Why Kansas City
By Jack Cashill
Courtesy of ingramsonline.com - October 2005
Post-Katrina New Orleans served up something of a national Rorschach. When we looked at its images, we all saw different things, sometimes even wildly different things.
What I saw I don’t imagine many others did—a picture of what Kansas City once was and might have even been today, if not for an unusually rare act of urban redirection.
This tale begins with our own flood, a massive Missouri River flood in the spring of 1903 that left some 22,000 Kansas Citians homeless. These were the literal bottom-dwellers. At the time, they made up more than 10 percent of the metropolitan area.
On the Missouri side, most of those displaced lived in the first ward, the power base of the “King of the First,” Jim Pendergast. As alderman, Pendergast had cultivated their loyalty through a primitive, chicken-in-every-pot form of welfare, and they responded with their votes. Now, they were gone. Jim took this as a sign that real political power would always reside up on the bluffs, in the city’s heart, and so he raised his sights and redirected his energy.
Before Pendergast died in 1911, the last person he asked to speak to was Tom Pendergast, the youngest of his nine siblings and the most ambitious. For some years now, Jim had been grooming Tom in the timeless art of acquiring votes. Tom proved a stellar pupil. In the 1914 streetcar election, as many as 99 percent of the voters in the wards he controlled approved a 30-year franchise for the “Met.” To be sure, his help was duly noted.
Tom Pendergast saw his future—and, by extension, the city’s future—in the streetcar. The success of a business and the prosperity of a neighborhood depended on where a streetcar line went, and increasingly that line went where Tom Pendergast and his friends wanted it to go.
After a change in the city charter in 1925, the unelected Pendergast took virtual control of the city and ran it as his own personal fiefdom. With his hands in the city, county, state and even federal tills, Pendergast poured a lot of public money and his own Ready Mix concrete into some major building projects. Among them was the Riverside Park Jockey Club, or “Pendergast Downs” as the wags called it. Pendergast, alas, proved much better at fixing elections than he did at fixing horse races.
To help pay off his own spectacular gambling debts, Pendergast and his mob facilitator, Johnny Lazia, “opened up” the city. On the plus side, our newly opened city lured some of the world’s best musicians. On the minus side, we needed them to entertain the assorted gamblers, bootleggers, pimps, hustlers, bookies and other sundry gangsters who flocked to what famed columnist Westbrook Pegler called “the Timbuktu, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the western world.”
Indeed, the Kansas City of that decade looked much like the New Orleans of this one: oppressive machine politics, a dependent population, a corrupt police force, a preposterous crime rate, a partiality to the dark and decadent, a too generous tolerance for vice, and, as compensation, great music.
The test that Kansas City faced in 1933 was not as overwhelming as the one faced by New Orleans, but it was nearly as depressing. In June of that year—by chance, just months after the kidnapping of city manager Vernon Miller’s daughter—Pretty Boy Floyd and colleagues gunned down eight police officers in front of Union Station. They killed four of them and the prisoner they had come to liberate.
As with New Orleans, this event shocked the nation and led to an expansion of federal power, especially for the B.I., the federal Bureau of Investigation. A month after the so-called “Kansas City Massacre,” police surprised Bonnie and Clyde at the Red Crown Tourist Camp in Platte City. The gang escaped, but the following year proved fatal, not only for the gang but also for the very genus gangster. In 1934 alone, local or federal police shot and killed Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger, all but the first two in separate incidents.
In that same year, closer to home, reformers hit the streets to unseat the machine candidates for mayor and city council. A rougher class of poll workers also hit the street that March election day, killing four people, among them a sheriff's deputy. Three months later, possibly as retribution, two unknown gunmen permanently unseated Johnny Lazia. An incredible 10,000 people paid their respects to the exquisitely embalmed thug, including the city manager and his recently ransomed daughter.
Despite this grand display of vassal-hood, Tom’s Town was tottering. Any number of forces were involved in bringing it down, including an aggravated FDR. But real credit goes to the increasingly independent citizens of Kansas City.
The unsung hero of this saga got his start with the 1903 flood as well. When this 22 year-old entrepreneur from Olathe looked at the devastated river bottoms, he saw opportunity. He immediately set to work to create new housing for the flood victims. To reassure prospective buyers that these new homes were perfectly high and dry, Jesse Clyde Nichols called the new development “California Heights.” The curious can find its remnants north of Quindaro in KCK.
As fate would have it, 1903 also was the first year that an automobile was manufactured in Kansas City. As late as 1908, the cars and trucks on Kansas City streets still numbered in the hundreds. Despite the lack of evidence, young Mr. Nichols did not shy from predicting the auto’s eventual supremacy. Starting in 1908, he put his money where his mouth was and began to buy real estate south of Brush Creek, beyond the reach of the streetcar lines and the people who controlled them.
In 1914, J.C. Nichols jumped over Brush Creek once again and into Kansas. He began building on a 200-acre farm bought from the Armours of meatpacking fame. The skeptical thought this new “Mission Hills” project even more bizarre than Countryside, Crestwood, Brookside and his other presumed boondoggles. Nichols thought otherwise. In 1922, he moved further beyond the pale, bought another chunk of land from the Armours, and began work on “Armour Hills.”
To give life to his new neighborhoods, Nichols imagined a place to shop, a “shopping center” if you will, one that was more auto-friendly than Downtown. And so he began to acquire the various pig farms, soap factories, rock yards and dumps that lined the smelly wasteland of Brush Creek. Nichols modeled his new enterprise on the exotic city of Seville, Spain, and called it grandly enough, “the Country Club Plaza” when it came on line in 1923.
Nichols was creating a city that citizens love but that city planners love to hate—spacious, individualized and auto-centric. To deny Nichols his due, critics have taken to attacking Nichols for the restrictive covenants of his developments. This argument would carry more moral force if “Tom’s Town” were not itself segregated and had not the Pendergasts aligned with the party that had made Jim Crow the law of the land in much of America, Missouri included.
Dependence is race neutral, and so ultimately is independence. The automobile has a lot to do with it. So does home ownership. The person who owns both and maintains both, whatever his or her race, has more freedom of movement and more political freedom than those who don’t.
When the federal government threw a wrench in Pendergast’s machine, convicting more than 250 of his campaign aides for vote fraud in 1937-1938, the city had developed an independent citizen base capable of sustained reform. In 1939, when Pendergast was jailed for income tax evasion, those citizens knew enough not to pine for his return.
Bottom line? Relatively few of our citizens are passive and dependent. If things went to hell here, we’d have the wherewithal to get out of Dodge and the roads on which to go.
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