In anticipation of Wichita’s opportunity to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament next year, the City Council voted on Tuesday to dedicate funds from the Center City South Redevelopment District toward the redesign and reconstruction of M.C. Naftzger Memorial Park, a key public space in the heart of downtown Wichita.
Naftzger Park’s stigmatized reputation is well known around Wichita. Through the 1970s, the intersection of Douglas and St. Francis was the site of Wichita’s “skid row.”
In an attempt to reform the area’s reputation, the Wichita Urban Renewal Agency acquired and bulldozed the entire block on the southeast corner of Douglas and St. Francis in 1977 to make way for a new park.
The reason for building the park was to get rid of downtown Wichita’s homeless population by removing many of the institutions that served them in order to transform the area into a district that would appeal to the middle class.
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The planners’ vision was not realized. Low-income and homeless people took to using the park, and their presence caused the middle class to stay away. Within a few years, even those who had originally envisioned the park had lost hope that it could catalyze middle-class resettlement in the city’s core. Gwen Naftzger, whose family had provided a financial gift to make the park possible, lamented the results in a 1983 interview with The Wichita Eagle-Beacon. “We felt it would make that block and that district prettier, but it didn’t work,” she said.
In the ensuing decadesthe city has generally concentrated its efforts on making it less amenable for the homeless. Many of the large trees and bushes have been cut back, out of fear that nefarious activity could be hidden there. The cattail sculpture in the park’s pond has been removed because of vandalism concerns.
These repeated reforms designed to make the park less attractive have, unfortunately, succeeded.
It is exciting to learn that the city plans to refurbish the park. It is unsettling that this restoration is only being undertaken now to impress the NCAA and out-of- town visitors.
It is imperative that all users of the park – including the homeless– feel welcome there.
Chase M. Billingham is an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.