There is a certain beauty in the symmetry of suburbia.
I personally saw it as a child growing up in Fairway, maybe around 9 years old. I would ride my bike under the crystal green leaves of the oak trees that lined my street precisely, two in each lawn. I imagined them as knights, standing just so and holding their sword-like branches above my head to welcome me home. The ranch houses were castles that lined the street, and their lengthy lawns, setting the houses far back from the curb, were like moats. This was the beauty I saw.
Of course, it was a beauty understood as a 9-year-old, a beauty that a child had concocted out of ignorance and limited exposure. I grasped it like a lollipop between sticky fingers – this perfect world was mine, and I was reluctant to let it go.
Yet I did, but only after I took the time to discover why I needed to. As I looked further into the history of Kansas City and the neighborhood I live in, it became clear that my suburbia did not arise from barbecues and friendly neighbors. Its history, and the history of a few other notable neighborhoods around Shawnee Mission East, is racist and ugly. And though I can’t take responsibility for what occurred, I need to understand this past to prevent myself from ever holding the same racial prejudices my neighborhood was founded upon.
My mom showed me that my own home’s deed, signed in 1939, reads to this day that “None of the lots shown on said plat shall be conveyed, leased or given to, and no building erected thereon shall be used, owned or occupied by any person not of the white race.” While that policy is no longer legally enforceable, no one has taken the time to get the words removed from the deed, either. That’s why this all applies to me. It’s the history of where I live, and if I want the future of my neighborhood to be different than it’s past, I need to understand it.
On the surface, J.C. Nichols was the nationally-esteemed developer of the Plaza, Prairie Village Shops and most suburbs around those landmarks in the 1920s. However, according to Tanner Colby, author of “Some of My Best Friends Are Black,” Nichols used manipulative, racist tactics to convince white homeowners that they should live in suburbs, with the right type of people – wealthy, white and opposed to integration — because blacks were the root of the problems in the crumbling cities. His number one motto, Planning for Permanence, promised that his homes’ property values would never deteriorate because of this.
Pre-Nichols Kansas City was a relatively integrated place. According to Frank Gotham, author of “Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience,” the average black resident in Kansas City in 1900 lived in an area that was 13 percent black – not 100 percent. So when Nichols introduced racial covenants to his suburbs, the change impacted Kansas City drastically. I still see the effect in my nearly-all-white neighborhood today.
In 1909, Nichols added the phrase “None of the said land may be conveyed to, used, owned, or occupied by negroes as owners or tenants” to the deed of each home he sold, according to Colby. This was a real estate covenant, or restriction, put in place by his private company but backed by law if it needed to be enforced.
Those covenants were so permanent that they lasted 25 years before they expired. On top of that, the ones in Mission Hills were self-renewing, meaning they would exist eternally unless a group of homeowners got together to put a stop to them.
In 1948, covenants were officially declared unenforceable in a court of law by the Supreme Court. That didn’t stop the permanence Nichols had planned for, though. I know that because I can look at the demographics of Prairie Village, Mission Hills and Fairway and still see almost no integration.
Prairie Village? According to 2015 census data, it’s 94 percent white. Mission Hills? 95 percent. And Fairway? Only three percentage points less than it would have been in the 1920s — 97 percent. Then, take a look at a map around Troost portraying racial populations. Using census data from 2010, the west side of the map is overwhelmingly white, and the east is overwhelmingly black.
The racially-divided living areas that J.C. Nichols introduced to Kansas City 100 years ago are still in place today. We live in them, and we need to talk about them.
As the city diversified in the 1910s, Nichols began advertising to whites, subtly asking “Wouldn’t you and yours take pride in a home built in the Country Club District…where your children will get the benefit of an exclusive environment and the most desirable associations?” according to Colby.
That exclusive environment is where I grew up. To me, it was the land of Rhodadendron bushes in full bloom and lemonade stands sitting in vibrant green lawns in between those perfectly spaced, stately oaks. But those trees were ordered to be planted that way by the same person who ordered a group of people to live in a different part of town because of their skin color. I guess Nichols thought if he had power over where trees could be planted, he had power over where people could live.
And that’s what my 9-year-old self didn’t see or understand — the ugliness and hate of my neighborhood’s history. Of course, it was hard to see, because it is rarely acknowledged or taught, despite the fact that its legacy persists to this day. All I can promise to do is educate myself and others, and never, ever let the ideology of racially segregated living rub off on me. I grew up surrounded by symmetry of trees and symmetry of race, and it forced me initially into ignorance. That’s why this needs to change.