Community Members, WSU Work To Revive Historic Fairmount Neighborhood
The Fairmount neighborhood sits at the south end of Wichita State University’s campus and has the distinction of being the birthplace of the school. But despite the neighborhood’s long and significant history, it has more recently been defined by its crime. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur reports on how a renewed bond between Fairmount and Wichita State could help the community thrive once again.
The Fairmount neighborhood has a lot to offer: a large municipal park, a number of churches, a community garden and many historical homes.
Bob Bayer stands in the shadow of a large, three-story house on the corner of Holyoke and 16th Streets, two blocks from Wichita State University. Once upon a time, Bayer owned this home, but struggled to find the money to renovate it. The prominent features—a towering, pointed spire, large front windows and hundreds of ornate details—are still here. But, the house has seen better days.
Few know its history, including its original name: Holyoke Cottage.
The house was built in 1888 by Joseph Homer Parker, the founder of the Fairmount Academy for Women, which later became Fairmount College, Bayer explains. About two-thirds of the faculty members of Fairmount College lived on Holyoke, earning the street the nickname 'Faculty Row.'
Fairmount College would eventually become Wichita State University, and the Holyoke Cottage survived the transition, serving many functions: female dormitories, administrative offices and a sorority house. But any direct connection to the university was severed in 1951, when the sorority decided to move out and the home was sold to a string of different private owners over the last 6o years.
Real estate developers Mark Farha and Brock Oaks of Farha Development bought the home about six months ago in order to restore it. This isn’t their first endeavor in Fairmount.
“Mark and I started driving the neighborhood about 2006 and couldn’t understand why the neighborhood right next to a major university wasn’t more vibrant," Oaks says. "We felt there might be an opportunity.”
The two men have since worked on about 250 units in the neighborhood, including three apartment buildings, which were renovated and will provide affordable housing. They believe in Fairmount. They have to, considering the money they’re investing in it.
“We see the potential in the neighborhood for the next five to 10 years," Farha says. "We’re willing to put all of our efforts into it.”
The Fairmount neighborhood does have one big hurdle to get over: breaking the stigma of violent crime.
In November of last year, 36-year-old Letitia Davis was raped and murdered in Fairmount Park. The incident shook the entire city. The assailant has since been found and convicted, but the attack is far from forgotten.
On a recent afternoon, Darryl Carrington hunts for cantaloupe in the community garden he started a few years back. He came here from California as an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2004 and stayed.
He says the neighborhood has known violence for a long time. That’s why he was sent here in the first place.
“Gang culture had found its way into Fairmount neighborhood, and Fairmount Park was a main attraction for many of the gang members," Carrington says.
According to crime maps put together by the Wichita Eagle, there have been 17 homicides in or around the Fairmount neighborhood in the last 25 years. Carrington says the community only holds about 1,300 people. It's through AmeriCorps that Carrington mentored many young men and women. Slowly, community leaders began to regain control of their neighborhood.
“Many folks can take credit for that. Not only the leadership of the Fairmount United Church of Christ, but the Fairmount Neighborhood Association, one of the oldest associations in the city of Wichita, and the leadership of Wichita State," Carrington says.
But the gruesome attack last November was a reminder that more work is needed. Carrington is currently a plumber and student at Wichita State, but he will soon take on a position as the university’s community liaison for Fairmount. Wichita State has developed a campaign called ‘Enough is Enough,’ in response to the attack in Fairmount Park. It’s supported by a $250,000 grant from the Kansas Health Foundation.
“It’s a three-year opportunity, and in three years, our goal is to raise the quality of life," Carrington says. "There are no parameters there. This is all community-led. The community is going to decide what it wants.”
Carrington says Wichita State will be holding a number of town hall-type meetings, the first of which is next month. He says it will be an opportunity for residents to ask not only the university, but city officials and corporate partners for help in reviving Fairmount.
Ted Ayres, who was Wichita State’s top legal advisor for a number of years, has come out of retirement to lead the university’s involvement in 'Enough is Enough.' He says the areas of focus include law enforcement, health and wellness, social issues, economic development, education and community relations.
Ayres has a vision of low-interest mortgages for first-time homebuyers, facilitating loans and grants for home improvement and bringing more awareness to Wichita State’s TRIO programs, which helps both teenagers and adults in low-income areas access higher education.
To accomplish these goals, Ayres says the university can use its bank of faculty, staff and students to assist their neighbors.
“Resources are tight," he says. "But certainly we’re looking to an investment of human capital."
The university has a stake in the neighborhood, with big plans for the 17th Street corridor, which is where Fairmount and Wichita State meet.
Plans include a large stretch of retail space with shops, restaurants and art galleries. Concerns have been raised that the development could push out current residents, but Ayres sees it as an opportunity for inclusion, one that will create jobs and offer a place to congregate.
“The future of Wichita State University is linked to these neighborhoods and to the people and the families that live around us," he says. "And so, from that perspective, I do think we have a responsibility to be a good neighbor.”
The university is developing a team that can provide expertise to the residents of Fairmount. Amanda Assaf is working on her graduate thesis in anthropology, and she’s decided to focus on Fairmount, conducting interviews along the way.
"From what they see, there are issues with roads, there are issues with trash, there are issues with lighting," Assaf says. "People in the neighborhoods want a good, clean, safe environment to live in.”
People in the neighborhoods want a good, clean, safe environment to live in.
Assaf says residents of Fairmount have been vocal about the need for more street lighting since the 1970s, but nothing has been done. While she understands the city's budget can be tight, some residents feel forgotten. In interviews they mention youth programs once available to kids that have come and gone, neighborhood pools and basketball courts that have shuttered.
“Kids don’t have anything to do over the summer. They’re stuck in their homes. There used to be tutoring programs in churches that have been shut down because there are no funds," Assaf says. "So, [residents] are saying, can we have these back?”
Assaf hopes the university’s efforts in Fairmount will eventually spread to other neighboring communities, which have seen recent reports of violent crime.
In the meantime, Mark Farha and Brock Oaks aren't waiting around for the city or university. The two say they're the only developers currently investing in Fairmount, and they're here to stay.
At Holyoke Cottage, new owner Brock Oaks says he wants the Fairmount neighborhood to work—for students, for existing residents and for the city as a whole.
“The university right now could be deemed an island. And it’s certainly not an island," he says. "It should be integrated with the community as much as possible.”
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Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur