearing.
Mike Reid told Howard that the Ethics Commissioners would be meeting November 18 and 19, 1997 to render their judgment on the Plaza East project and several other issues they were considering. Following that, they would notify all parties of their decisions. Howard was on edge, since the time for his condemnation hearing was approaching.
During the week before those scheduled meetings, he tried to contact Mike Reid several times. Once, he was able to speak to him. Judge Copeland’s findings had coincided with those of the other judges who had investigated. Did the Commission ever go against the judges’ findings? It hadn’t happened so far, but they were free to do what they wanted with the information.
The next time Howard tried to reach Mike was on Friday, November 21. The secretary told him that Reid had instructed her to tell Howard that he couldn’t speak to him. She did pass word to him that the Commission had reached a conclusion and that conclusion was in the mail to the parties in the investigation. She also told him that there were some territorial disputes with the Attorney General. Howard got the impression that the Attorney General was pushing for aggressive prosecution of those involved in the Plaza East project, while the Ethics Commission hoped to resolve the dispute through mediation.
The following Monday, Howard called me at work. He had received notification from the Ethics Commission. “We got screwed,” he said.
The letter consisted of a single sentence: “Based on the report of the special investigator no further action is recommended at this time.” The letter was signed by someone named Charles G. Lamb, Administrative Secretary.
I was as dumbfounded as Howard. During the previous two years everybody who heard the facts had agreed that the process was corrupt. We suspected there might be some disagreement on the types of sanctions that might be imposed, but we never in our wildest imaginations envisioned that Ollie Gates and his City Hall associates would be vindicated.
Howard was at a loss on what to do. Sherwin, his lawyer, was in Florida. His associate, John Roe, who had represented me when I was negotiating with Gates, wasn’t very familiar with the issues. Besides that, he wasn’t interested in any part of the law that didn’t involve the strict application of condemnation law.
I thought Howard should talk to the Attorney General’s office as soon as possible. He was at least entitled to know what the basis of the Ethics Commission’s decision was. I also told him that I thought the time for being solicitous was over. His best chance was to get publicity for what had happened. He asked me to call Bruce Rodgers. Since it was Thanksgiving week, the PitchWeekly was on a short deadline. He promised to call me back in the next couple of days. When he did, I told him what had happened. He immediately assumed that somebody had bought Jay Nixon, the Attorney General, who had been campaigning for the senate. Bruce asked me if I had testified and if I could send him a copy of my statement, which I did.
The next day was Friday, December 5, 1997. Howard’s condemnation hearing had been scheduled for that day. Since Sherwin Epstein was out of town, Howard was working with John Roe. I asked Howard to call me after the hearing.
That evening he called with a couple of pieces of information.
First of all, John Roe had written a letter to Judge Hollister, who had been assigned to the condemnation case. John was concerned that the judge was only allowing each party, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, which was the technical plaintiff, and Howard, the defendant, only thirty minutes to present its case. John thought that indicated that the hearing was just a formality and the fix was already in. The letter asked for a change of judge and cited several state and federal constitutional issues. The judge agreed to refer the case back to the presiding judge for reassignment.
The other thing that Howard mentioned was that Bruce had called and was frustrated that Howard would not sit down for an interview. Howard explained that Sherwin had specifically asked him to stay away from the media. I told Howard I thought that the legal system didn’t seem to be responding to the obvious illegalities surrounding the entire case. It seemed that the only recourse he had was public exposure. Howard agreed but didn’t want to alienate Sherwin. He also told me that Bruce said it would be all right if Sherwin was there during the interview, but Howard said that would cost him close to $200 an hour. He said he might go ahead and do it anyway. He also said that if it was the Kansas City Star requesting an interview under the same conditions, he would probably do it. I thought that was unreasonable for several reasons. For one, when it came to journalistic integrity, it would be hard to find a better outlet than Bruce. Even Barbara Shelley, the columnist who had written a piece on the block, conceded her admiration for him. Besides that, we both doubted that the Star would do any investigating. Its pattern was to ignore the evidence and take Ollie Gates at his word.
Howard also told me Bruce intended to go to Jefferson City to do some investigating of his own. He was going to not only request the Ethics Commission’s records, but look up any campaign contributions that might have gone to Jay Nixon, contributions that might have influenced his decision not to prosecute the case. I felt that the PitchWeekly was the only hope for a just outcome.
On December 9 Bruce sent someone to Howard’s store to pick up a few documents. Bruce was intent on going to Jefferson City to find out what had happened, but, because of a snow storm, he would have to delay his trip. I had asked Howard to see if he could get the number of Rich Nadler. Nadler published an ultra–conservative alternative newspaper called K.C. Jones. He had shown an interest in corruption in Kansas City government. He also appeared on a weekly television program called Ruckus as the resident curmudgeon. He was argumentative, often referring to clipboards full of arcane statistics to support his arguments. He also was awkward enough to make anybody watching him nervous. He often wore cheap plaid suits with amateurish ties; his voice was clipped with a screechy quality. He often came across as a buffoon, sometimes the target of ribbing of his fellow panelists.
Despite his limited social skills, he was intelligent. He was also tenacious in pursuing what he believed was wrong. Although he and Bruce were at opposite sides of the political spectrum, they often agreed about certain issues, especially concerning the city’s odd notions that it had true title to anything within the city limits. I had hoped to see if Nadler was interested in pursuing the story of the Plaza East project. Howard got his number from Bruce, but Bruce had asked me to hold off contacting him until he had a chance to run the story. I told him that was fine with me. Bruce had shown interest in the story when the major paper in town had ignored it, and I felt an obligation to him. Besides that, Bruce had a lot of credibility in the community.
The condemnation hearing was scheduled for December 15, 1997 at 9:30. Howard had asked me to drop off some documents at the courthouse. Specifically, he wanted the papers that proved collusion between Gates, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, and the city’s planning department. I took a break from work to drop off the papers. While I was there Howard asked me to stick around to testify. Sherwin said he was going to try to get the finding of blight overturned by bringing up the issues of fraud and collusion.
The plaintiff in the suit was the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. The defendant was Howard Levin. The judge was Howard Bush. The plaintiff’s attorney called Chris Vedros, who testified that he had followed all the legal procedures necessary to get condemnation rights. He was impassive during his testimony.
Then Sherwin tried to cross examine him. He asked who owned various pieces of property at the time of the blight study. The plaintiff’s lawyer objected. He said that this was not the forum for discussing these issues. Judge Bush sustained every effort to bring up the issues of wrong–doing on the part of Gates or the P.I.E.A. The attorney said that there had to be a threshold of collusion or fraud before those issues would become relevant. Each time Sherwin tried to bring up the issues relating to criminal activity, conflict of interst, fraud, or collusion, the plaintiff’s attorney objected, and each time his objection was sustained.
Sherwin asked for a five minute recess. I asked if I could get back to work. Sherwin said that, since Judge Bush wasn’t allowing the critical evidence we could present, there was no reason to call me. He told Howard that it didn’t make any sense to present a case, since the judge wasn’t going to hear any evidence that would benefit Howard anyway. Instead, he would ask for some time to prepare a brief. The judge agreed to that.
Afterwards, Chris Vedros approached Howard. He said, “In my job I have to wear a lot of hats. This is one I really don’t like to wear.” Howard didn’t respond.
Later that afternoon Howard called me. I told him that I thought the only way to get his case through the courts would be to take the offensive. That would mean he would have to file a civil suit of his own. I suggested asking for a couple hundred million dollars. I told him that it seemed to me that the reason he wasn’t able to introduce his evidence was that he wasn’t the one defining the issues. The only issues in a civil suit are those that the plaintiff says are issues. The remedy for that was to become the plaintiff. I suggested he sue the city, the P.I.E.A., Ollie Gates, Chris Vedros personally, Lynnis Jameson personally. It had to be all in a single suit, since separate suits would mean that any of the defendants could win by blaming the others until all the parties were cleared.
He said he would consider such a suit if he could find someone to take it. He thought he knew someone that would handle it, but he’d have to talk to them.
Howard called the Ethics Commission to request copies of the documents upon which the commission’s decision was based. The commission referred him to the Attorney General’s office which, they claimed, was responsible for those records. The administrator who spoke to Howard said there was a new law as of August 1997 which prohibited them from releasing that information. Howard wrote down the number of the Missouri Revised Statutes. It was RSMO 109.961.015. There was no such statute posted on the Missouri government’s web site.
Bruce Rodgers from the PitchWeekly was planning to go to Jefferson City to see for himself what was going on. The other alternative paper in Kansas City had recently folded, leaving Bruce with the sole responsibility of covering the issues the rest of the press was too afraid to tackle. We also felt that he would be able to get information that we couldn’t get. As a reporter for an alternative paper, his profession consisted of navigating the bureaucracies, getting them to reveal things they didn’t want the public to know, and, if necessary, using legal action to subdue the arrogance of public officials.
On January 1, 1998, Howard called me again. Sherwin had prepared the brief for the continued condemnation hearing. The brief took a new approach. In it Sherwin said that, since large portions of the development area belonged to the electric company and the University of Missouri, entities over which the city did not have authority, the P.I.E.A. did not have the right to designate the area as a development project. I was skeptical, but, given the complexities of the law, it was possible a judge would accept the argument.
In the same phone call Howard told me that the morning’s Kansas City Star featured an announcement that Governor Mel Carnahan had appointed Ollie Gates to the state’s highway commission. A few days later the Star ran an editorial about what an excellent choice the governor had made, how fortunate Kansas City was to have Ollie Gates as one of its citizens.
The judge was supposed to rule on the condemnation during the first two weeks of 1998. The P.I.E.A. gave its response to Sherwin Epstein’s brief, the one in which Howard’s lawyer claimed that the P.I.E.A. didn’t have jurisdiction over a large portion of the property it was proposing to condemn. The response didn’t address that issue. Instead it claimed that Howard was slandering both the P.I.E.A. and Ollie Gates through his spurious charges of collusion and fraud.
January of 1998 passed with no word from the judge. Meanwhile the P.I.E.A. asked Howard for an offer. Howard gave the agency a number. The next day the P.I.E.A. sent a letter to the judge demanding that he sign a condemnation order. Howard and his lawyer speculated that the P.I.E.A.’s demand had irritated the judge, and he was not going to obey.
A couple of weeks later I got a call from Bruce Rodgers of the PitchWeekly. He said he had been speaking to the Attorney General and to officials of the Missouri Ethics Commission about getting the records of the investigation. He said it looked like he was going to have to sue to get the documents. The newspaper’s lawyer would be doing what he could to get the documents, including, if necessary, suing under the state’s sunshine laws. He asked me to send him whatever I could about the conversations with Judges Kelso and Copeland, which I did that evening.
The next day I stopped by Howard’s liquor store. He had installed a barricade in front of the doors. Several days earlier burglars had tried to invade his store with a truck. The barricade was to prevent further such attempts.
Howard told me the judge had signed the condemnation order. John Roe and Sherwin Epstein had guessed that the P.I.E.A.’s instruction that the judge proceed with the condemnation would alienate the judge. Instead, he evidently acceded to the agency’s demand. That development made Bruce’s article all the more important. Howard’s only recourse at that point was to file a writ, demanding a public hearing before a three–judge panel. He told me that he was starting to weary of the fight. “Every time I turn around someone else is fucking me over,” he said.
It seemed that Howard’s only hope was the article that Bruce was proposing, but that was unlikely to happen in time to save his store. Representatives of the state government were not going to willingly relinquish their records of the ethics case, which meant Bruce would have to file suit. He did make a passing mention of the Plaza East project in a piece he did on a proposal for another area of town. The issue was whether a piece of land should be permanently designated as a greenbelt, an undeveloped area in which wildlife could continue to exist unmolested. Ollie Gates had opposed the idea, claiming that the city should not be in the business of condemning private property for parks. Bruce pointed out in his article that Gates himself had acquired most of his Plaza East property through condemnation. The article also pointed out that most of the city council opposing the proposal had been perfectly willing to condemn property when the land was to be given to private developers.
A correction in the next issue of PitchWeekly said, “Parks Board President Ollie Gates did not acquire ‘most’ of his property for his Plaza East development through condemnation as stated. Gates purchased much of the property before and after the area was officially declared blighted.”
A few days after the greenbelt piece appeared, Howard called me at work. Bruce had told him he was going to have to back out of the Plaza East article. He had spoken with his newspaper’s lawyer, who had told him they would not be able to win a suit to get the records from the Ethics Commission. I asked who the attorney was. He was someone from Gage and Tucker, one of the biggest law firms in Kansas City. I said, “They’re corporate lawyers. What do they know about this?” Howard said he thought Bruce might have gone to them because they represented the owners of the PitchWeekly in business matters.
He also mentioned that Bruce intended to, as a last gasp, speak to a couple of the judges who had worked on the case. There wasn’t much chance that any of them would speak to a reporter. I asked if all this meant that we were free to go to other reporters with the story, namely Rich Nadler, the conservative publisher of the K.C. Jones. Howard said okay and gave me Nadler’s phone number again. I got the answering machine, and called Howard back to tell him so.
A couple of hours later Howard called back. Bruce had called him back. Judge Kelso had actually spoken to him. He said he had written a letter to the Ethics Commission saying that the conclusion of a conflict of interest was unavoidable. He had sent the letter before he recused himself because of a dispute he had once had with a lawyer at the firm representing Ollie Gates. Judge Kelso said he no longer had a copy of the letter—at his age he saw no need to keep his papers. Howard thought Bruce might be able to get a copy of that letter from the Ethics Commission, but I didn’t think so, since it was a work product; the report he produced as an employee of the Commission became that body’s property. Bruce told Howard he was going to seek the help of an organization called the Missouri Press Association that specialized in gaining access to public records for reporters.
The main point of the call was to ask me to hold Rich Nadler off if he called. I asked him what I should tell him. He suggested I ask him if he would be interested in the story, but that Bruce was still working on it and we’d like to give him the first chance to publish the story. That sounded fair enough to me. Howard thought it would be all right to let Rich read this account and let him decide if it was something he would be interested in.
Later that week Howard called to tell me that, since he had already spent so much on lawyers, he was going to go ahead and have Sherwin file a writ with Missouri’s Supreme Court. Although he had lost his optimism, he felt that it would take the court at least several weeks to decide whether to hear the case. In the same conversation he mentioned that the final plan that the P.I.E.A. had submitted did not include the lot at the south end of the block owned by Kansas City Power and Light.
I thought that was amazing, since several members of the City Council had voted for the plan only because the P.I.E.A. had assured them that the plan would include that parcel of land. Furthermore, when the P.I.E.A. went through the motions of selecting a developer, it excluded John Langle’s plan for the area partly because he did not have any agreement with KCP&L to acquire that property while Ollie Gates claimed he did have such an agreement.
It didn’t matter. On April 4, Howard called me at work. “It’s all over,” he said. The state Supreme Court had declined to hear his case; the lower court had ordered the title to Howard’s property signed over to the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority. A three judge panel had determined that the price should be about 45% higher than what the P.I.E.A. had offered. Howard hoped that he would be able to somehow negotiate a price that would allow him to reopen his store.
I asked him if I should contact Rich Nadler. He said he didn’t want to hurt his negotiating posture. Had he told Bruce Rodgers about these latest developments? No, again, he didn’t want to jeopardize the possibility of getting some real money for his store. I was too cowardly to offer my opinion—that he would not be getting any more money than Ollie Gates was willing to part with.
I asked him what he planned to do next. He said if he got enough money, he would reopen, but he wasn’t optimistic. The P.I.E.A.’s only obligation was to offer three alternative locations. His location at the corner of 47th and Virginia was as unique for his business as the residential mix had been to the city’s culture. He didn’t think there would be another location that would be as profitable as that one, another location that thousands of people passed every day, another location that had a parking lot where alcoholics could hang while they decided what their next purchase would be, another location that could accomodate both the people indigenous to the area and those traveling between the Country Club Plaza and the affluent eastern suburbs.
Given all of our experiences with the city’s bureaucracies, we suspected that the relocation authorities would offer Howard three alternative locations with no traffic, no population base, and no access for commuters. They might offer places that delivery trucks couldn’t get to. Rick Gilkerson had said at the beginning of our negotiations that city officials could be vindictive, and I suspected he was right.
In May of 1998, I drove by Howard’s store during my work day. Plywood covered a large part of the front of the building, where the glass had been broken. Just as I had stopped repairing broken windows when my house on Virginia was continually burglarized, he had stopped doing the maintenance that comes with the optimism of a long stand. His fight was over, and he did not win. Bruce Rodgers of the PitchWeekly never did his story. Several friends had correctly predicted that a small alternative newspaper would not have the resources to finance an extended battle to force the Missouri Ethics Commission to turn over its records on the case.
In May I again tried to get in touch with Rich Nadler, the publisher of the conservative K.C. Jones newspaper. I mentioned that I hadn’t heard from Nadler to my friend Norman. Norman had met him a couple of times and felt comfortable talking to him.
A couple of evenings later Rich Nadler called. I didn’t realize until Norman told me that it was his call and not mine that had induced him to call me. I gave him a brief summary of the case and asked if he would like to see this account. He said this was just the kind of issue he and his newspaper were interested in. He said they might be interested in serializing the story of the block. I told him it was more than 200 pages, which might be a lot for a small monthly broadside to print. I told him that what I hoped was that he would be willing to condense the information into something that was reasonably terse and readable. He said he would look at the manuscript. Then, we talked about some other things.
Rich had gone to the same high school as me, although he dropped out early. His cousin had sat behind me in home room and was now very wealthy and living in Australia. Rich had, for a long time worked as a musician in rock bands and had recorded a couple of albums. He said he left that world because he didn’t share his bandmates’ morality. Also, he said, he was the only one in the band who read Thucydities. He was much more pleasant than he seemed on television. I told him I would send him the manuscript.
I felt bad about the unkind things I had said about Rich in this account. I considered changing them before I sent him a copy but decided that would be dishonest, so I sent it to him just the way it was. Later, when I talked to Norman about my concern, he said he thought Rich would be more amused than insulted.
The next day I called Howard to tell him about my conversation with Rich. He told me his negotiations with the P.I.E.A. were at a critical point and he just wanted out. He said he didn’t want to upset his chances for getting a reasonably fair settlement.
At the end of May Howard called me. He had reached a settlement. Although the amount was less than he had hoped to receive, he did get enough that he could reopen somewhere else, although the way he was thinking he probably wouldn’t do that. It was just too hard to find reliable employees. Instead, he would concentrate on making his other store more profitable.
I asked him if he had given up any other rights. He said he had agreed to not pursue any other remedies. Would that include contact with Rich Nadler? Yes. He just wanted it all over, and he wasn’t prepared to drag the whole thing out any longer. He said that I knew everything he did, and he would be satisfied with anything I could do as far as publicizing what happened surrounding the Plaza East development. It was, as he had said, all over. I thanked him for having been the one who stood up to the corruption in Kansas City even if we didn’t win in the end.
“We did win,” he said. “We got them to pay more than they wanted to, and we delayed their project. Maybe next time they’ll think a little harder.” I didn’t agree, but I didn’t tell him so.
During the development process I had to consciously fight off paranoia. After all, politicians and bureaucrats were trying to steal my home to give to a friend; criminals were stealing my belongings and trying to hurt me; the city’s largest newspaper was shy about printing anything negative about one of this town’s favorite sons; my friends on the block decided to go away, leaving me alone.
It became tempting to assume large conspiracies. I knew there weren’t any huge conspiracies, just a bunch of back room dealers, getting things done. During one of my conversations with Ollie and Jim Wilson, one of them said, “You can’t stop progress.”
I said, “Progress brought us slavery, the great depression, and the A–bomb.”
But for Ollie and Jim Wilson, as for Lynnis Jameson, the city planner, Chris Vedros, the director of the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, the City Planning Commission, and for the majority of the City Council, listening wasn’t a way to understand. Listening was a tactic to demonstrate fairness. They weren’t conspiring to get us. All they were doing was trying to make the city conform to their own vision, and all we were was an impediment.
Most of those concerned with preservation of historical areas lament the loss of the mansions, the estates. Most people don’t live in those places. It usually takes hundreds of years before historians realize there is value in preserving the more ordinary homes, the places where most people live. Greenfield Village and Old Williamsburg were not preserved, they were recreated. Our block was one of those areas whose charm lay not in the opulence of its architecture or the luxury of its furnishings. Its value was that it was a neighborhood that worked.
I still have dreams about my old house, my old neighborhood. Shortly after the last of the houses was demolished I drove by. As I neared the area, I was overcome with sadness. Yes, my new house is nicer, bigger, in better condition, safer, but it will never be on the 4700 block of Virginia.
When I first wrote this account in 1994, it was all in the present tense, who the people are, not who they were. In fact, originally, this book was meant to be the story of how an inner–city block could survive as an oasis amid areas of decay and violence. The title was going to be The Life of a City Block, and the purpose was to be to tell the stories of the various characters who occupied a unique block in Kansas City, Missouri. Friends had often asked me to compile some of the stories about the 4700 block of Virginia. Most of the people I saw when I wasn’t at home couldn’t believe there could be so much activity on a single block. They were intrigued by the fact that professional people lived adjacent to psychotics and students and street hustlers and chronic alcoholics and artisans. They realized that a mix like that was bound to create interesting relationships, but couldn’t imagine how those relationships would manifest themselves.
My friends wanted to read about the people because they felt the life I was living was much more interesting than the suburban lives they led. At the same time most of the stories were positive. Most of the people were good. The atmosphere on the block was what most neighborhoods vainly aspire to.
As the developer and city officials began to target our block for acquisition, however, it became apparent that the book would become not a quaint tale of oddball characters, but rather a story of corruption, venality, and arrogance in the name of expediency and progress. When Tom Pendergast’s concrete company first sold its product to the city of Kansas City to pave Brush Creek, that conniving was generally considered to be the archetype of corruption in the United States. Now, more than sixty years later, the corruption was again manifesting itself in the city’s proposal to refurbish that same Brush Creek.
The corruption destroyed a unique area of the city. Our block no longer exists. Every house is gone. The gas station is gone. The liquor store will probably go too. The lots where our homes stood are now flattened. The land is built up above the flood plain level. The tires that some of Gates’s tenants left are still strewn across those acres.
In May of 1997, as I was leaving my job, I saw Debbie Harrell in the parking lot, getting out of her car. She no longer drove a van. She smiled when she saw me, asked if my dog was still alive. She turned to her children in the car and said, “Look who’s here!.” We shook hands. She was working at a hospital now. I mentioned that our old block was flat now. She nodded sadly and said she knew. The animosities were gone.Ralph Levy