Let’s use some critical thinking skills, folks

Let’s use some critical thinking skills, folks


For two years, the once-vibrant St. Mary’s High School building and grounds have sat empty in the middle of my neighborhood – the oldest neighborhood in Independence. Poised to become one of the area’s greatest eyesores, the empty building and grounds can only deteriorate property values. Each day that it’s empty makes it less appealing to many potential buyers.

I’m a social worker, so for a while, I dreamed of turning the school into a shelter for homeless families and single adults, complete with programs like GED and budgeting classes; reliable, 24-hour daycare to encourage and enable homeless parents to work; a massive food pantry; and a large community garden.

I dreamed, but I knew that idea would go over like a ton of bricks in my neighborhood, where residents routinely call homeless folks “vagrants” and look for ways to discourage them from using things like public parks and sidewalks.

Then last winter, my 17-year-old daughter’s Blue Springs-based soccer club discovered the St. Mary’s gym. It was a perfect spot for the team’s winter practices. My daughter was ecstatic – no more driving to Blue Springs for indoor practices. She could walk the five or so blocks from our house near the Truman home to St. Mary’s if she had to.

The first night, though, she came home perplexed. Many of the girls on her team told her they were nervous coming to our part of Independence, just blocks from the Square. Maggie, my daughter, got the feeling they seriously thought they were slumming.

So when I heard that her soccer club, Alba FC, was considering purchasing part of the St. Mary’s complex, I crowed with delight.

Finally, I thought, a chance to bring suburbanites to this historic Independence neighborhood at a time other than Labor Day Weekend, when it’s difficult to really get a feel for what we’re all about here in the Queen City of the Trails.

I’ve been extremely disappointed to hear the negative take some of my neighbors have of this idea of soccer coach Chris Dean’s. Dean wants to repair bathrooms and locker rooms in the gym and possibly offer fitness classes for adults. Outside, he wants to replace the grass field with turf and install some lights, which would allow for outdoor practices and possibly tournaments.

Some of my friends and neighbors worry that allowing soccer practices and games on the grass field will cause a “ruckus,” and that streets will fills with cars and trash during soccer events.

I’m thinking maybe they don’t know much about the soccer crowd. We’re talking suburban (mostly) parents with children, some of whom routinely only think of Independence when they read about another high-speed chase or meth-house bust. Law enforcement here has been on top of the meth scourge for years now, but it’s hard to live down that reputation.

This is a chance to do that. It’s a chance for Independence to shine, to show those folks who abandoned their hometown for Blue Springs and Grain Valley and Oak Grove that we’ve got something special, from the historic homes in my neighborhood and others near the Square to the Square itself and its bustling businesses.

A few years ago, before Studio on Main opened, I had to drive miles and miles to find a quality yoga studio. A student at the studio I frequented in Midtown Kansas City turned up her nose when I mentioned I lived near the Independence Square.

“Oh, the Square,” she said dismissively. “It’s always so dead there. There’s nothing going on.”

Au contraire. There’s plenty going on. And we’ve got the perfect chance to show those who left for greener, newer pastures what they’re missing. If they drop off their kids for soccer practice, they can head to the Square to shop. They can drive around our neighborhood and admire the work we put into our historic homes. They can remember the myriad Square restaurants the next time they’re thinking of a cool spot for dinner.

I urge the Independence Planning Commission and my neighbors to challenge the status quo and take a chance on this soccer facility.

Progress doesn’t happen by standing still!


Love me, love my ‘hood

For months, we wondered who would buy the brick Dutch colonial across the street.

The lovely house was a victim of foreclosure, but not for the reasons so many Americans lost their homes in 2010. The family who lost this house didn’t take out a sub-prime mortgage. They just had a run of good old-fashioned hard times.

Our neighbor and his bride bought the home on June 3, 1999. I remember the exact day not because I’m a savant but because that’s the day my nephew Sam was born. I returned from the hospital that morning to see an auctioneer holding court across the street, selling the brick house and all its contents months after its longtime elderly occupant died heirless.

The couple who bought the home was excited. She’d just discovered she was expecting their first child, and they were looking forward to moving onto a block with so many children. By fall, they’d refinished the hardwood floors, painted the walls and planted roses. The baby arrived in February 2000. In 2001, two years to the day after they bought the house, they welcomed their second child.

Four years later, the rosy picture faded. The wife left her husband and children for another man. The upheaval contributed to a flare of Crohn’s disease for the husband, a Gulf War veteran. On top of illness and despondency, he lost his job. All the while, he struggled to keep the house around the corner from the elementary school so his kids wouldn’t have yet another shock to their systems.

By last summer, though, it was over. The bank repossessed the house he loved, and our neighbor and his two kids moved in with his mother. All fall and into winter, the brick home sat empty, entertaining frequent visitors lured by the bargain price set by the bank.

We watched with sadness and, yes, anticipation as the parade of potential neighbors tromped through the house and over the yard. We waved and smiled and tried for all we were worth to look like the kind of neighbors you’d want to have, not the Clampetts we actually are. Our kids hoped a young family would buy the house and deliver some new playmates.

One afternoon, the doorbell rang. Our dogs went crazy, and I wrestled with them to get to the door. Outside was a nice-looking middle-aged woman with a couple of twentysomethings. She smiled hopefully.

“Hi,” she said. “My son and his fiancée are looking at the house across the street.”

“Great!” I said brightly. “What can I do for you?”

“Well,” the older woman said, “what can you tell me about this neighborhood?”

Hmmm. I truly wasn’t sure what she meant, so I asked.

“Is it safe?” she asked. “What about crime?”

I looked blankly at her. There I stood, inside the door of the home I’ve lived in since 1994, the home my husband and I have sunk a ton of money into, refurbishing the floors and every single room and constructing an addition that doubled the home’s square footage. Was she serious?

“Well,” I said, “I guess we have some petty crime. My car’s been broken into.”

“Do you feel safe here?” she asked.

Really, lady? I was starting to steam. So I told her how long we’ve lived here and that my entire family – parents, sisters and their families, even my husband’s aunt and uncle – live on the block. She nodded encouragingly.

But I wasn’t sure what she wanted. I finally said lamely, “The bottom line is that if you don’t like kids, I wouldn’t buy that house because we’ve got a bunch of kids all over this neighborhood.”

They thanked me for my time, and I never saw them again.

Over the next month, there were some repeat visitors to the house, but no takers. The list price dipped below $70,000, and my husband and I worried a slum lord might snatch it up.

Then one Saturday, I pulled up in front of our house and saw an older couple and a little girl in the front yard of the house across the street. I smiled politely as I got out of the car. The lady came across the street and told me they’d just decided to buy the house. I’d never seen them before.

“So,” she said, “what can you tell me about the neighborhood?”

What is it with people? I live in this neighborhood. Do they expect me to say I’m just dying to move, that I wish I’d win a million bucks so I could move to Johnson County? Or that I love the neighborhood because nobody cares if I make meth in my basement? Cripes.

“I guess I’m not sure what you mean,” I said. And what I was thinking was: Are you asking me whether any black people live around here? Or Hispanics? Or Jews? What?

“Is there crime?” she asked. “Is it safe?”

She was going to buy a house without checking out the neighborhood? There in my front yard played my 8-year-old son. What did she think, he was wearing a flak jacket under his hoodie?

And then, “What about the schools? Are they good?”

What did I have to lose? “This neighborhood is diverse,” I said. “There are pockets with nice homes and blocks with lots of rental property. We have racial diversity, too. And sometimes, people I suspect might be homeless walk down the street.

“But my husband and I have lived here since 1994, and we don’t want to live anywhere else. We like that our kids go to school with kids from all backgrounds. We want the diversity. But if you don’t like that or you want to live in a neighborhood where everyone is white, you probably don’t want to buy that house.”

I smiled.

She thanked me, and I went inside my own house. Then a week later, she was back and said they’d bought the brick home.

About a week ago, the sign came out of the yard, and we’ve seen comings and goings. They shoveled the walk, and we see lights on in the dining room at night. The new neighbors are going to rehab the kitchen before they move in with their 6-year-old granddaughter, who’ll go to the elementary around the corner.

I guess we didn’t scare them off.