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Kansas City rediscovers its alleys

In the morning of a recent First Friday the Goodrich Alley is quiet — a stark contrast to the bustle that will come in the early evening.

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Text and photos: Jesse Howe | Flatland

It’s First Friday, and the good weather is bringing out the crowds. On 18th Street in the Crossroads, a group of young men are breakdancing, and trance music drifts by from one block over. Just past Baltimore Avenue, on an old brick building that has been around around since the late 1800s, a sign labeled “Alley Shops” hangs above the doorway of a perfume shop. On the ground, yellow stepping stones lead you under the sign to the space between that brick building and the next.

The right building is an apartment complex, and the left building, Bauer Works, is a collection of different shops, art galleries, and event spaces, most of which only have alley entrances. Among them the perfume shop, a beauty store, a jewelry boutique, and T-shirt shop. The alley was built for the trash trucks that frequent the space, but today also has tables, chairs, flower boxes and lights strung above.

On this First Friday, the shops are open and people are passing through the alley. They are drawn in — under the sign and across the yellow pavers — to the hidden treasure that is the space in between. This is Goodrich Alley, one of the blossoming alleys of Kansas City.

A year ago, Goodrich Alley was just another space between buildings. After four months and $40,000 of work by the building owner and the Crossroads Community Association, the alley is part of the changing way Kansas Citians are interacting with the In Between.

From the streetcar to the construction of Two Light, Kansas City is on a development buzz. But behind the large development are whispers coming from the city’s tucked away spaces.

Kansas City is taking its alleys back.

The renovation of Goodrich Alley has meant redirecting the trash and recycle collection. Building owner Jeff Owens says he worked with the city service drivers.

A busy First Friday in July makes for heavy traffic in the alleyway. Meanwhile, business is booming in Coki Reardon’s jewelry shop.

The alley between Central and Wyandotte streets along 19th Terrace is covered in a medley of graffiti.
Graffiti artists are often the first to see the potential of alleys.

A recent edition to the alley on 19th Terrace—A tribute to the late Prince is tucked away on west side of The Cottage Rose shop.

Coki Reardon did not intend to put a shop in Goodrich Alley last year, but to her, it was a happy accident.

She opened Coki Bijoux in 2005 and moved the business to the alley in June 2015. Since then, Reardon has been heavily involved in the restoration of the building and alley.

She points to two giant windows that look into the alley.

“We had this idea that these beautiful warehouse windows had been bricked in,” she said. “‘Why don’t we break those out?’ And it kind of evolved from there.”

Reardon’s boutique opens into the alleyway, and the intimate flow continues with the outside table and chairs, and lights above.

Reardon says the work she is doing with the Bauer Works building is trying to change how people view alleyways.

“We put up the lights because it’s welcoming and these stone steps say, ‘Hey, come down here, there’s nothing wrong down here,’” she says.

Since last summer, many other shops have inhabited the backside of Bauer Works, and the alleyway has become as crowded as the two streets it connects.

Foot traffic is making a comeback in the city.

Before Coki Reardon moved her jewelry shop into the Bauer Works building, the windows had been bricked in, like those in the building across the alley. Opening the windows was part of the alley and building renovation.

Alleys by the numbers:
1,241 Alleyways*
=4,260,433 sq. ft.
=32.8 city blocks
=2 Power & Light districts

*source:kcmo parcel viwer

The question of what to do with alleyway space is not unique to Kansas City. It is a puzzle for cities across the United States. Planned cities — and their alleyways — were different creatures when originally designed.

“The interesting thing with a typical gridded city like Kansas City is that it was designed with street as the major thoroughfare and the alleys were a service infrastructure for unloading,” says Vladimir Krstic, Director of the Kansas City Design Center. “Alleys don’t have that kind of use anymore; The city is not as dense,” he said.

Krstic’s Design Center works on citywide projects that address infrastructure and public space, such as ““Art in the Loop (” and developing public spaces and installation art in the West Bottoms. Both those projects involved Kansas City alleyways.

As Krstic and the KCDC continue to submit proposals for grants that redevelop areas of the city, he’s well aware that alleyways aren’t necessarily at the forefront of people’s minds, but that things are changing.

Nationally, a mix of public and private funds are being used to repurpose alleys. Sacramento, California has plans for nearly 350 alleys to become walkable urban corridors, while Chicago has plans to turn its alleys into green infrastructure, with gardens and permeable pavement to reduce runoff.

“There is more elevated awareness on improving, and that to me is an interesting potential for the alley as we increase pedestrian traffic,” Krstic said. “Now is the time to start thinking about how we can repurpose those vacant and available spaces.”

A stone-faced sculpture looks over the alley south of Goodrich Alley. The sculpture may soon have lots of company as Jeff Owens, owner of Bauer Works and member of the Crossroads Community Association, hopes to redesign the alley as a sculpture park.

Workers take a break in "The Commons," the alley between 10th and 11th streets on Baltimore Avenue that was reinvigorated as part of "Art in the Loop".

Looking up along "The Commons" these colorful wall sculptures light up the alley at night.

The QR codes that line the alleyway by Kansas City Design Center lead the user to a series of poems by local poets entitled “Ghost Stories.”

One of the first projects in Kansas City to focus on the in between space was The Commons. An installation art piece downtown near the Kansas City Public Library turned a gritty urban passage into a pseudo naturescape, complete with a painted stream and rock sculptures.

Artists Julia Cole and Leigh Rosser worked on The Commons installation — for the alley next to KCDC — as part of Art in the Loop.

“I think what we wanted to do there was cross between two of those barriers,” Cole says. “We weren’t just creating an art piece; we were creating a new kind of urban park. There would be a place that was a memory of the natural world and references to rocks, birds and waters.”

The installation has been around since 2012, but many still are stumbling upon it, spending time in the space to sit and talk during a lunch break.

“In that sense, it was an experiment,” Cole says of the nature scene. “But we also wanted to think about how we could slow people down from moving, from this just being a space that you went through to a space they would stop and spend some time.”

Convincing people to slow down was part of the Goodwich Alley plan as well. Jeff Owens, owner of Bauer Works and member of the Crossroads Community Association, says he knew that he wanted to incorporate the alleys into the Crossroads identity but that the idea really came into focus after Owens began repainting the back of the building. People would come down the alley to figure out what was going on, and Owens realized this was a space that people needed a reason to go into.

As the alley revitalization process began, Owens says he met little resistance from the city. They did need to ensure the alley retained its original use as a service alley, with space for garbage trucks.

Rick Usher, assistant city manager for entrepreneurship and small business, says that the development of alleys is left to the discretion of the building owners but that the spaces remain public space. Development, he says, “must be respectful of the flow and feel of the alleyway,” and clearance and safe exiting requirements still apply.

For this, Owens began paying attention to the trash trucks, figuring out who was using this space. Then he started talking to the drivers about how big their trucks were and how high things needed to be.

“That whole process was really cool,” Owens says. “They were really supportive. You just had to find out what was going on back there.”

Owens now has his eyes on the alley south of Goodrich, next to Town Topic. He plans for a sculpture garden by October.

It’s Owens’ hope that one day you’ll find Goodrich Alley and others on Google maps, making them actual destinations.

It’s after 10 p.m. now on First Friday, and the group dancing on 18th Street is ready to pack up. As the crowd disperses, a steady stream fills into Goodrich Alley. There’s no hesitation walking through the lit alley tonight; that’s just how you get around the Crossroads now.