A Trip to Kansas City, “the City of Fountains,” “the City of Parks and Boulevards,” “the City of Jazz” (2004)

In 2002, a group of 19 students made a field trip to Louisville, Kentucky. On October 28-31, 2004, a group of 21 made a similar trip to Kansas City.

As was the case with earlier trips to the Twin Cities and to Louisville, this one was designed to give students taking my “History and Theories of Planning” course a good opportunity to connect their course readings and discussions with one of the nation’s larger city-regions and, by enabling them to meet with various professionals and citizens, to give them a better sense of the kinds of work practicing planners (and others involved in the process of planning) actually do.

On Friday, October 29, we walked across a pedestrian bridge north of 2nd and Main, then down some steps to the edge of the Missouri River and the site of the original Town of Kansas. After exploring the Riverfront Heritage Trail there, we went to West Terrace Park. There we met with Kevin Collison, a reporter for the Kansas City Star, under a statue of “Boss Tom” Pendergast’s brother, Jim. After walking around Quality Hill listening to Collison describe the city’s efforts to revitalize the downtown, we drove to the West Bottoms. There we had a chance to walk around the tough old industrial neighborhood that spawned Boss Tom’s political machine in the early 1900s.

After ducking in and out of some “haunted houses” in the West Bottoms, we drove up to City Hall. There we met with planner Denise Phillips, who described the origins and activities of the City’s FOCUS comprehensive plan. Shortly afterwards, Mayor Kay Barnes talked with us about how the City was trying to revive its greater downtown, which she called “Rivercrown,” meaning the area from the river south to Crown Center. After hearing Mayor Barnes tell us that the city needs good planners, we met with planning alumnus Steve Noble (1987), who described the kind of work he was doing as Manager of Transportation Planning for KCMO.

From City Hall, our vans rushed southwestward along I-35 to Olathe, where we met with planning alumnus Dean Palos (1972), who described how he tries, as director of planning, to plan for exurban development in Johnson County, Kansas. Stimulated by Dean’s passion, but also a bit tired, we hurried back northward along I-35 to the largely Hispanic neighborhood located near 20th and West Pennway. There we met with planning alumnae Laurie Bedlington (1975) of the U. S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and representatives of three affordable housing groups who work with the Hispanic community, and with a proponent of community agriculture. That evening, we had a terrific dinner at Manny’s Mexican Restaurant with Steve Noble, his wife Amanda, and planning alumnus Kyle Kroner (2001). It was, to say the least, a day filled with interesting sites and conversations.

On Saturday morning, we began a slightly more leisurely but no less interesting day by wandering around the City Market. From there we drove east to 6th and Campbell, which was the general setting for Vincent Carter’s rich and detailed novel about an African-American family in the 1930s (Such Sweet Thunder), drove past urban renewal projects, and stopped at the Terrace and the statue of August Meyer near 12th and The Paseo. After walking along the parkway, we drove to 1516 Oliver Street, the now vacant site where famed saxophonist Charlie (“Bird”) Parker grew up, and then to the 18th and Vine Jazz District, where students toured the Jazz Museum and the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum. Hungry, we drove past Boss Tom’s old headquarters at 1908 S. Main to Union Station for lunch. But not before I treated the students to a story about how “Pretty Boy” Floyd and two other gangsters had murdered some people on the front steps of the station.

After having lunch there, we drove to the County Club Plaza, where we had a chance to wander around J.C. Nichols’ 1922 shopping center under a beautiful cloudless sky. From there, we toured down Ward Parkway, through Nichols’ Country Club District, past the kinds of homes that Mr. and Mrs. Bridge lived in, past (by popular demand) the house I lived at in the late-70s, and back to Westport. While a few students walked around the neighborhood, and a few shared some libations, others napped. We concluded the evening by sharing another terrific dinner, this time with Laurie Bedlington at the Crossroads District’s Jack’s Stack House BBQ.

On our way back home Sunday morning, we stopped first at the Liberty Memorial in Penn Valley Park to have one last look at downtown KCMO. Not long afterwards, we stopped again at a New Urbanist Zona Rosa village being built in the Northtown near I-35 and Barry Road.

None of our trip would have been possible without the help of planning alumni Laurie Bedlington, Steve Noble, Dean Palos, and others. A tip of the hat goes to them for their help.

It was a superb learning experience. And great fun!

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