By Don Bradley
Beth Boerger puts a new spin on “sightseeing tour.”
The Ruskin Heights community activist loads city council candidates in her car and for the next hour and a half shows them the biggest, nastiest trash piles along residential streets in her southeast Kansas City neighborhood.
She’s just getting started. Dilapidated homes are also a stop. Cars parked in dirt yards, mattresses at the curb, shuttered businesses and closed schools, her route is a rich itinerary of nuisance, neglect and misfortune.
When she first got the idea for the ride-alongs, people told her she was crazy.
So, she proceeded full bore.
She offered a tour to the 40 or so candidates on the April 4 ballot and about half took her up on the offer.
“I do this so when I call or email them, they will know what I’m talking about,” said Boerger, a current Hickman Mills school board member.
She said one candidate later used “third-world country” to describe what they’d seen.
Boerger, who does community engagement for the Ruskin Heights Homes Association, thinks the city is too lax in enforcing code because of the area’s long-held perception and population.
“We’re poor and there’s not enough of us,” she said.
There’s another reason, too. According to Boerger, of 1,875 properties in Ruskin Heights, nearly two-thirds are rentals, many owned by absentee landlords, including some who live not just out of the state but out of the country.
“We have owners in Australia and Japan,” she said. “They don’t care about code violations.”
Kansas City officials did not respond to questions for this story.
A contributing factor, too, Boerger said, is the common practice of converting the garage in the small ranch homes to another bedroom to charge higher rent. That means things that normally might be stored in the garage end up in the yard. Specifically, trash, which often gets windblown before trash day arrives.
Boerger wants the same level of code enforcement for her neighborhood as in other parts of the city. She and her husband bought their home in 1973. The house is senior-citizen ready. Few stairs, walk-in shower, hard wood and back-up generator. They plan on being there for awhile.
“I don’t want to move until it’s to the nursing home or the funeral home,” she said. “That’s why I’m out here fighting for this neighborhood.”
Brandon Wright, co-chair of Hickman Mills United Neighborhoods, knows Boerger well.
“She reminds me of an anti-war protester,” Wright said. “She’s driven and she can be obnoxious when she has to be. She’s been out here forever and she’s seen it at its best and what it is now.
“Community advocacy is about loving the neighborhood. That’s why Beth does this. She loves her neighborhood.”
As part of her activism, she’s assisted senior citizens in challenging property tax bills so they can stay in their homes.
Last week, Boerger gave one of her tours to a Telegraph writer.
She shoved a mess of papers off the passenger seat of her black Chevy Equinox and we started from the bank building at Longview and Blue Ridge roads. First stop came about a half-minute later.
She stopped at a vacant lot on Food Lane across from Ingels Elementary School. Through the overgrown brush could be seen piles of junk and trash. Gray overcast day, March wind, rain puddles, strewn garbage. Could it look any worse?
Yes. A coyote appeared and sniffed his way through the debris.
“Right across from a school where children play,” Boerger said.
From there we crisscrossed residential streets. She knew the trail of code infractions and trash piles. The piles get bigger over time, and more inviting, she said.
“Once there’s a dumping spot, everybody dumps there.”
Another contributing factor is the area’s high eviction rate, Boerger said. Often, when renters move out, they leave a heap of belongings on the driveway or curb.
She drove past closed schools, overgrown brush strewn with wind-blown trash, and shuttered businesses. The area sorely needs economic development, she said.
“But there are 17 places to buy liquor on Blue Ridge between 87th Street and 71 Highway, I counted them,” she said.
For contrast, as part of her tour she later drove west to Red Bridge area neighborhoods. But she knows the difference between areas of rental homes and homeownership.
Still, she says she will keep poking City Hall to enforce nuisance ordinances with the same diligence as other parts of town. For the children if nothing else.
“If you grow up with trash piled around the house and the neighbor parks in the yard, why would you be any different?”
Back at the bank building on Longview, she shut off the Equinox. She said her tours are not about her and she doesn’t seek recognition.
“I don’t care if anybody even remembers my name,” she said. “I just want them to remember what they saw.”