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After Paseo 'debacle,' KC might rename these streets for MLK. Here's how to weigh in

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 9/14/2020 By Cortlynn Stark, The Kansas City Star

Last fall, Kansas City voters soundly rejected renaming The Paseo for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This spring, officials briefly considered and then dropped the idea of renaming J.C. Nichols Parkway for the civil rights icon.

But now Kansas City officials and activists think they have hit on a plan that most people may embrace, so that Kansas City will no longer be one of the largest cities in the country without a street named after King.

They will better understand the plan’s chances this week after inviting residents to speak at two public hearings.

The new proposal involves renaming multiple streets — Volker Boulevard, Swope Parkway and Blue Parkway — running between Mill Creek Parkway on the west (another recently renamed street, formerly J.C. Nichols Parkway) and 55th Street on the east.

The change serves two purposes, said Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department director Terry Rynard: honoring King and simplifying the roads’ names. It could also help drive economic development, along what’s known as the cultural corridor, she said.

That corridor includes a cluster of attractions off Benton Boulevard: the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center, the Spirit of Freedom Fountain and Brush Creek Amphitheater. The proposed route also runs along Martin Luther King, Jr. Square Park, which, officials announced last week, is getting a boost with a new playground, thanks to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ foundation.

Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership of Greater Kansas City, which first presented the boulevard plan to the parks department, said he expects the public’s response to be mostly positive.

“With respect to racial justice,” said Howard, “the community at large has to understand that Black people have a right to be a major voice and major decider on where Black historical, cultural icons are located.”

Time for public comment

After the Paseo vote, Mayor Quinton Lucas asked the parks board to invite public comment on other ways to honor King. He wanted to make sure “everyone’s voice was heard following last year’s election,” he said in a statement Friday.

Lucas said he was “heartened” by the hundreds of ideas received earlier this year. But public meetings scheduled to hear feedback were delayed when COVID-19 hit, parks board president Jack Holland said, though the board continued to take ideas.

Other proposals included renaming Linwood Boulevard, 63rd Street and 75th Street.

Rynard said they spoke with stakeholders along the route of the proposed change. The parks department has also been in continual contact with the SCLC.

The public is invited to comment at two meetings:

? The Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners will meet at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the department’s administration building, 4600 E. 63rd St.

? A second hearing will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, 3700 Blue Parkway.

To provide input, people can attend in person, email or call 816-513-7500. Comment can also be mailed to the parks department at 4600 E. 63rd St. Kansas City, MO 64130.

The board will meet two weeks after Tuesday’s meeting — on Sept. 29 — to likely vote on the proposal, Holland said — depending on what the public has to say.

“It’s important, to my mind, because we’re really recognizing the past contributions of the leadership in the Black community in Kansas City during the civil rights movement,” Holland said.

The parks board does not have jurisdiction to rename Blue Parkway, so that portion of the plan would have to be approved by the City Council.

But Rynard said taking the whole proposal before the council would likely make the process “smoother,” adding that she would want to make sure the council is also on board.

Rynard said she would love to complete the project by next spring, especially with the momentum from the announcement that the 15 and the Mahomies Foundation would fund a new playground at Martin Luther King, Jr. Square Park, at Swope Parkway and Woodland Avenue.

The playground is billed as “a one of a kind play site that is functional and educational,” a needed addition to the park where, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, around a dozen people were playing tennis and others wrapped up an exercise class.

The hearings on the proposed MLK boulevard come on the heels of another project to promote civil rights: Over Labor Day weekend, artists and volunteers painted six Black Lives Matter murals on Kansas City streets, thought to be the biggest project of its kind.

In June, following protests over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, parks officials voted to remove the name of J.C. Nichols from both the parkway and nearby Country Club Plaza fountain that honored him. While Nichols masterminded the Plaza and many Kansas City area neighborhoods, he was also known for the racist policies in his housing developments that kept out Black and Jewish people.

Officials had considered naming that road for King, but the SCLC said the six-tenths of a mile stretch was too “minuscule” and King deserved a “major boulevard or thoroughfare” in an area of the city that would inspire Black people.

After public hearings, officials gave the road its original name, Mill Creek Parkway, but they have yet to consider a new name for the fountain.

Meanwhile, the city would not erase Volker Boulevard, named for philanthropist William Volker, who helped create Research Hospital and what is now the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Under another resolution, the parks department would ask the city to rename part of Oak Street near UMKC, from 45th Street to 52nd Street, to Volker Boulevard.

Past attempt

In 2018, a group of East Side ministers, including Howard, went to the parks board with the proposal to rename The Paseo for King, before turning to an initiative petition drive and then the City Council.

In January 2019, the City Council voted 8-4 to rename The Paseo for King, despite concerns from some members whose constituents didn’t support the change, and the city began installing new street signs with King’s name.

Residents mounted a campaign to get the issue on the November ballot, and then voted overwhelmingly to return the name to The Paseo. Save the Paseo members, some of whom are Black, said they wanted to honor King but contended the council didn’t follow city procedures or properly engage residents affected by the change.

Mollie Ponds, a board member with the SCLC, said it might be more important to take action today than two years ago. The fans who booed during a pre-game moment of unity at Thursday’s Kansas City Chiefs opener were just one example.

“With our Paseo debacle … I think it got a lot of a spotlight on people and it got a lot of people paying attention to our city,” said Ponds, a law student at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “So I think when we do it this way, it will bring about a spotlight on us moving forward as taking charge of the new civil rights movement that we’re having.”

Hope for the future

Rynard said the boulevard running east-west and crossing Troost is symbolic because of Kansas City’s history of redlining.

“We are looking for this to unite across the community,” Rynard said.

She said Kansas City has taken a long time to get to this point and acknowledged that some people won’t be happy. But generally, Rynard said, the proposal makes sense and will provide an opportunity to finish other improvements along Brush Creek.

Rynard said those would include a pedestrian bridge connecting the north and south sides of the creek and completing a trail between the park and Benton Boulevard.

Howard said he is excited and hopeful that Kansas Citians will embrace the boulevard.

“Dr. King recognized without a shadow of a doubt that Black people in 1968, and it is true now in 2020, are still suffering from economic inequality,” Howard said, “which is more important than the selection of a roadway named after him.”

The same guiding principles used in the push for changing the name of The Paseo apply with this proposal, Howard said, including that the street is placed in the Black community as a way of cultural enrichment for Black youth and economic development.

“We, as Black people, know what our children need, know the value of our culture, understand how these kinds of landmarks and icons can enrich our children and the freedom and justice of our people,” Howard said. “And our voices ought to be prioritized.”

The next steps depend on what happens this week.


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