KCTV5 Special Report: Prospect Avenue Then and Now - KCTV5

KCTV5 Special Report: Prospect Avenue Then and Now

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KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -

Prospect Avenue is mere blocks from the Country Club Plaza but is a world away.

The very name brings images of prostitution and shootings. Some even call it Suspect Avenue.

But it wasn't always that way. Prospect Avenue was once a truly bustling and prosperous area that didn't include homeless people squatting in vacant buildings.

Kansas City police officers, historians and community leaders blame a lack of community for Prospect Avenue's decline, but say a return to community could turn it back around.

Jesse Barnes, the executive director of the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center pointed to a time when the avenue was a promenade for gentlemen in suits and top hats and ladies in suits and fancy hats.

Sonny Gibson, a local historian who is president of the heritage center, believes integration contributed to the decline of Prospect.

"It was an emotional and romantic kind of thing that people (were) pushing for public accommodations. And as soon as they came in, ownership of things overall in the black community closed down," he said.

Barnes concurred.

"They moved for opportunity. They were looking for other prospects if you will, pun unintended," he said. "But you look at that and that's where it happened. Crime started to happen because when you have people leave and ... you have people moving to other cities and you don't have the close-knit communities. You don't have people knowing each other," said Barnes

Boards went up, businesses shuttered their doors and crime moved in.

Prospect changed from the birthplace of Kansas City's civil rights movement into "Suspect Avenue," home to a Kansas City serial killer, drug deals and violent crime.

Alvin Brooks, a retired Kansas City police officer and current member of the Police Board,  worked Prospect as his beat in the mid-1950s. Steven Walker joined the force in 1998 and patrolled Prospect for 15 years before taking a reassignment.

Two years after joining the force, Walker took a bullet to the head.

"We were patrolling the area of 29th and Prospect. And for no reason, our car was shot up. We took about 38 rounds into our car with an assault rifle," Walker recalls.

Brooks said that would have never occurred five-plus decades ago.

"Just driving down the street and somebody randomly shoots at a police car with an assault weapon. That never would happen on my watch," the former Kansas City Councilman said. "That just shows you how times have changed."

Many believe there is hope for Prospect to return to the atmosphere of the bygone era. But they say it will take financial commitments. Gibson noted how Kansas City spent about $56 million in tax dollars to build a parking garage adjacent to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

"Look at what $56 million would do for Prospect," Gibson said.

Former Councilman Terry Riley says the city has invested in the Prospect corridor including helping develop stores and businesses as well as seeing a new police station built at 75th Street and Prospect. Besides tax dollars, Riley said residents must invest in their own neighborhood.

"There must be comprehensive plans that are backed by the community," Riley said. "Look. It's just like your heart. For a city to be healthy, you must protect the core. I believe Prospect is the heart of Kansas City and just think if we could take care of Prospect all of that could spread like a health virus throughout our community."

Walker said he believes Prospect will improve.

"We need community involvement, we try to be everywhere to help deter crime, but we need community help," he said.

Some have suggested erasing the stigma of Prospect Avenue by renaming it to Martin Luther King Drive. Gibson supports the idea but only if name change comes with a commitment to transform the entire thoroughfare so it can live up to Dr. King's message of nonviolence, pride and dignity.

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