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Driving the Line
Almost every day, I drive down Troost Avenue in Kansas City – a street that has obviously seen better days. It is lined with older buildings, many in disrepair, some standing empty for years. There are often people outside, walking down the street or hanging out in front of the shops – none of them are white.
Troost Avenue serves as a dividing line in Kansas City – those to the west are white, middle- to upper-class; those to the left are black, lower-class. I’ve long known this about my city, but I haven’t always understood how it came to be. Tanner Colby’s book Some of My Best Friends Are Black gave me the background I needed to know about my city.
Colby highlights segregation and sometimes the subsequent integration of schools, residential areas, the advertising industry and churches in the United States. He gives a brief but thorough history of Jim Crow in the south, as well as how Kansas City came to be so divided. Though I found all of this book fascinating, I was particularly intrigued with the section on my hometown.
J.C. Nichols is a celebrated name in Kansas City, but he is responsible for much of the racial divide, along with a less-celebrated real estate agent named Bob Wood. Nichols built a number of meticulously planned neighborhoods – orchestrated down to the neighborhood committees and activities thought to be the heart of a solid community. He also managed to build in clauses on the zoning for these neighborhoods that only whites could live there. Most of those clauses still stand today, requiring 100% of the community to vote to reverse them.
At the same time, Bob Wood was responsible for blockbusting several neighborhoods east of Troost. He would move a black resident in – often paying them to live there and wreak havoc on the neighborhood by leaving trash in the yard, throwing loud parties and creating domestic disturbances, among other things – and then use that one neighbor to scare the rest of the white residents in that community to sell their houses at ridiculously low prices. He would then re-sell the houses to black families at a higher price.
These two practices led to some major white flight west that remains in place today.
Colby’s book has made me more conscious than I already was of this dividing line, and it has made me more curious. It’s made me want to research some of this history on my own and get to know if there are ways I can make a difference in the segregation of my own city. No, it doesn’t try to solve all the social justice problems that exist. But it does provide a great overview of the four main areas listed above. If you’re interested in the history of race in the United States, this should definitely be on your reading list.
Tonight when I drive down Troost, maybe I’ll be able to better understand how it came to be the way it is. And isn’t that what good books are for?