On a cool, windy morning in late April, three Alpha Phi sorority members painted the chipped bricks of a prison-gray wall at the corner of 9th and N. Kansas Ave.
“They said to paint random bricks, so that’s what we’re doing,” Megan Knopp said with a shrug as she laid a highlighter green coat on the south wall of Kaw River Rustics.
The sorority girls had volunteered hours of their time to benefit NOTO Anonymous, a loose band of residents, artists and altruists who believe in this heterogeneous row of art galleries, niche shops, bars and restaurants that was once a seedy strip of sordid and boarded-up properties.
Amy “Boogie-Momma” Johnston, an eclectic resident of this eclectic arts district, bounced between volunteers spread across three blocks of N. Kansas Ave., a smile on her face. It was she who had bought the bright paint that now sticks to the once-shabby wall of Kaw River Rustics.
“We just wanted to do something to help the district,” she said matter-of-factly.
Other entertainment districts in the city have customers. A lucky few even have supporters. NOTO, however, has believers, people who have willed into existence this increasingly popular destination from the ruins.
Some vacant buildings remain. Up the block from Kaw River Rustics, Sean Frost painted pink an empty building near the northern end of NOTO. It would be the site of a third mural on the building, turning a possible eyesore into another brilliant backdrop.
“We’re just happy to help with the vibrancy of the district,” he said.
As he talked, a NOTO patron shouted his support from a passing pickup. A few minutes later, Stella Penry walked over to thank the volunteers. She has owned Generations Antiques across the street since 2003. Decades ago, her parents owned a doughnut shop one block to the south.
“We’re just a ragtag crew that has thrown our money together,” Frost said.
He was referring to NOTO Anonymous but could also be describing NOTO business owners. There are no chain stores in the arts district, only small-business owners, many of whom cobbled together cash to pay homage to a hobby — antiques, painting, beer. Recognizing that, NOTO Anonymous spends a day each year painting, planting flowers and moving furniture for shopkeeps.
“We just try to do the things the NOTO Arts District doesn’t have time for,” said Lindsey Martin as she pulls off gardening gloves and takes a break from moving soil in the 900 block of N. Kansas Ave.
Peering south down three blocks, she points to the small trios and quartets of volunteers elsewhere in NOTO. It’s a smaller group than in prior years, she says, probably about 15 people. There were almost 40 last year.
“The people who show up is hit and miss,” said Andrew Wiechen. There was a fundraiser 5K race that morning that likely cost them a few volunteers.
Wiechen co-founded NOTO Anonymous in 2014. Many of the college-age volunteers, he says, have never been to NOTO. One of the Alpha Phi members said she had never been to the district before that day.
“We were trying to find out what would get more people down here, aside from on First Fridays,” Wiechen said, reflecting on the origins of NOTO Anonymous.
As he spoke, two volunteers picked up trash in a grassy lot between Norsemen Brewing Company and Stutzman Leather Shoppe across the avenue. NOTO Anonymous had caught a break to bolster its low turnout: Keep America Beautiful was coincidentally hosting a cleanup event the same morning.
Noticing this, a NOTO Anonymous volunteer shrugged her shoulders, smiled and said, “I guess it’s another good day to be in NOTO.”