Volunteer works to bring magic back to blighted area

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January 2012

No matter your tastes, Franny Knight is confident she can help you find “cool” anywhere in the metro. “There are cool houses in Johnson County. There are cool houses everywhere,” she says. 
 
Knight, who describes herself professionally as an “eco-realtor,” keeps track of interesting homes — for sale and not — on her blog coolhouseskc.com. Pull it up and you’ll notice right away she has a thing for crumbling, once-majestic structures on Troost Avenue.
 
Kansas City’s most notorious street is a boundary line for Emerald City, an area where, as a community organizer, Knight would find it very cool for you to invest your dollars, sweat and creative energy. Better known as the Manheim Historic Park Neighborhood, this impoverished section of Kansas City’s urban core extends from 39th and 46th streets between Troost and Paseo, and contains about 60 boarded-up houses and 50 vacant lots. 
 
The area lies within the 150 square blocks of blight that U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II has identified as the Green Impact Zone. His related initiatives involve some federal and local revitalization money, but Knight, a 46-year-old Wichita native and former motivational speaker and corporate trainer, sees the potential for greater transformation. She wants to create an intentional community in the heart of Kansas City where all kinds of people coexist and cooperate in an artful, safe and sustainable setting. Think community gardening, bicycle sharing, holistic health care, alternative education programs and a functioning “Earth Ship” — an environmentally friendly demonstration home that functions completely off the grid.
 
Knight’s Emerald City dream already is underway in the form of monthly second Friday art walks along Troost and a couple of neglected houses that are once again livable.
 
“I’m very creative and I’m very passionate about, when things aren’t working, finding a way to change them,” Knight says.
 
Shortly after falling in love with the Manheim neighborhood last year, she and fellow visionary Karin Page founded the Emerald City beautification project and began gathering disciples. More than 150 people turned out for an initial organizational meeting at St. Mark Lutheran Church, 3800 Troost Ave. “When I decide on something that I think has some worth, and there’s some fun and creativity in it,” Knight says. “I think I can sell it pretty well.” 
 
On a dreary Saturday in December, Emerald City’s headquarters, a former church at 4334 Troost Ave., bursts to life when Knight shows up in a soggy jacket. She takes a seat on a folding chair and discusses the project between the polite interruptions of a grandmother working on an art installation inspired by Twitter, a poet from Texas visiting the young man who lives upstairs, and Hubert Beattie, Knight’s husband of three years, who’s doing minor building maintenance. 
 
Knight hasn’t convinced Beattie to trade south Kansas City for Emerald City, yet, but they spend most of their free time here, including every Sunday for a potluck that Knight equates to church. “It’s not faith-based, it’s values-based,” she says.
 
She confesses this endeavor, which she’s about to register as a 501c3 organization, has taken over her life. 
 
Since March her professional efforts in real estate have more or less taken a back seat. The most recent update on her eco-realty website kcgreenteam.com is an announcement for that first Emerald City barnstorming last March 28. Although the number  of active Emerald City members has fallen to about 25 since then, Knight says the project is finally starting to “generate on its own.”
 
A huge, hand-drawn map that hangs on a wall behind a beige computer that looks close to 20 years old represents some proof. Knight points to 10 squares — Emerald City outposts, including the old church and three commercial buildings across the street, purchased for as little as $1,000 by angel investors willing to let a cooperative of Emerald City laborers rehabilitate and eventually take over the properties.
 
The original goal was to acquire — through the angel investors — a lofty 52 properties in 52 weeks. Even if interest were that high, though, Knight admits her group lacks the resources and manpower to work that fast. “This is not going to be what I think it’s going to be right away,” she admits. “But I feel like we’ve gotten a lot done in eight months.”
 
In a word, it’s cool.
 

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