Every neighborhood has its downsides. But few neighborhoods are as defined by their negative aspects as South Central Wichita. Explore South Central Wichita through photos.
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
Every neighborhood has its downsides. But few neighborhoods in Wichita are as defined by their negative aspects as South Central Wichita. The perception of this area — bound east and west by the river and Washington St. and north and south by Kellogg and Harry St. — is often distilled down to South Broadway, which runs through the center of the neighborhood and conjures up images of drugs, prostitution and poverty.
"We don't deny those things are happening, but it's also not all that's happening in the neighborhood," says Adam Barlow-Thompson, co-founder of the Neighboring Movement, an organization focused on social health in South Central Wichita and beyond. "There are a lot of people who live here who are really interesting, quirky, fun, talented people and who really like living in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a lot of restrictions on how you can kind of keep your yard or pursue any interest you might have."
The negative reputation of the area has a real impact on how residents perceive themselves. That’s why Barlow-Thompson’s organization has been attempting to rebrand South Central Wichita, calling it SoCe, and change the narrative surrounding the area’s people and places.
"When a neighborhood thinks of itself as a needy place, the people start to understand themselves as needy people," Barlow-Thompson says. "Then you ask them, 'What are you good at?' They say, 'Nothing,' which isn't true. But it's a sign that they've bought into that belief that they live in a crappy place, so they must be a crappy person."
It's a narrative many in Wichita likely have about areas like South Broadway. But it's a narrative held from afar — impersonal and distant so as not to apply a human face.
Once you're in one of these areas, reality strikes you differently than you would ever expect.
I. THE NEIGHBORING MOVEMENT
The SoCe rebranding has been largely helmed by Barlow-Thompson's organization, the Neighboring Movement, which he co-founded with Matt Johnson.
Over the past few months, they have been transforming the local Resurrection Community Church into a community center focused on finding the strengths of neighbors. They call the space Synergy.
Classrooms, meeting rooms, a gymnasium and even a library have been made accessible to the neighborhood, giving needed real estate for the change Johnson and Barlow-Thompson are hoping to spark.
But change takes time, and Johnson says they're up against real hurdles when it comes to perception. He tells this joke he has heard across Wichita.
"What's south of Kellogg? Oklahoma," he says. "It's like we don't even exist."
II. BUILDING LEGACY
People live in SoCe for many reasons. Whether it's the proximity to downtown, the affordable housing or the many assistance programs in the area, there are a diversity of motivations for living there, which means a diversity of people.
While the neighborhood is predominantly white, about 30 percent of SoCe's residents are Hispanic. Ninfa Zendejas, owner of Brianna's Bakery near Harry and Waco, moved to Wichita from California about three years ago. She gravitated to SoCe because of the affordable real estate that made it possible to open her business. She says the area's affordability has an upside when it comes to sales.
"A lot of people have told me, 'Why open a bakery shop here? Why not go to a neighborhood out east?'" she says. "Well, everything there is expensive. Even the houses. So they have less money to spend, honestly."
Still, she caters to lower-income residents with low prices and four-for-$1 sales of day-old pastries.
"So a lot of them come for that price," she says. "But I do have a lot of customers who say, 'This is too inexpensive.'"
Barlow-Thompson says the area is diverse when it comes to income, as well.
"We are a mixed income neighborhood, and there’s a lot of people who are starting to appreciate that," Barlow-Thompson says. "We thrive with neighbors who are resilient and who don’t mind living in a place that’s a little adventurous sometimes."
Larry Mong is one of those residents. He moved from Fort Worth to SoCe 20 years ago, purchasing a Victorian-style home for just $50,000. He says that same home would have cost at least 10 times that in the Dallas area.
"We weren't afraid of this neighborhood, even though the people of Wichita poop on this neighborhood," Mong says. "It's under-utilized housing. That's all it is."
The mixed-income aspect of the neighborhood lends to more affordable real estate. Mix that with few restrictions on how to live, and close proximity to downtown, and you have many people's ideal neighborhood.
The freedom truly shines with things like Legacy Gardenworks, a community garden run by Lauren Scislowski. The garden is set up across a sprawling lot adjacent to the river, which would likely never be allowed in other neighborhoods. The garden offers employment for high schoolers and a source of fresh produce for people across Wichita.
Forgotten districts are never truly forgotten — at least not by the people who live there.
"I think it all becomes relative," Barlow-Thompson says. "Who’s doing the forgetting? ... The narrative of Wichita, and who tells that story, gets shaped by a lot of different forces.”
Yes, SoCe is often defined by its worst attributes. But there are many opportunities to experience its upsides, from bakeries and restaurants to unique gathering spaces and personalities.
Zendejas says the businesses in the area offer a better view from which to see her neighborhood. She says more businesses could help the neighborhood continue to develop and shed the misconceptions that surround it.
"I think what we should do is start opening up more businesses — and make it easier for people to open up a business," she says. "That’s what I think could help this side of the neighborhood. Business coming into a neighborhood helps everything."
Wichita is a collection of neighborhoods, all with unique challenges and opportunities. If we evaluate these neighborhoods by only their challenges, we fail to fully capitalize on their opportunities.
South Central Wichita deserves another chance from most of us. Find a way to get down there and experience all the good it has to offer.