Not Just Places, People Too

By Natalie Walker

In the few weeks since my last post, I have done some research for my internship that has reminded me about why cities are such fascinating urban spaces.  Perhaps because they are often concentrated in one area, cities are overflowing with years of history just waiting to be peeled back and discovered.  While learning about places that will be added to the book I am working on, A Place in Time, I am constantly reminded that these sites and site introductions are much more than words on a page.  Moreover, these places represent so much more than a house with a history or a district with a personality, they represent people and generations of shared human experiences. What is also quite exciting is that while I write about these places I am given the unique opportunity of “going back in time” and picturing places in their original context.

Take for example Brush Creek that runs along the Country Club Plaza. Before its development by J.C. Nichols it looked something like this. Granted, this is still a somewhat manicured depiction, but the swampy creek and the stone certainly dates the picture.

brushAfter Nichols’ development to the place and when people started to move into the surrounding area, namely wealthy homebuilders, brush creek began to look like this.

IMG_4314

Every time I drive by Brush Creek now I picture it as a dense marshy swamp that was transformed not only by J.C. Nichols, but by everyday Kansas Citians. So what exactly makes Brush Creek so special? What makes the Country Club District so special? Well, for one there is an immense history that surrounds the area: Civil War Battles, famous real estate moguls, exquisite architecture, to name a few.  All of these however seem lacking if we forget about the average citizens who created the place and made it what it is today.  What started out as a dense tract of brushwood and farmland is now a world famous entertainment district and gorgeous community.  Nichols was part of that, yes, but so were the settlers of the area when it was still a dream in the making.  People often forget about those that lived in a area before them. I drive by the plaza everyday and never think of it as farmland that Nichols had a vision for and the homebuilders were apprehensive about. Now I see the whole Country Club District in a new way because I know a little of the history, but more importantly I know about the people who were brave enough to settle along the southern city limits and create a truly iconic neighborhood and community.

As I continue to work on this internship, my goal is to remember the people and not just the place. I want to make sure that I tell a story that incorporates the story of the Kansas City citizen, not just the facts about a builder or a real estate developer.  Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” If we think of Kansas City, if we think of the Country Club District as something created by generations of people then we are partaking in history and in a shared human experience.

4 thoughts on “Not Just Places, People Too

  1. Chris Cantwell

    Great reflection, Natalie. It will be interesting to see how your thinking on this issue evolves and changes when you look at less recognized districts as well. What, for example, should determine whether a space should be preserved as historically significant? If it’s the everyday people (which I agree) then there’s the burden of needing to preserve, well, everything. So how does the conscious social historian build a rubric to let certain things be demolished?

    Looking forward to seeing your thoughts on this.

    Reply
    1. Natalie Walker

      Dr. Cantwell,

      There is indeed a fine line between preserving something based on historical significance while also focusing on the everyday people that inhabit a place. I think I would approach a place or artifacts like a research paper. Whatever I am dealing with would require an argument to connect it to a historical narrative. If that can be done, if the historical significance can be proven through analyzation and sources, then I think it is worth preserving. Granted, the objects one could deal with might not fit into this methodological approach, but it seems like a good starting point.
      At the same time, the conscious historian needs to remember who are the stakeholders involved in the preservation of a place or objects and whose story is being told.

      For example, when writing the site introduction for the Northland, I discovered that there are a number of cultures whose stories are inextricably linked into the region. Therefore, all of these cultures deserve a story, but how much? Native Americans, African-Americans who were primarily enslaved, and the white settlers all inhabited the land and deserve preservation of their histories. This is when the idea of people and not just place becomes important because I believe it is my job to tell the whole story, not a part of it. And while this is a guide to historic places, there is a degree of responsibility to tell a story of Kansas City that includes everyone involved from the famed real estate developers to the Native Americans, from the African-Americans to the pioneer settlers.

      Reply
  2. Caroline Helmkamp

    In your research have you located any photos of the bridge that used to connect the two sides of Main Street? Sometime in the 90’s that bridge was removed and a new bridge was built on Brookside which then connected to Main Street.

    I’ve found a Sanborn map that shows the connection, but I can’t find a photo. Thanks.

    Reply
  3. Natalie Walker Post author

    Hi Caroline,

    I have not found any specific information on the bridge you are referring to, but I would be happy to give you some places to look for information. The Archives in Newcomb Hall on the UMKC campus contain a lot of information on Kansas City architectural history as well as building plans and blueprints. You could also try the Missouri Valley Special Collections at the KC Public Library. If none of that helps you could try contacting the Office of Historic Preservation for KC because they have a lot of information on neighborhoods, buildings, and structures in KC. I hope that was helpful and feel free to ask any more questions! If I come across information related to your inquiry I will be sure to let you know!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.