From Indiana Street near the edge of the University of Kansas campus, you can barely see the top of Georgia Bell’s house.
It sits at the bottom of 26 old, steep and uneven concrete steps. Two city officials descended those steps recently to talk to Bell about selling her place to a Chicago developer.
The man has offered what seems a reasonable price for a one-bedroom, 840-square-foot house built nearly a hundred years ago, especially considering the roof sags and leaks. She’s got a plywood patch in the kitchen floor, and the front door has no header so Bell, 91, crams a towel up there to block the cold wind.
The siding is rotting away like old food.
The developer’s offer: $600,000.
Considering Bell and her husband gave $850 for the house in 1946, one might think she saw this Chicago fellow coming. But after nearly a year of talk, she’s turned him down. She feels like she’s being forced out of the home where she raised six children. Their photos hang on the walls.
“I done broke the ice here and now they want to sweep me out,” she said.
Lawrence officials and the developer, Jim Heffernan of HERE LLC, made clear she can stay. No one is talking about forcing her out through eminent domain.
His company’s plan calls for a five-story, state-of-the-art residential and retail complex with 156 student housing units – each with an 18-foot loft ceiling. There will be restaurants, a rooftop garden, a fitness center and swimming pool, all topped off with an automated robotic parking garage that picks up cars and sets them down like books on a shelf.
The whole complex will be U-shaped. Nestled inside the opening, like a rusty hood ornament to all the grandeur, will sit Georgia Bell’s ramshackle house – if she stays put.
And she’ll be trapped if she does. When she wants to leave now, she goes out the back to a parking lot because she can no longer get up those concrete steps in the front. The new complex will fill that parking lot with five towering stories of KU student life.
She can see the plus side of having some extra cash for the first time in her life.
“I only weigh 98 pounds,” she said. “I’d like to be a little fleshier. Maybe get my teeth fixed and buy a new car.”
She paused long enough for worry to retake her face.
“Everybody has to move on, but I got nothing to grab on to.”
Lawrence City Commissioner Bob Schumm pointed out that the developer’s offer of $600,000 – which Bell formally received Wednesday – is more than six times the current appraised value of $93,500.
But Bell hasn’t budged. Last week, the commission approved the HERE project, and Heffernan said construction will begin later this year, regardless of what she decides.
“I don’t think she’s going to be happy if she stays,” Schumm said. “But she raised her family there, and she’s got the security of those four walls.”
The KU students see Bell down below, sweeping off her patio, picking up a stray beer can.
The students’ world is not hers. They go by with backpacks, headphones, iPads and mountain bikes. She grew up poor in Lawrence, eating a Sunday dinner of neck bones and beans. Her mother cooked for a sorority.
The mother and father she knew growing up turned out to be her grandparents. Her real mother – Bell knew her as a family acquaintance – didn’t come around till later. When she did, Bell remembers her grandmother saying: “I knew you’d want her when she could hold a broom.”
Bell married fairly young. What did her husband, Eleanor Bell, do for a living?
“That’s the problem,” she said. “Not much.”
She raised the children largely alone. She took in laundry, doing all the folding and ironing, darning and mending. She worked at a turnpike toll booth for a while.
“I knew my life wasn’t what it should be, but I didn’t know anything,” she said.
One son lives nearby, and the others are spread around. She didn’t want any of them to speak for a story about her housing situation.
“They want to stay out of it, but yet they’re in it,” she said. “One of them said to take the money and run.”
But the decision will be hers. She knows time is against her. She couldn’t even scale the steep bank to tend her forsythia and honeysuckle. Both are gone now.
She knits and sews. Her 17 parakeets keep her company.
“I don’t have friends,” she said. “Don’t have time. Something’s always breaking down.”
There’s a tree fallen over in the backyard from wind. It brought a utility line down when it crashed to the ground, but she doesn’t know what the line went to.
She’s a little unsteady, walks with a cane and uses a dolly to wheel in groceries, but she thinks she’s getting along OK. She drives a 1987 Pontiac Sunbird.
“I don’t have to go to somebody else to get me a drink of water.”
Still, Georgia Bell wonders what she will do if she sells and leaves this place. She knows they’ll knock it down as soon as she’s clear of the door. Where will she go?
“I don’t want an apartment or any group living,” she said. “I want to keep living like I am.
“I want to take my trash out.”