As high rents continue to squeeze artists in areas such as the Crossroads Arts District, an historic Independence enclave aims to establish itself as an affordable arts magnet.
Englewood Arts, a nonprofit organization launched in August, recently purchased the former Comprehensive Mental Health Services building at 10901 East Winner Road in Independence. Now renamed the Englewood Arts Center, the three-story building looks out on the historic Englewood Station Arts District.
“We’re using arts as a catalyst for community improvement, and we’re doing community improvement through the arts,” said Michael Baxley, director of Englewood Arts and former manager of Belger Crane Yard Studios in Kansas City.
The Englewood Station Arts District takes its name from an old trolley station that once served neighborhood commuters.
“I describe it as Main Street USA 1950,” Baxley said. “It was everything you’d expect to have to serve a community.”
The Englewood neighborhood has suffered through a long bout of decline in recent decades. The former Englewood Theatre, a revered cinematic treasure, closed in 2007 after a run of nearly 60 years. Other casualties have included an old Ben Franklin Five & Dime store, along with much of the old housing stock.
“A lot of homes have gone vacant, and within three months of vacancy they typically burn down,” Baxley said. “And no new houses are being built.”
But despite the losses and setbacks, including a thus far unfulfilled attempt to acquire the old movie theater, Englewood is humming with a vibe of resurgence. Today the neighborhood percolates with salons, galleries, working studios and a 3rd Friday Art Walk.
The City of Independence has nurtured the resurgence by establishing an arts district zone that covers Winner Road, Baxley said. “If you’re a business in the arts district, you have to display and sell art within your business, regardless of the type of business. When you’re walking down the street, you have a reason to go into every business, because you have the opportunity to purchase art.”
A case in point is the B-Vogue Salon & Art Gallery, a vibrant gathering spot for Englewood’s artistic community. B-Vogue’s owner, Tammy Parsons, is a founding board member of Englewood Arts.
“Our ultimate goal is community pride,” Parsons said. “It’s about people finding something they can afford and being able to stay strong and live the rest of their life in a place.”
Teresa Cosgrove, an artist who works in guest services at B-Vogue, serves on the Englewood Arts community committee. “This area feels like it’s just waiting to explode,” she said. “I’m super excited about the opportunity to bring arts in and use that as a catalyst, and also be a place for displaced artists in the Kansas City area to find a new place to work on their art and live, and feel like they’re part of a community.”
Down the street from B-Vogue stands Vivilore, a popular restaurant, gallery and antique store.
“We hope to redevelop the neighborhood through the arts,” said Cindy Foster, who co-owns Vivilore with her brother, Whit Ross.
Plans for the new Englewood Arts Center include glass blowing, painting, murals, ceramics, wood, neon, performing arts and culinary arts. Englewood Arts hopes to open portions of the new arts center before the end of this year. The organization has launched a campaign to raise $2 million to renovate and equip the building and create a reserve fund for three years of operations, Baxley said.
But while the neighborhood arts resurgence is encouraging, Baxley said the greatest need facing Englewood is affordable and sustainable housing.
“The community wants to see the empty lots filled with new homes, and more opportunity for the people who are here,” he said. “People don’t want to invest in this area. Banks are not willing to invest. Once it’s started, banks will come in and make loans in an area that’s seeing improvement.”
Baxley said Englewood Arts is working with a credit union on a program that would provide a high-risk, low-interest loan pool to generate mortgages and home improvement loans in the neighborhood.
“A lot of homes in this area are selling for $40,000 to $50,000,” Baxley said. “They’re over 2,000 square feet, but they need a lot of work. Of the 3,500 homes in this neighborhood, 51 percent are rentals. People are renting because they don’t have any other option. We want to bring an option for home ownership to this neighborhood.”
Monte Short, an Independence native and executive director of Englewood Arts, said his vision for Englewood does not resemble the high-octane developments that have replaced grime with glitz in the Crossroads.
“I like the energy of the Crossroads,” Short said. “But Englewood and the Crossroads are completely different. The Crossroads is a mainly commercial development. Englewood is mainly residential. A lot of buildings are vacant. We would like to see things happen here, mainly for the arts. It would be wonderful if artists would come and acquire and stay in this area.”
Baxley said an artist from New York recently drove down to learn more about Englewood Arts. “He wants out of New York, because he’s getting priced out. This area potentially can have a national reach, not just local.”
Meantime, Short would like to see Englewood Arts eventually acquire the old Englewood Theatre.
“A lot of people who grew up in this area went to the Englewood Theatre,” he said. “We would like to have some of the older films come back. Probably some art-related films. We want to put a stage back in, so there can be some performing arts there. We’d like to upgrade it.”
Thad McCullough, a performing artist who works at B-Vogue as a hairdresser, sees a “cultural boom” heading for Englewood. “That’s going to bring artists, who bring change and attention to the community,” said McCullough, who also serves on the Englewood Arts community committee. “Artists bring love and heart to the community. People want to be a part of that. Englewood Arts is a good platform for that. I think Englewood Arts is going to connect all the dots and create this symbiotic utopia for arts here in western Independence.”
Above: Exterior rendering of “what can be” of the new Englewood Arts Center (rendering courtesy of Terry Meek at Prairie Studio)