TOPICS > Politics

Taking Back the Neighborhood

September 21, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT






GROUP LEADER SHOUTING: Drug dealer, get up and go!

GROUP: Drug dealer, get up and go!

HEDRICK SMITH: Blue Hills didn’t always have this fighting spirit.

GROUP LEADER SHOUTING: We’re here to take our neighborhood back!

GROUP: We’re here to take our neighborhood back!

HEDRICK SMITH: Several years ago, drug dealers and criminals dominated the neighborhood. Larry Washington lived in the thick of it.

LARRY WASHINGTON, Former Blue Hills Resident: We had drug houses probably on every other block. There were drive-by shootings. People had to actually sleep on floors at night because of fear.

MARVEL HODGE, Blue Hills Resident: I even got robbed in my driveway a few years ago, but…

HEDRICK SMITH: You mean held up?

MARVEL HODGE: Held up, robbed in the morning at 6:25.

HEDRICK SMITH: Marvel Hodge lived next door to a drug house.

MARVEL HODGE: This was the worst chapter in my entire life, living next door to a drug house. There were eight different dealers and drug families that sold drugs there. I’ve never lived in as much fear in all my life.

SISTER HELEN FLEMINGTON, St. Therese Church: People felt pretty isolated, pretty overwhelmed by it. My guess is they didn’t feel like anything could really be done.

HEDRICK SMITH: Sister Helen Flemington leads the nearby Catholic Church.

SISTER HELEN FLEMINGTON: I’m sure people did call the police, but if there are gunshots all the time, you end up not calling.

HEDRICK SMITH: After a murder on the steps of the local elementary school, Sister Helen and others at St. Therese Catholic Church decided to do something.

SISTER HELEN FLEMINGTON: We started pulling in neighborhood leaders, church leaders. We invited people to come into this safe place and to give us addresses.

HEDRICK SMITH: Among the neighbors joining the early meetings were Robert Anderson and his wife, Lillian.

LILLIAN ANDERSON, Blue Hills Resident: Before we had stopped talking to each other because we was all living in our houses. No one was coming outside. So when we went up to the Church, we met our neighbors we had not been talking to for years.

SISTER HELEN FLEMINGTON: What happened was people stopped being isolated. They started realizing that they could band together. They started seeing that if St. Therese called a meeting, the officials were there. We had gotten a power base is what we had gotten.

HEDRICK SMITH: Sister Helen became a matchmaker, inviting community police officers to use the church offices as their base of operations. As homeowners established a bond with the police, they felt empowered to report crimes on their blocks.

ROBERT ANDERSON, Blue Hills Resident: They said, “okay, you do the identifying; you point to where the drug houses are; we’ll close them and we’ll help you do that, but we have to be partnership. We have to work together on that.”

SISTER HELEN FLEMINGTON: They’re part of the community now. It’s like they’ve moved in with us.


GROUP: Hey you!

GROUP LEADER: Kansas City is watching you!

GROUP: Kansas City is watching you!

HEDRICK SMITH: Working together, Blue Hills began shutting down drug houses. They held city codes inspections and protests.

SPOKESPERSON: People who did not have hope all of a sudden had hope.

GROUP: We’re here to take our neighborhood back!

MARY LEE, Blue Hills Resident: Well, they’ve been apart for so long, it’s about time they come together. I’m going to try to help if I can to make it better for the younger generation or the older generation. And I thought maybe if my little part helped, then, hey, I want to do it.

HEDRICK SMITH: But drug dealers didn’t want to move out. They fought back.

MARVEL HODGE: They threw a firebomb through my window at 2:30 in the morning.

HEDRICK SMITH: Marvel Hodge, who had been an activist on her block, woke up one night to a fire smoldering on her porch.

HEDRICK SMITH: Do you think they were trying to run you out of the neighborhood?

MARVEL HODGE: They wanted to run the older people out who had lived here a long time. They wand to take over the neighborhood.

HEDRICK SMITH: More angry than scared, she wanted to leave Blue Hills.

MARVEL HODGE: This is the sign I had in the yard. I kept it out there about three weeks.

MARVEL HODGE: Why, hello, Sister Helen. How are you?

HEDRICK SMITH: But she stayed because neighbors rallied around her.

MAN: He wanted $20,000, yeah.

HEDRICK SMITH: The next move was for Larry Washington and the Kansas City Neighborhood Alliance to buy and rehabilitate the house next door.

LARRY WASHINGTON: The abandoned properties are the problems. They’re just trouble. Not to mention, they’re eyesores in the community. So we target abandoned houses in order to convert those to convert the community back around.

HEDRICK SMITH: KCNA is buying and restoring many of the properties left behind when drug dealers are forced out.

MAN: All along this wall right here. I’m looking for upper cabinets here.

HEDRICK SMITH: Larry, what’s going to happen here when you’re finished? Is this going to be rented? Is it going to be sold?

LARRY WASHINGTON: We instill home ownership. We like the home ownership. And, of course, with the home ownership, people are more apt to take care of their property.

HEDRICK SMITH: In addition to fixing up nearly 50 abandoned houses in Blue Hills, KCNA helps homeowners with repairs, by organizing volunteer cleanup days, like this one for Mary Lee.

MARY LEE: This is something I couldn’t do by myself. I needed help. And I… I mean, I can paint, but I can’t paint the whole house by myself.

MAN: Excuse me.

MARY LEE: I can move the boards and things, but I can’t move it by myself. Everybody need help every now and then.

HEDRICK SMITH: Even Blue Hills teenagers are getting involved in their community again. The neighborhood association is thriving, says president Linda Spence.

LINDA SPENCE, Neighborhood Association President: It’s easy to get the neighbors out to clean up the block, to have parties, to come out to meetings. Once you can show the neighbors that we can be effective if we all work together, hey, it just happens.

HEDRICK SMITH: Their biggest challenge was this neighborhood bar, the Chateau Lounge. Kansas City police, who shot this aerial surveillance video, said the lounge attracted traffic, crowds and crime. When a fatal shooting took place on the Chateau’s dance floor, captured by the club’s security camera, residents wanted to shut it down.

LINDA SPENCE: That was it. That was it. That was it. The police had had it. The neighborhood had been fighting it. We’d had it. The church said enough’s enough. And so we banded together.

HEDRICK SMITH: A county prosecutor assigned to the community teamed up with residents.

DAWN PARSONS, Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor: They asked us what they could do. And we said, “what do you want to do?” They said, “we want to bring attention to this.” And so we had a vigil there for all the victims. And an ad hoc group against crime got involved.

GROUP: Shut them down! Shut them down! Shut them down! Shut them down!

DAWN PARSONS: So it wasn’t just the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office that was trying to take away a hard- working person’s liquor license. It was this is a community problem and we’re all coming together to fix it.

HEDRICK SMITH: After a legal fight, a judge revoked the Chateau’s liquor license and closed the bar.

DAWN PARSONS: But without the neighborhood, I mean, if they never came out of their barricaded doors, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything.

HEDRICK SMITH: Overall, crime is down by 25 percent, but the battle isn’t over. The hundred men of Blue Hills provide neighborhood security at nighttime and for kids on their way to school. Blue Hills is serious about Neighborhood Watch.

LILLIAN ANDERSON: Our neighbors are watching. We will call the police to report any suspicious activities. We have this at every entrance in Blue Hills from the North to the South.

HEDRICK SMITH: Safer streets mean the Andersons can enjoy their front porch again.

ROBERT ANDERSON: It’s a real pretty day out here.

MAN: You can walk to the store. You can walk your dog in the evening, not just during the day. You have that freedom.

MARVEL HODGE: And I can even feel safe when I’m planting my flowers and taking care of my flowers. I don’t have a fear of being shot like I was a couple years ago.

HEDRICK SMITH: With all these improvements, property values are going up. Kids are back playing in the park. People’s spirits are rising.

DAWN PARSONS: You do not have a right to a good neighborhood. It’s your responsibility. You have to get out and talk to your neighbor, find out who they are, so you can all work together.

ROBERT ANDERSON: We feel like, you know, okay, we’ve taken our neighborhood back. We’re winning.

LILLIAN ANDERSON: Get active. If you want your neighborhood back, you can get it back. Remember, there’s more of us than them.