Race, development, and reversing the designation of MLK Blvd in Kansas City

A majority of voters in Kansas City decided to change the name of a street that had just recently been named for Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Kansas City voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved removing Dr. Martin Luther King’s name from one of the city’s most historic boulevards. The decision comes less than a year after the city council decided to rename the street, which had been known as The Paseo…

The debate over the name of the 10-mile boulevard on the city’s mostly black east side began shortly after the council’s decision in January to rename The Paseo for King. Civil rights leaders who pushed for the change celebrated when the street signs went up, believing they had finally won a decades-long battle to honor the civil rights icon, which appeared to end Kansas City’s reputation as one of the largest U.S. cities in the country without a street named for him…

The campaign has been divisive, with supporters of King’s name accusing opponents of being racist, while supporters of The Paseo name say city leaders pushed the name change through without following proper procedures and ignored The Paseo’s historic value.

Emotions reached a peak Sunday, when members of the “Save the Paseo” group staged a silent protest at a get-out-the-vote rally at a black church for people wanting to keep the King name. They walked into the Paseo Baptist Church and stood along its two aisles.

Streets named after Dr. King are common in American cities. As a pastor argues at the end of the cited article, honoring important figures through naming roads after them could influence people. Whose names are applied to schools, parks, highways, and other public buildings and settings indicate something about how a leader is remembered and by whom.

When so many cities in the United States have already done this, how could changing the name back not indicate something unique about Kansas City? King’s name is revered in many circles – including among white evangelicals – so going out of their way to change the name back may hint at larger issues. As described in the article above, opponents of having King’s name on the boulevard valued the historic designation for the road. Protecting local character and history is a common argument in many American communities. At the same time, could they have suggested another major road that could have been named after King or could a portion of the road have carried both designations (think of Chicago’s many honorary names for stretches of streets)?

I would guess this is not just about a road: it is about who gets to define Kansas City and what histories are remembered. To that end, I would recommend sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham’s book Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000. From the description of the book:

Using the Kansas City metropolitan area as a case study, Gotham provides both quantitative and qualitative documentation of the role of the real estate industry and the Federal Housing Administration, demonstrating how these institutions have promulgated racial residential segregation and uneven development. Gotham challenges contemporary explanations while providing fresh insights into the racialization of metropolitan space, the interlocking dimensions of class and race in metropolitan development, and the importance of analyzing housing as a system of social stratification.

Such patterns influenced numerous American cities but this book has much to say about how this all occurred in Kansas City.

Naming a street for MLK could influence attitudes and behaviors

A debate in Kansas City about naming a road in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. involves asking how the name might affect people:

Some residents argue that choosing a street in a disinvested, mostly black neighborhood would perpetuate stereotypes of thoroughfares that are already named for him in other cities, and would fail to force white people to consider Dr. King’s legacy and the racism that still exists so long after his death. Others, though, say that choosing a street in a white area would be an affront to the city’s black residents and disrespectful of the fact that Dr. King fought primarily for the rights of black people…

Mr. Lucas said he leaned toward giving the name to a street where white people tend to venture more often, because it could have a greater impact there. “There’s something to be said for the fact that you need to make sure the entire community honors it, instead of saying, ‘That’s something the black folks are doing for the black folks in a black area.’ ”…

Complicating this naming fight is a simple truth: Kansas City, like much of the country, struggles with segregation.

For two years, advocates have lobbied the parks board, which oversees the city’s boulevard system, to change the name. Jean-Paul Chaurand, the board president, responded last month with a letter stating that longstanding policy has been to name streets after local residents who made significant contributions to the city. He suggested creating a commission to discuss the renaming further.

This sounds like a ready-made research question: do honorary roads affect attitudes and behaviors over time? Major cities have many such roads, in various neighborhoods, and designated at various times which would give researchers plenty of variation to work with. I wonder if such research would show minimal positive effects in a city overall (though it could be more important in particular locations, as noted in the discussion above) but then it might be argued that not naming such roads – particularly in a case like Martin Luther King, Jr. – would have negative repercussions.

See an earlier post where Illinois legislators discussed creating a Barack Obama roadway. If Reagan has a highway (the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway in Illinois among others in the United States), shouldn’t Obama get one as well?

Google Fiber and the racial divide in Kansas City

As Google Fiber rolls out in Kansas City, they are running into an issue: the existing racial divides in the city.

With Google’s promise last year to wire homes, schools, libraries and other public institutions in this city with the nation’s fastest Internet connection, community leaders on the long forlorn, predominantly black east side were excited, seeing a potentially uplifting force. They anticipated new educational opportunities for their children and an incentive for developers to build in their communities.

But in July, Google announced a process in which only those areas where enough residents preregistered and paid a $10 deposit would get the service, Google Fiber. While nearly all of the affluent, mostly white neighborhoods here quickly got enough registrants, a broad swath of black communities lagged. The deadline to sign up was midnight Sunday…

For generations, Kansas City has been riven by racial segregation that can still be seen, with a majority of blacks in the urban core confined to neighborhoods in the east. Troost Avenue has long been considered the dividing line, the result of both overt and secretive efforts to keep blacks out of white schools and housing areas and of historical patterns of population growth and settlement, said Micah Kubic, with the nonprofit Greater Kansas City Local Initiatives Support Corporation…

During the sign-up, Google faced other practical problems. Many people did not have credit or debit cards, which were required to register, or e-mail addresses. And it failed to account for numerous vacant homes in some communities, so it lowered the number of registrants needed to qualify in those areas.

Many people in black neighborhoods had not heard about Google Fiber, and many who knew only had a vague understanding of it.

This is a reminder there is a “digital divide” between those who have Internet access as well as have knowledge about it and how to use it versus those who do not. As Google has found out, this project also involves public education about the value of having the Internet. It does read as though the company is making a strong effort to inform people about Google Fiber but it may take some time to get the information out.

More blacks moving to the suburbs of Kansas City

I’ve noted this before but here is another story about the increasing movement of blacks to the suburbs:

The emptying out of African-American neighborhoods in the heart of this city is bemoaned by many who are battling the decline. But in an unexpected twist, the flight of blacks to other city neighborhoods and nearby suburbs in Missouri and Kansas has created an unforeseen result that is generally greeted with optimism: desegregation.

Blacks’ move to suburbia has accelerated in the past decade, shifting the racial make-up of urban and suburban neighborhoods across the nation. The change is particularly striking here because of the area’s long history of racial segregation…

“It’s as much the fact that city ghettos are being broken up as the fact that suburbs are beginning to integrate,” says Kansas City native John Logan, a Brown University sociologist who did the analysis. “It’s one of the places that I would describe as a success in the making, after a long history of intense segregation.”

The decline in segregation here is even more striking than drops in Detroit and New Orleans, areas with similar racially charged histories that are losing black populations. Detroit may be less segregated because blacks have left the area in search of jobs in the Sun Belt. Segregation has declined in New Orleans partly because many blacks were displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Does this mean that more blacks have joined the middle class and then are moving to the suburbs or is the move to the suburbs motivated by a search for jobs and opportunities in order to join the middle class? And what are the consequences of this for cities?

This is one of the most important trends in suburbs today: more minorities and immigrants moving to the suburbs. How this changes the face of suburbia in the next few decades will be fascinating to watch.

(More evidence of this trend here.)

Fighting over McMansions in Mission Hills

In the wealth Kansas City suburb of Mission Hills (named earlier this year one of “America’s Most Affluent Neighborhoods“), residents have been fighting over whether McMansions should be allowed:

“There’s a group that wants to build whatever the hell they want,” says lawyer Ann Alexander, a Mission Hills resident who in 2009 sued a neighbor over lot setbacks, “and there’s a group that wants renovation and vibrancy, but who want to do that in the context of the community.”

Think of it as the property-rights set versus the Mission Hills traditionalists…

But what is Mission Hills? After failing to define that with regulations and zoning laws, the city last spring hired a Los Angeles planning consultant named David Sargent to define it.

The hope is that Sargent could help end the squabbling by coming up with a set of design guidelines that would allow for housing upgrades — both teardowns and add-ons — but preserve, as he puts it, “the pastoral, garden character of the community.”

Sargent’s first draft came out this month, and now some are waiting to see whether the recommendations, when they’re in final form next year, will bring peace and understanding in the extraordinary city.

Sounds like a typical standoff: residents who want to protect the historical character of the community versus those who want to live in a well-known location but in a new big house with all the modern amenities.

This planning consultant has his work cut out for him. However, many other communities have adopted guidelines or planbooks that at least offer some guidance to what new houses might look like. Without declaring neighborhoods historic districts (which are often the strictest option – see an example here), guidelines can help opponents and proponents of teardowns work with a common set of expectations as they try to decide what their neighborhood should look like in the future.

Thinking further about this, I wonder if anyone has done research on what suburban residents expect their neighborhood to be like in the future. I don’t think I’d be alone in expecting that many residents would want the neighborhood to stay about the same as when they moved in. I recently heard someone cite Mark Twain saying, “Everyone likes progress, but no one likes change.” Are things that could be changed in a neighborhood that a majority of residents would see as positive?

St. Louis also lost population (8%) in the 2000s and mayor says it is “absolutely bad news”

Last week, 2010 Census figures about Chicago were released and showed a population decline of 200,000. Population figures regarding St. Louis were just released and city leaders are surprised at the 8% population loss over the 2000s:

Figures from the 2010 census were a bitter disappointment, as the city’s population dipped to 319,294.

That’s down more than 29,000 – a staggering 8 percent – from 2000.

For St. Louis leaders, the news was doubly disappointing because they were expecting to see an increase.

“It is absolutely bad news,” Mayor Francis Slay said. “We thought after more than 50 years of population decline that the city had finally changed direction. Obviously, that’s not the case.”…

St. Louis was the nation’s eighth-largest city with a population of 856,795 in 1950. Now, for a couple of decades, it hasn’t even been Missouri’s largest city.

Kansas City’s population grew to 460,000 in the latest census, widening the gap over St. Louis, though the St. Louis metro area remains significantly larger.

Since the mid-20th century, the exodus of St. Louis residents to the suburbs has been startling. And people keep moving farther away from the urban core. St. Louis County lost population in 2010 for the first time, down 1.7 percent to 998,954 in 2010, as residents relocate to communities like St. Charles, O’Fallon, Wentzville and Troy.

Since 1950, St. Louis has steadily lost population. A few thoughts about these figures:

1. On one hand, it seems odd that the mayor would be caught so off-guard by these figures. Couldn’t the city have predicted or at least seen some hints of it through other measures (like vacancies)? But this is more complicated:

A census estimate on July 1, 2009, forecasted that the city’s population of 348,189 in 2000 had grown to 356,587.

Either the estimate was wrong or there has been a substantial recent exodus.

The 2010 census is based on the population in April 2010.

So what happened between this 2009 Census estimate and the 2010 figures?

2. There are two things at stake with these figures: the loss of state and federal dollars (often tied to population) and a blow to civic pride. As the mayor suggested, the city had thought they had turned a corner. Additionally, there appears to be some comparisons to Kansas City, the other major city in Missouri.

2a. But on the other hand, the trends happening in the St. Louis area are happening in many large cities: people are moving to the suburbs, further and further from the center of the metropolitan region. Even St. Louis County (suburban but three times larger than St. Louis) lost population, 1.7%, for the first time.

3. While it is notable that the population in St. Louis dropped by about 29,000 (8%), in the last sixty years, this is the smallest percentage drop since a population increase in 1950. From 1960 onward, here are the percentage decreases: -12.5% in 1960, -17% in 1970, -27.2% in 1980, -12.4% in 1990, -12.2% in 2000, and -8.3% in 2010. So perhaps the population in St. Louis is slowly stabilizing.