Photography by Fally Afani, mural in Lecompton
Gaston Bachelard’s landmark and influential book The Poetics of Space is a philosophical exploration of how our physical surroundings can captivate and define us. The 1958 book from the French author is more nuanced than that short summary but there is something simple and exceedingly true that still applies to our modern lives in Kansas: we should strive to perfect the environments around us, especially those most near and dear. Our homes and neighborhoods should be what we hope for them and work for them to be.
The American nonprofit Project for Public Spaces shares an essential addition to the concept of intentional neighborhoods—that the best neighborhoods are shaped from “the simple idea that the people who live in a neighborhood are the world’s experts on that particular place. Any project to improve things should be guided by the community’s wisdom.”
This approach of outside consultants working with local residents and organizations to create the best neighborhoods and communities possible is at the core of the work being done by the Kansas Pride Program, a hands-on, nonprofit community program based at Kansas State University. Since 1970, the Pride program has fostered collaboration between outside consultants and local experts to work with civic organizations and private entities to better neighborhoods and communities. The program has had success in large cities such as Wichita as well as in small towns like Alton.
“One of the things I get overwhelmed with is the generosity at the local level. Maybe a community wants to do a cleanup. Well, then, the utility company steps up, a local waste management company, too … before you know it the community and the companies have partnered to clean their town,” says Jaime Menon, extension state leader for community vitality and co-coordinator of Kansas Pride.
“Alton, they’re one of our smaller communities, but … I tell you what, their organization, it’s phenomenal. They are so well organized. For example, every year they put on a jubilee that rivals their county fair,” Menon says.
And Menon has seen this again and again, from projects such as creating community gardens, painting murals, and more. Things happen once a community member steps forward.
“There’s always someone who’s been there a long time—the spark. They just get everything moving. There are people behind them, behind the trailblazer, and they all work together,” Menon says. “It’s really incredible to witness.”
Kansas Pride Program Success Stories
When the Caney Market opened in March 2021, it ended the town’s 10-plus years without a grocery store. City administrator Fred Gress, the city council, and Caney Community Betterment Group collaborated to raise money for the store’s down payment. The city of Caney owns and operates the store, and its employees work for the city. The location also features a Champ’s Chicken and draws customers from across the region, including just over the Oklahoma border.
Lecompton Mural and Theater
In 2021, Pride worked with Lecompton, the smallest town of Douglas County, to raise $15,000 in private donations to hire artist and Lecompton native Rick Wright to create the town’s first outdoor mural. After the mural was complete, community members continued to improve the site by installing an outdoor lighting system. In addition, the Pride partnership spurred the restoration of a community theater located on the third floor of the building whose walls feature the mural. The theater’s original seats date from the 1920s, and organizers replaced the building’s large windows and installed new velvet curtains and a showcase chandelier inside the theater hall.
Marion FFA Garden and Food Bank Partnership
Working with Pride, the FFA chapter in Marion received a two-acre parcel of land from the Marion School District in December 2015 in order to start a community garden. Volunteers spent the spring of 2016 working the land and donated that first harvest—and every harvest since—to the Marion County Resource Center and Food Bank. Since the creation of the community garden in 2016, more than 23,000 pounds of fresh produce have been donated to the food bank.
Humboldt Neosho River Park
One of the first projects that Pride-Humboldt took on was the restoration of Neosho River Park. In the years since, the local Pride team has built an outdoor amphitheater, a walking trail, and more. After receiving a grant and holding successful fundraisers, the community was able to add a pair of restrooms. The original core of volunteers ranged in age from 50 to 80, but in years since, these volunteers have been assisted by 4-H club members, high school students, college students, and other young adults.
Communities interested in learning more about the Kansas PRIDE Program can visit kansasprideprogram.k-state.edu. In some cases, grant funding is available for projects, and PRIDE works with the Kansas Department of Commerce regional program managers (RPMs) to assist communities in identifying outside funding opportunities.