Wichita: All Roads Lead to Suburbia

by Paul Abromeit

One of the most startling pieces of data from James Chung's latest Focus Forward presentation was the exodus of talented minority groups. Women under the age of 45 and racial minorities are significantly less likely to find success in Wichita and, thus, significantly more likely to leave in search of greater opportunity elsewhere. 

This post, from Team member Paul Abromeit, serves as a challenge to think of all voices and all people as we work to build a better Wichita.

I often wonder about the reality that Wichita and Wichitans find themselves in. Wichita, that place that has served as the butt of many of my peers’ jokes over the years; that place that many have remarked has a “self-perception” problem; that place that has seen its best days behind it, as some analyses offer.

I wonder because that reality which seemed to be so fixed, so reliable, has come under fire recently. In the last few years, since the Wichita State Shockers showed the world that they were more than just a “mid-major” program and a force to be reckoned with, Wichita has begun to shed that sense of complacency, like a sweater it’s worn for thirty years and suddenly gotten tired of the bristled fibers.

In fact, what began with the Shockers as a symbol for something greater has metamorphosed into an outright movement for a city that is more than just a “good place to grow up.”

Citizens have become small business owners, small business owners have become community organizers, and the momentum from those efforts are reaching a crescendo at a time when public and private interests are moving in strong to capitalize on the moment. Money is being poured into the downtown areas and suburban peripheries, no doubt, and all signs indicate that Wichita is headed for a renaissance.

I have always been a bit of a contrarian, however, and tend to go left when everyone else is going right. That is not to say that I don’t believe that Wichita has what it takes to rise to the occasion of the day, and is taking some good steps in that direction. Certainly, the ground is shifting beneath us, which is good, but where everyone will be standing when it all shakes out is far from settled.

Walking the Walk in White Wichita

That is to say: just because a lot of money is being invested into the downtown area does not mean that the benefit will magically flow from the center, extending into the ancillary neighborhoods and those beyond it that are in real need of a boost. The logic that a stronger downtown equals a stronger city is a dangerous one to accept simply on the face of it.

That is why I have been wondering often about the reality of the situation in Wichita. It would be all too easy to listen to the loud horns proclaiming that Wichita’s time has come, see all the project maps for the downtown core and the university, and read the articles and emails and social media posts that are bullish on the future, and be enamored by it all.

That, I believe, would bypass the responsibility we have to take a hard look at our town and the people whose lives are at stake, and it would also take for granted the significance of the moment.

For the first time since I have been alive and a part of the Wichita community, it seems that people truly want to redefine the city and remake it in an image that is worthy of the lives we hope to lead. That is fantastic. We deserve a city that serves our aspirations for the future…but only if we SERVE IT BACK.

That is to say, it’s common to want things to change, but then not have to change ourselves. It’s very human. “Well…we want a bustling downtown and more dynamic public spaces and other amenities (you know, the stuff they say will make people actually want to stay in Wichita), but we still want to be able to drive across the city in 15 minutes and have homes with large backyards and 3 car garages.”

In other words, we want the excitement of a premier city without having to give up the comforts of suburban landscape.

I get that. I get the appeal of having space all to myself and a car I can get in and be anywhere in the city in 20 minutes or less. The generations before us got it, too…our cities were designed by and built for people who wanted to get out of the city.

And so even though we resist it, it’s familiar to us and we relish it. I, myself, think of the prospect of living downtown and relinquishing access to my car, if not entirely, and shudder at the thought. My family lives in the suburbs. A lot of stores I go to are in the suburbs.

Guitar lessons. Restaurants. Movie theaters.

How could I ever give all those up? What’s wrong with me living downtown AND being able to drive out there when I need to? There’s nothing wrong with it, exactly, but there’s something we miss when we do that mental experiment. There’s a factor that we leave out…

White Men's Roads Through Black Men's Homes

For instance, why is it that I am able to drive along Kellogg and get from downtown to the East Side in 6 or 7 minutes, if that?

It’s because there were neighborhoods along the way that were deemed expendable and forced to bear the burden of the inconvenience and economic damage that comes with being partitioned by a six-lane concrete moat.

Or another example, not even concerning highways... How is it that I am able to drive along 13th Street -- a surface street -- from Riverside to Rock in only 15 minutes? Because all along 13th Street are blighted neighborhoods with extremely limited economic activity, essentially zero attractions that would draw outsiders to them, and surrounding residents that often don’t have access to their own cars to drive.

So the result?

I benefit from their lack of opportunity, their area’s general undesirability, and their restriction from transportation.

But the thing is…while I may benefit from that socioeconomic contract in the short run, on my daily commute or occasional joy-ride, I am sacrificing something in the long term. Though I may not recognize it as such, that relationship is destroying those parts of the city and relegating them as back alley-ways, and their people are becoming more and more cut off from the whole.

If it’s true that a company’s most valuable resource is its people, then it’s even more so the case for a city. If you want a company that is fresh and innovative, then you create an environment that supports and nourishes your employees, give them access to the resources they need to be successful, and make sure that people are seen and heard and allowed to put forth their best ideas.

In the case of a city, how can citizens thrive when their habitats are in shambles, they are cut off from the amenities that the rest of the city has to offer, and in turn they are unable to offer their best ideas to the community at large?

They cannot, and the city as a whole suffers because of it.

Building a Better Wichita... For Whom?

I love the downtown pop up park in Wichita.

But I do not see those people I am referring to there. I still see mostly one color at the pop up park. I see mostly one color out at Final Friday. I see mostly one color in the coffee shops and juice bars and restaurants.

Is that because they’re the only ones who want to be downtown? No.

It’s because those are the only people that our downtown serves.

To be sure, not all economic development is without cultural progress and multi-cultural expression. Taco Fest and the North End Festival and River Fest continue to bring those few and far between faces into the fold.

But what is a festival lasting one day in 365, when those other 364 belong to the people who can afford to “live, work, and play” in downtown? That does not sound like a place that serves the many, and not just the few.

That is what I mean when I raise the point about serving the city in a way that it will serve you, and me, and all of us in return. If we truly want to redefine and remake the city into one that is a source of empowerment, enjoyment, and mobility for all; a city where new businesses spring from the minds of people whose ideas laid dormant for years, as they did not have the support to step forth and present themselves; a city where you come across new musicians whose play is better than any you’ve heard because it reflects a part of the city where they come from; or a city that is suddenly so much more colorful in spirit and in skin because every Wichitan is welcome and able to make it to Final Friday.

If that is what we want, then it will soon come to our realization that all the concessions we must make to accommodate these changes are not really concessions at all. They are opportunities -- challenging ones, no doubt -- but opportunities nonetheless to grow and stretch our minds in ways that may cater less to comfort but more to our sense of who we are capable of being.

And it's hardly limited to transportation or downtown development; it extends to walking the walk in our kids' education, to the types of projects we support with our philanthropy, to the people we groom for leadership roles, to... everything we do.

Serve Those Who Serve Wichita Back

So let us be vigilant as we drive forward. Let us look beyond our initial conceptions of what Wichita should be. Let us empty our minds and open our ears, to listen to each other, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern and all else.

We cannot expand as a city unless we are all expanding with it. We cannot heal while some of us are still hurting from the wounds inflicted upon them over decades. Healing is a whole body enterprise, and the healing of Wichita requires the whole body of its people.

So I ask that we turn inwards to the people of our city, and be honest about our past, and begin to build anew — and build a Wichita that serves the people that serve it back.