The East Patrol Division station in Kansas City, Missouri sits at the edge of the Wendell Phillips neighborhood, between 26th and 27th streets and Prospect and Brooklyn avenues. It’s a large, geometric complex, set back from the sidewalk and protected by a landscaped lawn.
Four years ago, it wasn’t there. In its place were around 60 homes; two- and three-story bungalows not unlike those seen throughout the city. The neighborhood is historically black, and it has a reputation for crime. In 2010, the city marked out this four-block stretch as the site of a planned police station and crime lab to accommodate the area’s demanding caseload. The intent was to clear the neighborhood and bring about economic development.
Some of the houses in that section of the neighborhood were empty or already owned by the city; 43 were not, and 75 percent of those were occupied by the owners. After they were identified, representatives from the city went door-to-door to buy people out of their homes. Most accepted the initial offer; the homes of those who didn’t were condemned under eminent domain.
Demolition of the neighborhood’s homes began in 2012; by January of 2014, they were gone. That August, an article in a local paper detailed the city’s initial plan—but upon reading it, Matt Rahner, then a masters’ student in photography at the nearby University of Missouri-Columbia, was left with more questions than answers.
He contacted Ameena Powell, one of the residents mentioned in the article. “At that point, the people who were left were the holdouts—people who didn’t want to leave their homes, but knew that they would have to,” Rahner tells CityLab. Powell was one of them; signs protesting the city council dotted her lawn. She introduced Rahner to the neighborhood.
Rahner’s photographs, which became the basis of his thesis entitled Eminent Domain, show a neighborhood very different than the one that the city set out to clear. “There was a perception of the neighborhood as very poverty-stricken—it really wasn’t,” he says. “People were in the process of renovating their homes; they were actively trying to restore their neighborhood.”
He met the Lyman family, who had raised four generations in the same house. He met a woman in her seventies raising her 17-year-old granddaughter; the older of the two had recently been admitted to the hospital for anxiety attacks, which she’d never had before.
Eminent domain “is a scary process,” Rahner says. “People felt blindsided by it.”
Many also felt skeptical. Elderly residents of the neighborhood recalled the construction of the South Midtown Freeway as part of Route 71 in the 1970s. That project, too, tore down homes belonging mostly to African Americans, and it never delivered on its promise of bringing about economic prosperity. “People who can remember the historical instances of eminent domain knew that it wasn’t going to do much,” Rahner says.
The East Patrol Division opened in November of 2015. “The station looks like it’s meant to be in a rural area, not a densely populated city,” Rahner says. It sits around 100 yards back from the street, an outlier in a neighborhood lined with street-facing properties. The building barely fleshes out the wide swath of land cleared for its development. “They took so much land that they might not have needed,” he adds. “It’s perturbing.”
During the Republican debate on February 6 of this year, Donald Trump said:
Eminent domain is an absolute necessity for a country, for our country. Without it, you wouldn’t have roads, you wouldn’t have hospitals, you wouldn’t have anything…When eminent domain is used on somebody’s property, that person gets a fortune. They get at least fair market value, and if they are smart, they’ll get two or three times the value of their property.
The residents of those four blocks in Wendell Phillips were compensated, Rahner says. But the transaction masks the magnitude of the loss. What his photographs show is that demolition takes down more than just structures; it destroys people’s homes and the lives lived within them. Rebuilding that requires much more than the 30 minutes it takes for a house to come down.