I am from Topeka, Kansas. I cannot be defined by one specific neighborhood of Topeka because I have lived in nearly all of them. A nomad of sorts, my youth was full of transition and turmoil. In my 31 years I have lived in over 30 locations, 25 of which have been in Topeka. I have been through hell in this town. I have seen Topeka at its most ugly, at its worst. At one point in my life all I wanted to do was escape it. But I have learned that if I want things to be better here I cannot simply run away and do nothing. I want a better Topeka, not only for myself but for my son. And for the little girl who is stuck in a bad part of town, living in poverty. The child who thinks things like college, safe housing, etc. are unobtainable for her. We must break the mentality that “this is just the way it is”, because NO IT IS NOT! There is so much opportunity in this town, you just have to go out and find it.
While I have seen the bad side of Topeka, I have also seen this town at its most beautiful. Sitting on the floor of my Great Aunt Hazel’s office in the capital building, looking out the window at the city below. You get a sense of pride when you look at Topeka from its capital dome, and you develop a deep respect for the many hands that built this town. Topeka is funny in how sometimes; we get in such a big hurry to destroy any evidence of the past. Then in other situations, we cry out in agony when a historical building is destroyed. I have witnessed too many historical buildings blown away or knocked down or simply left to rot. Thankfully there are other buildings we tend to have a little more respect for.
Topeka High School with its tall bell tower, marble walls, checker board floors, gothic library and grand theatre is a treasure. It was truly an honor to attend high school there and now that I am older I am wondering why I was in such a hurry to leave it. I would love nothing more than to spend my days among such classic architecture and beauty. I wish I could go back and attend another ceramic’s class with Moe, or commercial design class with Mrs. Waldron, or take Mrs. Bass’s Jewelry class. They were a great group of art teachers, they did everything within their power to mold and shape me as a young artist.
Our capital building is a beautiful example of what can be done with skill and sandstone. My heart always skips a beat as I enter into the capital, perhaps it’s the grand beauty of every detail, or perhaps I am still hoping to see Aunt Hazel waiting to greet me. For whatever reason, I could spend hours upon hours walking the halls taking in the murals and statues. It is truly beautiful.
Another area that has held strong over the years is Gage Park. Nationally recognized many times over for its colorful rose garden, large public pool and quaint zoo, Gage Park has always been the place to be. Many a young Topekan has played on the concrete shoe, pirate ship, octopus, kangaroo’s, and many other fun creatures. We thrilled as children when we raced down the roller slide that always managed to pinch our behinds. I sit now and watch my son play on the wooden jalopy and little train engine and think about how it wasn’t so long ago that I enjoyed the same activity. We have all ridden the Gage park train that circles the park, and we have all screamed at the top of our lungs as we pass through the tunnel. Walking through the rock garden as a child spotting giant tadpoles and feeding ducks was a thrill for many of us. And young men and women often spend their afternoon sitting on a bench taking in the beauty of the garden, and each other.
I remember Boyles Joyland and how it was a thrill from the time I entered until the time I was drug out of the gate. Riding the little boats, animal rides and of course the carousel. Luckily for all of us after Boyles Joyland, the theme park, closed the carousel was eventually moved to Gage Park. Now it is housed within a protective structure and cared for year round to preserve its beauty.
Another way to respect this city’s past is to simply walk the streets of down town. Take in the display of old and new. You will pass a modern building full of lofts or perhaps a trendy restaurant. And next to that modern building will be an ornately decorated shop front, full of craftsmanship and style. Looking at this building one can imagine all of the businesses it has housed over the long years. Perhaps it was a supply store, a lawyer’s office, a shoe store, or a book store. What was housed in this building when the great flood washed silt and mud into the streets and filled the floors of every structure down town? Who was it that spent many back breaking hours shoveling out the heavy wet earth? Who cleaned every inch of the building? Who cared for this building so much that they spent countless days, weeks or months restoring it? How sad that so many people can walk by this building and only see a dump. There is a “This Space Available” sign that leans on the window, crooked and faded from a long period of indifference. How many men and women have smiled on opening day, unlocking the door on the first day of business all full of hope and determination? And how many tears have been shed at the closing of a business in the same location? How sad that we live our daily lives, passing by these locations where so many lives have been touched, so much effort has been given and so many memories have been forgotten, and we keep walking. We play with our “aps”, we text about how bored we are and we eagerly drive to another side of town. Leaving this building to sit empty even longer.
Luckily there are steps being taken to renew our down town. We have events like Top City Thursdays to showcase and fill our down town. I know several shop owners down town that welcome the new life flowing through the streets. People who were once afraid to walk the streets of down town are now bringing their whole family to shop and play. Nothing gives me hope more than to see cars lining Kansas Avenue on a Thursday night.
Many of my friends who like me, experienced the worst that Topeka has to offer in our youth have a hard time understanding why I am so passionate about our town. “Why are you on this Topeka kick?” is what I hear most often. All I can say is look around. We now have television specials declaring “I Love Topeka!” we have citizens making a real and substantial effort to improve the city. We have events scheduled with the sole purpose of getting the citizens out together and for the first time really meet one another. In the past we stick to our own neighborhoods but now North Topekans, South Topekans, Oaklanders, West Topekans, Central Topekans and so on, we all come together in a celebration of our beautiful city. If Topeka were a person, I think she would be quite flattered.
Sure I could hate this town, in fact in the past I have. But how can I hate it when there are so many people who are starting to see the potential this city actually holds. And how so many people are doing everything they possibly can to help Topeka meet that potential. I would be crazy to simply sit at home and complain! I want Topeka to be better, not only for myself but for my son. I want him to see a downtown bustling with shops, arts and so much more. I want him to take his children to Gage Park and ride the train. I want him to climb the steps of our capital building and take pride in being a Kansan. And I hope, as he does these things he will think of me, and what I did to help make his town what it is. And I hope he can appreciate what all the men and women have done for Topeka in the past. From the most famous citizens to the unsung heroes who work tirelessly to improve their neighborhoods. I hope he doesn’t take any of it for granted.
My name is Martie, and I am a Topekan. There are many things I have done in this town. I have….
· Watched the sun set while sitting on the storm shelter in Green Acers Mobile Home Park.
· Skateboarded and biked the streets of Montara.
· Overlooked downtown Topeka from a cramped apartment in the Green Monster.
· Had a great meal at Bobo’s Drive-in.
· Picked up groceries at Tiltons.
· Taken the city bus to Topeka High.
· Jogged the streets of Oakland.
· Trick or Treated in Potwin.
· Bicycled Gage Park
· Been awakened by gun shots on Lincoln Avenue.
· Rode around Washburn University in those little golf carts.
· Debated face-to-face with the Phelps’s.
· Had the absolute pleasure that is Harold’s Prize Package.
· Tossed candy to children in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
· Taken my son to the Fairlawn Plaza Mall Santa, (because that’s the real Santa).
· Picnicked at Lake Shawnee.
· Seen a movie at the Big Chief Drive-in.
· Adopted a best friend at the Helping Hands Humane Shelter.
· Played putt-putt at Family Fun Center.
· Walked the Shunga Trail with a good friend.
· Purchased a good cigar at Churchill’s for my beloved.
· Sold jewelry in the Westboro shopping center.
· Stood in the bell tower of Topeka High.
· Taken in the beauty of Grace Cathedral.
This list can go on and on. Topeka is my home and I am here to stay.