“Slums,” as well as blight, is ALWAYS in the eye of the beholder. The 2005 SCOTUS decision in Kelo v. New London made the view of municipalities the preeminent view when it enabled eminent domain for economic development (PDF). Topeka’s foundational neighborhoods aren’t so much blighted as neglected. For decades.
These were my comments to Strong Town’s Chuch Mahron when he visited Topeka on Oct. 28, 2019:
“I attended the Strong Towns presentation at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, October 28, 2019, at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library.
“There were good discussions last night. As you may know, I’m a big believer in bottom-up planning and policy making. The existential ‘Complex vs. Complicated’ dichotomy, explained by Strong Towns’ presenter Chuck Marohn, was so instructional for how cities develop, thrive, wither, and fail, and all of the destinations situated within those outcomes (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2019/5/27/do-you-want-to-know-what-works). As I said last night, it provided a great macro view of things, but that dichotomy by itself is insufficient to explain what has happened historically in communities of color. The economic and financial components of how cities develop never fully take into account the social component of racism.
“Suburbs developed after WWII. Federal policies helped spur suburban development. Yet those policies didn’t invite people of color to the tract housing being built on the peripheries of cities. That wasn’t economically motivated. That was socially motivated by racism.
“Meanwhile, white flight left an eroded tax base and its associated harms: declining schools, decreased economic development, dilapidated housing, shuttered businesses, vacant lots, and increased crime. That list is not exhaustive. While the attentions of most cities moved to the suburbs as the aforementioned harms took root, those same attentions left the centers of cities, where people of color were redlined, to wither and die. None of that was economically motivated. That was socially motivated by racism.
“Another thing that Marohn spoke on tonight that I thought was important was that how poor neighborhoods actually present the best economic value and opportunities in cities (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/10/poor-neighborhoods-make-the-best-investment). The problem with getting that idea and data before those who can implement those things is that the shiny baubles that tend to guide development in cities are rarely seen as being located in poor neighborhoods. Since I first became an advocate for Topeka’s poor neighborhoods in 1996, the number of NIAs (the city’s poor neighborhoods defined as having at least 51% of their populations at or below 80% of Area Family Income, as defined by the federal government) has INCREASED from 16 to 21. But overall investments in those neighborhoods HAVE NOT increased.
“The economists and physicists Marohn referenced tonight, with their tables and side rules, as being ascendant during the 20th century rarely addressed the social component of racism. Marohn thinks the 21st century will be defined by sociologists and psychologists. Perhaps, if Marohn is right, there will be greater discussion of racism as it impacts the health of cities.
“Politicians, ultimately, are perhaps the least trustworthy barometer of where public thinking is truly headed. Being elected and reelected rarely lines up with bottom-up planning and policy making. Top-down is easier for them. It’s more efficient for them. It’s less complicated for them. And it leads to a very bad relationship with US.
“Marohn was pretty clear about what has to happen if cities are to become viable moving forward. It will be up to US to carry that message to our city leaders and to insist that they heed the warning.”
For me, “the intentions of Urban Renewal” were NEVER noble. The intentions of Urban Renewal were to carry out in real time redlining and the other governmental policies that were targeted at Black and Brown people to keep our society separate and unequal.
I like the idea of at least examining the option of localizing interstate traffic, which could return the area that was The Bottoms to residential and commercial use, and most importantly while investments in The Bottoms is not possible today, making investments in the low- to moderate-incomes that literally surround downtown IS possible and should happen because, once again, poor neighborhoods actually present the best economic value and opportunities in cities. Investing in those neighborhoods necessarily multiplies investments in the downtown core and provides both residential and commercial opportunities for those who want to live closer to the city’s core. Ward-Meade, Historic Old Town, Historic Holliday Park, Central Park, Monroe, and the East Topeka North and South NIAs are the neighborhoods directly involved, and if one jumps the river the Historic North Topeka East NIA is included. As much as we hear about downtown development we DON’T hear about these downtown-adjacent neighborhoods that also contain most of the city’s history.
Our efforts in Topeka are being opposed with the same words, vitriol and actions one sees in many other cities trying to proactively address law enforcement run amok. I think that’s been the biggest surprise for some people here: that racial animus could happen in Topeka, KS even though many Topekans had been saying that for many years.
One possibility regarding turning back the clock is that those who want a return to the days when Blacks knew their place are beginning to understand that their run as the only voice the nation hears and heeds is coming to an end. When cornered, an animal will fight his hardest to survive. Things will get worse before they get better.
But I’m here to tell you that those working for change will fight at least as hard.
Challenge: Institutional racism and racist policies have made life hard for people of color in Topeka.
Opportunity: Both our state and our Capital City have proud traditions of abolition and liberation.
Challenge: Our city budget is stretched — We need to grow our tax base to fund existing city services.
Opportunity: Our downtown is successful and growing.
These problems are adaptive challenges. There aren’t clear-cut, easy solutions to the struggles our city is facing today. Here at Bike Topeka, we’re big fans of the Strong Towns approach to identify and act on opportunity:
Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.
Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?
Do that thing. Do it right now.
We know that downtown is the most profitable district in the city, with the highest rates of property tax per acre, and the most valuable buildings. If we want to add to the city’s bottom line, we should add more residents and businesses to the downtown district.
But after some recent research, we realized that downtown used to be a lot more heavily populated than it is today. Our city leaders, presumably with the best intentions, changed that forever in the 1950s.
Take a ride with us through the past as we look at the Keyway Urban Renewal Project and its effects on communities of color in Topeka — and how we can use the fiscally-responsible Strong Towns approach to do something about it today.
Urban Renewal forced 3,000 people to move out of downtown Topeka.
In the 1950s and 1960s, more than 3,000 Topekans were forced to leave their homes and businesses in The Bottoms district in downtown to make way for new real estate development and the construction of Interstate 70, all as part of the Keyway Urban Renewal Project. 1
The country was at the peak of the Baby Boom, when all roads seemed to lead to prosperity. Topeka’s population was growing rapidly, construction was constant, and no one could predict an end to the wave of economic success brought by the post-war population explosion.
The Housing Act of 1954 opened up a huge federal grant program for cities to rebuild their downtowns. Two years later, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Millions of dollars in economic development money were made available to every city with a plan. So, Topeka made a plan.
Topeka’s Urban Renewal Agency conceived and oversaw the “Keyway” project, which would eradicate so-called slums in the downtown area and clear lots for new retail and light-industrial development. Instead, the program decimated a neighborhood called The Bottoms — more than 20 blocks of residences and businesses, and decades of Topeka’s history. 2
East 4th Street in the Bottoms was the heart of a thriving Black Business District, with more than 50 different businesses: doctors, lawyers, dentists, bars, restaurants, cafes, community cornerstones like Lytle’s Drug Store, as well as shops, nightclubs, and the beloved Apex Theater.
The Bottoms district also hosted a robust and connected Latinx community, with strong ties to Topeka’s Oakland neighborhood and Our Lady of Guadelupe Parish.
This area’s history is inextricably linked with Topeka’s history. Many of Topeka’s Latin-American immigrants came to Topeka to work for the railroad; and African-Americans came to Topeka looking for a new start.
Cyrus Holliday founded Topeka, brought the railroad, and with it, economic development and jobs. But it was the influx of free Black Americans and immigrants who truly put Topeka on the map. After the end of the Civil War, thousands of free Black families moved from the eastern U.S. to Kansas to start new lives, later known as Exodusters.
By 1906 in Topeka, 28 of the city’s 71 churches were Black congregations. Black families in Topeka settled in Tennessee Town (many Exodusters were from Tennessee), in Mudtown just south of the downtown area, in Redmonsville in North Topeka, and also in The Bottoms. In 1907, Topeka hosted the 8th annual meeting of the National Negro Business League, Booker T. Washington’s organization built to support black business and entrepreneurship across the country. 3
The Lytle Family
One Exoduster, John Lytle, born into slavery but freed by the 13th amendment, was a barber and later a salesman in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Though he and his family were free, they had limited opportunities for land, worship, and education in Tennessee. Reconstruction had failed to deliver the equality it promised, and in fact, local and national racist policymaking, as well as outright mob violence — escalated in the 1870s, especially in Tennessee.
In 1882, John and Mary Ann Lytle heard the call of the Exodusters, and uprooted their family of five from Tennessee and moved to Kansas. In Topeka, John established a barbershop at 207 S. Kansas Avenue. He went on to serve on the city’s police force, and was politically active in the state’s Populist Party.
The Lytles’ children were successful, too.
Crediting her experience working for newspapers and for the Legislature in Topeka, the Lytles’ daughter, Lutie Lytle, was the first black woman in the U.S. to become a law professor.
Their son Charles also went into barbering and law enforcement like his father, but became better known as the owner of Lytle’s Drug Store at 112 SE 4th Street. 4
By 1956, the Lytle family had grown to almost 20 members in Topeka, even with Lutie and her family settling elsewhere. Lytle’s Barber Shop was even listed in the Green Book entry for Topeka at that time. Though John had passed away in 1933, by all measures he had established a successful and comfortable home for his family in Topeka.
In 1958, Lytle’s Drug Store, as well as Velvet Freeze restaurant, La Michoacana Tortilleria, Star Lounge, the Apex Theater, and dozens of other businesses and residences were closed and vacated in order to clear the land for urban renewal.
The demolition crews came and went, leaving bare earth in their path.
Ten years later, in 1966, not a single Lytle remained in Topeka.
The departure of the Lytle family is a tiny example of the unfathomable loss caused by urban renewal.
If you were lucky enough to own property in the Keyway area, the program would buy your property as compensation for your loss. Some residents found new homes in the Oakland and Highland Park neighborhoods. But if you were renting — many black families and immigrant families were prohibited from securing loans or buying property due to redlining — the Urban Renewal Agency offered no compensation or relocation assistance.
Today in 2020, The Bottoms district is more vacant and less diverse than it ever was, and the poverty in Topeka is deeper and more pronounced than it was in the “slums” of the 1950s.
There are a handful of houses on the fringes of the district. One two-story, two-bedroom house in the area sold in 2016 for $5,000. 5
Turn-of-the-century buildings were bulldozed to build a Montgomery-Ward department store and massive surface parking lot. In spite of the intentions of urban renewal — to keep downtown relevant to suburban residents — the department store left the downtown area after two decades, to move into the mall on the edge of the city. After an extended period of vacancy, the building was eventually repurposed into the Law Enforcement Center. Yes, the police station sits in the middle of the former Black Business District. And the city can no longer collect property tax from that parcel.
The intentions of urban renewal may have been noble. But its effects caused long lasting economic and social devastation.
Downtown is our best prospect for economic growth
We have worsened our city’s economic outlook by spreading out our population into suburbs easily-accessed by city highways. This ever-expanding outline has created massive maintenance liabilities for our city budget without expanding our tax base. Topeka’s population has been the same for 50 years, but our square mileage has steadily increased in that same time. That’s more miles of streets, sewers, and water lines for the city to maintain, on functionally the same property tax revenue from decades ago. At the same time, we wrecked a high-performing district in downtown and gave up taxable land to non-taxable uses.
Urban Renewal became “Urban Removal,” sending thousands of residents out of the downtown district, and building a highway express route to the suburbs. Commercial properties have proliferated on the fringes of Topeka. We grew our city on the edges, rather from the middle, and we are financially suffering as a result.
If you’re curious to learn more about massive maintenance liabilities, the example of Lafayette, Louisiana may sound familiar. Lafayette is a city of 125,000 (about the same as Topeka) that would have to raise taxes by $3,300 per household today just to maintain the roads and drainage systems they have already built. We’re in the same situation. Topeka has a $60 million liability on water lines alone.
Topeka population numbers from the U.S. Census.
Instead of urban renewal, a better bet in the 1950s would have been to help residents of The Bottoms improve their properties, block by block. After all, poor neighborhoods make the best investments. The biggest gain in value for Topeka would have been to build and improve incrementally within The Bottoms district. Downtown creates some of the best property tax revenue in the city, with many parcels bringing in the highest value per acre compared to any other part of Topeka. Sadly, incremental investment in The Bottoms neighborhood is not an option any more, but maybe we can still make good on the destruction that urban renewal caused.
As we look at KDOT’s plan to rebuild and expand the Polk-Quincy Viaduct section of Interstate 70, it’s time to pause and consider what happened when this highway was built. The highway project and the Keyway Urban Renewal Project pulled the plug on downtown Topeka and drained it of significant, valuable population and commerce. Now, we are desperate to add residents and businesses to the area, but it’s a slow project. Maybe there’s a better way.
Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it
The real problem is right in front of us, and it’s not the noisy, polluting highway. That’s just a nuisance. The real problems are the silent struggles of our neighbors and residents who live within reach of the most valuable real estate district in all of Shawnee County, but don’t have enough food to eat, don’t have stable employment, and don’t have access to the power needed to make change in the future of their city — all because we cut apart communities of color in the 1950s.
These wounds will never be fully healed; we will never have the community like we might have had. But the pain and damage can be acknowledged, and we can work to give today’s generations a better start. We need to do that with real, physical acknowledgement — with money and land for economic development.
Because The Bottoms was the most affordable place to live in Topeka, many families had nowhere to go when urban renewal started. The Topeka Housing Authority was founded, and the Pine Ridge housing project was built. In its first year, it had 300 applications for just 100 apartments. We took a housing challenge from one part of the city and moved it to another area.
In 2016, black families nationally had on average 1/10th the wealth of white families. That is not to say that white families are necessarily wealthy — just that black families have significantly more barriers to education, employment, healthcare, and homeownership. Black families have been left behind, because they were legally prohibited from securing loans to buy homes in the 1940s and 1950s. At the same time, white families were investing in property and land, most of which appreciated significantly in the last five decades. Furthermore, in Topeka, the unemployment rate for black men in 2018 was 12.9% and only 5% for white men. 56
Despite a promising start as a free state, and a sort of ‘utopia’ for black families fleeing continued harassment after the Civil War, Kansas has not delivered on the promise of equality that our Constitution guarantees. From the late 1800s to the 1950s — a span of about 70 years — black families built community, built businesses, and built their families in Topeka. But the Keyway Urban Renewal Project, in about four years, shattered that dream for thousands of people. The racist policymaking of redlining, urban renewal, and urban highways exacerbated inequalities in Topeka, and ensured that our downtown would be less diverse in the future than it was at the turn of the 20th century.
Right now, we have the chance to do something different than KDOT’s proposed plan for rebuilding the Polk-Quincy Viaduct. We don’t have to add lanes (and add traffic) and bulldoze more buildings to keep our city on track for progress. We can tear down the highway and route traffic on boulevards instead. Streets like 10th Street, 8th Street, 6th Street, and Topeka Boulevard are all designed to carry plenty of traffic. If you’re just passing through, Google Maps reports that I-470 is only a minute different from using I-70. We can fill in the hole left by the below-grade highway downtown, and resurrect land where it used to be. We can offer that land, and capital, to former residents of the area, and any current resident of Topeka Housing Authority who writes a business plan.
One city’s path to rebuilding downtown
Topeka is far from the first city to consider closing part of an interstate. Take a look at the Inner Loop East project in Rochester, NY.
Rochester closed a section of below-grade highway, filled in the hole, and developed new construction on top of that land.
Instead of rebuilding the highway, they closed it and filled it in with dirt, and the Mayor led the charge to encourage new development. The city saved millions of dollars in maintenance. And now, more than $200 million has been spent in private investment for housing and retail. In the near future, Rochester will be earning new property tax on land that has been un-taxable for decades.
The rebuild of the Polk-Quincy Viaduct is expected to cost more than $300 million to complete, mostly federal and state funding, with $20 million coming from Topeka (all debt). But if we close the highway, how much will we save? How much will we gain? It makes sense that Topeka should invest in land, especially its most valuable downtown land. After all, they’re not making any more of it.
Topeka has its opportunities and challenges.
Challenge: The Polk-Quincy Viaduct Segment of I-70 is too old to maintain.
Opportunity: The PQV uses 9 acres of land in our most valuable district.
Challenge: I-70 is an important corridor for commercial traffic.
Opportunity: I-470 is a newer highway, closer to some of our region’s industry, and a potential alternate route for through-traffic.
These ideas are dramatic in order to provide a starting point for discussion. What are the barriers that people of color are facing in Topeka? Some of them are physical — like highways dividing the community — but some are more nuanced. Can we work together on these challenges, and improve our city’s financial outlook, too?
Again, we’ll point to the Strong Towns approach for problem-solving. We need only to talk with our neighbors to start addressing our community’s needs.
Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.
Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?
Do that thing. Do it right now.
Topeka has its opportunities and challenges. Let’s not repeat our mid-century mistakes. Today can be the first day of the next 150 years in Topeka’s history.
Here are some great ways to help protect your investment from theft.
Insure the bike with your renters’ or homeowners’ insurance. Your insurance agent will need a photo of the bike, the serial number, purchase price or value, and make/model/year.
Buy a really big lock. Even better, buy two different kinds of big locks. Register your key with the lock company. Sign up for their theft protection plan, if they have one. Using two different types of locks, like a U-lock and a chain lock, means that a thief might have to use two different tools to steal your bike.
Do not buy a cable lock. They are the easiest to defeat, and some can even be cut with fingernail clippers. Get a U-lock or chain or armored cable. Get something better than big-box brand chain. You will need to go to a local bike shop to find this stuff.
Your kids should lock up their bikes, too. The best lock is the one they can carry and use.
Practice good locking strategy. Lock in obvious, well-lit places. Lock to permanent objects, even if it means you have to walk a little further to your destination. Lock through the frame first, wheels second.
Lock the bike every time you walk away from it. Even if you’re popping into the store for just a few minutes.
At home, always store the bike indoors, or under a cover. If you can avoid it – never leave your bike outside at night. But if you must leave it outside, lock it well, and also use a tarp, a motorcycle cover, or a grill cover. Try to find one without any branding.
When you have time, write your name and address on a piece of paper, and stick it in a ziplock bag. Then, take out your seatpost, and tape it inside. Double-insurance in case your serial number can’t be identified!
Keep the bike locked up when you’re not riding it. Even if it’s indoors. Lock it to something permanent if you can.
Secure your apartment/house/storage area. If your bike is on the balcony, make sure the bike is covered and out of sight. Keep your doors locked and windows closed while you’re sleeping or away from the house.
Register the bike with BikeIndex.org with photos, make, model, and serial number.
Add a GPS or Bluetooth tracker to the bike. Tile is cheap, and the more people who have it, the more effective the network becomes.
Always lock your bike. Thieves are opportunists. Your bike is secure as long as someone else has locked their own bike a little less secure.
Plus, there are about a million other resources there, it’s a great spot to learn.
If the worst happens, and your bike is stolen, you need to act quickly.
File a police report with the make, model, color of the bike, description, and serial number. Keep track of your police report number. If you can, have the police meet you at the site of the theft. If they already have your bike – and the info matches up – you might get reunited! Do not call the police to chase down a thief. You are calling the police so that your insurance company has a paper record of the theft.
Notify your insurance company of the bike theft.
Advertise locally of the theft – with a clear photo and description. (Facebook, Craigslist, Letgo, OfferUp, eBay, others)
Check with local residents or businesses to see if anyone has camera footage during the time your bike went missing.
Notify your lock company of the theft – with photos of the remains of the lock, if any.
Trawl local sales sites for your bike. There’s a chance it’s already listed for sale!
Watch your neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods for your bike. There’s also a good chance it hasn’t gone far.
Ultimately, just lean on your insurance. Be glad you had that policy – and use it to upgrade your wheels.
Tears will be shed. But would you rather be crying, or riding a new bike?