The Rebirth of Kansas City
Although the Civil War had initially proved devastating to the Kansas City area, World War I had an opposite effect. Increased demand for horses, mules, and cattle caused the local economy to skyrocket, and in the first two decades of the 20th century, Kansas City welcomed auto assembly plants, a development that further expanded the city’s industrial reach.
After struggling through the Great Depression and World War II, however, the mid-1900s were, simply put, a desolate time for Kansas City. After desegregation laws were approved, outward movement from downtown left an empty shell where once there had been a bustling, vibrant city core. A devastating 1951 flood destroyed much of downtown Kansas City, washing away the decay that had begun to plague the area. In a startling contrast, Kansas City’s suburbs thrived, continuing an outward growth in all directions even while the city’s center sat abandoned except for a handful of businesses.
Conditions worsened as the city’s highway system was carved out of the ground, an ambitious network of thoroughfares that began with Southwest Trafficway in 1950. With the addition of several interstates, a loop was created around downtown Kansas City, one that improved outward accessibility yet left the heart of the city an island, cut off from the surrounding area and increasingly abandoned as residents sped outward on the newly constructed highways. As Montgomery and Kasper write in Kansas City: An American Story, “They did what the planners envisioned—making car traffic easier into and around the city. But they also made it easier for travelers to leave the central city, helping the metro area sprawl outward. Today the Kansas City area has far more freeway miles per person than any other major U.S. city.”
Additionally, according to Montgomery and Kasper, “In a time when Americans cheered freeway construction as a sign of progress, more than 125 buildings came tumbling down with barely a hint of regret: the former Lyric Theater at 622 Main Street; the red-brick Washington public school, Kansas City’s first, at Independence Avenue and Cherry Street; and the faro hall at No. 3 Missouri Avenue, owned by the gambler Bob Potee, who had fitted the place with mirrors, carpets and a glittering bar.”
In 1962 a gaping hole at Truman Road and Walnut Street signaled the beginning of the Crosstown Freeway, a so-called “depressed highway” that required removing all the buildings in its path. Some called the new Interstate Highway System “the greatest construction project in the history of man.”
In the 1970s, city leaders pushed for a comprehensive urban renewal plan and Kansas City saw a number of architectural accomplishments throughout the city, including the completion of the 4,700-acre Kansas City International Airport (1972), the nation’s first adjoining sports stadiums Arrowhead and Kauffman Stadiums (1972), Kemper Arena (1974), and H. Roe Bartle Exposition Hall (1976).
Additional industries helped continue Kansas City’s reputation as a regional leader in areas like foreign trade zones, underground storage, and automobile plants. Kansas City remained an agricultural giant, a role that would later serve the city as it evolved into an animal health and life science stronghold in a research corridor that stretches from Columbia, Missouri, to Manhattan, Kansas.
In the 1980s and ’90s, development started to turn inward, focusing on a city core that, although long-neglected, still had life left beneath a layer of grit.
© Katy Ryan from Moon Kansas City, 1st Edition