Recently, I was listening to an audio-taped interview with Ollie Gates, who is the owner of Gates Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri. Mr. Gates is now 80+ years old, and he is the son of George and Arzelia Gates. Because of the efforts of George Gates, Gates Barbecue was officially established in 1946 in Kansas City, Missouri, and Ollie Gates is now an icon with a reputation that is much, much bigger than barbecue.
That interview, which I did not conduct, happened behind closed doors in February of 2017, and I actually had the chance to hear it in person. Mr. Gates was asked if his early cultural expressions of his childhood affected his life choices. In response to that question, he said yes; he also said out-loud that because of his environment [which was a mid-twentieth century urban ghetto designed as a segregated space for blacks in Kansas City] he was not “supposed to be a nice guy.” According to Mr. Gates, “…because of all the ugliness [in my community], I was going to be the biggest thug in all the world.” Obviously, he didn’t become a thug. As he continued to reflect upon his upbringing, both spatially and socially, he went on to say that he had to decide what kind of life he was going to make for himself, in spite of the early economic and spatial challenges for which he had no control. Today, Ollie Gates is the owner of six different restaurant locations; his barbecue and sauce and his reputation are celebrated worldwide; and he has now sustained six decades of entrepreneurial success of reinvesting his labor and wealth into the area that was once intended to keep black people “in their place.”
How did he do it? How did he come from a urban black ghetto and manage to become a successful business man and such a celebrated entrepreneur? Well, one thing that I learned as I listened to Mr. Gates talk about his connection to the historic 18th & Vine District in Kansas City, is that he never despised the fact that he is black, phenotypically and culturally. Deep down he embraces his heritage as a black man and he embraces the history of the space from which he came to inform his knowledge of self and business. As I listened, I found his attitudes and the love that he has for black culture very empowering and enlightening. As a womanist, who is dedicated to the progress and transformation of black people and black culture, I was inspired. To hear Mr. Gates encourage the redevelopment of 18th & Vine from a place of pride, authenticity and with a genuine love of being black in a world that despises blackness at every turn, I was deeply moved.
In the course of my travels nationwide and beyond, I have heard many talk about rebuilding black communities. As an urban planning professional and writer, I have read many books and articles about the redevelopment of black communities. I have also been in many rooms where I have heard from community leaders, developers, and politicians talk about how to revitalize former ghettos and declining areas. There, we have examined redevelopment in terms of bricks and mortar, and thus we have explored many scenarios for the rebuilding of former black communities, neighborhoods and businesses. We’ve talked about about landscaping, commercial and residential designs; we’ve explored the many ways in which space can be re-imagined or redesigned, brick by brick and block by block. However, many of the dialogues that I have been a part of do not consider the redesign of space and place in social and personal terms.
What I found compelling about Mr. Gates’s reflections on the historic Kansas City 18th & Vine area, was that he is first and foremost proud of himself and he is not ashamed of where he came from. And, despite his ability to move beyond the spatial boundaries of 18th & Vine, he never abandoned it. On the contrary, he has dedicated his life to putting his community-building efforts back in the area where he was born. And although I do not know him personally, and barely at all, after hearing him talk about his community in person, I sincerely believe that he has been able to do this because he came from a family and a community that loved him. From within a once segregated and abandoned space, Mr. Gates found love for himself and he has built his business upon that love. Openly, he credits the love that he experienced from his family and his former community as the motivation for his efforts to revitalize Kansas City’s 18th & Vine community that exists today.
The concept of love has been an important topic for me. In fact, in my 2012 essay on a concept known as “loving attachment,” which is a feminist and theoretical approach to urban and regional planning, I (along with other urban planning scholars) explored the way in which planners can operate with communities and others from a place of love and attachment. Personally, I know the power of love and what it can do for the human psyche. In fact, I’ve said it before and I will say it again: a good, healthy love can make you fly. Yet, in many of today’s urban ghettos, especially black urban ghettos, there are many children and adults who do not know or respect the transformative power of love. As a certified substitute school teacher and as an urban college professor, I have found, more times than not, that children and adults who live in today’s black urban ghettos know subconsciously that they were/are abandoned by those who did/do not care or love them, including municipal officials and developers. In meeting after meeting, I hear from black urban ghetto residents who do not know or feel the love that comes from an entire community of people taking pride in themselves and in what they have, even if what they have spatially is minimal or even deficient. Over and over, they do not express the sentiment or the belief that what they have, socially, personally, and culturally, is of far greater value than the spatial attributes and boundaries that they inhabit. The ghetto spaces where they live are not as they were some fifty or sixty years ago; they are categorically different and much more commodified than they were back then. And, as a general rule, they are perceived as spaces that are loveless and unlovable.
As an advocate for good urban and regional planning, I am quite interested in exploring the importance of love as it pertains to community and economic development. I wonder how many black communities could be revived if the people who used to live there were to invest in the places and spaces that they used to call home. I am curious to find out if being attached to a place in a loving and familiar way has or could lead to actions that can transform the places and spaces that were meant to demean and discourage former residents. I fantasize what could happen if former residents of those places might be courageous enough to do the unthinkable with their resources and their power on behalf of the urban places that have been repeatedly abandoned.
Upon hearing Mr. Ollie Gates, I heard something, and it is something that I have known for a long time and in many different aspects of my life. That something is that at the end of the day, there is only one thing that can change things for the better. That something is love. And, when black people love themselves and their communities enough to reinvest their money and their wealth in those communities, I wholeheartedly believe that we will see a change in how those communities look, feel and operate. But, as long as we do not invest in those places from a genuine place of love for black culture, or if we only wish to exploit them for momentary satisfaction, they will continue to be loveless, and possibly hopeless places to be. Indeed, every now and then a developer with the right amount of money might come along and put up a new sign or a new face, but the development of a former ghetto area will not be sustainable without the love and embrace of a community. This type of love, that is born and nurtured in culture and community, cannot be found in bricks and mortar and it cannot be manufactured via lending institutions; the love and respect for culture is only found in the strength and expression of a people and persons, like Ollie Gates, who unabashedly value and love themselves. No person can survive the ugliness of this life without the love of self and the love of a community. And no community can be sustained without the love of those who once lived there or without the love of those who live there today.
So, when it comes to rebuilding black communities, we have to consider the power of love and culture, and we have to know that a sustained effort at revitalizing former and current black ghettos has to come from the people who are willing to embrace it as their own and as declared in the words of the great Ossie Davis, from those who know that the that the best of being black is yet to be:
Be not deceived
The struggle is far from over
The best of being black is yet to be
So said the ones who died
To set you free.
© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.