KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas City's efforts to make a good impression for the rest of the world are bittersweet for residents of some inner-city neighborhoods who are asking why it took a baseball game to get city officials to do something about blight they say has been ignored for decades.
For months, city workers and volunteers have been cleaning up areas before Major League Baseball's All-Star Game activities were scheduled to begin Friday. Code enforcement officers have been hounding residents since early spring to tidy up their properties, and dozens of dilapidated homes were hastily being torn down ahead of the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night.
Hosting its first All-Star game in nearly 40 years, the city has been scrambling to present a positive image not just to TV viewers but thousands of out-of-town fans expected to be in Kansas City over the next several days. The event will provide a much-needed financial boost and city officials acknowledge there's a lot at stake for a community struggling to establish itself as a Midwestern entertainment and business hub.
The spotlight brings a special challenge for Kansas City. Super Bowls and All-Star Games are often held in arenas or stadiums that are either near downtown or next to tightly controlled developments of hotels and restaurants, usually within walking distance.
That's not the case in Kansas City, where Kauffman Stadium is miles from downtown and many of the city's entertainment districts and events associated with Tuesday's game. Some events are being held in the city's toughest ZIP codes, prompting the city-sponsored demolitions and pleas from city officials.
"Clean up your property," City Manager Troy Schulte said of the message to residents. "They've had no qualms about it. Kansas City residents are putting their best foot forward."
While many are glad the work is being done, some take it as an insult that the improvements are more for the benefit of out-of-towners.
"The conversation is, 'Why did it take this?'" said Pat Clarke, executive director of a local activist group PAC 20. "This is something that needed to be done a long time ago."
On Monday, as a demolition crew was tearing down an abandoned house near Cleveland Park — one of four community ballparks where the RBI Classic youth baseball and softball tournaments will be held over four days — Clarke noted the home's history.
"For years, drugs were run out of that house," he said. "Also in that one across the street, and in a vacant lot a few blocks over, with the Boys Club right behind it."
Schulte said 32 homes in neighborhoods near the ball complexes and along the route to Kauffman Stadium are being torn down ahead of the game. They are among the roughly 125 abandoned homes the city plans to tear down this year, he said.
Overall, there are about 800 structures on the city's list of dangerous properties that need to be fixed or torn down. Partially as a result of preparing for the All-Star activities, Schulte said, the city is moving from a scattershot approach in dealing with blighted homes to one that is more neighborhood-based.
"We typically choose them randomly, just kind of hit the worst ones around town," Schulte said. "Now we're trying to move toward a more consolidated effort. The All-Star game was a perfect catalyst."
Clarke, who grew up in the area and played baseball at Cleveland Park more than 30 years ago, said he thinks people who attend the youth tournaments will be safe during the daylight hours, when games will be played. At night? Not so much.
"Is it safe? This is the 64130," he said, referring to a ZIP code dubbed three years ago by The Kansas City Star as "the Murder Factory" because of the number of homicides that historically take place there. "It's the east side. I don't think there's anything to worry about as far as the ballgames, but I'm not going to say some cars won't be broken into."
Kansas City police have spent nearly a year getting a security plan in place, receiving assistance from local, state and federal agencies, Maj. Rich Lockhart said. Security around all of the activities, including the RBI tournaments, will be tight.
"There is going to be a lot of police presence, which we see as a deterrent to try to disrupt anything bad," he said. "A lot of things that are in place people can see, but others they can't."
Brandon Ellington, a state House member whose district includes much of the east side, said it's an insult that the city is providing so much police presence and worrying so much about the appearance of urban neighborhoods for the sake of strangers.
"I think it's a travesty," he said. "The only time these poor neighborhoods get any treatment at all is when out-of-towners come to the city. It's a lot like China before the Olympics. The infrastructure repair they're doing now is only so the east side we know won't be seen by out-of-towners."