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Kansas City and How It Grew, 1822-2011 Hardcover – November 7, 2012
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“This is a wonderful synthesis and excellent piece of scholarship which is also quite readable from a general reader’s perspective. It should add greatly to a broader understanding of the historical development of the cities and region. . . . A huge contribution to the literature of Kansas City’s fascinating history.”—William S. Worley, author of J.C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City “A well-written and readable volume that will be a major asset to the literature of Kansas City history.”—David Boutros, Assistant Director, State Historical Society of Missouri
About the Author
James R. Shortridge is a professor of geography at the University of Kansas, and author of five previous books including Cities on the Plains: The Evolution of Urban Kansas and The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture, winner of the American Association of Geographers’ John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize.
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Top Customer Reviews
As another reviewer has noted, the author has a strange blind spot for the role of organized crime in the city's 20th-century development. Thomas Pendergast, who might have been the most important figure in KC in the first half of the 20th century, is mentioned only once in passing.
Later in the book, the author is so intent on ignoring the significance of the Civella crime family that he states that the dynamite attacks, murders, and arsons that doomed the River Quay project in the 1970s were "possibly" linked to organized crime. Gee, do you think?
The final chapters of the book are mostly a bore. The author is such a big booster of government-driven development that he criticizes the Hall family for using their own money to develop and sustain the Crown Center complex. According to the author, the Halls committed the sin of pre-empting the government-led Towne Centre project, which city politicians had conceived to re-vitalize the old downtown area. The author fails to examine how the fallout from the failed Towne Centre initiative hampered private development downtown for decades and contributed to the "blight" that city politicians later used as a pretext for the Power and Light boondoggle.
The book’s final chapters appear to be rushed, as if they were pounded out to meet a deadline. The book concludes abruptly with an awkward reference to the Chiefs. Perhaps the author will get an opportunity to write a revised edition one day.
On the negative side, sometimes he spends a lot of space things that I think aren't that important (such as individual building projects). On the other hand, And I am surprised that he doesn't mention public transit at all (especially since light rail has been a controversial issue in recent years).
Shortridge explains why Kansas City is where it is: in the mid 19th-century the Missouri River made it a good place for river-oriented trade, and Kansas City was lucky enough to get good railroad service. Until the Civil War Westport (now a city neighborhood) was a potential regional power; however, Westport's economy was based on trade with Indians, and as Indians moved west, Westport declined.
Natural disasters also played a significant role in the city's evolution; a fire destroyed much of Westport in 1859 and thus made it a less promising rival. Disasters have also affected where the city grew; the West Bottoms was an important part of the city in the 19th century, but 20th-century flooding made it less important over time.
Shortridge also points out that the sprawl-era pattern of rapid neighborhood growth and decline started even in the streetcar era Quality Hill was the city's richest neighborhood in 1887, but by World War I it was already a slum as owners cut houses up into apartments and then disinvested in the houses rather than turning them into better apartments. Hyde Park then became the richest city neighborhood, but eventually could not compete with newer, more car-oriented housing further south.
In discussing late 20th-century sprawl, Shortridge isn't always persuasive. On the positive side, his emphasis on annexation is useful; in the 1950s and 1960s Kansas City kept many of its suburbs within the city tax base through annexation, while nearby Kansas City, Kansas (a smaller, more industrial and working-class city) failed to do so until many years later.
But sometimes I get the impression that he is stuck in the conventional wisdom of the 1960s; in particular, he sometimes implies that highways and parking are a fine thing for a downtown as long as you have a few magic bullets such as sports facilities and convention centers. In discussing 1960s Kansas City, he writes that Kansas City's downtown "was better than most, for a new freeway loop provided good access and [the city had] convenient parking" and that downtown would have been more prosperous with "another round of thoughtful adjustment... especially given the encouragement provided by new highways, garages and slum clearance."
But Shortridge repeatedly mentions how highways opened individual suburbs to development, so it should have been clear that highways drained wealth from downtown and other urban neighborhoods. And he notes elsewhere that "slum clearance" caused downtown to be ringed with low-income housing projects.
Moreover, downtowns with stadia and convention centers nearby are often no more successful than downtown Kansas City (e.g. Atlanta), because these facilities are not open every day and thus do little to attract people on a regular basis. By contrast, Vancouver, BC (which unlike Kansas City, by and large rejected intown highways and actually grew in the late 20th century rather than losing people to its suburbs) shows how a downtown can thrive by rejecting highways rather than focusing on the needs of the automobile.
In describing midcentury white flight, he writes that in the absence of blockbusting (i.e. real estate agents encouraging whites to panic and sell as soon as blacks started to move in) middle-class African-Americans would have "live[d] among white families who had decided to stay put." But "white flight" also happened in renter-oriented cities, and happened in such a wide range of neighborhoods that it was not solely due to blockbusting. To be fair, a few pages later Shortridge implicitly suggests that whites really were unwilling to live with blacks, by noting that the lily-white areas north of the Missouri River grew more rapidly than eastern suburbs closer to the city's black population.
He also writes that "Common sense in the automobile age would suggest that the oldest parts of the city would be the poorest." I can imagine why Shortridge would have written this in the 1970s; however, there are so many counterexamples that this is hardly "common sense" today. In prosperous. transit-oriented cities like New York and Philadelphia, the urban core is more expensive than the periphery.
In describing the failure of Kansas City's school integration, he emphasizes the school district's mistakes rather than white distaste for sending their children to school with blacks. He writes that "It was far easier to put dollars into buildings than to make appropriate decisions about personnel... [the school board] resisted attempts to fire incompetent people" Since suburban school districts are just as heavily unionized as urban ones (and thus are as likely to protect teachers' jobs) I don't find this explanation at all persuasive. Moreover, white flight from urban schools happened in nearly every city at roughly the time that schools were integrated; I find it hard to believe that every urban school district in America became incompetent at the same time.
Having said that, I still think this is an excellent book. Even though Shortridge's analysis doesn't always persuade me, he assembles facts quite well to tell a story of growth and decay.