Jermaine Reed points to the plot of land where the Horace Mann Elementary School once stood, on 39th Street overlooking U.S. Highway 71. The school, abandoned in 1979, burned in a December 2011 fire.
Reed, the 28-year-old 3rd District councilman, saw the blaze as an opportunity to live out a childhood fantasy: tear down the school. In January, he sponsored a series of ordinances to do just that and usher in residential development and a senior living facility.
"I remember as a kid thinking, Man, that should be down," Reed says during a driving tour of the 3rd District on a gray Friday afternoon. "Now, as an adult and being kind of responsible for it being down and bettering the community, I have a sense of pride."
Reed, the council's youngest member, wears a slick black shirt and jacket but no tie for the first time this week. He rides in the backseat of a white Chevy Impala from the city fleet while his legislative aide, Marcus Leach, drives.
"There's so much to show off," Reed says.
The 3rd District on the city's east side is bounded roughly by Independence Avenue to the north, Brush Creek Boulevard to the south, Troost Avenue to the west and the city limits beyond Interstate 435 to the east. It's the city's second–smallest district by land area. Every couple of blocks, Reed tells Leach to pull over so he can point out a new development.
There's the grassy area of Troost in the Beacon Hill neighborhood that is slated to become 123 units of student housing for the University of Missouri–Kansas City. He helped secure a $26 million grant for the project and sponsored a council resolution supporting the plan. He says a new 35,000-square-foot grocery store, a partnership between the city and Truman Medical Center, will be built at 27th and Troost, a long-awaited "oasis" in the heart of the Eastside's food desert.
The next stop is Greg/Klice Community Center. The 20-year-old building at 1600 John "Buck" O'Neil Way is being renovated with new amenities and brought up to the Americans With Disabilities Act standards. Reed directed $600,000 of his district's public–improvement budget to the sprawling complex, with a basketball court; a workout room; a boxing ring; a food-service kitchen; a new zero-entry swimming pool; and a hot tub, sauna and steam room.
"This is the neighborhood I live in, and citizens would tell me about the improvements that were needed here," Reed says. "I heard their voices loud and clear."
On his way out of the community center, he stops to chat with a surly former high school classmate in the lobby. "We're getting it done," Reed says. "It will be done in June."
"June?" The man scoffs and shakes his head. "Then you're going to say August."
The Impala rolls on past boarded–up homes on 26th Street slated for demolition, giving way to the new headquarters for the Kansas City Police Department's East Patrol and crime lab (46 of the city's 108 homicides in 2012 were handled in the 3rd District by East Patrol).
"It doesn't look very appealing right now," Reed says. "Unfortunately, this is an area that we had to uproot some citizens who lived here."
Not everyone was happy about being moved. Several residents complained about Reed's support of the project. Black-and-white "Recall Reed" signs sprouted in yards across the district early in 2012. (Two attempts to recall Reed failed.) The Rev. L. Henderson Bell of Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church publicly ripped Reed for not listening to constituents who didn't want a police campus in their neighborhood. (Bell later recanted.) The Recipe, a local hip-hop duo, released a song titled "Jermaine Reed Infomercial," with lyrics calling the councilman an "Uncle Tom" and a "lapdog swallowing KCPD seeds."
And then there was the March 19 State of the City address in which former Missouri House candidate Derron Black rushed the Gem Theater's stage and interrupted Mayor Sly James' speech with a profanity-laced tirade. Later, while being led away in handcuffs, Black ranted about Reed to reporters.
"City Councilman Reed can't even show up to city-appointed meetings," Black said. "He can't even be there to govern his own fucking city."
Actually, Reed has attended more than 90 percent of his committee and council meetings. When discussing the recall effort and criticisms, Reed smiles and waves his hand as if to make his opponents vanish.
"That's how this game works," Reed says. "You have to remain focused on the task at hand."
Jermaine Reed poses for a dozen photos with constituents at Arrowhead Stadium following an April 29 press conference announcing the inaugural Missouri Classic football game between historically black colleges Lincoln University and Grambling State. The councilman relishes the opportunity to be photographed inside one of the few sources of good press in his district.
He strides down a hallway in the stadium's basement to a dining room for lunch. He stops and points to a member of the catering crew. "I remember you," he says. "We met at that party a few months ago." The flattered caterer can't place the councilman's name, though.
Reed grabs a grilled–chicken sandwich, sits at an empty banquet table and reels off his biography to The Pitch as if he were still running for office.
"Born and raised here in Kansas City," he says. "Single mother. Five kids."
Reed's father wasn't around, so his maternal grandfather, Kenneth Reed Sr., became the main male role model in his life.
"I don't know my father, so he [Reed Sr.] was a real father figure in my life," Reed says. "The guy who taught me how to nail a nail in the wall, to change the brakes on the car, to stop talking when I needed to, how to tie my tie — he was that guy."
Reed carefully measures out his vulnerability.
"There are times I remember watching my mom struggle," he says. "If there were lights off in the home or gas off ..." He pauses. "She did all she could to make sure that we had the best."
Reed's mother couldn't always shield her children from the struggles. Two days after Christmas, when Reed was 14, his family lost their home at 2626 Denver Avenue, around the corner from the KCPD's East Patrol.
"We had a really good Christmas," Reed recalls. "We had every gift that we had asked for." He runs through the haul: a Sega Genesis game, a keyboard, clothes and shoes.
Forty-eight hours later, two men knocked on his family's door, asked for his mother and tried to evict them. Reed told them that his mother wasn't home, and they must be at the wrong house. The men left to verify the address. Reed's mother assured him that there was a mistake.
"They ended up coming back an hour after that and said, 'No. We have the right house,' " Reed says. "Hours afterward, all of our stuff was on the curb."
The Reeds split the next six months living at relatives' homes, a shelter and transitional housing through Community LINC, before finally moving into another home.
Reed enrolled in Northeast High School and plugged himself into the Kauffman Foundation Youth Board, Alvin Brooks' Ad Hoc Group Against Crime and his biweekly radio show, Voices From Midtown. He credits Brooks with teaching him city politics. He recalls being 14 years old and witnessing Brooks announce his run for the 6th District at-large council seat during a Voices From Midtown broadcast on KPRT 1590.
"When we went off the air, I said to Mr. Brooks, 'Why, sir, are you running for the 6th District? Because in my eyes, you're No. 1. Why can't you run for 1st District?' " Reed says, chuckling. "That was my introduction to politics." (The next day, Reed, who now co-hosts Voices From Midtown, tells the same story verbatim to his listeners while celebrating Brooks' 81st birthday.)
"Seeing Mr. Brooks' stature in the community, but then having come to know him, it was quite the rewarding experience," Reed says. "He really, really took me under his wings."
Brooks, who served two City Council terms, says his protégé's success stems from his ability to bridge old and new philosophies.
"Anybody who's old–time in politics, he meets with them," Brooks says. "He hears them out. Some older people think they have all the answers."
Reed's other mentor, David Ross, a now-retired former senior vice president at Bank of America, helped ensure that he got into the University of Missouri. Ross, 74, was drawn in by Reed's natural speaking ability, which he showcased as a spokesman for Project AIM, a high school mentoring program sponsored by Ross' bank.
"Jermaine, as was his passion and skill, was really good at talking to peers," Ross says. But he wasn't close to the honor roll. "He had some shortcomings. He wasn't educated properly. It wasn't all the teachers' fault; it was partially Jermaine's fault."
Ross paid for tutors and pushed Reed to improve his ACT score.
"I just basically became Jermaine's education coach," Ross says. "He needed a dictionary, so we bought it."
Reed's ACT score improved, and Ross helped him find scholarships and student loans, and lobbied the University of Missouri's admissions office on his behalf.
"I told the university people when they were looking at taking him into the school, 'He's going to be voting on your appropriations in the future,' " Ross says.
Reed graduated from Mizzou with a political science degree in May 2006. That August, he moved to Washington, D.C., hoping to find work on the Hill. (In 2005, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II had nominated Reed for the Congressional Black Caucus Institute's political boot camp.) Reed parlayed his previous experience into a clerical job with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
Reed returned to Kansas City in 2009, and in 2011 he ran in the 3rd District primary against incumbent Sharon Sanders Brooks and lawyer Michael Fletcher. The day before the February primary, an appeals judge ruled that Fletcher shouldn't appear on the ballot due to the candidate's primary residence being in Long Beach, California.
Despite the ruling, Fletcher appeared on the ballot and finished second with 34 percent of the vote. (Brooks won with 38 percent.) Reed came in third but advanced to the general election because of Fletcher's disqualification.
"It was a rough race," says Bianca Tillard-Gates, Reed's close friend from childhood and campaign treasurer. "I said, 'I'll support you no matter what. But don't fuck it up.' "
In the March 22 general election, Reed crushed Brooks, 65 percent to 35 percent.
"If you look at the percentages, it almost looks like a landslide," says Tillard-Gates, granddaughter of barbecue big shot Ollie Gates. "In my mind, I was expecting a much tighter race because people might be thrown off by his youth. I think that might have led to some people's animosity.
"You've got a district wrought with problems for years and people that have been determined to be the ones to change it," she adds. "So you got this young guy coming up against somebody's 30-, 40-year plan to change it."
In the evenings, the Wendell Phillips neighborhood between Prospect and Brooklyn and 26th and 27th streets is as dark as London during the Blitz. The windows of dozens of homes on the block are boarded up, and signs warn pedestrians to stay away.
The city plans to bulldoze 128 properties it bought or acquired through eminent domain to build the Kansas City Police Department's controversial new East Patrol and crime lab campus. (Demolition began on empty homes in early January.) Sixty-six of those properties had residents displaced.
"They made the ultimate sacrifice for their community," says Reed, who adds that the uprooted residents received a fair deal. Each property was given three appraisals, and the highest one was used as basis for a purchase price, plus a 25 percent premium. If someone owned the house for more than 50 years, another 50 percent was tacked onto the purchase price. The city also covered residents' moving expenses. Homeowners were given three months to leave their properties once the city bought them out.
Reed's advocacy for the $57 million KCPD project — initiated under former Mayor Mark Funkhouser — poisoned him for some of his constituents. The affidavit initiating the recall effort against Reed was filed by seven residents on May 9, 2012. It listed six complaints against Reed, but the primary gripe was Reed's support for the police campus.
Half a mile south of the proposed crime–lab site, Carolyn Alexander is preparing to plant her summer flowers. A retired caregiver, Alexander rents a stonewalled home on East 30th Street in the Santa Fe Place neighborhood. The area, with flowerbeds, newer cars in clean driveways and recycling bins pulled to the curb, averages fewer than one crime report a week.
On her shady front porch, amid flower pots and bags of soil, the 62-year-old explains how she went from Reed supporter to recall petitioner.
"You can't help being young," she says. "But I would like to see him do something besides putting a Band-Aid on problems."
Alexander concedes that there was nothing Reed could have done to stop the crime lab from being built.
"Once all the wheels are set in motion, I understand that he couldn't stop it," she says. "But these people were rushed out."
The recall fell hundreds of signatures short. Alexander, who knew four people displaced by the crime lab, says Reed heard the message from his constituents.
"My problem with Mr. Reed is that we never see him out in the community unless there is a large publicity event," she says.
"It's malarkey," Reed yells in the council chambers on the 26th floor of City Hall during an early May transportation-and-infrastructure committee meeting. "This really gets me going. That's a bunch of bull!"
"If we're going to argue, we're going to adjourn," committee chair Russ Johnson warns as other council members stare at their desks.
Reed directs his anger at Kansas City Public Works Director Sherri McIntyre, who was explaining why traffic lights in the 3rd District had been converted into four-way stops.
Earlier this year, the city turned off 16 traffic lights in the district deemed "unwarranted" by the Public Works department. Red lights were left flashing to indicate four-way stops.
A week earlier, Reed and City Manager Troy Schulte held a community–outreach meeting to discuss the signals. Reed says Schulte agreed with residents to turn three of the signals into four-way stops, and return the other 13 to service. The lights, however, remained four-way stops.
MacIntyre tells the committee that no promises were made. "Before we left, at the meeting, it was stated that this would have to go through legislative review," she says.
"Not true at all!" Reed interrupts. "Come on! That is not true!" He slams his fists on his desk.
"OK, we're adjourned," Johnson says, striking his gavel and ending Reed's outburst.
Reed's eruption is a rare flash of public emotion. Even in private, he rations out only a small portion of his personal life and feelings.
"I'm a very private person," Reed says. "You probably won't get much out of me about my personal life."
Framed Kansas City Star articles, with his name highlighted, line the walls of his City Hall office. In 2000, he toured nationally with the anti-tobacco Truth Campaign, and he appeared on The Rosie O'Donnell Show as a representative of National Youth Service Day. In high school, he hosted a radio show, Generation Rap, Saturday mornings on KPRS 103.3.
"I would say that I've always been a pretty public figure, though not always elected," Reed says. "People will still come up to me and say, Hey, Generation Rap!"
His strategy to keep his personal and public lives separate includes a well-maintained, if bland, online presence. He is the only council member with a Wikipedia page (his biographical information culled from campaign materials and mostly favorable news accounts). His Twitter timeline is filled with links to the city's webcam for council meetings, and inspirational quotes ("Smile ... A smile is a curve that sets everything straight").
Even in long interviews, he carefully filters the details of his life. He doesn't want people to know where he lives. His mother declined to be interviewed. And some of his efforts at privacy veer toward the absurd. After noting that he loves beach vacations, Reed clams up.
"The thing I enjoy, it is being able to look over the ocean and see nothing but water as far as you can see," he says. "It's always very intriguing to just think how that's nothing but water out there. But if I look behind me, there's a whole earth that's moving with cars and infrastructure and people making decisions. But it's just really peaceful right there."
Which beach locales are his favorites?
"I'm not going to tell you that," he says. "I'm a private person. I don't want somebody to follow me."
Although it's publicly available through tax records, Reed won't say what kind of car he drives.
"It's a little black car that gets me where I need to be," he says.
Reed doesn't want people to know what kind of car he drives because, he says, Black recently followed him. Leach, Reed's aide, says Black harrassed Reed while the councilman was in the barber's chair. (Black couldn't be reached for comment.)
Joey Thomas, owner of JoeyCuts, tells The Pitch that, on that May day, Black came in and started taking photos of Reed. "I didn't understand what was going on," Thomas says. "Nobody in the shop knew what was going on. It caught everybody by surprise."
Leach says Reed asked Black to make an office appointment. "Mr. Black declined and then followed Councilman Reed to the rear of the barbershop, grabbing him by his shirt and issuing a verbal threat," Leach says.
Thomas says Reed talked with Black in the back of his shop; he didn't see or hear their exchange. After Black left, Thomas adds, Reed paid for his haircut and walked to his car.
Reed is very particular about his word choice when discussing the recall effort.
"I wouldn't use the word frustrating," he says, leafing through the recall affidavit and sipping water at the 9th Inning sports bar at 18th and Vine. "Again, it was a distraction. An unfortunate distraction."
The distraction was not his, but one shared by the community and the district, Reed says. He moves on to the East Patrol project. He says there's a misperception in the Wendell Phillips neighborhood that the city gobbled up the site through eminent domain. He stresses that 15 of the 128 properties were taken by eminent domain, and homeowners underwater on their mortgages benefited from the move.
"I have run into citizens who were relocated from the East Patrol site and have thanked me by saying things like, 'Hey, we didn't understand at the time. It was pretty emotional, but thank you for working with us,' " Reed says. "If it wasn't fair, I'd be the first out there with a picket sign saying it wasn't fair."
He argues that his experience being evicted as a child makes him especially sensitive to displaced residents. "We certainly couldn't compensate them for the time, the histories and the memories and the loss they were experiencing."
After two years of criticisms, Reed still manages to keep his head. He explains his zen nature with a story from when he was 15: A man confronted Alvin Brooks in the Ad Hoc office.
"He's telling him he's going to kill him, he's calling him an old man, and he's saying all this stuff," Reed recalls. "I remember standing there that day, scared, sort of shaking. And Mr. Brooks graciously stood there and told the guy, 'God bless you. God bless you, sir.'
"It's those examples of true servant leadership that compliment my own family values," Reed adds. "It kind of gives me that patience and drive to forge ahead."
As late lunch customers trickle into the restaurant, Reed starts talking about election night in 2011. His campaign watch party was at the Juke House jazz bar. His voice disappears, and he looks out the window with wet eyes.
"I didn't think I'd tear up again," he murmurs. He tries three times to start his story. Each time, he chokes back tears.
"I ended up crying, kind of like I am now," he says. "I remember thinking, Wow. I really won." After his victory was announced on TV, he went into the restroom to compose himself.
"My grandfather and my uncle, we were all in there," Reed says between sobs. "And they just kept on saying you really won and how proud you should be. We worked really hard. I usually don't tear up like this. I am so sorry."
Kenneth Reed Sr. died on March 30.
"The thing that makes me emotional is when I think about how my grandfather really wanted to help during the campaign," Reed says. "His health really continued to kind of get the best of him. He stuffed some envelopes. He had come down to the office; he couldn't do much. But he'd sit around watching. He said he wished he could do more."
After a few minutes, Reed dries his eyes on his shirtsleeve and composes himself. His plans for re-election are already under way. A glass bowl brimmed with contribution envelopes at a May 9 fundraiser held at a Gates Bar-B-Q on East Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard. And he seems poised for the next round of 3rd District politics.
"Hey, man, this job isn't for everybody," he says. "You've got to have tough skin."