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Fighting Segregation with a Neon Sign 💙

Hi <<First Name>>,

The other night I watched Interstellar for the umpteenth time, the first with my father-in-law. Warning: there are movie spoilers in this paragraph. Interstellar follows the story of a single father (Cooper), his relationship with his beloved preteen daughter (Murph), and his lament for the dystopian state of the world. After a series of unexpected events, Cooper feels called to leave Murph indefinitely to build a better world for humankind. Murph is extremely upset and does not give her father a proper goodbye. As Cooper travels the universe, he regrets his lost relationship with Murph and tries to work toward salvaging it however possible. Through this process, he realizes that he cannot change the past, nor is he expected to. Instead, he must shape a better future for his daughter than the world he left behind. The only way he can do it? Love.
Concept art for a public art piece, rendered and co-designed by Heidt and Depth
As we reflect on America's history of division and the efforts that have been made to counter it - namely through MLK Day and the upcoming Black History Month - ask yourself: what future do you wish to shape for the next generation? I would like to propose that in order to do this, we must - as any history teacher will tell you - understand and acknowledge the past.

A lesser-known phenomenon in America's history

Let's talk about a real estate development strategy called "redlining." It goes like this. In the early 20th century, developers wrote restrictions into their covenants that only White people could purchase in their developments. This made their developments highly attractive to many White people of the time, and desirability led to higher property values. Banks that issued home loans saw their opportunity for financial benefit and focused their efforts on homebuyers who spent larger amounts of money. In order to aid their efforts, they created maps that depicted which neighborhoods would be good investments and which ones would be difficult for them to recoup. In turn, non-White residents of a given city found it much more difficult to secure a home loan and therefore, to build wealth through real estate equity.
A redlined map of Kansas City, circa 1939. Image credit: AASLH
Redlining occurred in many cities throughout the United States, and although it was outlawed in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the effects of redlining still linger. One such example can be found in Kansas City. A few months ago, we caught up with Ayana Belk - a Kansas City native, university student minoring in community planning, and friend of Heidt and Depth - to learn more about her firsthand experience with redlining's legacy.
"I grew up near 58th and Troost in Kansas City. While growing up, I noticed my home, my church, and my school were on the east side of Troost but shopping experiences, museums, and grocery stores along with single-family homes near beautiful parks were on the west side of Troost. It wasn't until I watched a documentary in high school that I learned that the way things are, the way the streets look, the way that people live along Troost is the result of planning decisions that were made years ago by people who sought division."
Redlining was spurred on by a desire for those with wealth and influence to gain more wealth and influence. Yet, what about the people who have neither but still have a vision for positive change in their community? How can they make the impact they seek? At Heidt and Depth, we are always looking for more opportunities to work for these people."

Enter Element Ten and the Parade of Hearts.

A fiberglass heart

Element Ten is a neon sign fabrication whose roots in Kansas City and on Troost run deep. It is a second-generation family business owned and operated by siblings Dylan Steinmetz and Olivia Shelton. In addition to the new signs and repair work they do, the two seek out opportunities to collaborate with other creatives who want to expand their repertoire through the use of neon light in their work.
From left to right: Olivia Shelton (Element Ten), Neal Heidt, Randy Steinmetz (Dylan and Olivia's father), and Dylan Steinmetz (Element Ten). Randy is an expert glass bender who lent his skills to our Parade of Hearts piece. In 2016, he founded Steinmetz Neon LLC, the precursor to Element Ten, at a young 60.
In 2021, a group of local Kansas City organizations and businesses got together to form the Parade of Hearts, a regional art show featuring pieces created by local artists using a popular symbol throughout the Kansas City region: the KC Heart. These pieces will then be placed in public spaces throughout the region with the goal of bringing together people of all backgrounds and perspectives over a common interest, regardless of their race, neighborhood, income level, or - to name a few others - political views or stance on COVID-19.

When we learned about the Parade of Hearts, we immediately brought it to the attention of Element Ten, who in turn sought our guidance with their competition application. Out of 700 designs to choose from, the Parade of Hearts committee selected 1 of Element Ten's 3 designs to be one of the 152 designs constructed. Then, Element Ten hired us to help them make it a reality. Thus, Heidt and Depth's first public art project was born.
Concept art for the piece at night, rendered and co-designed by Heidt and Depth
Here is an explanation from Dylan of the winning design the Element Ten/Heidt and Depth team put before the jury:

"In the spirit of bringing the members of our city together, I envision a Kansas City in which lines are blurred. Can this be a home that embraces unity while enriching the groups and individuals of which it is composed? Public art such as the Parade of Hearts campaign is a fantastic access point to a re-thinking of our surroundings and the lines that define them. Using the shape of the KC Heart to represent the Kansas City region, I broke the space into three distinct colors... Additionally, I broke the letters 'KC' and the shape of the heart into their constituent geometric parts - angles, arcs, and lines. I arranged these parts evenly throughout the field of color - communicating a visual sense of playfulness and a conceptual notion of unity through variety."

Here is a short animated film depicting Dylan's explanation:
Parade of Hearts Teaser #2
In order to see Element Ten's involvement in the Parade of Hearts come to fruition, Heidt and Depth provided them with the following assistance:
  • Project management, design, and illustrations to submit a winning competition application (we also have prior experience with developing successful competition entries; refer to "Breaking Ground")
  • Creating short videos to promote the piece on social media before fabrication began
  • Painting the piece
  • Documenting the painting and glass bending processes through photos and videos for use on social media

To watch the piece get built

You can watch the piece get prepared and painted here or as one continuous playlist here.

To see the neon lights get installed on the piece, follow this page through the end of January.

To visit the piece

When we learn more where this piece will live, we'll be sure to let you know so you can visit it for yourself! 🙂

Building a better future

We cannot change the past, but we must acknowledge and learn from it to create a better future. As I think about the world I wish to create for my own daughter, a first child due in May, I want it to be one where race, geographic boundaries, income, politics, and science are secondary to love and community. By discussing the history of division in Kansas City - specifically redlining - I hope that, together with those I have marginalized, I can find solutions to love them effectively.

Speaking of which, what are you doing to make amends with those around you that you may have marginalized? Or, do you love them perfectly already?

With love from Kansas City,

Neal Heidt
Placemaking Strategist | Heidt and Depth | 303-519-9453
Check out our 2021 Impact Summary

P.S. If you're reading this, thank you so much for your interest in our work! It is because of you that I can do this as a profession. I realize that this email is a bit longer than our past emails. Did you enjoy the length? It's okay if you didn't. I'd love to hear your feedback as we experiment with different content strategies.

Copyright © 2022 Neal Heidt, All rights reserved.

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