What’s Keeping Kansas City Parks From Being Major Destinations? A Shameful History | KCUR 89.3
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A few weeks ago my family took a road trip on I-70 to St. Louis, our rival city or our twin city, depending on how generous we feel as Kansas Citians – and maybe how the royals are doing.
I felt generous. Spring was here and I was ready to get out and explore.
I had been skeptical about visiting an urban center in our semi-vaccinated state. But my husband won me over by spending a few days in a different city when he spent a few days exploring parks that we had never seen before.
As a household, we were on the cautious end of the social distancing spectrum. For us, the city has become its green space, and we now take “going out” quite literally. It used to mean going to restaurants, cafes and bars. Going out is different. It’s not about being a consumer. It’s all about being.
The Fox Hollow Trail in Swope Park is one of my favorite destinations. At this time of year, the short, muddy path is flanked by thick foliage for about three-quarters of the way. Then there is a moment when you suddenly emerge and step on a flat rock with a view of tree tops and train tracks. Its magical.
I wasn’t expecting anything in St. Louis that I wouldn’t get at home. All I really wanted was a fun twist on the same idea.
We arrived in St. Louis late Friday afternoon and went straight to Tower Grove Park with a frisbee and baseball.
Kari R. Frey
This photo of Tower Grove Park was taken on the morning of April 9, 2021 and shared on the park’s official Facebook page. When my family arrived that evening, a bar was set up in front of this pavilion and there were people everywhere.
It was full. Twenty and thirty things spread out on blankets of snacks and bottles of wine, laughing and enjoying flirtatious jokes. Small children screeched playfully around ponds and flowers. Elderly couples enjoyed vigorous walks and paused on benches to rest. Food trucks and pop-up bars were clearly a draw, but the hangout stretched for miles.
Was that a coincidence? It was not. I was told it is like this every Friday.
We spent Sunday in Forest Park, which had a similar mood. On a grassy hill between a museum and a pond, ceilings were on the horizon. People just sat there side by side with strangers like it was everyone’s lawn. It was a breathtaking sight.
Suddenly the thought of my favorite hiking trail felt a little sad.
I’ve seen people enjoy Kansas City parks during the pandemic, but generally they go to a specific location for a specific activity and then leave – like I do after my hikes. We have many parks with niche communities – disc golf for fun in Kessler Park, fishing for food in Troost Lake Park – but a place that feels like everyone’s lawn? It’s harder to identify.
Melik Dunn Jr. and his brother Monte recently played at Swope Park while their parents hung out with friends nearby.
Roosevelt Lyons agrees, but you can tell he doesn’t want it.
Lyons is the assistant director of the Kansas City Parks Department. And he’s defended our city’s parks against my allegations up to this point in our conversation – impressive, I might add.
“That’s probably a fair statement,” he admits.
“You touch a few things,” Lyons continues, slowing down to choose his words carefully.
The first is that our city is really sprawling and not very suitable for pedestrians and cyclists. We don’t have many mixed-use neighborhoods. We get in our cars and go to certain places to do certain things. Hiking in the park for a while on a sunny day isn’t a big deal in Kansas City.
“There isn’t the same kind of informal hangout that people flock to on weekends,” says Lyons.
The other thing is harder to discuss. It’s racing.
“We’re going to get into a sensitive topic here,” Lyons warns me. “And it’s about a problematic path for this city and also specifically for the park department … One of the things that is visible but that is often not talked about is some of the inequalities and obviously the distribution of resources, but these too Our city’s idea is separate. “
Lyons explains that justice is one of the pillars of the park department. In 2019, the team invited the Urban Land Institute to conduct an audit of the city’s green spaces to focus on how to do more justice across zip codes. This begins the department with a new program called the Quality of Life Investment District.
The report did not crush any words. Our parks were deliberately built to keep people separate.
“In 1895,” the audit report reads, “the KCMO city government approved an amendment to the statutes that gave the Board of Park Commissioners the power to condemn land for purchase. During that time, many African-Americans moved to the area in Kansas Free State after escaping slavery arrived at KCMO for station and warehouse jobs, as well as domestic servants. They settled near their employment centers and, as a result, inadvertently created “racial” Enclaves, “which generally lived among African Americans. As these enclaves grew, the white elites began to use their control of the parks and the boulevard system to create buffers between their homes and African American communities to keep their high property values for white homeowners maintain. “
Buffer between one community and another. No goals for everyone.
As Lyons puts it, “while the parkway and boulevard system was beautifying the city, it was also a way of enforcing and reinforcing segregation.”
What I see in our parks is just that. It’s no mystery why we don’t all flock to the same places. They were created to prevent this very result. And our separate parks have not invested equally in our separate parks over the years.
“It doesn’t take a lot of data to look at a park on the east side of the city and then walk into the park on the west side of the city and say, ‘Hey, these look a little different, a little different,” says Lyon.
This is a difficult thing to change because inequality perpetuates inequality in ways that people fail to recognize. Take, for example, private donations to parks. A nice idea, but one that plays favorites.
Lyons explains, “People often say, ‘Hey, why doesn’t Swope Parkway look like Ward Parkway?’ And the answer to that is, “Well, Ward Parkway, we have private donors who are giving us money to keep this up. To provide a higher level of service. So that they get mowed more, it gets more weed treatment. It gets a higher level of service achieved because we have private donors and have had these private donations for years. “
Private donors, he tells me, often want to contribute to the parks they love and visit frequently – in their own neighborhood. Loose Park, for example, has a lot of private investments.
So what about communities that have no money or equity?
The idea behind the Quality of Life Investment District is to make up for a shortage by prioritizing underserved areas in the allocation of dollars and staff. Lyons tells me that 311 calls for park maintenance are mostly from wealthier communities; People in struggling communities have “bigger fish to fry”. He says the parking department dedicated more resources to proactively determining maintenance needs rather than relying on complaints.
If Loose Park is an investment, it is also a place that increasingly reflects the diversity of the city. That’s what Mayor Quinton Lucas tells me when I ask about the parks.
“It always makes me feel good to see black people walking around,” he says.
He remembers a time when that wasn’t the case.
“Maybe in the mid-nineties we went there to enjoy walking down the street. And we were some of the few, I think black people we’d see along the way. And that’s how I always felt, at least, to kid me about venturing into another part of town and exploring something, “says Lucas. “We said ‘aha! We found out where you kept the good stuff.'”
Everyone should get the good stuff.
Loose Park on a nice day.
Investment helps with maintenance; That is a step towards justice.
But what creates a greater sense of belonging to our historical departments?
In some ways we have to choose to act differently.
“If we’re doing the same business as we were before the pandemic and before the race, we’ve really missed an opportunity here,” says Lyons.
We have always been apart. And last year, because of this pandemic, we became more dramatically isolated in our separate worlds than ever before. Also in our parks.
Now that more people are being vaccinated, the number of cases is falling, and the restrictions are being lifted, are we going to go back in rather than go out? Will we continue to visit separate parks where we only meet people who look like us and who respect the boundaries as the founders of our city envisioned them? Or will we finally try something else?