Brown Revisited

A Neighborhood Becomes a Photo-Op Backdrop
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 4 2004 5:22 PM

Brown Revisited

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Men and Women at work
Men and women at work

Today is all about exploring the neighborhood around the Brown Museum. I've arranged my guided tour inside the museum for Day 3, because I knew Night 1 would be spent catching up with high-school buddies, all of whom are married, and therefore think of me, the last single guy, as a walking bachelor party. (What their wives think of me, I'd rather not know.)

It is well into the afternoon before I finish breakfast at my favorite cheap Mexican restaurant, Tortilla Jack's (1618 Washburn). Their gran-sancho (extra beef, extra cheese, extra hot sauce) is the Platonic ideal of a beef burrito. Tortilla Jack's is so good, the city's most discriminating gastronomes frequent it daily: Topeka's cops.

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With a fuzzy brain, I stare at the rather vague Brown Tour Sites map. I am embarrassed to admit that in 14 years of living in a city of less than 150,000 people, the closest I've ever come to East Topeka was my eighth-grade nickname, ET. Derek Pomeroy gave it to me, because my Jordan-imitating hoops style—shucking and jiving drives to the basket—was more like the black street-ballers of East Topeka than the white-bread, pass-and-shoot game of West Topeka. Also, I was long-necked, gangly, and liked Reese's pieces.

At the corner of 17th and Kansas Avenue, where the museum looks like it should be located, I have my choice of auto repair shops to ask for directions. It is an indication of my sense of humor that I avoid Capital Belt & Supply and O'Reilly's Auto Parts (complete with a shamrock inside the "O" on the signage), choosing instead Johnny Reb's Cylinder Head Repair. Half-hoping I might provoke a redneck into saying something quotable, the joke turns out to be on me. I open the wrong door and enter Touch of Heaven, a store specializing in Catholic iconography located in the same shed-like building. A pleasant elderly woman standing beneath a large poster of Pope John Paul II points me in the right direction. Stephen Glass couldn't have made up a moment like this.

It cost the feds $13 million to renovate the school and build the exhibits, and it shows. Built in 1926 in the Italian Renaissance style, the Monroe Elementary School at 15th and Monroe Street (now the Brown Museum) hearkens back to an era when school buildings were not only built to last, they were built to look like they would last. Monroe's architecture is in stark contrast to the low-income housing of the surrounding neighborhood, with its sagging porches, peeling paint, and men at home on a Tuesday afternoon.

When Mayor McClinton talked about putting the Brown anniversary at the top of his priority list, he wasn't just blowing political smoke. Topeka has a yearly budget of about $2 million to spend on city improvements. Usually, this money is spread somewhat evenly around the city. This year, the mayor earmarked $1.8 million of the city's budget to improve this neighborhood. When I asked McClinton if he thought his predecessor, Butch Felker, would have done the same, his answer was, "No. Not a chance."

Around the Brown Museum, the construction workers are surprisingly hard at work, repaving the road in front of the school, painting older houses, and finishing three new prefabricated homes to fill empty lots. While considerable, the extent of the improvements does not reach much farther than a single square-block radius surrounding the Brown Museum. I'm sure it is a coincidence that this is the exact range of a photo-op backdrop. I'm sure it is also a coincidence that the federal government recently released some long-promised urban renewal funds to help bolster the city's expenditure in the area.

While circling the building snapping photos and taking notes, I notice a black man, a white woman, and three beautiful biracial girls in a white '90s Pontiac with chrome rims. There's no traffic, so as I walk past the car, I realize they are waiting for me. "You involved with this project?" the man, Kerry Baker, calls out. I tell him I'm a reporter. We shake hands.

Looking forward to seeing the president?

"If they let me that close," he half-jokes, "I mean, he's the most famous man in America. It's the chance of a lifetime."

But isn't it a little sad that they only clean up this neighborhood when the president is coming?

I'm trying to lead the witness, but he's not biting. "Nah, they've made a lot of changes that'll last. I've got little girls. It's a lot better now. They put in that magnet school over there [Williams], and they cleaned up some of these lots, and they are fixing houses that needed fixing for a long time. I tell you, it cleared out a lot of the drugs, a lot of the crime. I mean you'd have to be crazy to sell drugs out of your house these days with all these white folks walking around. I mean an undercover cop puts on a hard hat, how you going to know?"

As Kerry is talking, it hits me that this is where high-school guys I knew used to come to buy their drugs. It had never occurred to me before. Something must have shifted in my expression, because Kerry catches himself. Apparently concerned I might misinterpret why he has such a familiarity with the local drug trade, he points across the street. "I have a Christian ministry I'm trying to get going."

I take this as a good time to end the interview. I like preachers, especially black preachers, but once they get started on their ministry, there's no stopping them.

Kerry's enthusiasm leaves me with an objective journalism problem: I need to find someone who will say something negative to balance out the story. But who in this neighborhood could be against new housing and less crime?

About five seconds later, I run into Bev Stowers standing outside Dave's Auto Sales, a very low-rent used-car lot. Bev, a well-turned-out white woman, is Dave's wife.

What do you think of the improvements?

"It's been like this," she says, drawing out this to imply all that this implies, "for 30 years, and now they want to clean it up?"

She's smiling; I'm smiling. She's going to get the chance to unload all her frustrations; I'm going to get my "on the other hand" quotes.

You feel like this is just window dressing?

"Don't get me started," she says, getting started on this neighborhood. Sure, crime is down. The cops never used to come here. The cars on her husband's lot were vandalized all the time. One night they were in the office watching the vandalism as it was happening, talking on the phone to the police, but they wouldn't come. Now, the police show up five or six times a day.

But what she is really upset about is how city officials pressured them into selling their garage across the street to the federal government. Because of zoning changes, they told them, "If the garage burns down, you won't be allowed to rebuild it."

Were they smoking when they said that?

Dave laughs. He's been out of his office listening to his wife for the last five minutes. He looks like all the white fathers I knew who enjoyed fixing older American cars: a little bit paunchy, a little bit greasy, a whole lot sturdy. Dave is upset as well, but in an amused way. He takes off on an anti-Washington, anti-federal-government rant that is part Dennis Miller, part William Jennings Bryant.

So … are you planning a President's Day sale on May 17?

Dave laughs again, "Well, my buddy and I did have something planned …" Bev first tries to shush him and then tries to convince me that what he's saying should be off-the-record. (Sorry, Bev, he has to say it.) "We were going to create this 4' x  6' President's Day sale poster with a photo of President Bush and a dog pissing on his leg."

I never thought I'd sympathize with a white used-car dealer in a poor black neighborhood, but the poster idea wins me over completely.

But the Bush advance team need not worry about how to stifle Dave's First Amendment rights. Dave continues, "My buddy was going to put it together. But he died. And I'm not going to pay for it."

I believe I've discovered a project for the folks at MoveOn.org.

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