Breaking the Norms of Land Ownership in a Segregated City
For the board of Clement Waters Retreat, this little nonprofit is our heart song. Every day we get up and ask ourselves, “How can we help people work with nature to increase peace and to heal what ails people?” It’s a thankless job, unpaid for all of us, and very gratifying. In just over five years, we’ve met thousands of people who have benefitted from culturally informed encouragement about nature connections. We have accomplished the seemingly impossible: those who had been afraid of the unknown now can get out into nature, notice a breeze, taste a leaf, plant a seed and watch it grow.
These simple healing acts are not possible in places where people aren’t welcomed into nature, and in the sprawling cities of the United States, natural scenes can be few and far between, especially in the spots where those with little income are made to live. This is a country where “possession is nine tenths of the law,” and that includes land. In the legal world, you are literally barred from caring about what happens on another person’s parcel.
Environmentalists, organic farmers, hunters, hikers and people living Indigenous traditions are known for voicing their dislike of exclusive and extractive land possession. Even more people have lived in places where they have no say about the state of the land, even if it is making them sick. Though these silent sufferers have not been as loud about the issue of exclusive and extractive land possession, they also hate not being allowed to care about the land where they live.
Here’s the thing about land, and why America’s first inhabitants asserted over and over that it’s not possible to ‘own’ land: It’s all connected, without boundaries. Every piece of land is part of the web of life in a multitude of respects. Honestly, not a single person, community, company, government or charity can claim to be a significant influencer of what happens on it, and none of us can know absolutely everything that has happened to it in its past. None of us really is qualified to be fully in charge of a piece of land.
The best that anyone can hope to be in respect to a piece of land is a good steward of its resources. For us at Clement Waters Retreat, that doesn’t mean making commercial use of the rocks, minerals and water on the land. Instead of just focusing on the stuff we can use on land, we steward the structures afforded us by other beings. You know the types: the organisms and micro-organisms making the soil beneath us sweet and dark; the roots, stems, trunks, flowers and leaves of plants around us offering us structure, food, drinks and air to breathe; and the animals dancing their lives around each other as they steward resources alongside us.
In 2018 we started stewarding a piece of land south of Swope Park in Kansas City, Missouri, in the Gregory Ridge neighborhood. It took over six months to get permission from the City to steward it, but we brought our construction plans to the Land Bank office, and the City Planner’s office, and to the Neighborhood Association, and everyone gave us the go-ahead, so we did a chain of title search at the county courthouse, paid a paltry price, and got to be stewards. Our building scheme proved to be very difficult because of the dramatic topography of the 4-acre plot, so instead, we asked for help from contractors and got a walking trail cut into the forest via the least damaging path to the existing trees. We coordinated volunteer events to distribute wood chips onto the exposed dirt. Then we started on the task of removing the foreign aggressive plants that had made the understory of the forest into shadowy hiding places unpalatable for native species of bush, vine and ground cover.
In the process of removing over 60 cubic yards of invasive non-native plants, our 600+ volunteer visitors found and removed over 50 cubic yards of waste, much of it around 50 years old. This started us on an evidence-grounded journey of understanding what ‘white flight’ had looked like for the neighborhood surrounding the forest. Upon first glance of the trash, suburbanite volunteers or west-side retirees frequently concluded that the surrounding neighborhood’s residents had dumped the various items that we were stuffing into thick blue Missouri Stream Team bags, and that they did not respect the forest as they should. To the contrary, we had seen hints of a different story during our title search at the county courthouse, and we’d seen shocking evidence of a different understanding of the forest from the neighborhood’s residents visiting the project. Our volunteer events started to include an environmental justice story time.
In the early 1970s, just a few years after the 1968 Fair Housing Act made it illegal to deny home financing based on race, neighborhood demographics started to change. The homeowners before the neighborhood ‘flipped’ had not been too happy about the whole ‘equal housing’ thing. The lowest-bidder contractors paid to give the houses a facelift before sale had dumped roofing, siding, flooring, guttering, you name it, right over the back fence into the forest, thinking no one would notice. For a long time no one did. The statute of limitations states that no prosecution can fix that wrong.
One of the most chilling stories came from Gregory Ridge’s Neighborhood Association President who retired her post in 2019. Around 1980 the family of a Black doctor moved his family into the last home to be sold by a white family in Gregory Ridge, and they found the effigy of a tribal African man hanging by the neck from a rope tied to a floor joist in the otherwise empty basement. What does that have to do with the forest? Real-life people with dark skin and nooses around their necks were more well-known for hanging from trees.
For a metro area where 16 reported and recorded lynchings had happened before the practice passed out of popularity, many of Kansas City’s Black children grew up hearing family retellings of horrific lynchings of relatives in forests. Whether it was recorded or even happened in the Swope Park area, many Black Kansas City families have histories in the deep south, which was plagued with lynchings at a rate 10 times higher than what was recorded in Kansas City. For Kansas City’s Black residents, especially older generations, lynching was a very real and present danger within their lifetime. Multiple elderly resident visitors of the trail gave this reason to explain their nervousness about walking into the forest during our tours.
We know from regular weekday visits to the forest that other (read: younger) residents of the highly segregated under-invested area actually do regularly appreciate nature’s ability to calm, thanks to the trails that wind throughout Swope Park and connect to the trails in our forest project, now called “The Retreat at Gregory Ridge” by the locals.
When we encounter dog walkers and trail runners on the forest paths that we have been stewarding, we smile and tell them how glad we are to see them, letting them know that they’re on a privately owned plot that is now intended for public use. None of them, when we’ve asked in conversation, have been landowners themselves, and many never have even thought of becoming one. We stop short of inviting them to look into it, because there are complications for anyone daring to dream big if they were born and raised right there.
The Eastern side of the city was marked as a high risk investment area by Kansas City, Missouri’s city planners in 1934, from Troost Avenue east, marked with red. This is the reason behind the term ‘redlining.’ The real-estate industry was staffed by people brainwashed by their culture to think that people with similar skin tones should live in similar areas to each other. For that reason, the ‘Troost divide’ persisted and extended to the north and south. Racial dot maps now show that this misguided city planning and allowance of racist assumptions in real-estate resulted in modern-day isolation, evident in Census data.
Now, 60% of East Kansas City residents rent their homes, most of which are single family residences. Under half of all houses in East Kansas City neighborhoods are owner-occupied, on average, compared to an average of nearly 75% owner-occupied homes in west-side neighborhoods, especially on the Kansas side of the state line. On the Missouri side, and especially in Kansas City’s 3rd and 5th council districts east of Troost, rental management companies frequently serve as middlemen for the landlords of rental homes, who are either out-of-state homeowners, or more commonly, investment owners based elsewhere in the Kansas City metro area.
Organizations like KC Tenants (Twitter: @KCTenants) have made great strides in the past half-decade to win legal rights for a population group whose low earnings potential (though hard-earned) prevents timely payment for devastating home repair needs. Landlords, even those based in the metro area, had fallen behind on home repairs when emergencies hit renter households. As any property owner knows, letting deferred maintenance go unrepaired is the kiss of death for a building, and actually can make home structures harmful to the health of residents and their families. This negligence is an ongoing problem, but at least now the City of Kansas City has passed a Tenant Bill of Rights to address it.
The problem remains, however, that land ownership in East Kansas City (and with it, the right to land relationship) is largely controlled by individuals of European descendance, or their companies. This does not represent the demographic occupying East Kansas City. The demographic facts are illustrative, but we admit that they miss a point that is relevant to all of humanity: we have a relationship to the land where we live, and a relationship with the beings that occupy it with us, whether we’re supposed to have that relationship or not, whether it’s legal for us to care or not.
The owners of the lands of East Kansas City, no matter their ethnic heritage, are largely not the people actually living on the lands of East Kansas City. This means that when a family feels the tug of ancestrally-linked solutions like growing food, herbs and medicine plants for family health needs, more often than not they must check with often nonresponsive landlords before even planning to plant. This requirement disrespects and discourages our shared human instincts to tend helpful, healing relationships with other beings.
Clement Waters Retreat is dedicated to changing this narrative about land ownership, in Kansas City and even beyond Kansas City’s borders. Stay tuned for our plans to bring awareness to the need for atonement for historic divisions caused by commercial land abuse. Our hope is that atonement will bring realistic hope for reconciliation among historically divided people.
Want to dream big with Kansas City’s segregated and under-invested communities? Talk to the community-rooted MY REGION WINS!, an interdisciplinary 501c3 organization specializing in community coaching and nurturing of aspirational goals.
Want to support the future work of Clement Waters Retreat? Remember, there are eight different forms of capital! Figure out your just-right way to be part of a contributive culture at https://www.clementwaters.org/give.