High and Writhing

No one is entirely sure what happened that September night in 1997 except that the man’s name was Michael Burke.

Maxine Jones’ adult son called her to the window of her apartment in the twelve-story Central Park Towers. Jones (whose name has been changed for this story) looked out her window. In the alley across Tenth Street was Burke, talking with three other men. When one of them grabbed Burke’s shoulder, an argument broke out. A man pulled a knife and stabbed Burke four times, severing his carotid artery with one of the cuts.

Burke clutched at his neck as he ran across the street to the high-rise where his elderly mother lived and where Jones was watching from the window. By the time he made it to the flagpole in front, blood was flowing over his hands, trailing his movements as he stumbled through the first set of doors and tried to get someone to buzz him into the brightly lit lobby.

When police arrived soon after, officers stepped over his body to get inside the building. For months, Jones says, whenever it rained, blood would seep up from the cracks in the sidewalk outside the building.

These days what’s oozing from Central Park Towers seems to be paranoia.

During the past two years, Kansas City, Kansas, police have paid more visits to the Towers than to any other address in the city. Only 171 people live at 15 North Tenth Street, but two years ago cops answered more than 2,000 calls there. In 2001 the number of calls dropped to around 1,600, but nowhere else in Kansas City, Kansas, saw more police activity last year.

The Central Avenue United Methodist Church stands nearby, along with a drive-through branch of the Industrial State Bank. Farther west along Central are Tomahawk Labor, a nightclub called the Blue Roses, the KC General Discount Store, the 99 cent; Value Market, Black’s Retail Liquors and an office where customers can wire money to Mexico. Dogs wander the alleys surrounding the building.

Central Park Towers isn’t the most dangerous place in Kansas City, Kansas — many of the police calls prove to be false alarms. “We have two or three [residents] who will call the police every five minutes,” says the building’s manager, Linda Johnson. “If they get into an argument, they’ll call the police. If they hear music, they’ll call the police.”

Despite all the cops’ visits, though, drug dealers and prostitutes are a common sight in and around the building. And Central Park Towers has been the site of assaults, domestic violence incidents, burglaries and other disturbances. “The word used to be, if you wanted any kind of dope in Kansas City, Kansas, come to Central Park Towers. They had it all,” says John Francis, who moved out in 2000 after living there for a year.

“There is a high fear factor for residents here,” says Sue Drew, who as director of the Central Avenue Betterment Association is one of the building’s neighbors.

But in Wyandotte County, Central Park Towers is the only place some people can have a home.

When Central Park Towers was built in 1975, it was designed as subsidized housing for the elderly.

Many low-income elderly Americans who moved to similar high-rises across the country saw them as a good deal. The HUD-subsidized buildings were well-constructed and secure, and the federal government paid for utilities. Until the mid-’80s, most subsidized housing for the elderly was occupied by the elderly.

For years, senior citizens were content at Central Park Towers. “Shirley,” 77, has lived in the building since she and her husband followed her sister there in 1984. When Shirley’s husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, she cared for him in their apartment until he died in the late ’90s. Her sister passed away in 1992.

Now Shirley spends as little time at the building as possible. Pulling groceries and a large container of Clorox from her small blue hatchback, she looks up from the parking lot behind Central Park Towers and considers the mournful building. Its windows are gloomy and dirty, covered inside by heavy drapes and shades.

Public housing for the elderly has changed in recent years. Many older residents have died or moved to places where they could receive specialized care. Others have simply found better locations as the range of affordable housing has expanded.

The shift has brought new neighbors Shirley doesn’t like.

Since the influx of new tenants, she avoids being at the Towers. She’ll wake at four in the morning, get down to her car by 7 a.m. and take off, go wherever. Sometimes Kmart. Sometimes Wal-Mart. She’ll spend hours a day roaming the aisles. “The place has just been going downhill,” she says of her home. “I don’t know where these characters are coming from.”

Many of the newer residents are people with mental disabilities such as schizophrenia and depression; others are battling substance abuse and have been referred to the low-income housing by Wyandotte Mental Health Center, the only agency serving mentally disabled clients in Wyandotte County.

The building has become the place to go for people who can’t go anywhere else. Its population has shifted from almost 90 percent elderly to only 30 percent.

“They have taken people that no one else has wanted,” says James Glenn, senior vice president of housing and community services for the Mental Health Association of the Heartland. He points out that private landlords who accept Section 8 vouchers have no incentive to accept a renter who has a “history of mental illness and possibly a history of poor tenancy.”

The change has affected federally subsidized housing across the country, and in Kansas City, Kansas, the combination of residents is proving volatile.

In 1955, about 560,000 patients lived in state mental hospitals. But the civil-rights movement and federal funding of a growing network of mental health agencies allowed patients to return to their communities. By 1989 the number of people with illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder living in hospitals had dropped to 100,000. And the federal government continues to pave the legal way for greater integration of the mentally disabled. In 1999, the Supreme Court upheld provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act stating that programs and services for the disabled should be delivered in “community” or “integrated” settings. The ruling did not specifically address housing, but advocates for the mentally disabled saw the decision as a victory that would allow their clients to live wherever they wished.

Finding housing for them has not become easier, though. Between 1985 and 1995, the number of low-income families increased by two million, yet affordable housing units increased by only 700,000, according to Opening Doors, a disability-advocacy publication.

Despite the crunch, officials have mixed feelings about trying to increase the number of such homes.

“Affordable housing financed through HUD came about at the same time the community was losing population,” says Tom Stibal, executive director of the Kansas City, Kansas, Housing Authority. “There was a belief that the development of affordable housing has [negatively] impacted neighborhoods in the community. That may or may or not be true,” he says, suggesting that property values might already have been declining.

“In Wyandotte County,” Stibal continues, “if you don’t live in your own individual apartment, you either go to a high-rise like Central Park Towers or Cross Lines Towers [a downtown KCK high-rise for the elderly] or you go on the street. It’s not a problem unique to Wyandotte County. It’s all over the country.”

Central Park Towers has 195 units. One-bedroom apartments there are $400 a month; residents contribute 30 percent of their income toward rent, and HUD picks up the rest.

“There are no other options right now for housing. Long-term hospitalization is no longer available,” says Johnny Johntz, a program manager at Wyandotte Mental Health Center. The center serves 711 people, 80 percent of whom live in some kind of subsidized housing. Fifty of them live at Central Park Towers.

Many of the building’s remaining non-elderly residents suffer from physical disabilities.

“Paul” (who doesn’t want his real name used because he says he fears retribution from the building’s manager) has lived at Central Park Towers since May 1996. He was placed there by Wyandotte Mental Health when his previous apartment became too expensive. “When I first moved here, things didn’t appear to be so bad,” Paul says.

Now, he says, tenants shout and threaten each other. Shots have been fired in the building at least three times in the last six months, Paul says. (Johnson, the property manager, says shots were fired at the building once by someone who didn’t live there.) “The atmosphere can get kind of creepy at times,” Paul says. “There is no way to ensure that all the clients of Wyandotte Mental Health keep on their medications. Some of them, some of their mental illness is such that if they’re not on their medication, they can exhibit violent behavior.”

Johntz disagrees. “The numbers really bear it out,” he says. “We’ve got fifty clients housed there. Of those fifty, [building managers] identify three or four” who cause problems. “That means we’ve got another 46 or 47 who are doing quite well.”

A lot of those who do well keep to themselves. R.G. Gulley, a resident who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic and paranoid, is typical of many Central Park residents. “This place can drive you crazy,” Gulley says. “All you do is look at the walls.”

Gulley doesn’t get out much. Once a month his caseworker picks him up and takes him to shop at Aldi’s. He doesn’t like to play cards or dominoes downstairs with other residents, and he says TV is boring. Nevertheless, he watches it all day. He wakes at 7 a.m., stays in bed until 9, then watches Live With Regis and Kelly. Then it’s The Price Is Right at 10, the news at noon and soaps in the early afternoon. “I used to hate soap operas. They’re boring to watch until you get into them,” he says. Jerry Springer is on at 3, Judge Judy at 4 and Jeopardy at 4:30. He tries to get his dog out for walks every day, but sometimes he doesn’t make it, and the dog pees on the carpet.

Another resident, “Jennie,” who suffers from depression, panic attacks, high blood pressure and diabetes, says the building is infested with roaches and mice. Maintenance workers exterminate regularly, but bugs crawl freely through people’s kitchens.

Jennie says her moldy shower drain has gone unfixed for months and that her stove doesn’t work. Neither does her air-conditioning. “I’ve been told [by management] that if I lost weight, I would feel cooler. I’ve been told that twice,” she says. Workers couldn’t fix her shower after the hot water stopped running, so they turned the shower off. Other residents complain of tubs, sinks and toilets that leak or don’t work and maintenance workers who are slow to respond.

One woman, who asked not to be named, says that during the ten years she’s lived in the building, pipes have broken five times, flooding her bathroom, half her bedroom and parts of her living room. The most recent leak, last fall, took a week to fix, forcing her to go up six floors to a friend’s to wash her hair; when she speaks with the Pitch, she is on her way down a few flights to fill a bucket of water to unclog her toilet.

Another tenant, Martha Butler, who has lived at the Towers for five years, says management often shuts off the water for hours during the day, leaving toilets to fill up, waiting to be flushed. Butler says at such times, “the whole building smells like a sewer.”

But that might also be because people defecate in the stairwells and elevators. Sometimes, homeless individuals sneak in and sleep in the stairwells. Prostitutes turn tricks there.

Residents blame these problems on the building’s management company, American Investment and Management Company, one of the largest apartment-management firms in the country. Tenants say AIMCO simply isn’t trying hard enough.

But Linda Johnson, the building manager, says Central Park Towers is unclean because the tenants are unclean. “We exterminate every month. They just don’t keep their apartments clean enough to keep bugs and mice away. We have a lot of tenants who do not know how to keep their apartments clean or themselves clean.”

Inside the building’s front door, near Johnson’s office, the lights are bright and the white wallpaper is adorned with a purple floral pattern. The front lobby opens onto a carpeted lounge. On one wall hangs a painting of debutantes dancing at a ball. One level down, at the rear entrance, the floor of the “community room” is a long stretch of dingy white tile. Ceiling tiles are punctured with holes and dark orange water stains run in thin lines down one of the walls, signs of the building’s most recent plumbing problems. A deep green trash can stands ready below ceiling leaks.

Johnson says tenants are constantly breaking doors and locks and damaging the elevators by pushing too many buttons at once.

AIMCO officials say that cuts in funding from HUD two years ago have made it impossible to maintain the building. Every few years, HUD recalculates the monthly rents of the apartments it subsidizes to bring them in line with an area’s market rent averages. Rents in Kansas City, Kansas, have declined, so two years ago HUD lowered rent payments at the Towers from $477 to $400. This created a revenue shortage of more than $100,000 a year. (At the current rates, the building takes in approximately $70,000 a month.)

“We are in financial trouble right now,” says Johnson. “HUD was giving us more money, then stopped.”

Paying vendors to maintain the grounds, fix the elevators and repair the plumbing became difficult. “Our utilities are very high, especially in the summertime. I’ve seen an electric bill for $20,000. You have no money left after payroll,” Johnson adds.

“Our elevator bill was real high,” she continues. “We were constantly having them come up, constantly calling the plumbers out. The bills kept coming and coming, and after a while, our bills stacked up so much that [maintenance workers] stopped coming.”

The building is owned by a private group of real estate investors that calls itself Central Park Towers Associates II. To increase revenue, the owners hope to take advantage of a HUD debt-restructuring program set to begin later this year. Under the plan, rent will not change, but the mortgage will be restructured and lowered over the next twenty years. The capital needs of the property will also be assessed. HUD will pay 80 percent of the cost to completely refurbish the building. The owners will pay the rest.

HUD last inspected the Towers in 1999, several months before the agency reduced its rent payment. At that time, HUD inspectors noted that “the physical condition continues to improve. Management intends to upgrade the elevators and install a security system. In addition, the units are scheduled for decorating (carpets and appliances).” HUD inspected only 23 apartments, labeling some problems “minor,” such as peeling paint and excessive grease. Two apartments had “severe” insect infestation, and in one of the hallways a smoke detector was not working.

If inspectors returned today, they would find stoves from which the hoods have been removed and windows that open halfway before coming off their hinges and swinging out of reach. Closet doors won’t close, carpets should be replaced and walls need painting. The fire door on the north side of the building is locked. The south door is unlocked — the metal hinge connecting the door to the wall is gone, and the door frame is loose. The front door still effectively bars guests unless they’re buzzed in, but the rear door, which also has an electronic entry system, is broken. And seven units have been trashed, left cluttered with junked furniture and garbage after residents moved out. One of the apartments on the third floor has been unoccupied for three months — it’s buzzing with gnats and littered with a tangle of refuse and clothing.

HUD spokeswoman Dale Gray says the local office of the housing department is aware of problems at the building, but inspections of the property are conducted by teams based in Washington, D.C. Getting them to come out sooner than this spring is unlikely.

In the meantime, Central Park Towers has become a wide-open bazaar for drug dealers and troublemakers.

Police Captain Bill Edwards says arrests are being made. “Anybody we know of that is doing that, we’re arresting them. But it’s not just seeing somebody — they have to violate the law before we arrest them.” Generally, the culprits don’t live at the building, he says. The department has sent a few special details to roust drug dealers or hookers, but most of the arrests made are for outstanding warrants.

So residents try to keep a low profile.

“At night you hear people screaming, like they’re being murdered,” says Jennie. “I’ve heard lots of gunshots.”

“It’s not a good location for people in drug rehab or alcohol rehab,” says KCK Police Sergeant Dave Lemanske. Liquor stores are less than a block away, and Tenth Street is a high-volume drug-use area. “They’re placed in an area that is not conducive to what they’re trying to avoid,” Lemanske says. “I don’t know how that building got picked for that.”

Police officers and supervisors are concerned primarily about reducing calls from the Towers, which they say keep them from responding to other calls in the city. “It’s creating an atmosphere of fear,” says Lieutenant Don Ash. “We’re not finding a lot of substantive issues there, but we’re getting a lot of calls.”

Paul says the police don’t really care about the Towers. “It seems to me as if the police have determined their best course of action is to delay any response to this place, hoping either whatever has gone wrong will play itself out in their absence, or it will turn out to be a false alarm,” he says. He says that the building is “no more than five minutes, lights and sirens,” from KCK’s central police office, but it sometimes take police as long as 45 minutes to respond.

By that time, officers may only write up a report “unless shots are being fired or there are bodies to haul away,” Paul says. (The police have filled out only two dead-body reports in the last two years.)

In the last two years officers have responded to more than 3,000 calls. Yet Central Park Towers is not a war zone. It’s more like the Twilight Zone.

There is some sense of community at Central Park Towers — many residents are friends; they know who lives in a particular apartment on the seventh floor and who used to live on the twelfth floor but just moved out. Yet it is also a place where residents are susceptible to rumor, where they often hear more than they see.

Community police officer Jason Wilt complains that often, when officers show up, “they get here, and there’s no complaint for them to handle.” During an eight-hour shift, cops may go to the same apartment three times.

Whereas residents of a typical neighborhood might complain about lack of police protection and work to get more attention from officers, in the case of Central Park Towers, the cops are begging area residents for help reducing calls.

The department assigned community-policing officers to Central Park Towers in January 2001. Last spring, officers conducted a “blitz,” accompanying inspectors from the city’s rental-licensing office to the building. “We went together, and we said, ‘Let’s look at all the things that apply,'” Ash says.

Deborah Graeber, the rental licensing program manager, says the two elevators at the high-rise were a major problem. One of them was frequently out of order. Residents complained about being trapped in the elevator and enduring long waits when only one was working. Fire doors were also damaged, allowing anyone to enter the building. Because there were no security cameras in the stairwells, intruders could go anywhere inside undetected. Further, Graeber says, some electrical outlets weren’t grounded properly. She also noticed the debris in the building.

Graeber says the building’s managers were receptive to her requests. “As soon as they understood this was something that needed to be corrected, it was,” she says of the elevator. “They took care of everything we asked them to take care of.” But tenants say that the elevators are still prone to failure.

When the police and the rental licensing department began paying attention to the Towers, the rest of the community got involved through a coalition of organizations called Connect the Dottes (named in reference to Wyandotte County). “You can’t change something with just one person,” says Sharon Cormack, of the Regional Prevention Center of Wyandotte County, an organization that tries to educate the community about the risks of alcohol, tobacco and drug use.

The coalition has been meeting since last fall. Earlier this month, members talked in the large community room. Residents sat silently nearby, a few listening to the proceedings, the rest staring at nothing in particular.

“We’re here for the long haul, but we need some kind of action plan,” said Cormack, who moderated the meeting.

So far, attempts to improve problems at the building have been mixed. AIMCO “tightened down” the selection criteria to make it harder for applicants to qualify for apartments. Prospective renters now need a reference; people without one must complete a questionnaire that gauges their ability to pay rent. The tougher screening process has reduced the number of felons, convicted drug offenders and unreliable renters getting in, AIMCO regional manager Saundra Hutchison told the group at the recent meeting.

But it has also left building managers without enough tenants to fully occupy the property. Twenty-four of 195 apartments are vacant. Five recent applicants have been approved, but fifteen don’t qualify under the new rules. “This has kind of backfired to a point,” Hutchison said. “I haven’t given up hope by a long shot. I believe there are qualified people out there. We just have to find them.”

Some observers have called for better referrals from Wyandotte Mental Health Center. “A lot of tenants aren’t able to care for themselves,” Sue Drew said at the January 10 meeting. “Wyandotte Mental Health needs to screen so those residents can live independently.”

But Johnny Johntz of Wyandotte Mental Health countered that, in some cases, what looks like a mental or physical health problem is just a front for an antisocial person who might need to be evicted. “Many problems are caused by people who [claim to be disabled] but aren’t really disabled,” Johntz told the community group. “There is a population of antisocial people who are causing problems. We can extend mental health or police services to them, but they may not respond.”

Last year AIMCO evicted between eight and ten people; previously, building managers evicted only two or three tenants a year. “They’ve made an effort to try and clean the place up by evictions,” says Michael Redmon, an attorney who has represented the Towers at eviction hearings. “They have made a substantial effort in that regard.”

Police and service providers are also trying to increase their commitment. Off-duty cops now provide security at the building eighteen hours a week. Building managers and the police department hope to increase that presence to ninety hours a week and double to four the number of officers working there off duty. Next summer, bike patrols will target the Tenth and Central area more often. And HUD has awarded the Towers a $196,000 antidrug grant to pay for better security — improved fencing, brighter lighting, more security cameras. Connect the Dottes is also pushing AIMCO to install a gated entrance with a key card.

Two Wyandotte Mental Health Center workers staff a drop-in center on the building’s ground floor on weekday evenings, and one worker stays there in the afternoon. Still, few clients show up to see them. At the end of last November, a mental-health caseworker was assigned duty at the Towers seven hours a day, five days a week.

But even if these efforts all have concrete results, the changes won’t be felt by residents — many of whom can’t shake the memory of Michael Burke’s bloody death on their doorstep — for several months.

So they have become more active in trying to maintain the Towers themselves. They vacuum the halls and have even borrowed mowers from family and friends to cut the lawn around the building. AIMCO refused to pay for the gasoline.

One of the residents pushing a mower was Bernard Gee. He has no spleen; he gets sick easily and would like nothing better than to get out of Central Park Towers. He knows his work to keep the building clean doesn’t amount to much.

“It’s very unsanitary, unsafe and unlivable,” says Gee. “It needs to be tore down or totally remodeled.”

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