There’s a small group of people in south central Wichita who are working to transform the neighborhood.
It’s a form of community development, but they prefer to call it something simpler. They’re just being good neighbors, they say.
“This is where we live, this is what we care about,” said Catherine Johnson, a member of the Neighboring Movement by SoCe Life. “Somebody outside may think a certain idea is more important or is our biggest problem, but we live here.”
Catherine and Matt Johnson moved into the neighborhood they call “SoCe” (South Central) about 10 years ago. It’s made up of a 2-square-mile area of Wichita from Kellogg Avenue to Pawnee Street, and the Arkansas River to Washington Street.
That includes a stretch of Broadway lined with smoke shops, car sales lots and rundown motels.
It’s a neighborhood that has its struggles: The two ZIP codes in the neighborhood (67213 and 67211) are among the four in Wichita with the highest “distress scores,” according to the Economic Innovation Group.
Things that contribute to a higher distress score include lack of high school diplomas, adults without jobs, a low median income, housing vacancies and more.
The Johnsons, along with the Barlow-Thompsons, who also live in the neighborhood, sometimes get asked why they would live there. The four of them make up the “core members” of the Neighboring Movement, although others are involved.
They acknowledge the neighborhood’s struggles, they say, but also see its strengths.
“Our neighbors are really gifted and our neighbors bring out the goodness here,” Catherine Johnson said. “How do we highlight that? How can we help reveal the treasures in the rest of the neighborhood?”
When Adam Barlow-Thompson is asked how he and his wife could raise a child in a neighborhood with so many problems, he thinks about taking his son to College Hill for Halloween. Prescott, 6, quickly wanted to go home. Back in their neighborhood, they realized that four houses were waiting with candy for Prescott — even though he’s the only child on the block.
“If you know your neighbors you’re going to feel a lot more comfortable and safe there,” Barlow-Thompson said.
The group never meant to form a nonprofit. Rather, they just wanted to live in “intentional community.” The nonprofit came about later.
They started by moving to the neighborhood (the Barlow-Thompsons joined a few years after the Johnsons) and asking neighbors about their gifts and talents.
Community developers call this “asset mapping.”
It’s human nature to look at a neighborhood like SoCe and want to fix it by first looking at the problems, Matt Johnson said. Yet to have long-term, empowered transformation, “it’s better to start by finding out what’s already there that’s working, what’s good, and bring those voices to the table.”
They’ve scheduled yoga classes and craft nights, some taught by neighbors. Brightly painted garden boxes now dot the streets, where neighbors can grow and share produce. Sometimes they have block barbecues.
Susanne Phillips has lived in the neighborhood for 21 years. She met the Johnsons shortly after they moved in.
The “Neighboring Movement” should go national, Phillips said. As the Johnsons and Barlow-Thompsons began connecting people in the neighborhood, she’s seen it become safer, friendlier and a “lot of fun.”
When someone jumped over her fence, a neighbor came to warn her. When slippery ice covered the ramp into Phillips’ house, a neighbor came to spread salt. Another neighbor walks her dog when she can’t leave the house. When her washing machine broke, a neighbor gave her his old one.
When she walks down the block, she knows people’s names, their jobs and their passions.
“There’s no downside to having your neighbors,” she said.
Some models of community development involve people from the outside trying to implement change. Some, like gentrification, change a neighborhood by pushing out the people who are already there.
Asset-based community development — what is at play in the SoCe neighborhood — has some key components: The people in the community are in charge, every person is treated as valuable with gifts to contribute, and listening takes precedence over trying to provide answers.
“What we’ve realized is neighboring helps communities be safer, helps individuals be connected in a way that bolsters public health, it brings people together in a way that they are able to leverage the gifts and talents and assets of their community and transform their neighborhoods from the inside out,” Barlow-Thompson said. “The people who actually live here have the best chance of transforming a community.”
The group is quick to say that “neighboring” can be done anywhere: People don’t have to move to a low income neighborhood to start finding out the strengths and passions of their neighbors.
Kristopher Swanson, a college student who is involved with the organization, has begun living out those principles in his own neighborhood in East Wichita.
He also writes a weekly blog tip for “52 weeks of neighboring.” Tips range from baking Christmas cookies for neighbors to taking coffee to your trash collector.
When Swanson first took coffee out to his trash collector he was afraid it would be awkward. After all, he hadn’t done that in years of living there.
Now, the two talk regularly about baseball and their families.
“It’s all about building relationships and just loving people,” Swanson said. “Just being human is really what it’s all about.”