As early as the 1930s, Kansas City Realtor, the publication of the Kansas City Real Estate Board, decried the effects of blight on property values in the Central Business District. The federal Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 supplied funding to identify blighted areas, acquire and clear the properties, then redevelop the areas with public housing. 1954’s Housing Act termed this process “urban renewal.”
Kansas City became so good at urban renewal that in 1958, Look magazine, in its article, City Honored for Face Lift, awarded us its Community Home Achievement Award, citing our redevelopment of slum areas. In 1959, the American Institute of Architects awarded the Kansas City chapter its Citation of Honor Award, at that time given in just 15 instances over 102 years, for its plan to revitalize downtown.
So just what was it we did so well?
18 urban renewal projects, starting with North Side (1953 - 1960, 6.6 acres, along Main Street between Sixth and Ninth Streets), continuing with Attucks (1955 - 1965, 54.2 acres, from Truman Road to 18th Street and Woodland to Brooklyn, displacing 478 black residents, 0 white residents and 85 businesses), and concluding with 12th and Vine (1969 - 1972, 33.1 acres, displacing 309 black residents, 19 white residents and 49 businesses).
In between, South Humboldt (1956 - 1965, 27.6 acres, displacing 28 black residents, 203 white residents and 66 businesses) and East Side (1958 - 1965, 58.3 acres, displacing 88 black residents, 582 white residents and 95 businesses) cleared land for construction of the downtown interstate highway loop.
And there were 13 other projects.
18th and Vine itself was not a part of any urban renewal project. Neither of the studies I reviewed suggest it was ever targeted. But the surrounding neighborhoods were decimated. Contiguous stretches of homes and businesses were torn down then bisected by interstates, insuring they could never return. The density of population needed to support a thriving business district, which 18th and Vine had been, scattered and has never returned.
But it’s difficult to say these were the wrong moves. One history of Kansas City describes the land cleared for the North Side project, along Main Street, as a “skid row.” And of the Attucks project, adjacent to 18th and Vine, the book says, “This area contained as bad a slum as any in the United States. Here some families lived without running water or toilets, and some of the buildings had dirt floors.”
A March, 1950 article in Holiday magazine declared, “Kansas City is marked by sharp physical contrasts. There are tenements only a few blocks from skyscrapers, the landscaped lands of elaborate homes face vacant lots cluttered with billboards, and there are shanties only a short distance outside the business district.”
It’s easy today to look back and ask why we tore down all the jazz clubs, why we destroyed, arguably, our most significant history.
We look back romantically today at the Reno Club, where Count Basie was discovered. It’s easy to mourn the history lost when looking now over the cracked pavement of the police station parking lot which replaced it. But saxophonist Buster Smith described the Reno Club as, “nothin’ but a hole in the wall. Just mediocre people mostly went in there. A lot of the prostitutes and hustlers and thugs hung out down there.”
Today, we decry tangible history no longer here. But at the time, urban renewal was clearing shanties and holes in the wall. Large swaths of population left and never returned. But many left for better conditions.
And in the mid-1950s, less than twenty years had passed since our most famous jazz musicians and the culture they helped build had moved on. It was too soon to recognize that the music, and barbecue and steaks, would define Kansas City forevermore.
Still, one resident, in the study from which many of the facts which open this post were quoted, looked back and noted:
“There had been semi-economic centers for black businesses that were around 12th Street, 18th Street, coming up Vine, say to 25th Street, because I remember Barker’s Market, Johnson’s Drug Store, and a cab company and a bunch of stuff like that. And all of the clientele was in walking distance, mainly because in the 1940s and early 1950s…people lived closer together. With urban renewal and people moving out, they lost their clientele.”
A look at population maps from 1950 and today make clear that 18th and Vine will not again be what it once was. Not in my lifetime, anyway. Right or wrong, not returning to what a district once was defines the heart of urban renewal.
But you can walk through the jazz district and see apartments and homes along 19th Street and along The Paseo, and more housing on Highland. You see a couple restaurants and a couple museums. You see modern offices. Yes, you still see some blight and you shouldn’t. But at the Mutual Musicians Foundation and at the facade of the Cherry Blossom, you can still touch jazz history.
I don’t know how the district builds beyond the groundwork. So far, nobody has figured that out. But, decades after urban renewal removed both slums and life, the groundwork is there for the area to grow into something better.
Facts about urban renewal are quoted from the 2001 article, A City Without Slums: Urban Renewal, Public Housing and Downtown Revitalization in Kansas City Missouri. It can be read online here, or a PDF can be downloaded by clicking here. More illustrations and maps can be found in the 2009 thesis, Development at 18th and Vine: Understanding Problems and Formulating Strategies for the Future. A PDF can be downloaded by clicking here. The quote by Buster Smith is from the 1987 book, Goin' to Kansas City. Other facts come from the 1978 book, K.C.: A History of Kansas City, Missouri.