Review Magazine, Architecture Issue, Summer 2003
In the spring of 2002 I began some research into the history of segregation in Kansas City. I found a racial divide instigated by white developers and facilitated by a misinformed public to be a root cause of the segregation that exists here. This racial divide exists in many of the so-called second tier cities in America. While there are other reasons for the persistence of this division in Kansas City, this story of white developers devaluing the property of integrated neighborhoods by spreading racial myths and offering segregated alternatives reappears again and again. This segregation still exists to date through the questionable use of tax codes such as tax increment financing (TIF) and widely accepted racial stereotypes pertaining to property value and race.
With this research, my intention was to cultivate several distinct ends. I wanted to gauge the extent to which racism exists today in our community as well as isolate its current means. I wanted to familiarize myself with a specific history that could explain the racial evolution in this city and then use that as an index to think about racism on a larger scale. I wanted to become aware of groups in our city that combat racism as well as design a work for myself that could engage my research in a meaningful, sustained, and highly experiential way. Finally I wanted to place this information into a forum where it could engage others as part of a larger dialogue.
Focusing on Troost Avenue and its function in our community as a modern day Mason Dixon line, I looked into census reports citing annual income and percentages of residents that live at or below the poverty line. These residents are almost exclusively black and live east of Troost Avenue. Not only is little being done retroactively to facilitate development and investment opportunities on the east side of Kansas City, but short sighted policy continues to negatively affect the east side of Kansas City.
Tax Increment Financing (TIF) has become a key issue in discussions concerning economic policy in Kansas City. Tax Increment Financing, (TIF) originated in California in 1952 as a way to encourage developers to take on projects in low income or economically depressed areas. TIF diverts taxes generated by development to its private backers to offset their cost of improvements and under the rules of the Missouri version of TIF, “Approved projects must also be viewed as unlikely to occur without TIF assistance.” (MSCDC Economic Report Series No. 9703, June, 1997: Kenneth Hubbell and Peter J. Eaton) The use of tax breaks in areas like The Country Club Plaza has defined the conversation taking place on the use of TIF in the redevelopment of Downtown Kansas City. Should, or can, Tax Increment Financing operate simply as a “trickle down” stimulant for redevelopment or should TIF be used in conjunction with low end development incentives and protections so that it functions closer to its more altruistic origins?
Highwoods Properties Inc., which owns much of the Plaza, used Tax Increment Financng in the recent construction of the twenty four million dollar Saks Parking Garage completed in December 2001. The cities approval of this as a TIF project is discouraging considering the potential for TIF to act as a catalyst for the redevelopment of economically depressed areas. More recently many developers have sought the use of TIF funds in the redevelopment of “The Crossroads”, an area in between Crown Center/Union Station and the Downtown Loop. The Crossroads will be critical in linking Crown Center, Union Station, 18th and Vine and The Troost Corridor, to the Downtown Loop and River Market areas and could function as an example of both positive growth and cultural diversity.
With the proper incentives directed towards middle and low end development in place, the current use of TIF has the potential to play a positive role in the inevitable development of “high end” space in The Crossroads and other areas. The development of this high-end space, if managed correctly, could stimulate growth east of Crossroads and eventually bring the Troost Corridor and the 18th and Vine district back into the fold of downtown. There must be a keen acknowledgement however of the importance of middle and low end development as it manifests itself in cultural and small business oriented enterprise. For the economic and cultural vitality of a city to be maintained, low end business and housing must converge with high end development rather than simply being displaced.
Because there is a gap between the altruistic origins of TIF (see California 1952 TIF) and its current use to facilitate high-end growth in Kansas City it is imperative that there is policy in place to support and encourage the expansion of that growth back into the areas TIF was originally intended to revitalize. This will insure that the last hundred years of racist development practices, focused on expansion from Kansas City into the suburbs, are not repeated as we shift our attention back onto our urban core. This type of development practice is complex and has many far reaching implications but, if not managed properly, has the potential to be the modern day equivalent of its more explicit predecessors.
In fact, The J.C. Nichols company in association with the Federal Housing Administration, The Urban Land Institute and The National Association of Homebuilders, all of which Nichols helped to create, produced racially restrictive land deeds and development charters that explicitly excluded blacks from certain areas. Before the Supreme Court outlawed racially restrictive covenants in 1948, there were 354 explicit racially restrictive covenants recorded in the four county metro area. (Plat Books and Guarantor Books at the Recorder of Deeds Offices for Johnson County, Jackson County, Platte County, and Clay County. R, R, & UD 2002) This number included 148 in Johnson County, 138 in Jackson County, 34 in Clay County, and 34 in Platte County. These figures indicate that 96 percent of subdivisions built before 1947 in Johnson County contained racially restrictive covenants, 62 percent of subdivisions in Jackson County, 71 percent in Clay County, and 74 percent in Platte County. (Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development, (R, R, &UD, 2002) Kevin Fox Gotham, 2002) Despite the passing of the law in the Supreme Court that banned overt racialization of space, restrictive covenants appeared on land deeds and other housing contracts up into the 1960’s in Kansas City. In fact, from 1948, when the law banning these covenants was passed, to the 1960’s there were 1,243 explicitly restrictive covenants recorded in Kansas City subdivisions. This shows the real estate industry recorded and applied more restrictive covenants in the two decades after the Supreme Court outlawed them than in the previous four decades. (R, R, &UD, p40, 2002)
The resulting segregation is magnified by the fact that evidence exists in the form of census data, from 1880 through 1910, that suggests the existence of evenly distributed racial and ethnic populations within the urban core of Kansas City. Masey and Denton 1993, 19-26 (R, R, & UD 2002) This underscores the serious and lasting damage that was done to our urban core when developers incited a century long program of intolerance and racial homogeneity for financial gain. By the time the racially restrictive covenants that caused these communities to break apart and segregate finally stopped being used to perpetuate isolationist tendencies among whites, there were entrenched homeowner organizations that maintained the racial line in Kansas City. The link between race and property value had been produced through over fifty years of segregation and racism. This link between race and property value is so much a part of the psyche in our city that it enforces it self long after the covenants have been removed from the books.
These homeowner organizations were so active in maintaining the racial line after 1948 that they organized to purchase property away from blacks that managed to cross the racial line. They acquired vacant homes in their neighborhoods to prevent any racial minorities from moving in and they lobbied city hall for the passage and enforcement of discriminatory land use ordinances. In some cases these groups organized demonstrations and threatened boycotts of white businesses that catered to blacks. (R, R, & UD, 2002) This kind of paranoia perpetuated such practices as blockbusting, in which real estate companies would capitalize on the fear of white homeowners when there was a new presence of minorities in a previously segregated neighborhood. The real estate companies would spread fear of falling property value in order to buy up homes at depreciated values and then resell them at their real cost. (R, R, & UD, 2002) These types of practices fueled the stigma that surrounded racially integrated neighborhoods and while both whites and blacks were the victims of this type of real estate scheme, it only made integration more difficult.
The passage of new laws against segregation made it harder for developers to maintain racial lines based solely on race. Developers needed a different language with which to maintain segregated neighborhoods, and the market which still displays a desire for segregated housing needed a new legitimacy to support the racially motivated underpinnings of their desires for racially homogenous communities.
This history leaves us with a new racism. It is a racism that exploits numbers not color. It references class not race while it conveniently neglects the fact that developers have systematically tied race and poverty together by over the past hundred years. As economists talk about laissez-faire business practices, competition, and individualism we are left with a black community that has never been on “equal or competitive” footing. It is once again the victim of discrimination without the protection of rigorously enforced laws against segregation, state or federal.
Under the assumption that some organizations must be focused on combating this problem that exists in our community, I began to seek out those in the community whose charters are to eliminate racism. There are organizations such as The Urban League, FOCUS Kansas City, and The Kansas City Call that work very hard to provide opportunity and information to people in Kansas City and work to combat a century of unjust treatment by empowering minority populations.
After becoming more familiar with the organizations that work with this problem everyday, I went about setting up a system of integrating myself into neighborhoods that are almost exclusively made up of black and other minority residents, and at the same time are the poorest per capita anywhere in the metro. I wanted to set out an action that would gauge the condition of race relationships in Kansas City and actively engage the racial separation that is so pervasive in our city. I laid out a series of routes that took me through these areas of our city. I set out a schedule, a time line, and began looking for an action that would encompass my understanding of the history of our city and the causes for its segregation but not make assumptions about what I did not know. I wanted a process that would allow for a kind of interaction that was sustained and honest but that required real time to mature and become meaningful. I wanted an action that prompted people to react based on their prejudices, as well as their insecurities and mistrust, for what I imagined I would symbolize.
I decided to train for a marathon along routes through the areas in our city that shared a combination of low property values, overwhelming minority populations, and high percentages of residents that live at or below the poverty line. Training for a marathon is an interesting metaphor for endurance and conditioning towards a greater end. Running as an act is a cultural signifier of a lack of physical activity in our daily lives. It shows an aspect of narcissism in its very nature. Running seeks to not only promote heath but acknowledges the “other” in a very concrete way by trying to create a physical appearance in ourselves that is acceptable to those we desire. The mythology of the marathon tells the story of Philippides’s celebratory, but ultimately tragic run, (due to his death from exhaustion) to Athens to spread the news of victory after the Athenian Army defeated the Persians in 490 B.C. This was interesting to me as a back drop for exploring racial conflict, tragic misunderstandings, expectation, and futility. The performative aspects of running were art historical in their reference to previous work by artists like Vito Acconci, and as an act it is simple. It allowed for interaction without any inherently aggressive implications. It allowed me to function as a symbol of what I knew was foreign to these neighborhoods. Because the form did not allow time for specificity I could gauge reaction on a fundamental and honest level. I would become, in some ways, a blank screen that others could then project their fears, mistrusts, and prejudices upon. During the course of the training, I was able to see the affects of decades of racism manifest in the actions of Kansas City’s minority populations. This frustration was thrust back upon me in very short interactions that are a series of microcosmic models that represent the relationship between the races in this city.
I executed this action over a period of four months from the beginning of May to the end of August 2002. As is to be expected with almost anything of this nature reactions varied from disturbing and obvious to reassuring and depressing. In the beginnings verbal and physical abuse was prevalent and it was apparent that aspects of these communities harbored obvious frustration towards whites. During the course of these four months I was the object of close to two hundred verbal attacks and three physical attacks. I was jeered at, laughed at, spit on, kicked, chased, pushed, swerved at by cars and told to; “Get the fuck out of my neighborhood”. I was the target of thrown bottles and rocks, and I was warned several times about being seriously hurt or killed if I continued this action. I met several children that asked for my assistance in various things from pulling a bike from a ditch to coming up with rap lyrics. I was accused of being a narcotics officer. I received over thirty smiles from strangers. I was intimidated into smoking a cigarette on a street corner and chased by a group of young men waiting for the bus. I was a participant in nearly twenty five friendly waves and was the recipient of a hand shake from a skeptical, but good natured, man at a garage.
My integration into these areas was minimal but sustained. I came to be familiar with several people and groups as I passed almost every day through their neighborhoods. The verbal and physical attacks directed towards me went down substantially and the amount of friendly gestures went up as the project continued.
Verbal attacks from passing cars persisted but from my experience these types of verbal attacks occur anywhere, regardless of race or economy. The persistence of this particular kind of verbal abuse is representative of the origin of the problem between the races in this city. These kinds of attacks represent actions that lack accountability. They are representative of a kind of action that is at the root of most conflict and misunderstanding. The lack of accountability that comes with power, in any form, allows those who posses it to take advantage of those subordinate to it. In this particular instance the power is expressed by mobility, speed, and protection that comes from being in a moving vehicle. In actions like yelling, “Fuck you white boy!” or “Faggot!” from the window of a moving car there is no potential for repercussions, and there is often no witness. Actions like this are at, or near, the base level of human relationships. In this circumstance it is rather inconsequential, a passing remark or derogatory statement, but the fact that people realize their ability to take advantage of another individual without judgment by others, and act without any reference for the specificity of another’s will or situation, has far reaching implications. It is with this acknowledgment that this segregation in our city was incubated and it is through this that it still exists.
The actual training for a marathon is the systematic execution of a preplanned regiment. Its means are a direct road to a specific end. You begin with very short runs and through out the training they get gradually longer in distance and time. These relatively short runs are interrupted by very long runs that gradually get longer as the training continues. Usually there is one long run a week and three to five short runs. It is a kind of attack and retreat method of conditioning the body; breaking it down and allowing it time to grow back stronger. In the beginning of the training, runs lasted no more than fifteen or twenty minutes and I traveled no farther than a few miles. By the end my runs could last well over two hours and could cover up to twenty miles. The manner in which it was executed mirrored the sustained means that allowed the races to be split in the first place. The same sustained means will be necessary to repair the racial divide that exists in Kansas City.
There were both positive and negative aspects to this method of gauging the extent of hostility between the races in Kansas City. Because I was engaging in specific activities to achieve a desired end I could not account for any change in process that may have been necessary. The process allowed me however to focus on observing and being sensitive to my environment because my means were predetermined. As it was executed the process had a kind of gathering synthesis between the physical and psychological aspects of the project that moved together. There was a direct relationship to my achieving longer distance in my runs and becoming more integrated into the neighborhoods that I had chosen to run in.
As the summer of 2002 waned I had achieved a limited level of integration into the neighborhoods I had chosen to train in. I had experienced a change, albeit small, in my own perception as well as the perception of others. I had become familiar with where there were unchained dogs, when families or individuals came outside to sit on the porch in the evening, and what day people cut their grass. I knew how much trash certain families threw out on trash day. I knew what time schools and church services got out and I knew certain individuals bus schedules. I was utterly familiar with the splitting and glass covered sidewalks. I knew which kids played basketball in the evenings and which sold drugs on the street corner. I knew that some people would always be skeptical of my presence, that some people could care less, and that some people maybe even welcomed me. I had become, in my estimation, a tolerated observer.
I never ran the marathon for which I had spent four months in training. I twisted my knee two weeks before I was supposed to participate in it. I stopped running. The summer turned to fall and then to winter and I am sure some of the people I had encountered regularly have forgotten I ever existed, and for those who remember I can’t speculate as to what place I occupy in their conscious memory. I considered the project a failure because of its lack of conclusion, because I failed to accomplish what I set out to do. This need for finality is something that I have been conditioned to expect. It is a dangerous way to see a world where answers are never found simply by moving from point A to point B.
I have been thinking about this activity for almost a year now, and on the eve of another summer I am still not sure exactly what my actions accomplished, or for that matter, what they mean a year later. I consider many of the negative reactions I received to be a conditioned response coming from a place that sought to define its difference from me. I think about the way we, at some level, must define ourselves in relation and therefore in difference to others. I have come to believe that most of the negativity that exists between the races in this city is perpetuated because as we define ourselves in difference that is based on class and race, our concept of self and community does not allow for the other. When concepts of community and self are defined by this similarity of class and race anything outside or “other” constrains and threatens these ideas of self and community. This causes hostility that is detrimental to sustaining positive growth and is yet another reason why integration of class and race is so critical to the development of a city.
Due to the nature of reactions I received during this process I don’t believe, for the most part, that the negative reactions were or could have been premeditative. Rather, most of what spurred negativity towards me were efforts to reinforce a cultural identity that has come to exist through isolation. That isolation of the black community and the resulting negativity towards whites is a consequence of the segregation developers and city planners created and not a trait that defines the character of a community.
In the months since last summer, I have questioned the system that I set up to gauge the condition of race relations in Kansas City. In seeking to elicit reaction based on stereotypes I set up a project that allowed me to gain a greater understanding of the condition of race relations in Kansas City, but that did not allow for growth, outside of a kind of toleration and in a few instances limited good will. This “good will” is representative of the small shifts in perception that were possible even through this limited process. Despite its limitations, the project did reassure me that this separation is temporal. Through my efforts, much of the separation I felt in the beginning subsided as my presence moved from being a threat or a nuisance towards some sort of conceptual and physical integration. In my mind the piece hovers between my desire for the act to function as a catalyst for change and its more realistic place as an object of thought for those already privy to critical dialogue.
I am struck in my own recollection of the activity by a fondness for the experience because it took me out of myself in a way that I have seldom experienced before. I am afraid I will allow myself to let this article be the end of this experience. I fear that it will fulfill that conditioned need for a formal resolution that I desire. I am interested also in how deeply this separation has influenced all aspects of our society, from quality of schools and economic structure to architecture and the preservation of historic buildings. This kind of segregation has created two distinct cities that have been polarized by exploiting minor differences and ignoring the overwhelming similarities and desires for a high quality of life that exist between them.
I am surprised at the passing of another year so quickly. I am humbled by the passage of time and the enormity of history, encouraged by the beauty of human potential, and very sad to see the ills that persist in our and other societies. I think often about how we can come closer as a society and as a city to understanding each other better. I think about it not just in terms of race, but in terms of having a real and present acknowledgement that every individual has a will outside of ours that has its own desires and needs, dreams, fears, and aspirations. I think about the potential simplicity of real person-to-person interaction and the complexity of interaction that is driven by stereotypes, misinformation, assumption, and fear. I think about the disastrous consequences of acting upon those assumptions without engaging those people that we misunderstand.