We explore and celebrate different neighborhoods across the state
Illustration by Abra Shirley
When people talk about neighborhoods, they are often referring to a residential section inside a city with historical or defined geographical borders and with a certain character either from its architecture, its physical layout, or its residents.
Traditionally, these might be sections of a city that were once independent but were gradually absorbed by a metropolitan area without losing their historical character. In recent years, the concept of new urbanism has championed the idea of creating or reviving residential areas with shopping, entertainment, green spaces and other essential locations all within a short walk of one another.
Kansas has examples of these different urban neighborhoods.
But the Sunflower State is also a rural state. Our 2020 census revealed that only 57.3 percent of the state lives in an urban county—but not necessarily in an urban neighborhood. That means that about half of the state lives in a county where the population density is less—often far less—than 150 people per square mile. In these areas, the self-contained, urban neighborhoods don’t exist, but that doesn’t mean these areas don’t contain neighborhoods. They do, but in a different form. In rural Kansas, the fabric and history of neighborly relations mean that a neighborhood extends for dozens or even hundreds of miles.
Some memories are never shaken.
As I was growing up, it was the neighbors who boosted our spirits and kept us going. Look up, and there was Paul Prescott puttering along in his ancient faded-red Chevy pickup truck, dog by his side, and a herd of cattle moseying along behind as he moved them from one pasture to another. Stop to chat and he peppered nearly every conversation with a “By golly!” while offering giant bottles of icy-cold colas which he’d kept for such an occasion.
A death in the family? The morning after my mom died suddenly, sure enough, there were my mom’s best friends, Alice Cooper and Virginia Ann Snyder—who had driven the distance with casseroles and cakes in hand—knocking on our front door.
Such was the way of life in 1970s Stafford County Cleveland Township, population 30—give or take a few.
So, what is a Kansas neighborhood in regions where the entire town might not fill up a big-city apartment complex?
Like anywhere else, it’s a mix of family, characters, food, and shared experiences—both inside the house and next door to you; it’s just that the next doors might be several acres or more apart. But it’s the feelings, mutual admiration, and the awareness that we share a common space and common bonds.
Definitions of neighborhoods have changed significantly in the 16 decades since Kansas was declared a state.
Neighbors, then, could be those who traveled with us on boats, trains and covered wagons and settled where we settled.
Some were already here—for centuries—the Kanza, Pawnee, Kiowa, Osage, Comanche, Wichita, Shawnee, and Kickapoo. Others would come after—Africans, Czechs, Swedes, Germans, Irish, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, Exodusters, Hispanics, and others.
Sometimes there were conflicts. But most often, the neighbors next to us have shared sugar, clothes, love, and companionship.
It was about neighbors helping neighbors.
Through grasshopper plagues, dust bowl storms, floods, droughts, and blizzards—neighbors played a role in defining our communities and ourselves. Our neighborhoods were where we ate, played, and slept. Country kids further enhanced that sense of community on endless bus routes, 4-H meetings, and church fellowship groups.
Back when most Kansans identified themselves as living in a rural community, being neighbors meant living in a radius where one could easily drive a team of horses or a tractor and pitch in to harvest crops, fix fences, and lend an extra hand. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, neighbors often meant the difference between success or failure and whether families would stay on their land for generations to come.
Potlucks at church suppers and school events became commonplace. Jell-O salads, fried chicken and pies became prized possessions. Everybody knew who fixed what—what was best and what maybe to shy away from.
Telephone party lines kept us connected. Four or five families often shared the same line; we knew which family should answer a call by the pattern of the rings. Expectations of privacy often went unheeded.
Schools became community hot spots and town rivalries were heated. Our sense of neighborhood identity was wrapped up in intense basketball and football games. In rural areas, the county teens (and among them there might have been some rabble-rousers) might assemble to drag the county courthouse square on a Friday or Saturday night.
With the advent of cable and satellite television programs, then later the internet, we saw our neighbors less often. Recently, our co-existence has shifted from physical to virtual spaces.
Dave Webb, Kansas historian and author from Protection, notes that in rural farming communities, the definition of a neighbor used to be within a 5- to 10-mile radius. Now, more often, it is found through online community sites or Facebook pages. These days, particularly in pandemic times, we may socialize less with our next-door neighbors than we do with neighbors found on social media who share similar beliefs.
Yet … when you pull into a rural town, you can still find neighbors gathered at the local coffee shops, co-ops, and restaurants. They talk about the weather, the latest school game, or whatever comes to mind.
And I know, in my rural community, each of us has neighbors we can still rely on when we need. These neighbors might have to drive miles, but they’ll get here when we need them.
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