One man tries to spur an urban revival with tulips
Durwin Rice leads a drive to change the image of Troost Avenue, a racial and economic dividing line in Kansas City, by planting millions of flowers.
Kansas City, Mo.
Durwin Rice is an interior designer, an art gallery owner, and a noted decoupage artist – someone so into his craft that he once glued paper cutouts from floor to ceiling in his house, including inside the refrigerator. In other words, Mr. Rice is a creative guy. Now, however, he may be attempting his most unconventional venture yet – trying to revitalize one of the most infamous thoroughfares in this Midwestern city ... with tulips.Skip to next paragraph
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Call it neo flower power. Call it a petal revolution. Whatever it is, it may be one of the most unusual approaches to urban renewal in the country. Led by the mild-mannered but tenacious Rice, local residents on both sides of Troost Avenue – young and old, black and white, middle class and poor – are planting tens of thousands of tulips to help beautify what has long been the city's premier social demarcation line.
They're planting them in small clumps in tree wells, in neat double rows along parkways, and in great showy beds up and down the 10-mile length of the Troost corridor, which cuts through the heart of Kansas City, running north and south from downtown to the city's southern reaches.
While Tulips on Troost, as the enterprise has been dubbed, has not resulted in anything as tangible as a needed new business, a rehabbed building, or a cleaned up facade, it has broken psychological barriers and united the community as few initiatives have in the past. It has also brought a host of visitors to the area and generated a positive buzz.
"It's a complete new paradigm for Troost," says Jim Rice (no relation to Durwin), who spent more than 20 years working in community development in the area. "It isn't just a band-aid."
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Few streets in Kansas City are more in need of a makeover than Troost Avenue. A prosperous commercial and residential thoroughfare in the early 1900s, its fortunes dropped precipitously in the years following World War II, when large social phenomena – the rise of the automobile, the decline of the streetcar, white flight to the suburbs – sapped inner cities across the country. By the 1960s, the Troost corridor was beset by crime, poverty, racial discrimination, and abandoned buildings.
Worse, it became a racial and economic dividing line – both real and symbolic – in a city slow to shake off its segregated past, with poor blacks living east of Troost and middle- and upper-class whites living west. In time, "East of Troost" became a loaded phrase, epitomizing everything wrong with race relations in Kansas City.
Durwin Rice's links to Troost took root when he moved back to the city in 2002. Although a native of Kansas City, he had settled in New York in the late 1970s, where he worked briefly in advertising and dabbled in the antiques business before finding his calling as a decoupage artist. Decoupage – decorating an object by gluing paper cutouts onto it – enjoyed a revival in the early 1990s, and Rice was one of a number of artists credited with transforming the homey hobby into a respected art form.
At one point, he had 13 employees working in his Staten Island home, selling wares to posh department stores. He demonstrated decoupage on TV and, in 1998, published a book, "New Decoupage," which is now in its ninth printing.
Back in Kansas City, Rice immediately attracted attention by opening a decoupage shop on Troost Avenue and, even more surprising, removing the protective blinds from the storefront windows. "What were they going to do – break a window and steal some paper?" he asks.
Such flagrant disregard for accepted security measures earned him a seat on the board of a neighborhood association. Living and working on Troost for several years, Rice concluded that one of the avenue's biggest problems was its image, which he didn't believe squared with reality.