Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Kansas City owes its fortunes to its geography, since it is located precisely where the Missouri River stops flowing to the south and begins to stretch out eastward. In 1833 this fortunate situation was enhanced when J. C. McCoy found a rock ledge that could serve as a natural boat landing. McCoy connected the landing by trail to his new settlement at Westport, creating one of the best jumping-off points for western land routes. The present-day Kansas City, Missouri, city center was incorporated in 1850. At around the same time settlement was beginning along the river bottoms in Wyandotte County just across the border in the state of Kansas. So from the 1850s on there were two Kansas Cities, divided by the Missouri-Kansas state line, and both grew from a consolidation of villages rather than from a single unit.

The construction of the Hannibal Bridge across the Missouri River in 1869 (the first railroad bridge to span the river) allowed Kansas City to develop quickly as a grain- and meat-processing center. The meatpacking industry began on the Kansas side of the river, as did the Santa Fe Railroad shops and yards, and this area became the home of several important ethnic populations, notably, Slavic, Hispanic, and African American. The African American population was increased by the arrival of the "Exodusters" from the South in the 1870s. African Americans established newspapers, churches, and a university in Kansas City, Kansas, during the late nineteenth century, but it was their twentieth-century contributions in both Kansas Cities that have been the most long lasting. From 1908 to 1955 Kansas City, Missouri, was home to the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the best teams in the Negro baseball league. Beginning in the 1920s Kansas City developed its own style of jazz, which was so popular that at one time there were more than fifty jazz clubs, located mainly between Twelfth and Eighteenth Streets on the Missouri side of the river. Kansas City barbeque is another mainly African American contribution.

Kansas City, Missouri, had also established itself as the "Gateway to the Southwest," with important rail connections and the industries that profited from them. Between 1880 and 1890 the population doubled, and in the next two decades ambitious plans for a network of boulevards and parks were established and eventually implemented. Suburbanization began in the 1920s with the creation of large residential districts mainly to the south of the downtown area. J. C. Nichols was the most successful real estate developer of this period. He created the Country Club Plaza, the first shopping center in the nation. The plaza has several notable features: it was designed in the 1920s with free parking lots placed around its periphery, and it was originally the home of a number of branch stores from the downtown area, serving as a model for retail suburbanization across the United States.

Prosperity ended with the Depression, but while the population stagnated, Kansas City, Missouri, benefited from a number of federal building initiatives, including a new post office (1933), a municipal auditorium (1935), and a new federal courts building (1933). It also profited from planned expansion. Unlike many older cities such as St. Louis that are hemmed in by surrounding counties, Kansas City, Missouri, was able to expand in an extraordinary fashion during the second half of the twentieth century, increasing in size from 60 square miles in 1940 to 130 square miles in 1960 and 316 square miles in 2001. The population of Kansas City, Missouri, stood at 435,000 in 2000.

During the Depression, Kansas City, Kansas, benefited mainly from a large levee development project. During World War II many firms produced munitions, engines, and the landing craft for the Normandy invasion, and after the war the city's industrial base began to diversify even more. Kansas City's industries now include Hallmark Cards, H & R Block, Kansas City Southern Industries, Ford Motor Company, and General Motors. The famous Kansas City stockyards are now virtually closed.

Kansas City, Kansas, has a population of 143,000, leaving Wichita as the largest city in Kansas. But if the explosive suburban growth seen in Johnson County, Kansas, in the 1980s and 1990s was added to the population of Kansas City, Kansas, it would be Kansas's largest city. Johnson County and Wyandotte County display the sharpest divide in social geography in Kansas. Wyandotte County's population is long established and mainly blue collar, with a large minority component. By contrast, Johnson County's population consists mainly of affluent, recently arrived, middle-class white residents.

Following the nationwide trend of the 1980s and 1990s, the urban school systems in both Kansas Cities now have a majority of African American and Hispanic students. But the two cities present other distinct contrasts. Kansas City, Missouri, known as the "City of Fountains," is currently undergoing urban revitalization in many of its downtown neighborhoods, notably at Westport and near the Plaza. In the late 1990s Union Station was remodeled into a science museum with funds supplied by both city and county taxpayers. Kansas City, Kansas, has not been able to attract as many new residents or new businesses as its neighbor, but it maintains its distinct social heritage and several of its historic ethnic neighborhoods, notably, Strawberry Hill. The entire metropolitan area now contains fifteen counties, thirty-five communities in two states, and nearly two million people.

See also AFRICAN AMERICANS: Baseball, Interracial / ARCHITECTURE: Country Club Plaza / INDUSTRY: Hallmark Cards, Inc. / MUSIC: Kansas City Jazz.

Karen J. De Bres Kansas State University

De Bres, K. "Kansas City Urban Sites: Historical and Modern." Papers and Proceedings of the Applied Geography Conference 19 (1996): 299–305.

Shortridge, J. "New Introduction." In The WPAGuide to 1930s Kansas, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1984.

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