Driving down Ward Parkway on a languid spring evening not long ago I had that rare moment of genuine deja vu. All at once it was that sparkling June day when I first arrived in Kansas City and drove the length of Ward Parkway from the Country Club Plaza to very near its southern end.
I had never seen anything quite like this – a sylvan 40-block stretch of stately homes and sculpted shrubbery right in the middle of a city.
In my experience, cities collapsed. The affluent, if they stayed, retreated into wary enclaves girded by iron fences whose spiked points spoke angry volumes to friend and foe alike.
I had the chance to revisit my own past in researching my new book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities. By the time we moved to Kansas City the neighborhood of my New Jersey youth had become just that: untenable.
Newark, my hometown, was unique only in the swiftness of its collapse. Cities throughout the northeast and north-central United States, St. Louis included, were imploding at their core. I assumed this to be the way of all cities, which was why Kansas City was such a pleasant surprise.
Kansas City’s core centered around the amiable, auto-friendly Country Club Plaza.
Anchoring the core on its east flank was the Nelson-Atkins Museum. On the south side was UMKC. On the north, Westport, an unsubsidized entertainment district. In the mix were two major medical centers.
Clustered around the core on both the Missouri and Kansas sides were the homes of many, perhaps most, of the city’s movers and shakers. The nabobs here lived a more balanced life than nabobs anywhere. If they didn’t work on the Plaza, they worked not too far away. Their wives shopped on the Plaza. Their children attended prep schools within walking distance. As late as 1991, one of their own, Richard Berkley, a Republican, served as the city’s mayor.
To me, this mattered. Having commuted into Manhattan for high school – nearly 90 minutes each way – I wanted no part of such a fractured life as an adult.
Kansas City offered a much more organic alternative. On our second day in town, we bought a house an easy walk from the Plaza and UMKC, where my wife was to teach.
I wasn’t the only one to notice Kansas City’s charm. Some years back, I accepted a Fulbright grant to teach at a French university. The textbook for my urban studies course featured four cities considered to be the world’s best planned: Paris, Bath in England, Nancy in France, and Kansas City in Missouri.
In citing Kansas City the authors gave most of the credit to J.C. Nichols, the developer responsible for the Plaza, most of the neighborhoods to its south and west, and the graceful Ward Parkway that binds these neighborhoods together.
Almost to a person, those who visited us from afar appreciated the grace of Nichols’s creation. Not too long ago, I took a French friend on a driving tour of my Brookside neighborhood and into Missions Hills. He marveled at the openness of it all, the absence of walls and fences so ubiquitous in his native France.
On another occasion, I took a visiting scholar from Ireland on a driving tour. He wanted to see the “other side” of town. So we drove east instead of west. What surprised him was the spaciousness of neighborhoods that were, as he could see, predominantly black. He expected tenements crowding in on themselves but found instead single-family homes, many with tended lawns, sprawling seamlessly from one block to the next.
Without prompting, the Irish fellow noticed the one feature that distinguished the homes in these neighborhoods from the homes just a few blocks west: the bars on the windows. When he asked “why the bars?” I thought of how complicated a good explanation would be and settled for an easy exit. “Ah, that’s not something we like to talk about in Kansas City.”
Every day it seems, there are more and more things we don’t talk about in Kansas City.
When I first moved here, I thought the city’s general sense of politeness a good thing. As much as I enjoyed the raucous profanity of metropolitan New York, I didn’t miss it. It was refreshing to live in a city where irony wasn’t the rule and I was not always braced for a fight.
There is, however, a point at which politeness becomes a liability, a point at which politeness smells very much like fear. Unfortunately, we have reached that point.
The power corridors of Kansas City are today paved with eggshells. Everyone knows this, but no one will say so out loud, let alone do anything about it.
Timidity has consequences. Three years ago, when police used the Nelson-Atkins parking lot as a staging ground during the George Floyd protests, a few mean tweets sent museum Director Julián Zugazagoitia scurrying for cover. Zugazagoitia ordered the police to vacate, claiming their presence was “exactly the opposite of what the Nelson stands for.”
If the largely peaceful protestors spared the Nelson, they did not spare the Plaza. Even before its windows could be boarded up and the broken glass swept away, the Parks and Rec commissioners took an unforced knee of their own. They stripped the J.C. Nichols name from the landmark fountain his family only recently restored. If anyone of our nabobs protested this ritual humiliation, I missed it.
In the three years since, with the police defanged, Kansas City’s murder rate exploded. Civic leaders chose not to notice, preferring instead to signal their submission in innovative ways. They yielded, for instance, to the LGBT activists who demanded that America’s most popular fast food restaurant, Chick-Fil-A, be shut out of the city’s banal new airport.
More recently the City Council doubled down on the insanity by designating Kansas City a “sanctuary city” for the costly barbarism known as “gender-affirming care.”
In May of this year, letting no woke fad go unadopted, Mayor Quinton Lucas established a “Commission on Reparations.” On the committee are corporate lawyers, doctors and professors. Although every adult I have spoken to thinks reparations insane, no prominent civic stakeholder dares say so out loud.
Even if one wanted to, the local media would shy from providing that brave soul a platform. The Kansas City Star, which once served as the metro’s public square, now reads like a National Lampoon parody.
With even the powerful living in fear, the city is a fragile place. Ward Parkway may look as good as it did a half century ago, but it signifies far less. The Nelson looks even better than it did when I first arrived, but “what the Nelson stands for” is anyone’s guess.
When “the best lack all conviction” and the “worst are full of passionate intensity,” William Butler Yeats reminded us a century ago, “the centre cannot hold.”
Jack Cashill’s new book Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities is available for pre-order in all formats.