I grew up in Topeka, KS. There are worse places to be from, but my vague impression growing up was that Topeka just didn’t have much to offer. It’s not a big town, but it’s not small, either. It’s in-between, in just about every way. Some in-between towns seem to get the best of the big and the small, and some get neither. I always suspected Topeka was the latter while I lived there, and moving away only reinforced that notion for me.
After I left for the Twin Cities I dissed Topeka at every opportunity, something that was easy to do given I left for a big city that is generally regarded as one of the best in the country, yet still has an idyllic small-town feel. Of course Topeka was going to look bad by comparison. But as I’ve grown older I have come to the realization that I’ll always have something invested in Topeka, for no other reason than it’s my hometown. As a result, I have tried to focus more on what Topeka has going for it.
But it’s hard. And it’s not because the Topeka I grew up in sucked. It’s because the Topeka I grew up in is gone.
Look, every city changes. And I’ve been gone for almost 15 years now, which is a long time. But what’s happening in Topeka goes beyond normal change. Although I have some subjective opinions about what ails the town philosophically, I think the easiest way to see Topeka is as an East/West problem.
The East side has always been the down side of town. You might say it’s the “dark” side of town, if you get my meaning. I grew up around pockets of blight, but within those pockets of blight you would also find neighborhoods that were well-maintained. But generally speaking, East Topeka was rough, poor, old, forgotten, whatever word you want to use probably catches a part of the truth. That’s the part of town I grew up in, and a part of my resentment for people who live lives of privilege probably comes from that background. I know what it’s like to have people look down their noses at you for being from the wrong side or the tracks.
The thing is, the tracks have moved in the last 15 years. A lot.
If you drive through town, virtually the entire east half of town is ghettoized. Businesses are boarded up on virtually every main throughfare. Cars are in lawns everywhere you look, it seems. Formerly nice houses in formerly nice neighborhoods are literally falling apart, the most basic aspects of maintenance neglected.
Meanwhile, there is New Development in the southwest part of town. It’s Strip Mall Hell, except people there seem to think it’s Strip Mall Heaven. And maybe it is; it’s like the only new restaurants or stores in town have to be erected within a mile of Wanamaker Road, which was a two-lane road going through cow pasture when I lived in Topeka. I suppose when all the old places are dead, you have to go where the new stores are.
“Oh my! An Olive Garden! Really? Right here in Topeka? Truly we are blessed. Now we’ll never have to go east of Topeka Boulevard again!”
But in Topeka’s mad craze to cram as much big box, chain development onto one long street continues, the rest of the city has been completely forgotten. Parts of town that used to be seen as being part of the affluent West Side are now actually part of the encroaching blight of the East Side. (For Pipeline People who are in the Topeka know, think about Topeka Boulevard from 29th to 37th. What was once one of the centers of commerce is now like a ghost town.) The city used to have at least five different movie theaters. Now there are two, both within a half mile of each other, both so far on the west side they may not actually be in Topeka proper.
Writing this makes me feel like the people I grew up hating, who saw everything in my part of town as garbage. But something is wrong, and it’s obvious: It’s like the whole town up and left and decided to make a new town, all in the span of 15 years. And unlike the people who looked down their noses at East Siders when I was growing up, I don’t think we should just abandon the East Side.
Clearly, this is a failure of political imagination and economic development policies. Cities do have influence over how they grow or don’t grow. But I believe that the voices in municipal politics in Topeka have for many years come from a particular part of town. I’ll let you guess which part that is. And that’s fine; hey, that’s how influence happens and works. But at some point people have to recognize it’s not good for the city as a whole to just let the core die. Core, hell, let one entire half of the city die, and the fraction grows every year.
When leaders fail, somebody has to step in and fill the void. To my surprise, that somebody has turned out to be my mom.
My mom is also a lifelong Topeka resident, and a lifelong East Sider at that. She saw the town dying, too, though I think it’s only recently dawned on her (and me, and most people) just how desperate the situation has become. After years of watching and thinking these were problems other people were supposed to solve, she decided she wasn’t powerless. She joined her neighborhood improvement association about a year or so ago, and she was just elected the president. She’s in charge of obtaining grants, organizing fund raisers, cleanup days, and will play a big part in lobbying for police support and zoning changes.
It’s hard for me to describe how proud I am of her; the concept of civic participation, or joining a cause (much less leading a cause) was nonexistent to our family before. I don’t think it was easy for her to decide to do it, but I think part of it is she needed something to do, and she was fed up. I don’t think she has any illusions, but she’s ready to take the fight to City Hall, both literally and figuratively. City Hall, by the way, is now on the wrong side of the tracks.
One of her ideas is to have me write a letter to the local paper, from the perspective of someone who remembers the town before the obsession with West Side development. I haven’t decided yet if I will do it, largely because I’m not sure it will do any good. But I have feeling she will win me over. Hard for me to say no when she’s out literally throwing people’s garbage into the cleanup trucks because they are too lazy to do it, preferring instead to just leave it in a pile in the yard. And it’s not just her; my dad is getting into it, too, working on cleanup days, painting blighted business and buildings, and so on. They have both become involved, trying to help the only city either of them really know.
Topeka’s down, there’s no doubt about it. Some parts are doing great, and some parts are still very nice, but overall there’s a cloud over Topeka, and any drive through the lion’s share of the town reveals that. And yet, Topeka’s decline has allowed my parents, especially my mom, to find a level of involvement she’s never had before. Every time we talk on the phone and she tells me something new she’s dealing with I think, “Who is this woman?” It’s inspiring.