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Wyandotte County, Lawrence, Topeka house four of the best neighborhoods in Kansas

By: Chris Green

What elevates a neighborhood to greatness? Community.

There are hundreds of very good neighborhoods across the state of Kansas that provide comfortable housing, wonderful neighbors, pleasant amenities and opportunities to connect. They’re places to love and feel lucky to live in.But the best neighborhoods in Kansas have higher aspirations. They invest in building and maintaining community to the highest degree possible.

That’s why The Journal is recognizing four places as the Best Neighborhoods in Kansas for 2018: Rosedale in Kansas City, Kansas; Delaware Street Commons in Lawrence; College Hill in Topeka; and East Lawrence.

Trying to rate a neighborhood is more art than science, so we’d love for these choices to inspire discussion and debate. But from our perspective, great neighborhoods are more than the sum of their property values or the test scores of the nearest elementary school. These places have a distinct look and style. They honor history, but they aren’t trapped by it. They comfort residents, sure. But they also challenge them.

These are places where daily interactions are etched into the residential fabric. Diverse groups are constantly coming together on a formal and informal basis. These neighborhoods are easy to get around in, not only by car but also by foot, bike and, in some cases, even horse. These places inspire fierce passion. Residents are willing to fight to preserve them, but they aren’t afraid to change them either.

The road that led us to recognize Rosedale, East Lawrence, College Hill-Topeka and Delaware Street Commons began in January. We published a questionnaire in The Journal’s Winter edition and online at klcjournal.com. We sought out submissions from all parts of the state, then actively tried to track down entries from the regions we didn’t hear from.

We struggled to generate submissions from areas west of Wichita and in southeast Kansas. We received just one application from those areas, andsome of our central and western Kansas friends told us that even though they have neighborhoods, residents don’t think in terms of neighborhoods that strongly, or give their micro-communities distinctive names or identities. In the future, we hope the opportunity to be on this list will inspire a wider range of participation and perhaps even the creation of new neighborhood identities.

Once we’d compiled several dozen submissions, we passed them off to a team of five judges from different parts of the state. Professions and interests represented included a planner, an architecture professor, a bicycling and walking advocate, a manager at a community-oriented business and the director of a high school STEM program.

Working independently, the judges evaluated the entries based on seven factors: the quality of the neighborhood’s story, its uniqueness, possibilities for interaction, attractiveness, comfort, mobility and leadership. Judges were allowed to give bonus points based on other factors they wished to consider.

In all, judges identified 10 neighborhoods they thought deserved recognition. In addition to the four winners, another six garnered enough support to receive honorable mentions. They are: Neighbors Who Care in Kansas City, Kansas; Sunset Hill in Lawrence; Old West Lawrence; College Hill and Delano in Wichita; and Mill Creek Farms in Olathe.

What follows is a closer look at the neighborhoods being honored, compiled from the information submitted by residents and neighborhood advocates.

 

Situated in southeast Wyandotte County in the urban core of Kansas City, Kansas, Rosedale is a large community spanning 4 square miles south of the Kansas River. It’s home to about 14,000 residents. Its demographics are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and socio-economics, and it’s also a crossroads, bordering Johnson County to the south and Kansas City, Missouri to the east, allowing Rosedalians to branch out into surrounding parts of the metro area.

With a history that reaches back into the days of covered wagons and steamboats, Rosedale was a municipality before being annexed by KCK in 1922. It suffered at times after World War II. Newly paved highways and increased use of automobiles made it easy for residents to head off for the suburbs. But now it’s a community on the rise that takes advantage of easy highway access even as it increasingly works to become friendlier to walking, biking and public transit.

Housing values have increased and crime has decreased in recent years, making Rosedale a prime location for families and new businesses to grow, according to Kimberly Hunter, community relations coordinator for the Rosedale Development Association, which works with residents, businesses and institutions within the area. It’s home to iconic barbecue restaurants, such as Joe’s Kansas City and Rosedale Barbecue, and also boasts the University of Kansas Medical Center and the University of Kansas Hospital.

It’s at times difficult to pin down what Rosedale is as a neighborhood because it’s so many things at once. It’s a large urban community, but it’s also made up of several smaller, close-knit neighborhood groups, each of which are led by community members who assess their area’s needs, form priorities, identify resources, and devise and carry out plans to meet those needs, according to Hunter.

Jo Dee Burger and Bill Donnelly, both of KC, watch the movie The Sandlot at the Bike-In drive-in night at the Boulevade Drive-In Theatre in Rosedale. The event is sponsored by the Rosedale Development Association, BikeWalkKC, Mid-America Council, Board of Public Utilities, Boulevard Drive-in Theater and the Brain Injury Association of Kansas and Greater KC.

“Some of these groups publish their own newsletters and apply for grants to carry out neighborhood improvement projects,” Hunterstates. “Still others take a more informal approach by simply helping neighbors as needs arise, whether that be a senior in need of roof repairs or a youngster in need of employment or mentoring.”

Despite being an urban neighborhood, Rosedale also has significant amounts of green space, including a trail system and vibrant agriculture spaces in the form of four community gardens, several schoolyard gardens and three orchards. Its public spaces include the Rosedale Farmers Market and the iconic 1920s-era Rosedale Memorial Arch, which commemorates the service of neighborhood residents in World War I and several subsequent wars. Neighborhood groups sometimes host block parties, dinner fundraisers and parties in the park.

Residents have so many ways to connect, it’s hard to include them all. After school and during the summer, there are community-run sports and career development and financial planning programs attracting primary and secondary students. Twice a week, elders come together for a walking club to socialize and stay healthy.

Resident Elizabeth Johnston lives on the top of ahill surrounded by a forest, not too far from Rosedale Park. She describes her corner of Rosedale as a  community where people accept one another for who they are and where smiling faces are the norm. “We’re a quiet, diverse group of neighbors who grow food for each other. We help each other. We talk to each other,” she writes. But Rosedale’s successes bring new challenges. As the area becomes increasingly desirable, Hunter indicates that she hopes Rosedale will be able to remain a vibrant, diverse, affordable neighborhood. 

“As property values rise, I hope leaders prioritize keeping and creating more affordable housing to sustain socio-economic diversity,” Hunter writes. “I would also like to see our diversity translate into greater multicultural leadership at the neighborhood association level and beyond, so we become dynamic, integrated and fully bilingual and have resources that are more equitably distributed and accessible by all.”

 

Delaware Street Commons doesn’t have a long history – it launched about 11 years ago – and 37 adults, nine children and 14 pets live there, not thousands of people. But the neighborhood near downtown Lawrence stands out because of the innovative ways it cultivates community.

Delaware Street Commons is the first cohousing community in Kansas. The neighborhood is designed, built and financed by the people who live in it. Residents live in separate homes but share a common gathering house, parking, trash and recycling, among other amenities. Each Sunday evening, residents gather for a potluck meal. Residents also share in the governance of the community at a monthly plenary, or assembly, during which they work on consensus decision-making, according to resident Rich Minder. A “service committee” then implements the group’s directions.

Neighbors connect in both formal and informal ways, be it gardening, knitting, movie nights, book clubs, workdays or parties. Much of the interaction occurs spontaneously. But the level of engagement that takes place would take some getting used to if you are more familiar with typical single-family home neighborhoods. Rituals play a role in helping smooth the transition.

“Because the idea of sharing space and time is relatively new for most Americans, we find that the unfamiliarity is softened by creating and sustaining simple rituals,” such as gathering in a circle before potlucks, Minder states.

That the community exists at all is a study in perseverance and leadership. The idea for Delaware Street Commons began in 1999 with a group of about 80 people meeting at the Watkins Museum of History in downtown Lawrence. The group shared a goal of creating a community under the cohousing model.

Within a few years, a small group, Lawrence Cohousing Group, had formed a company, purchased land and subdivided the property, selling two acres at a profit, which helped launch the design of the community and achieve compliance with city ordinances and zoning regulations. The group invited the greater Lawrence community to provide input on the design through a series of three design workshops, one focused on the overall site design, one on the common-house design and one for the design of the homes themselves.

Financing the construction loan for the properties proved challenging. But the cohousing group finally broke ground on 23 homes and a common house in 2006, only to run headlong into the nation’s mortgage crisis. The cohousing group had to adapt its approach, and ended up both taking on renters and turning over management of the neighborhood to a homeowners’ association, the Delaware Street Commons Community Association.

“We quickly realized firsthand the differences between the technical challenges of building houses and the adaptive challenges of building a sense of community,” Minder says. “This relationship work continues.”

Laura Odell, who has been a resident only since July 2017, has seen the upside. “There is good interest in doing the best for the community,” she says. “We have a core group of people who are still around who are the founders of the site. They are still very active and make sure things run smoothly. I am fairly new … but I love it, and I use my landscaping knowledge to make improvements on the grounds as much as I am able.”

Delaware Street Commons probably breaks the mold when it comes to what people typically think of as a neighborhood. It still suffers from some of the same challenges as any other neighborhood – not everybody is involved to the same extent. Yet when it comes to connection – and perseverance – the story of Delaware Street Commons is certainly an example of building a great community from the ground up.

 

Steeped in history, Topeka’s College Hill neighborhood began in 1880 as a residential area for nearby Washburn University professors and staff. Its residents have included professors, writers, physicians and clergy, including such well-known names as Charles M. Sheldon, the Congregationalist minister who introduced the concept of “What Would Jesus Do?” and Dr. Karl Menninger, a pioneer in the treatment of mental health. Menninger, Sheldon and other prominent residents are commemorated on a neighborhood wall of fame in the neighborhood’s Boswell Square Park.

With homes dating from the 1880s through the 1940s, College Hill is laden with well-established trees, large yards and wide front porches. Neighbors are likely to visit as they walk, jog, cycle, push strollers or walk their dogs. Residents tend to not only know the names of their neighbors’ children, but their pets as well.

“It is a friendly neighborhood, with younger residents looking out for and helping longtime residents, and everyone enjoying the children in the area,” writes neighborhood resident Mary Jayne Hellebust.

Boswell Square Park serves as the heart of many neighborhood activities, from picnics and reunions to night-against-crime events. Holidays are well celebrated. There’s an annual holiday contest in December for the best decorated house. On the Fourth of July, there are turtle races and games in the park, a parade around a 12-block area of the neighborhood, a noon-time picnic and evening fireworks.

Neighborhood pride is front and center, with many of the homes flying College Hill pennants or featuring neighborhood medallions on their porches. “To focus attention on the College Hill neighborhood, carved marker stones have been set up at major intersections, and street banners are hung on the light poles on the south sides of the neighborhood,” Hellebust says.

But residents have left their mark on the city as a whole, not just College Hill. The neighborhood recycling program began years before Topeka instituted a citywide effort. Neighbors have served in a variety of important posts – one mayor, five City Council members, several state Cabinet officers, directors of nonprofit organizations, volunteer board members and precinct committee representatives among them. It continues to be the home of the oldest women’s club in Topeka, the Nautilus Club, whose members have worked on local projects and encouraged leadership since 1894.

But Hellebust states that there isn’t just one kind of resident, and neighbors are working to keep it that way. “Neighbors are committed to being a diverse, friendly and welcoming community composed of new and longtime residents of differing ages, backgrounds and economic levels.”

For residents of College Hill, preservation remains a longstanding tradition. Boswell Square Park exists today because residents fought against a slab-house development on the site of the former Boswell Junior High School that they saw as being a poor fit for the neighborhood. Residents work to maintain a tradition of single-family home ownership and to advocate for safe traffic conditions for the neighborhood.

“As part of the preservation effort, many of the residents are working to have the neighborhood designated as a historic district on the Register of Historic Kansas Places,” Hellebust writes. “The people of the neighborhood are committed to welcoming additional civic-minded families and individuals and to promote greater ethnic diversity in the future. The College Hill Neighborhood has existed for almost 140 years, and its current residents will remain committed to maintaining its distinctive style and gracious friendliness.”

Even a bench in East Lawrence isn’t just a bench. The Wishing Bench is a minishelter with a bench and overhead shade that is also a community public art installation. It’s covered with hundreds of found objects, colorful hand-knit garlands, plants, homemade art and “other stuff.” A sign at the bench invites anyone to sit and make a wish.

The Wishing Bench isn’t just a symbol of East Lawrence’s quirky, unique aesthetic and personality. It also recently became an expression of civic pride when residents raised $650 to repair its rotting base and warped boards.

From a “peace pole” being built to stand in front of an elementary school to neighbors gathering to paint a mural at an intersection, East Lawrence residents are constantly finding new ways to infuse art into their environs. There are political alley murals, teeny hobbit installations in neighborhood trees and paintings of beloved neighbors who have passed away.

“Our neighborhood is funky, progressive, sometimes a little rough around the edges, but the shaky ship just keeps on sailin’!” writes resident Suzan Hampton.

Located near downtown Lawrence and the University of Kansas campus, East Lawrence is both a deeply historic, working-class neighborhood and one experiencing reinvention. How those two traits end up fitting together over time will play a big role in what its future looks like.

Historically known as the East Bottoms because of its proximity to the Kansas River, it’s long been home to a rich mix of families and gathering places. Its environs include a historic African Methodist Episcopal Church, the block where poet Langston Hughes spent part of his childhood, Lawrence’s oldest elementary school (New York Elementary School) and gathering places frequented by KU’s black student leaders in the 1960s. Its homes tend to be cute Victorians and bungalows. It’s also home to early pioneer vernacular limestone cottages – tributes to making do with what you have – that sit near sustainably designed 21st century homes.

It’s a neighborhood, resident Kalli Sanders writes, of “old homes, cozy cottages, large shady trees, the sound of cicadas and train whistles on summer nights, brick sidewalks, wild gardens, funky yard art, friendly neighbors, historic murals, art in unexpected places, treasures found in alleys, local characters.”

Even if its environs look quite modest in places, the neighborhood’s cultural impact is certainly not. East Lawrence was central to events in the 1960s that were reflective of difficult times among black and white residents, KU and the city of Lawrence. It’s home to an annual Yart Sale – an early-spring indoor yard/art sale with live music, donated baked goods and unique treasures – as well as New York Elementary’s Martin Luther King Jr. Chili Feed, a 30-year tradition.

The neighborhood’s activist spirit, fueled in part by an energetic East Lawrence Neighborhood Association, is legendary. “Local oral history brims with pride at how a group of East Lawrence neighbors successfully fought plans for a highway to be built right through the neighborhood,” in the 1970s, writes Hampton. “The newly opened South Lawrence Trafficway was the alternative to that solution.”

But East Lawrence is in the midst of change too. Once-abandoned warehouses on the far east side of Lawrence now house art galleries, loft apartments, a brewery, unique restaurants and makerspaces. The changes are prompting increasing debates, most recently over an arts corridor project along Ninth Street connecting the art district to downtown. East Lawrence residents successfully fought the proposal.

Even The Wishing Bench faces an uncertain future. It currently sits on property slated to be developed into multistory apartments, and there’s talk in the neighborhood that it might have to be moved someday.

The identity of the neighborhood feels increasingly at stake in terms of how it can successfully balance allowing for development while also preserving its distinctive character and preventing longtime residents from being priced out of the area. But East Lawrence residents have important values they plan to speak out for, as they almost always have.

“I hope to see a balance of sensible development to make the most of this historic neighborhood, while keeping it affordable to continue being home to working-class families with a rich mix of people of all races and backgrounds,” Sanders writes.

From left to right: Great neighborhoods come in all shapes and sizes, including Neighbors Who Care in Kansas City, Kansas, Old West Lawrence and College Hill in Wichita.

Neighbors Who Care

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS

Neighbors Who Care is a racially and culturally diverse working-class neighborhood that sits on the north side of Kansas City, Kansas. It is represented by an extremely active neighborhood association formed about 15 years ago. This is a place where neighbors have worked together to clear blighted debris and beautify the neighborhood entrances to great effect. Assisting with community policing is a focus, but there’s also time for barbecue fundraisers.

 

Sunset Hill

LAWRENCE

Sunset Hill offers townies and KU students alike a diverse mix of amenities that have a local flavor, even though it sits near two of the busiest, chain-store-friendly streets in Lawrence. You’ll find parks and Lawrence’s only bowling alley, as well as a natural foods grocery that draws shoppers from across the city. The neighborhood association is large, with nearly 150 members, and residents have advocated for better sidewalks, traffic-calming measures, infrastructure repairs and policies on short-term rentals.

 

Old West Lawrence

This neighborhood is so historic that the first homes built here are survivors of Quantrill’s 1863 Raid of Lawrence. Neighbors formed the city’s first neighborhood association in 1961, and it remains a strong force for preserving the neighborhood’s beautiful character. Since 1971, Old West Lawrence has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Register of Historic Kansas Places. A walkable neighborhood within reach of downtown Lawrence, it’s a great place for a stroll, preferably with your dog in tow.

 

College Hill

WICHITA

One of the original suburbs of Wichita, College Hill is a unique, historic blend of large mansions, two-bedroom bungalows, apartment buildings and townhomes close to stores and restaurants. While you won’t find a college there – the neighborhood’s namesake was built elsewhere – you will find a large former country club golf-course-turned-park and a teenager-friendly public pool that are activity hubs. With one of Wichita’s most active neighborhood groups and a bevy of holiday activities, College Hill figures to remain a family friendly place for generations.     

 

Delano

WICHITA

Delano began as a settlement west of the Arkansas River with a reputation as a red-light district for cowboys traversing the Chisholm Trail. These days, Delano is home to Wichita’s newly opened central library and a hip retail district that includes a brewery, record store, restaurants and coffee shops. Walkable, bikeable and accessible by a bus trolley, Delano is known as a friendly neighborhood that has been making great strides in character and appearance over the past two decades. But it’s no less quirky or fun.

 

Mill Creek Farms

OLATHE

Residents of Mill Creek Farms describe their neighborhood as a “hidden jewel” in the heart of Johnson County. Originally planned as a community where residents would live alongside their horses, Mill Creek Farms is marked by large lots, sizable trees, ponds and wildlife. Residents are always eager to volunteer to fix a problem or help an elderly neighbor. Home to professionals, business owners and even the mayor, Mill Creek Farms is evolving as elderly homeowners downsize, remodeling picks up and younger families move in.

A version of this article was originally published in the Summer 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.

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