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.

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.

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."

• • •

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.

In the winter of 2006, the self-described conservative Republican discovered his inner flower child. Rice came up with the idea of planting tulips both as a way of making a visual statement and as a nod to Benoist Troost, the 19th-century Dutch physician, entrepreneur, and city father for whom the street was named. The idea excited other community activists, and Tulips on Troost was born in time for planting bulbs that fall.

Initial plans were modest: plant 10,000 bulbs, which would bloom in the spring of 2007. Although some were skeptical, the response from businesses, institutions, and residents in the area was so overwhelming that Rice and a coterie of organizers, along with the help of hundreds of volunteers, got 70,000 bulbs in the ground. The results last spring were spectacular, and Troost Avenue became a local attraction. "The tulips are fundamentally an effort to start a different discussion about Troost Avenue, like rebranding a product so people want it," says Rice.

• • •

On a brisk November morning, Abby Weydert is digging trenches along a sidewalk on the east side. She is one of about 50 volunteers who showed up for the second of several scheduled planting days. "I love it," she says. "It's a lot of hard work, but it really pays off in the springtime."

Some 70 volunteers had turned out the previous Saturday. They represented a cross section of the neighborhood, from students at the two universities in the area to employees of local businesses to neighbors who just wanted to help out. The urban gardeners planted 9,000 bulbs in front of a six-block long stone wall.

Today the goal is 15,000 bulbs. By 9:30 a.m., a group of mostly African-American men from a local Kiwanis Club are hard at work. Leroy "Pop" Miller, the most senior of the group, sifts rocks and debris from the soil, while younger members till and dig. "Flowers soften the heart of anybody," says Mr. Miller, scraping compacted dirt with a shovel edge.

Two different racially mixed groups fr om nearby Rockhurst University arrive to help out. For many of the urbanized students, gardening is a new experience, and Rice, clad in jeans and a denim work shirt, offers tips. One woman from the University of Missouri-Kansas City learns the hard way that it is difficult to dig while talking on a cell phone.

By the end of day, some 15,000 bulbs are embedded, which, when combined with other plantings this fall, brings the total number of tulips along Troost Avenue to 120,000. "Everybody has found a way to come together for a common goal," says Alicia Douglas, who works at Rockhurst University. "Whatever it was that was keeping people from talking to each other, this breaks that down."

Beth Brubaker, another volunteer, concurs. "This is a really simple idea, that just by planting some flowers we can completely change the perception," she says. "It's already made a difference."

Although many volunteers come in groups, some residents show up with a spade on their own. "It brings beauty to the neighborhood," says Paola Vera, a native of Peru who has lived in Kansas City for four years. "I don't know if those issues [crime, blight, etc.] will be solved by something like this, but I think people feel empowered if the place where they live looks nicer."

Not everyone, of course, sees tulip bulbs as an elixir to urban problems. Philip Olson, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, calls the project a beautiful piece of "eye wash." "There's nothing functional other the aesthetics," he says. "It makes the people feel good, but they don't have to address what's underlying the Troost barrier."

Undaunted, Rice and organizers hope to plant 1 million tulips by 2010 and elevate Troost's profile nationally. "If we do that, we're a tulip festival," says Rice. "And I would defy anyone to talk about Troost as a racial dividing line when we've got that many tulips blooming in one place."

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