The night of his high school graduation, Daniel Edwards and his friends looked out at Kansas City from a fourth-floor window at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy on 21st and Woodland. They could see vacant property in every direction, and as they prepared to head off into the world, they joked about coming back as grown-ups to buy an empty block and start their own neighborhood.
That's basically what Edwards and his wife Ebony are doing right now.
They've purchased land teeming with weeds just a few blocks away, and they're in the process of taking over a boarded-up cinderblock daycare right beside it. On the empty lot, they have plans to build houses for themselves and their friends (seven families have already opted in). In the abandoned daycare, they hope to build a coworking space for performing artists. For now, their work consists mostly of meetings -- with stakeholders, with lawyers, with city departments, with the Kansas City Public Schools.
"It's meetings and emails and meetings and emails," says Daniel. "The fact is is that this is real money and and it's real lives as well. You have to be a good steward of both. That requires a lot more foundational groundwork."
If the Edwards succeed in breaking ground on the project as planned, they will have created a playbook for something no one's really figured out: that is, how regular people who live in a community can be empowered, without a top-down effort, to breathe new life into property around them left vacant by white flight and "urban renewal."
"We're millennials, we're young, we are African American," he says. "We've got two little girls that are one and three. It's shovels being put into the ground by people who actually want to be in the neighborhood. It's not shovels being put in the ground by outside developers."
One of the first orders of business will involve digging up the city's past.
"Back in the day when they would come through for 'urban renewal,' they would just take a bulldozer, dump the whole house into the basement and then cover it with topsoil and let grass grow up, or trees grow up," Daniel explains.
"Problem solved until 70 years later you have a group of families who went to move back... We have to go back and dig up everything. They stuck a pole two feet underground and we hit foundations. And so we have to go back in and dig all that up, start back over."
Daniel, an architectural engineer, is the visionary for the project, but it's Ebony who makes sure the nuts and bolts are in place as CEO of their company, Movement KC.
Ebony grew up near 63rd and Paseo. She went to private school until high school, when she entered Kansas City Public Schools. The difference between what she'd experienced in private school and what she was now experiencing in public school mobilized her.
"I was learning at that stage things I had learned so much younger at my previous school. And at that point was really affected by it. I could just look around me and see really literally kids being left behind because of this stark difference in opportunity. That really is the core for me, the core of doing this work of rebuilding neighborhoods. Because unfortunately when we talk about access to opportunities, it is a ZIP code issue."
She went on to study community psychology at a historically black college in Atlanta before moving to Chicago for work. The two met not in Kansas City but at a conference in Cincinnati, where Daniel noticed the 816 area code on her registration form. He either stalked her or "strategically positioned himself" so he could talk to her, depending on whose interpretation you choose.
When they got married, they chose an abandoned work-prison on 20th and Vine as their venue. It looks like a castle, but it had stood empty for a long time. They proceeded to mobilize 300 volunteers to move several tons of trash out of the building in time for the big day. The community support, as well as the way the energy stalled out after the wedding, was a learning experience for the more ambitious project they're taking on now, according to Daniel.
"Since then... I've learned how to kind of tighten up the ship around me. So, contracts and everything like that moving forward, to make sure that not only we are protected, but the people who invest their time and energy and resources into supporting us are also protected as well."
As for that playbook they're making, that's been a shift in the scope of the project over the last 90 days.
After looking at a 2018 housing study that said there was a 17,000-home deficit in Kansas City, the couple was invited to Palo Alto, California, for an investors' summit, where they got a clearer picture of the national work being done to fight blight at the neighborhood level.
"We have really redeveloped our strategy not only to address a friends and family type situation, but how do we rebuild every neighborhood that's been demolished by urban renewal across the country," says Daniel.