Boon Area 1 is a surprise community asset reclaiming KC’s tarnished history
“J.C. Nichols had a vision. As an artist, I admire that vision. Granted, as a Black man, I'm like, yeah, no that’s terrible.”
When I meet up with Carl at the site on a cold January Friday evening, it’s yellow grass, soft earth and a hand-sculpted ferrocement rain barrel. It’s a living project, requiring tending to and a long-term vision. It is art as environmental justice. It’s racial justice. It’s Boon Area 1.
Carl Stafford, founder of MyRegionWins!, created Boon Area 1 to be an “environmental, nature-based, interactive, functional art installation that generates revenue.” The site has a way to go before it’s completed, and unless you lived in the neighborhood, the site in winter might seem unremarkable, something to go unnoticed.
If you’re a resident of the Noble Neighborhood, however, what you would see is a blighted vacant lot transformed into a community asset. You would see Carl sweeping sidewalks, cultivating native plants and engaging with the community.
“It’s just the idea of connecting with nature right here in your neighborhood,” Stafford says. “If you can make a field of dreams, why not lots of hope?”
MyRegionWins! purchased the lot from The Land Bank of Kansas City, Missouri in 2016. According to the website, the Land Bank “will acquire, manage, and transfer properties in an appropriate manner that satisfies community needs, creating beneficial uses and opportunities for economic development and neighborhood revitalization.”
There are more than 2,700 parcels of vacant land available to purchase, but the buyer must provide an offer that includes a plan for intended use, a timeline for completion and evidence that the buyer has the resources to develop the site.
“I looked at the word blight and was like what’s the opposite of blight? And the word boon came up. Boon means something beneficial, sought after and helpful. So let’s go ahead and create boon areas,” Stafford says.
Almost all of the vacant land bank properties are east of Troost.
“These properties have been sitting vacant for several decades, not years,” Stafford says. He talks about how the lot used to house a three storefront, a gadget repair place, a law firm and a dry cleaners. To paint a picture of what these disinvested neighborhoods used to look like, he references neighborhoods like Brookside, where commercial and residential spaces are seamlessly dispersed throughout an active community.
“Wow. Right.” Stafford says. The fact that these lots have been vacant for so long, even in business zones, speaks to the larger issue that Boon Area 1 hopes to address. It’s confronting, what Stafford says “is a continued racial practice.”
As we are talking, Stafford, wearing work gloves and carrying a plastic grocery sac, is picking up trash. He starts talking about how Lebron James recently became a billionaire and how young people see his success, so they pick up a basketball with dreams of doing the same. He’s leading me in a thought experiment highlighting value and visibility.
“If somebody gave Carl $1 million because he’s out picking up trash, how many people won’t be trying to pick up trash?” Stafford says.
It’s a fair point. The everything-is-capital culture makes it hard to break through the noise, to get people to lean in without a financial return on investment. When the Heartland Conservation Alliance made an unsolicited donation to the project in 2018, Stafford was validated in his efforts.
“Public acknowledgment is empowering. It doesn’t only empower the person that’s doing the action, but it empowers the action that is being done,” Stafford says.
Stafford chose to invest in District 5 because it’s home; he was born and raised, and still lives, in the westside of District 5. It’s important for him that the work happens at a neighborhood level. He says there have been talks of developers in regard to buying up large amounts of land bank properties, but he says that developer can be a code word and “well, that’s going to be the gentrification.”
In 2020, the Heartland Conservation Alliance partnered with Stafford on a project called “From blight to BOON, a 100-year artistic journey,” a project still in the planning stages, hosting neighborhood planning meetings to directly involve residents.
“J.C. Nichols had a vision. As an artist, I admire that vision. Granted, as a Black man, I’m like, yeah, no that’s terrible,” Stafford says, “but as an artist, I’m like whoah, okay, let’s go.”
Nichols, who developed the Country Club Plaza and some of the surrounding neighborhoods, explicitly blocked Black residents, as well as Jewish and other minority residents, from purchasing deeds. The redlining that “Nichols perpetuated has had lasting effects on housing policy, education and the lives of black Kansas Citians.”
Inspired by the idea of a 100-year vision, Stafford is not only engaging with the past to revitalize communities that have experienced systemic and chronic disinvestment, but also creating an idea of the future that has nature and neighborhoods at the center.
“I want to revive the West side of District five,” Stafford says. “There are 40 neighborhoods on the west side of District 5. We want a boon area in every neighborhood.”
Stafford’s work and his role as a visionary have gained notice. In 2021, Stafford was recognized as an “Innovator to Watch” by Grinell College. In 2022, Boon Area 1 received a Cultural Producer Grant from the Charlotte Street Foundation, Stafford was an 816 Day Community Award Recipient, and councilperson Ryana Parks-Shaw nominated him for the Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund Committee.This year, he was the keynote speaker at the 2023 MLK Nature Walk, where he spoke about the intersections of environmental and racial justice.
“People will be coming to the westside of District 5 just to breathe fresh air and drink clean water and be around art and nature and friendly people,” Stafford says. “That’s the vision, it’s like,’let’s get it.’”