“Pull the Plug” by John Naramore

“Pull The Plug on The Ninth Street Corridor Project”
By John Naramore
June 19, 2015
The City of Lawrence’s Ninth Street Corridor project should be dismantled and abandoned. Art-on-the-street is not the real end game, but the first phase of a subtly crafted wedge for developers’ commercial incursions into highly residential East Lawrence to follow. Project instigators have displayed their intent with prejudicial and misleading characterizations of the neighborhood, and making unfounded claims of ‘need’ for neighborhood investment. Because of its disingenuous nature and intent to utilize millions in public funds to dismantle the stable, viable and historic neighborhood dating to the city’s founding, the plug should be pulled. An examination of the documents involved and proponents’ statements supports this contention.  The Lawrence Arts Center’s (LAC) application for funding intentionally misrepresented the community in order to fit into the funding parameters of Art Place, a Brooklyn-based non profit, which uses “money-for-art” as a catalyst to revitalize blighted urban landscapes across the United States. While laudable in some instances, East Lawrence does not fit the mold.

East Lawrence is a vibrant community of small businesses, families and individuals. It is neither urban nor blighted. The fanciful “Warehouse Arts District”, made prominent in the application, comprises just two sides of one block on Pennsylvania Street. One block. Misrepresentation of the character of the neighborhood continues beyond the grant application. Investors have stated that the neighborhood is ripe with foreclosures and bankruptcies, another self-serving exaggeration. Most telling is co-project crafter, LAC director Susan Tate’s response to a question at her Art Place presentation this May. When asked about the neighborhood involved with the project, she responded “there’s actually two neighborhoods. One is our downtown which …has a tremendous amount of investment.  The other is at the end of the seven blocks to the
East where there is tremendous investment by one developer and the federal government. In between, there are several churches, there’s a small school that has been under threat of closure…there are many people who rent places to live…” In her
spin, the “in between” East Lawrence neighborhood does not exist.

The project is about much more than ‘arting-up’ a street; it is a back-handed inroad to urban renewal. The application makes reference to the ‘corridor’ being in an “underinvested” neighborhood. It speaks to “strategies to accelerate economic development”. When hidden financial details were revealed, significant investments in the project by the two developers on either side of the neighborhood were disclosed. Both have received large sums of public funds and tax breaks for their condos and apartment blocks. Precedent gives us every reason to believe they would again seek public monies for future development, contrasted with long-term residents and property owners who pay their own way.

The Ninth Street Corridor project is by and for outside interests. No one from the neighborhood was involved in its inception, nor requested it. It was only through public pressure that any neighborhood representatives have been given token roles to play. Still, no one from the neighborhood has a position in final decision making. As well as the neighborhood itself being called into question, likewise has been the organization representing it. It is worthy to note that the East Lawrence Improvement Association was formed by the city in 1973, in order to qualify for federal funds for the Haskell Loop, on behalf of developers and outside interests. The road was planned to bisect the neighborhood, decimating it in the process. Fought and defeated by neighborhood, residents took over the association, the current manifestation is again engaged to protect the character of the neighborhood.

My connection to East Lawrence runs deep. I moved to Connecticut Street in 1970 and lived on 9th Street from 1972 until 1983. My brother and I moved our printing business from the former Johnson’s Grocery on 9th in 1972, and expanded into the former Apple Valley Boat building on 9th in 1996 where we operated until 2005. I have ownership interests in those properties still. I was the neighborhood business representative on the team that created the latest East Lawrence Neighborhood Plan. It’s lamentable to contend that this area has to be developed to attract artists.

Forty-five years ago one of my neighborhood friends was Samuel T (Trigg) Dickensen, then in his late 80’s. Sam had studied at both the Kansas City and Chicago Art Institutes. While as a young man he painted backdrops for the Bowersock Theater, he is renowned as the painter of the panorama at KU’s Natural History Museum’s world famous exhibit, having collaborated with Professor Dyche in its creation. Sam lived simply and wouldn’t have been able to live in an upscale East Lawrence.

If development occurs as planned, it is questionable how many of today’s working artists could then afford to live in the neighborhood. At best, most would be forced from their homes and yards into dense, multi-family rental units.

This project has clearly been in the works for some time, mostly with the knowledge of city officials. I recently asked a city administrator if condemnations of private properties by the city were planned, and was told “Not in this phase.” Obviously there is more on the drawing board.

Possibly the most insincere aspect of the project’s application was connecting itself to Langston Hughes and John Brown, It is disingenuous to link the memories of either of fighters for equality to a project designed to displace low-to-moderate income, culturally diverse residents. I call upon our city commissioners to acknowledge what is really going on here, and to reevaluate their $3.3 million in public funds committed to it by the former City Commission. And I ask whether our elected representatives want to contribute to the destruction of a vibrant, historic working class neighborhood comprised of starter families, small business owners, seniors aging in place, home owners, renters – and artists trying to live and make a living. Their decisions will have far reaching consequences.