Beyond Our Borders
9:26 am
Thu March 27, 2014

How Troost Became A Major Divide In Kansas City

Eds note: This look at the Troost corridor is  part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism. 

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. 

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Troost Avenue, once the eastern edge of Kansas City, Mo., and home to millionaires, is now widely seen as one of the city’s most prominent racial and economic dividing lines.

But how did this street, which runs north-south through Kansas City, transition from "Millionaires Row" to socioeconomic divide?

Here’s a look at the history of one of Kansas City’s most iconic thoroughfares and some of the factors responsible for making Troost a line that divides the poor from the not-so-poor, the whites from blacks, the haves from the have-nots.

Agricultural roots

Named for Kansas City physician and civic leader, Benoist Troost, Troost’s origins were a fruit plantation, pasture and cornfield belonging to the Porter family. In the 1880s, the land belonging to the Porters was sold off, beginning with the purchase of a swath of land at 2700 Troost by William A. Wilson. Wilson led the move to develop what became “Millionaire’s Row,” between 26th and 32nd streets along Troost.

From boom to panic

The 1880s were a period of economic boom for Kansas City and much of the United States, writes James Shortridge in his nearly exhaustive history of the city, Kansas City and How It Grew, 1822-2011. As the Porter land was sold, moderately priced homes were built in the east on either side of the Paseo corridor.

The homes  primarily were built on speculation, and when the economy crashed in 1890, contractors and backers panicked. Desperate for buyers, the home prices dropped, opening them up to the less-affluent African-American community.

Blacks driven out, whites flee

At that time, many African-Americans worked and lived in the West Bottoms, but the second industrial revolution had brought an expansion of the railroad and commerce, driving residents out. Many relocated to what became “Negro Quality Hill” east of Paseo near 24th Street.

According to Shortridge, it is still unclear why African-Americans bought in the area immediately east of Troost. He says the decisions of white real estate agents and the proximity to public transportation may have been factors.

In her book, A City Divided, Sherry Lamb Schirmer writes that the 1920s brought a widespread concern among whites about property values. Zoning ordinances were first established and passed by the city council in 1923, and though not entirely motivated by racism, those efforts helped keep blacks on the eastside. 

The only option

Once African-American families started moving east of Troost, the population in the area grew. By 1940, the most concentrated areas of African-Americans in Kansas City were east of Troost, though pockets remained directly west of Troost, north of 23rd Street and in the Westside.

Prior to desegregation, Lincoln High School and its feeder junior high schools east of Troost offered the only post-elementary education to blacks, further growing the population of African-American residents in jazz district now known as 18th and Vine.

The Country Club district

In the decades before desegregation, there was another major player at work shaping the neighborhoods of Kansas City.

Real estate developer J.C. Nichols was instrumental in developing the Country Club Plaza, which still reigns as a major commercial part of Kansas City and the neighborhoods that surround the area. Some, like Tanner Colby in his book, Some of my Best Friends are Black,  argue Nichols orchestrated a "white flight" of sorts from the east side to his developments west of Troost by inducing "panic-selling" and blockbusting. In addition, Nichols' restrictive covenants all but ensured blacks and Jews would not be able to move into the Country Club Plaza.

According to a four-part series on Troost in the Kansas City African-American newspaper, The Call,  panic selling and blockbusting were common in Kansas City up until at least 1970.

'Troost Wall'

Just after  Nichols' death, major changes to the public schools in Kansas City, and across the nation, became the impetus to explicitly use Troost to divide the city.

In 1955, the all-white Kansas City, Missouri school board did not resist the Supreme Court ruling that ordered the desegregation of public schools. But, writes Shortridge, the members did manipulate attendance boundaries to ensure white schools were separated from black schools. 

Troost was the most obvious border.