The fifth Annual March Down 5th Street went off perfectly despite the cold weather last Saturday morning. It has become our own unique St. Patrick’s Day event.
Mike Caldwell kicked it off by the firing of his rifle. He was in period dress to commemorate Lewis and Clark. Bagpipers from the KCK Police Department were kind enough to lead us down the hill from Old St. Mary’s Church to 5th and Elizabeth near Bobby Breitenstein’s place. About 100 people made it out for the March.
This KCK St. Patrick’s Day event is purposefully unique. It’s not a parade but instead a march. We want everyone to march not to watch. It lasts about 10 minutes total. It is a completely informal event. And it celebrates not just the Irish in KCK but the wonderful history that enriches this medium sized city in the midwest.
St. Mary’s church, which has long ago been closed, was originally an Irish parish and one of the first Catholic parishes in Kansas. It sits on Strawberry Hill which is best know for the Croatian immigrants who later populated the small work-force houses that were built for those that found employment in the West Bottoms packing houses.
Bobby Breitenstein resurrected an old neighborhood bar and reopened it 10 years ago as Breit’s Stein and Deli. The inside faithfully depicts what one of the Croatian immigrants would have found when he entered after a hard day’s work in the packing houses.
And so it goes in KCK. A wonderful melting pot of immigrants that came here to find new opportunity and the American Dream. Our neighborhoods reflect this fact. In addition to Strawberry Hill nearby is Russian Hill and Polish Hill. The area around St. Peter’s Cathedral was known for the cluster of Irish families that settled there. Areas like Argentine farther south were defined by the Mexican immigrants who made that neighborhood their home.
Recently, there is a resurgence of interest in our ethnic neighborhoods. This is most evident in the Strawberry Hill area and around Central Avenue. Scores of small businesses have opened up or have expanded recently and are adding a character and flavor that hasn’t existed there in some time.
Breit’s is a great example but not the only one. We have an excellent small bistro on 6th Street, Jay WaLe. Flywheel is a new coffee shop near 6th and Central that not only serves great drinks but is also a place to experience art and live performances. A group of young new business owners have done a wonderful job of restoring an old tavern at the now re-opened Chicago’s bar. It compliments the 403 Club where there is a great collection of pinball machines. Krisman’s sausage, a mainstay of Strawberry Hill, recently opened an expanded store. A nonprofit bike shop Revolve KC that is dedicated to getting people out on bikes and healthy recently opened on Central Avenue. And I haven’t mentioned nearly all of the great small businesses in the area. Importantly, more new businesses are in the works.
As I think about the potential around Strawberry Hill, I couldn’t help but connect it to a recent visit I made to Chinatown in San Francisco. I had the honor of travelling with Donny Smith and Steve Curtis of CHWC to experience what the Chinatown Community Development Corporation was doing to enliven its unique neighborhood and serve the residents there.
Donny Smith, Steve Curtis, myself, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Executive Director of Chinatown CDC Norman Fong
If you’ve been to Chinatown you know it is a unique and fascinating area of San Francisco. One of the my takeaways was that there was a careful stewardship of assisting the residents of Chinatown while enhancing the cultural and historical aspects of that part of the City. The Chinatown CDC had done an amazing job of recruiting young people to work on projects in the area. In fact, our tour of Chinatown was given by several young people from the CDC.
When we sat down and talked to these young people we quickly learned how proud they were of Chinatown. They were passionate about it. We also learned that none of them lived in Chinatown or had grown up there. Their dedication to the district was rooted in the historical and ethnic pride they had. Chinatown has developed such a strong cultural identity that it was attracting young people from all over the area to it — even if they didn’t live close by.
I think that same cultural magnet can be developed on Strawberry Hill. It’s already starting to happen: the new small businesses; younger people and artists moving there and opening studio space; a burgeoning nightlife that pays tribute to the working class roots of the district. Strawberry Hill is developing an identity that is reaching far beyond KCK. But, it’s at a critical juncture. If what we are seeing happen isn’t properly cultivated, the momentum could quickly stall.
As I noted in my State of the Government Speech a few weeks ago, economic development and redevelopment should tie itself to the unique characteristics of our neighborhoods. For Strawberry Hill that would mean taking the street improvements we installed on 5th Street and replicating them on 6th Street all the way to Central Avenue. In improving the streetscape and adding extra parking we would enhance the quality of life for the residents of those neighborhoods while supporting business needs for increased parking and a friendly environment at the front of their stores. That becomes true economic development and neighborhood improvement.
It’s not just about the physical improvements. Local government needs to more directly engage in the work of making it easy for small businesses to get up and running and to develop a support program for these districts. This includes helping to support publicity of the district and businesses. Our CDC’s need to continue to focus on quality of life issues and housing that enhances the unique nature of this place.
And all of us need to get on board, too. Those of us that know and enjoy Strawberry Hill need to start talking it up. We need to frequent the businesses. We need to tell the unique story of Strawberry Hill. In so doing, we help to cultivate this potential cultural magnet.