Opinion Columns & Blogs

Who does Naftzger Park belong to?

By Chase M. Billingham

Wichita plans to convert Naftzger Park in downtown Wichita into what one city official called a modern outdoor venue before the NCAA basketball tournament next spring. The park is south of Douglas, just west of the railroad tracks that bisect downtown.
Wichita plans to convert Naftzger Park in downtown Wichita into what one city official called a modern outdoor venue before the NCAA basketball tournament next spring. The park is south of Douglas, just west of the railroad tracks that bisect downtown. The Wichita Eagle

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. As The Wichita Eagle reported on Tuesday, “city and tourism officials who want to put Wichita’s best face forward” during the tournament are troubled by the current state of Naftzger Park, which “is now heavily used as a gathering site by homeless people.”

Naftzger Park’s stigmatized reputation is well known around Wichita. What is less well known is its history – in particular, the role that the homeless and the city’s efforts to control and oust them have played in guiding the park’s creation and its evolution over time. Through the 1970s, the intersection of Douglas and St. Francis was the site of Wichita’s “skid row.” It was filled with establishments that served the city’s low-income population, like single-room occupancy hotels that rented rooms by the day for a few dollars, shelters for the homeless, and social support institutions like the Salvation Army and the Union Rescue Mission.

It also featured some notoriously seedy establishments, like the Club Bar, the Girls Shoe Shine Parlor, and the Victory Theatre, which by that time showed mostly X-rated movies. In an attempt to reform the area’s “skid row” 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.

As I have documented in a recently published research article, The reason for building the park was explicit – 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. As a 1976 Wichita Beacon editorial explained, the park was expected to “provide a green and tranquil place in the heart of the city” and to “help immensely in the efforts to revitalize downtown, for anything that makes the area more attractive and livable cannot help but increase its desirability.”

Not surprisingly, The planners’ vision of creating a new middle-class playground was not realized. Low-income and homeless people, who enjoy beautiful outdoor spaces as much as anyone else, took to using the park, and their presence – combined with decades of persistently stagnant redevelopment in downtown Wichita – 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 were looking at that ugly land. It was pestering my eyes, and I wanted to do something to help it. We felt it would make that block and that district prettier, but it didn’t work,” she said.

In the ensuing decades, rather than attempting to make the park more attractive and amenable for use by a diverse range of residents and visitors, the city has generally concentrated its efforts on making it less attractive and 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 beautiful cattail sculpture in the park’s pond has been removed because of vandalism concerns.

At various times, the park’s hours of operation have been shifted, its gates locked, and its benches removed, all to try to shoo away low-income people from this public space.

These repeated reforms designed to make the park less attractive, not more have, unfortunately, succeeded. Combined with the steady loss of jobs and anemic population growth in downtown Wichita, Naftzger Park’s deterioration has led to its severe under use – on most days, at most times of the day, Naftzger Park is nearly empty

Thus, it is exciting to learn that the city plans to refurbish the park. and, as described by city analyst Mark Elder, to provide “a modern outdoor venue with music, entertainment and fitness activities.” It is unsettling, however, that Wichita invested so little in the park over the decades during which its primary users were among the city’s most vulnerable residents, and that this restoration is only being undertaken now to impress the NCAA and out-of- town visitors.

As city leaders work to transform Naftzger Park into a place that will attract the middle class into downtown Wichita, they must not lose sight of the fact that this is public space and that it belongs to all of us. It is imperative that all users of the park – including the homeless, who have been stigmatized in the past – feel welcome there.

Chase M. Billingham is an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.