The Kansas City Star gave me my first job in journalism, a city hall gig in the suburbs. My beat included four towns on the east side of the metropolis – Blue Springs, Grain Valley, Oak Grove and Raytown. Three towns named for natural features and one named for Ray.
Blue Springs was large and prosperous – lush parks, award-winning schools and an impressive human-to-golden-retriever ratio. Oak Grove and Grain Valley were small, semi-rural towns on the far eastern edge of the Kansas City area. Then there was Raytown.
Raytown was closer in, an older town surrounded by suburban sprawl. It was a place of well-kept, not-too-large homes and utilitarian Midwestern stores. The mayor was well-liked, just as her dad was when he’d been the mayor. The drugstore lunch counter did huge breakfasts for reasonable prices. Nearby, a newer cafe hinted at changing demographics with its amazing, overstuffed burritos. I always had a soft spot for Raytown.
Many Kansas Citizans didn’t. Raytown was that place every large city has – the punchline town, shorthand for someplace a bit backwards. So when Raytown leaders started planning a revitalized downtown district – Walkability! Flexible zoning! Coffee shop! – it was met in some quarters with muffled laughter. Raytown plodded on anyway.
In this month’s issue, we look at another little city that had big ideas. Until recently, Oakland Park wasn’t the sort of place you’d associate with the words “culinary district.” Now however, Oakland Park is hip. If Funky Buddha is too busy you can walk over to Portland-esque video game bar Tenth Level Tavern or caffeinate at SwitchBox Coffee Roasters. Alberte’s serves up excellent Caribbean fare, Kelvin 3200 keeps it downhome and, well, I could go on. And did I mention the outdoor concerts?
All this is no accident. It happened because elected city officials and hired city professionals came up with a plan and set it in motion.
We had an election last month; maybe you heard about it. In the weeks since, attention has rightly been focused on that polarizing choice at the top of the ballot. If we are interested in change and progress, we’d also do well to consider the people and issues below.
Local governance can be a thankless job. People turn up at meetings and call you corrupt or incompetent. Journalists like me call when you’re trying to eat dinner. People roll their eyes when you, for example, say you want to create a culinary arts district down by the railroad tracks. And if the issues you fight and work for go on the ballot in a non-presidential year, hardly anybody bothers to turn up to vote on them.
That last one’s our loss. In our city of rising condos and rising sea levels, local decisions matter profoundly. The way we work, the way we play, how we get around, how we treat our community’s most vulnerable – those issues and others get decided here as much as in Washington, sometimes more.
And sometimes, local vision can create something beautiful. I haven’t been to Raytown in years, but I understand it’s become the sort of place now where you can walk to lunch and also get a nice latte.
If you’re feeling generous, you could even say it’s a bit of an Oakland Park.