The entrance of the library normally looks massive with its high ceilings and ornate chandeliers. The columns spaced throughout the room tower over the traditional library bookshelves that make any browsing adult feel like a kid picking out his or her next adventure. But on Wednesday September 9th, a panel of four Kansas City experts—CEO of The Kansas City Public Library Crosby Kemper, Manager of the Black Archives of Mid-America Emiel Cleaver, CEO of the Urban League of Kansas City Gwen Grant, and author Whitney Terrell—brought a big enough crowd that the room felt small.
Nearly 300 people were packed into the Central Branch’s main hall to hear a panel speak about how racist economic practices were still affecting Kansas City. The event was focused around “The King of Kings County,” a novel written by Whitney Terrell, assistant professor of creative writing at UMKC, and a native of Kansas City. It is clear to anyone who is around him for any period of time that he is passionate about the city and, as evidenced by the oil painting that hangs in his foyer depicting his ancestor who was a mayor of Kansas City, he has deep roots in the city.
The novel is set in Kansas City in the 1950’s and is inspired by the segregation the city experienced.
“This book,” Terrell said, “is an investigation in how racial covenants shaped our cities. It’s a different way of segregating than what happened in the south where some cities were segregated by Jim Crow Laws. The difference between Crow Laws is that they can be changed by the government. But patterns taught by private real estate are difficult to change. We have been learning in Kansas City, since the early part of the 1900’s, that all-white space is more valuable than mixed-race space or space that is only African American or Hispanic. That’s really what the book is about.”
Normally, at book-based events, the entire hour is focused on where the author got their idea, how they named their characters and how long it took them to write and publish the work. While people wanted to hear about the book – some later that criticized that the event wasn’t focused enough on these questions – the majority of the audience was excited about the topic. It was clear Terrell was too.
“I wanted to ask questions I didn’t know the answer to,” he later said, “not talk about my book again.” He also said that he didn’t want the whole session to be about a 10-year-old book. He did assure listeners that all events for his newest book—“The Good Lieutenant,” soon to hit the shelves—will only be about his book.
The entire panel was passionate about Kansas City and wanted to see it live up to the greatness they knew it possessed. The audience was absorbed, but not quiet. They gasped with shock and disgust when they heard that TIF (Tax Increment Financing) money—money supposed to be allocated to ridding blight from the city—was being allocated to affluent places like the Country Club Plaza. The library itself seemed to cool to frigid temperatures in order to keep the audience’s fervor down.
Everyone seemed appalled by the misuse of funds in the city that has been going on for decades. Kemper spoke about an urban renewal project in the 1950’s that began by surrounding the downtown area—an intergraded community—and then ultimately they infiltrated the area.
“They evicted,” Kemper explained, “4,000 people from downtown, from their homes.” The audience gasped.
“1,800 of them were black,” he continued, “1,900 were white. It was an integrated community and what urban renewal did was it tore down existing housing that didn’t look as bright and nice as the city’s fathers—including J. C. Nichols—wanted it to be. We went from an intergraded environment in older housing to a completely segregated environment in newer housing. But what I will say about that—and I’ve got a lot more to say–”
“No,” Terrell interrupted with deadpan humor and everyone, including Kemper, laughed.
“What I will say,” Kemper concluded, “the intentionality of the city—the city is responsible and that is what the novel is ultimately about—individual responsibility.”
The entire event felt more like a small-town council meeting where everyone knew each other. Many inside-jokes about the city circulated and people shouted out their opinions.
There was a chummy rivalry between Grant and Kemper, though the two agreed on almost everything. Grant agreed with Kemper’s idea about taking responsibility and explained how the city council wasn’t doing that.
“We have all of the tools through policy at city hall to have positive impact on real urban core—or should I say inner city—redevelopment,” Grant said. “So the real issue is how do we choose to employ those tools? What we see is inequities in the allocations of resources and the will to use those resources to bring about equitable investment and reinvestments in the inner city.”
Grant went on to explain how TIF is giving money that should go to the most blighted areas, specifically Districts 3 and 5 and the Prospect Quarter, and is instead giving the money to tourist locations. The area Grant mentioned is just east of UMKC and includes the infamous Troost Road and Raytown, which is where Cleaver grew up.
“Growing up in Raytown,” Cleaver said, “my black friends and I used to joke that if you drive in Raytown after dark you’re gonna get stopped. They have to stop you. If you have more than two black people in the car and you’re driving in Raytown, you’re going to get stopped. It’s the law.” He chuckled and added, “Obviously it wasn’t the law, but that was how we joked. It’s the law.” He later explained how his high school gym displayed the confederate flag during the 1980’s.
“But today,” he continued, “you can see groups of black men walking up and down the streets. In my time, that was unheard of.” However, both Grant and Cleaver admitted that that African Americans were still getting stopped in Raytown. And they weren’t the only ones. A woman behind me said to her friend, “Hasn’t changed much. I live over there and I get stopped almost every day.” That seemed to be why the audience was so electrified: they were all experts on the topic as well. They wanted to talk about it and get it fixed.
When asked about how to fix it, Grant emphasized the need to help the city’s weakest areas.
“To have a strong body,” she said, “you have to have a strong core. And to have a strong city, you also have to have a strong core and we can keep investing around the edges but all we are going to do is find ourselves back with a downtown that is failing. We are building the downtown up right now and the downtown is the city’s anchor.”
Unfortunately, when places are renovated, prices are often increased, making those who need the help the most unable to continue to live there. Many of the panel members mentioned how expensive small apartments were getting in the downtown and Power and Light district and how even they couldn’t really afford to live there.
“Blacks need to be included,” Cleaver said. “I think I’m middle class—I’m not sure because it keeps changing—but I can’t afford those places downtown. 18th and Vine district has historically been an African American neighborhood.” He paused and a wry smile came to his face. “Well, now there is a group that is reimagining 18th and Vine and their vision isn’t including black people.”
A voice from the crowd shouted, “What?”
“We [African Americans] couldn’t live anywhere else except in this district [in the past] and now there is a video, ‘Reimaging 18th and Vine,’ that shows all the abandon buildings and empty streets and then it shows what it could be. It shows people partying and having a good time and looking at art. But none of them, not one person in this video is black.” The crowd made sounds of shock and disgust.
“This is a historically black district,” he said. “So, just being included.” This is important, as Cleaver asserted that an event similar to the events that took place in Ferguson could happen at any time. Both he and Grant said that the city has a strong, black chief of police and a black mayor, so there is more inclusion than in St. Louis. However, if there ever was an place where matters didn’t seem to be handled fairly, it could easily be here.
None of the panel members had a way to immediately fix these issues because it is an ongoing process to convince people to change the way they think. But continuing the conversation will help make change happen faster.
At the end of the event—which was frequently broken by applause of agreement and pride— the mediator Gina Kaufmann, host of KCUR-FM’s “Central Standard,” asked people with questions to go to the microphone. Immediately, more than a dozen men and women rushed to the microphones and Kaufmann actually had to cut the questions off after four people but encouraged everyone to stay after and talk to each other. While some rushed to get their tickets validated before the panel had quite finished, many did talk to each other, surrounded by the great works of literature that have inspired generations of the past and future.