Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Tearing down the Troost wall

It is rare to come across a politician with the refreshing candor and sincerity of Mayor Sly James.

Discussions of race can easily become contentious, especially in a city haunted by a history of strained race relations.

In an area where previous mayors have failed, James has made tremendous progress.

Last fall, I covered a town hall at UMKC devoted to the mayor’s first 100 days in office. Hosted by the NAACP – Young Adult Conference and other sponsors, the mayor fielded questions about progress in key policy areas. I was genuinely impressed by the mayor’s call to work past the barriers that divide us.

“We have to stop this nonsense of north and south of the river and east and west of Troost,” he said. “We need to quit acting like there’s a Berlin Wall and a river without a bridge. We must address our problems in a more constructive way.”

To those unfamiliar with Kansas City, Troost Avenue may not seem different from other thoroughfares in the urban core, but it has taken on a metaphorical significance.

Dubbed “the Troost wall,” it represents the legacy of years of institutionalized discrimination in business and politics and misguided social perceptions. A series of maps on Flickr illustrates segregation in major American cities with different colored dots to represent clusters of 25 people, based on data from the 2000 and 2010 census. Although Kansas City was slightly less segregated in 2010, Troost Avenue is the most easily identifiable street on both maps, a line of racial demarcation.

None of this is news to lifelong Kansas City residents, but younger generations likely do not realize the extent of the dirty deeds of the mid-20th century real estate and banking industries.

Prior to World War II, Kansas City east of Troost was predominately white, home to many European immigrants and Kansas City’s Jewish community. The city’s African-American community was clustered around the 18th and Vine District.

Segregation manifested itself in every facet of Kansas City culture, designed to give whites the upper hand and minimize interaction with their black counterparts.

Restrictive housing covenants in white neighborhoods penalized homeowners who sold to non-whites. Such covenants were commonplace, appearing in 62 percent of the 221 subdivisions built in Jackson County between 1900 and 1947, according to a scholarly article titled “Troost Avenue: a Study in Community Building.” J.C. Nichols, who pioneered the Country Club Plaza and Ward Parkway corridor (Kansas City’s most affluent urban neighborhood to this day) profited immensely from restrictive covenants.

After World War II, racial attitudes did not change, but the advent of the automobile revolutionized urban planning.

Real estate agents realized they could make a quick profit off of prejudice. A common practice was for agents to tell homeowners in predominately white neighborhoods that black families were moving into the neighborhood, warning them that they could never recoup the value of their home in a black neighborhood. Panicked, white homeowners sold their homes below market value to the agent, who in turn sold the homes to black families at inflated prices.

In just 20 years, a drastic population shift occurred. In 1950, Kansas City’s east side was 75 percent white and 25 percent black. In 1970, the population percentages had completely reversed. The problem was aggravated by the lending industry’s disinvestment in black neighborhoods. Banks refused to give mortgages to residents buying east of Troost, a policy known as redlining. Although such practices were outlawed, the damage has yet to be overturned.

A few blocks to the west of Troost, homes often sell for upwards of $300,000 in coveted Brookside and Hyde Park. A few blocks east, homes often sell for less than $20,000.

Building the Troost wall took years of premeditated discrimination.

Tearing it down will take twice as much conscious effort. The best way to address the problem is to tackle the monster that created it: prejudice. Change doesn’t happen on its own. Until we can toss the “–isms” and divisions out the window, the Troost wall will stand tall and mighty.

The first step is to raise awareness of the forces that created the Troost divide and make fixing it a priority. The next step is for lenders and real estate agents to get behind the cause and help fix the problem their industries created.

Kansas City should be a community we are all proud to share and call home because our diversity is one of our greatest assets.

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