I spent a few hours on Saturday afternoon driving around Kansas City, Kansas ... Kansas City, Missouri's little underachieving brother. Here's some of my impressions:
* KCK has a fascinating landscape - lots of hills, valleys, outcroppings, and so on. Unfortunately, if you have a house perched on the top of one of these hills, you'll likely be looking down on some factories.
* It seems like there's a disproportionately large amount of very small hosues built before WWII. There are very few older middle class areas; although there's some larger homes scattered among the clusters of tiny older houses, there's really no old middle class neighborhoods. The only area I saw that could have been middle or upper middle class at one time was west of downtown, and along Quindaro. KC might have been "prosperous" at one time, but it was never "middle class," or even middle-class blue-collar. If the demographics of old KCK were closer to that of KCMO, the place might not be in such a rut.
* Strawberry Hill - it's a tiny enclave east of downtown, not really "ethnic" in the sense that there's a lot of restaurants or social clubs. Kinda' sad, actually.
* In some areas west of downtown, there were signs of European ethnic holdouts; a bar flying a Polish flag here, a little old lady with a babushka walking down a street there. The scenes reminded me of some areas on Buffalo's East Side, where the population might be 80% minority, the last long-time residents too stubborn, too old or too poor to move.
* Unlike KCMO, KCK actually has retail downtown. Unfortunately, most of it consists of thrift stores, fast food restaurants, furniture rental stores, payday loan businesses, Mexican dry goods stores, places like "Jesus Christ Loves You Bookstore," and so on. There was more pedestrian traffic than what I've seen inside the KCMO loop, but it seemed as if at least half of the folks walking around were in a drug-filled haze. It reminded me of downtown Niagara Falls, New York, outside the touristy areas.
* KCK is much dirtier than KCMO. There's less sign and billboard clutter, but quite a bit of litter and debris laying around.
* KCK has alleys! This results in fewer curb cuts along residential streets, but it also means that those tiny houses are packed in tight, with no driveways separating them. Density in and of itself isn't bad -- look at the KCMO Plaza area -- but densely populated lower income neighborhoods in the US tend to be troubled places.
Another place in the metro that gives me the same vibes as KCK is what I've heard called the "Historic Northeast," by the KC Museum and Gladstone Boulevard. The area has some huge, architecturally significant homes on well-maintained lots and a good share of larger Brookside-type houses, but for the most part it's dominated by tiny 2/1 bungalows. Rapid demographic change, with the affordability of the small bungalows being a major contributing factor, seemed to lead to the decline of the neighborhood.
Still, areas closer to Gladstone seem to be holding their own. Even some of the older brick apartment buildings are in decent shape. When did Historic Northeast fade from glory? Is there any gentrification, or are the huge houses mostly owned by bargain-loving middle-class residents who fully understand they're trading the perception of a desirable location, conveneince to urban amenities such as neighborhood restaurants and bars, and equity for gobs of old-school square footage in 'da hood? Why there, and not on a block or two east of Troost 'round Plaza ways?
Again, I'm reminded of a neighborhood in Buffalo, Kensington ... mostly smallish (~1,200-1,500'^2) bungalows on ~3,000 '^2 lots at the core, with very large homes at the far eastern edge. Kensington experienced gradual socioeconomic change through the 1980s and 1990s, and is now about 70% middle and lower middle income minority, with elderly and lower-middle-class white holdouts. In the more affluent fringe, it's been holding at about 70% white, 30% minority. Despite a population with decent disposable income, the business districts now cater mainly to a low income minority population (check cashing, beeper/pager stores, hip hop clothing stores, fast food, etc), with a few old school businesses remaining. Unfortunately, in Buffalo the rule of thumb among the business community is black=poor, so even middle income, predominantly minority neighborhoods will have mostly lowest-common-denominator commercial businesses.