A neighborhood in Hutchinson chose its own identity
as part of a broader effort to improve health, quality
of life and connectedness. Is it making a difference?
By: Chris Green
HISTORICALLY, ONLY A HANDFUL
OF THE NEIGHBORHOODS
SCATTERED ACROSS HUTCHINSON
HAVE HAD A NAME.
That’s neither unusual nor unwarranted. Even some of the best known neighborhoods in Kansas cities and towns – Potwin Place in Topeka; the Westheight Neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas; Riverside in Wichita – foster low-key associations that might be little known even within the city limits. But still, Hutchinson has some identifiable neighborhoods.
There’s the Houston Whiteside Historic District, east of downtown, where buildings from an 1880s building boom are preserved. Another is Hyde Park, a northwest neighborhood known for its annual Christmas luminarias.
Most of the places with an identity in the central Kansas city of about 40,000 have been or are associated with wealth and prestige. These neighborhoods tend to be located on the north side of town, where per capita incomes are nearly twice as high as they are in the southern parts of town.
Most other sections of Hutchinson, though, lack a similar identity. Such was the case with a region in the shadow of an elevated freeway and a water tower southwest of downtown. Instead of mansions, the neighborhood near railroad tracks and marked by several wide brick streets is mostly dotted with modest bungalows built in the early 20th century.
Long a heart of the city’s Mexican-American community, the area has a history that goes back to the days when it was populated by scores of railroad workers. But if it was known for anything, it was for its proximity to Avenue A Elementary School.
“It didn’t really have a name,” says Margo Douglas, a resident who spent her childhood in the neighborhood, moved away but returned to live in the house she grew up in. If people called it anything, she says, it was in reference to its historic demographic tilt, such as “Browntown.”
But that changed in 2016. That year, the community officially received a name aimed at being inclusive of all its residents – the SW Bricktown Neighborhood. The name references the neighborhood’s geographic position within Hutch, as well as the brick streets that serve as a visible landmark. Street signs in the area have been marked with colorful toppers bearing the neighborhood’s name and a logo featuring landmarks such as the water tower and the school.
What’s more, SW Bricktown isn’t an invention of local planners, developers or real estate agents. It was the residents who researched and developed ideas for naming the neighborhood. Fliers listing the options were passed out door to door, and residents chose one from among four options in a neighborhoodwide vote.
“It was definitely a resident-led initiative,” says Jessie McElheny, a social worker who serves as the coordinator of a neighborhood center that the United Way of Reno County operates year-round out of the Avenue A school. “I think they feel valued that they got the opportunity to put their voice in and that they were heard.”
CONNECTED TO A PLACE
SW Bricktown isn’t the only neighborhood to receive a new designation in recent years. The neighborhood near Hutchinson Community College dubbed itself College Grove in a neighborhoodwide vote in which 78 residents placed their ballots in a Little Free Library.
The effort to name College Grove included interviews with residents, a series of neighborhood meetings and gatherings such as a Lemonade Launch Party to celebrate the new name. Local organizers in Hutchinson say that a neighborhood name helps give people a shared identity and connection. It’s also much easier to organize people in shared activities and market it to others as a good place to live.
Depending on where you live in Kansas, neighborhood names can be a common concept or something a bit foreign.
In some small and mid-sized cities, it might be hard to distinguish any separate neighborhood identities. And yet, research from the U.S. Census Bureau and others suggests that people tend to identify with living in quite small geographic areas. One census working paper estimates that the distance from a typical American’s house to the edge of his or her neighborhood is less than three-quarters of a mile. Even if they love their countries, states, cities and towns, humans seem to crave connection on a smaller scale, too.
There’s a growing body of research that suggests that “strong feelings of connectedness to place on a smaller scale has a strong relationship to how secure individuals feel about their place in the world,” the website CityLab reported back in 2012.
Strangely though, very few places ever get the chance to actually choose their own names.
MORE THAN A NAME
The efforts in SW Bricktown and College Grove go well beyond the names. The new identities are part of a broader effort to create healthier neighborhoods in Hutchinson.
In SW Bricktown, the push is being spearheaded by the United Way of Reno County and a number of other groups, including city government, the Hutchinson Recreation Commission, the county health department, the Boys & Girls Club, Circles of Hope and Interfaith Housing Services. A $250,000 community engagement grant from the Kansas Health Foundation (which also funds the Kansas Leadership Center, the publisher of The Journal) has been key to launching the effort.
Through visioning meetings, SW Bricktown residents have set and advanced priorities for the neighborhood, such as improving public safety and enhanced community pride, with some meetings drawing as many as 100 people. Neighbors also meet monthly, and attendance has increased from seven individuals at the first meeting to a regular crew of 20, McElheny says.
The presence of a school-based neighborhood center, which was established in August 2014, is particularly important to the effort. McElheny helps connect teachers, families and students to resources in the community, essentially serving as a bridge between residents and local government and other nonprofits. She fields inquiries about everything from grass being too high
in front of a vacant house to assisting someone wanting to address a problem with pit bulls. If someone contacts her about not being able to afford rent this month, she can help connect them to agencies that might offer help.
The United Way of Reno County’s nontraditional approach to helping the area started out of the nonprofit’s desire to respond to Hutchinson’s growing poverty rate, says Lisa Gleason, the executive director. Long known as a fundraiser for area nonprofits, Reno County’s United Way uses initiatives such as the neighborhood center to connect more fully with residents and other nonprofits in the hope of leveraging a larger collective impact.
“We looked at how we could do our work differently, to still support all the good things that are happening but still make a bigger impact on the more daunting issues,” Gleason says.
Yet reaching out hasn’t always been easy. While most residents have been supportive, the neighborhood-building effort hasn’t been universally accepted, McElheny says. “We’ve had the ones that are really excited and ones who are ‘just let me know’ when something big is happening,” McElheny says.
But there have been a couple of naysayers who have criticized the effort, saying they didn’t want “white knights” coming in and trying to help when they didn’t need it.
As a result, it’s been especially important for the agency to be mindful that while it wants to help create a safer, better neighborhood, the work of doing that lies with the residents themselves. Leadership in this situation, from the nonprofit’s perspective, involves energizing others by giving the work back and inspiring a collective purpose.
CHANGE, LITTLE BY LITTLE
So far, people who live in SW Bricktown say the changes occurring in the neighborhood have been modest but visible. About 13 houses in the neighborhood have received help with painting to improve their appearances. A community policing unit has been assigned to the area in the interest of improving public safety.
Residents are also a part of an effort to reinvent a green space with few amenities. The neighborhood successfully pushed to change the name of a park to SW Bricktown Park, and residents have engaged with planners to map out a new future for that area, as well as another one nearby.
Another sign of progress is the creation of a mural by local artist Jocelyn Woodson on 12 underpass pillars for the Woodie Seat Freeway over Avenue A, near the school. The art will depict the area’s families and other images associated with the neighborhood and Kansas.
But it isn’t just the neighborhood that’s changing. The lives of individual residents are being affected as well.
Delicia Olvera has lived in the neighborhood for nearly eight years, and her children have attended school at Avenue A. She welcomed the chance to have more community involvement.
“I’m just a parent, and I’ve always wanted to be involved in things with our neighborhood,” she says. “When I heard it was coming about and went to the meeting, I thought it was going to be a great thing to happen for our little neighborhood.”
Her participation has led her not only to receive help with painting her house, but also to become involved in the Circles of Hope anti-poverty program, which has helped her get better at
budgeting. She’s paid off some debts and is going back to school to become a registered nurse.
She’s not the only one who’s pursuing self-improvement. Douglas, the longtime resident, has found herself working outside of her comfort zone to act as one of the neighborhood’s leaders. She’s benefited mightily, she says, from attending the three-day You Lead Now program at the Kansas Leadership Center last August.
“I’ve always been one to sit back,” Douglas says. “But since this has started, people have been pushing me to the forefront.”
‘FULL OF POSSIBILITIES’
The question remains, though: To what extent is the name SW Bricktown a contributor to these changes in direction? One could argue that these improvements would have happened anyway because of the substance of the efforts
Even residents themselves aren’t quite sure how to assess what impact the new identity is having, even though they see good things happening in SW Bricktown.
“I’m not sure what the name has to do with it, but I do see conditions changing here,” says Paul Yoder, administrator of Hands of Christ Ministries, which is affiliated with Center Amish Mennonite Church near Pleasantview and has helped in the neighborhood for a couple of years.
Among the painting of the houses, neighborhood cleanups, better-kept lawns and the mural, it’s clear that something good is happening, Yoder says. Perhaps having a new identity to organize around, improving the area’s appearance and efforts at bringing people together are reinforcing one another.
“It’s something that’s not going to happen quickly,” Yoder says. “Slowly, it will continue to improve as we continue interacting with each other in positive ways.”
Considering how long the neighborhood has been around, though, SW Bricktown residents are still growing into their new identity. And of course, the name hasn’t sat well with everyone. Even Douglas admits that she initially preferred her own suggestion, an alternative identity tied to the area’s history as the railroad district.
But the development of a new identity may be coming at an important time of transition for SW Bricktown. School district officials in Hutchinson are considering whether to cease operating Avenue A as a regular elementary school at the end of the 2017-18 school year. The building might remain in operation for a time, perhaps as a one-year pre-kindergarten center, but the future of the school, built in 1939, could be something other than its pre-K through sixth grade past.
News that the school might close came as a blow to parents such as Olvera because of how supportive school officials have been of her family. She also wondered what the change would mean for the neighborhood center she’s become so heavily involved in.
Gleason, the United Way director, says school officials have assured her that there will be still be a place in the school building for a community center as long as the district owns it, and the United Way of Reno County remains committed to making a difference in the neighborhood and supporting residents in their continued efforts to revitalize it.
“It’s full of possibilities,” Gleason says of the potential transition period. “Who knows what could come of it? I feel really hopeful that out of change, things will work out to be even better.”
Some of SW Bricktown’s future is liable to look very different from the present. But there are parts of the past that residents would like to preserve or revive. A recent movie night had Douglas reminiscing about the close-knit relationships neighbors had while she grew up.
It’s not as if those links have been completely reforged in just a few years of work. But there are plenty of signs of hope.
“I have personally reconnected with a lot of people,” Douglas says. “You can drive around and you see that the yards are being a little more picked up, and people are starting to try to take a little more care of things. You get more people socializing more with each other, and people are just starting to trust the police more.”
That’s the thing about picking a name for your neighborhood. It’s only the first step. It’s defining what that name will come to mean that represents the biggest challenge.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.