A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Episode 2: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood 

(Music with a steady beat of plucked strings.)  

Glenn North: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is one of the most beautiful buildings in Kansas City. Driving along Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, you get a really good view. There’s a sweeping green lawn that leads up a hill to a massive building with Greek columns and carvings in the stone. It looks like the Supreme Court building or the Parthenon or something.  

(Music continues, dotted with higher tones and a drum beat.) 

Emanuel Cleaver II: I think for many African Americans over the years, it’s been a beautiful place to simply look at. 

Glenn North: That street that I mentioned, Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, is named after this gentleman. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II. I talked to him over Zoom because of COVID. 

Emanuel Cleaver II: My wife, who was born and raised in Kansas City, did what a lot of African Americans did, which was, on Sundays after church after they ate dinner, you’re gonna have dessert. So this is a big day. It was the only day of the week you had dessert. They would drive by the Nelson-Atkins. Many of the whites who are listening to this may not know about that part of who we are and our history, which was the Sunday drive. And it didn’t happen just in Kansas City, it was all over the country. African Americans went into parts of the community where they frankly were not welcomed. They would drive up and down the street looking at the stately homes of the wealthy. They’d turn around and go through the Plaza. And en route back to the east side, there’s the Nelson-Atkins Museum. And you know I think in those situations, the building is either saying stay out, keep away, or it’s welcoming. I think I was in Kansas City probably fifteen years before I ever stepped foot in the Nelson-Atkins. And I think that’s not unusual.  

(Music continues, picking up speed with quick hand claps. We hear the sound of a car driving slowly.) 

Glenn North: You see the little sign there that says Mission Hills, Kansas?  

Christine Murray: So, is this the route you would take? 

Glenn North: There wasn’t a specific path that we took. (Squeak of a steering wheel turning.) We just kinda drove around, like we’re doing now. (Sound of a car accelerating.) 

Glenn NorthI haven’t been on a Sunday drive in years, so my producer and I decided to go on one. 

Christine Murray: So, Mission Hills is, was, and always has been the fancy part of town?  

Glenn North: Yeah. Is, was, was, is, probably, per capita, like one of the richest neighborhoods in the country, if I am not mistaken. 

I kind of forgot about those Sunday drives.  

They got a moat! (Laughter. Continues under narration.) Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. 

I grew up on the east side of Kansas City. My dad had this big ole car that he loved. It was a mint green Oldsmobile 98 Regency Sedan. And we’d all pile into it on Sundays and drive west, looking around and imagining the house we’d want to live in. My dad would pick a house. My mom would pick a house, I’d pick a house.  

It’s, like, a nice green space with a Grecian kind of sculpture with a fountain. It’s just there! Like, just to be pretty! 

My sister and I would sometimes fight if we wanted the same house.  

It’s really something. They have a park in front of their home. Like they have a whole park (laughs in disbelief) in front of their home. 

I remember that as a time of bonding and dreaming as a family. But you know, at the same time, we knew we’d never live in any of those houses.  

They look enchanted. (Short laugh.) I mean, doesn’t that look like the place where there would be a fairy tale? (Big laugh.) You know what I mean? 

Christine Murray: Yeah. 

Glenn North: (Laughs.) I just don’t remember ever thinking that this was possible for me. 

(Theme music by The Black Creatures comes in with high vocals at a strict and even rhythm, and a piano and sax swing dancing over the top.)  

Glenn North: Welcome back to A Frame of Mind. This is episode two, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” And I’m your host, Glenn North.  

Dove Beattie: Welcome to the Nelson-Atkins. (Echoes with the sounds of museum visitors around them. Continues under narration.) 

Glenn North: This is Dove, a Visitor Services Officer. Or, in museum lingo, a VSO. VSOs are the first faces you see when you walk into the Nelson-Atkins. They spend all day helping visitors understand the lay of the land.  

Dove Beattie: There’s a map right there if you need it. (The hustle and bustle of the museum continues.) 

Glenn North: Dove is amazing. Even though they say the same thing over and over and over, they keep on smiling. 

(Theme music fades out.) 

Dove Beattie: This is my third month here, but I’ve been attending since I was like six years old. So, it’s like coming full circle, kind of. (A kid jumps and chatters in the background.) I love this place so much. I think it’s remarkable how well we do at preserving Kansas City history here. And this is one of the first pieces of the City Beautiful movement.  

Museum visitor: Hello! 

Dove Beattie: Hello! So it was really important. It was really important to Nelson and Mary Atkins that we established, you know, some kind of culture in the city. This was like a pinnacle of that movement.  

Glenn North: That movement Dove is talking about, City Beautiful? It has a lot to do with why Kansas City looks like it does.  

Jake Wagner: Architecture’s a form of communication. 

Glenn North: That’s my friend Jake Wagner, he teaches urban studies at the University of Missouri—Kansas City.  

Jake Wagner: A lot of people look at it as structure, as physical space, as something that’s inert, but it is a form of communication. So if you do stand on the corner and look at the Nelson in relationship to its surroundings, that entire space is designed. It’s not an accident.  

Glenn North: So, if like Jake says, architecture is a form of communication, in my opinion the Nelson-Atkins is sending a message loud and clear. This is an important place where people are doing important things.  

(Plucky string music comes in.) 

Jake Wagner: That’s part of the early twentieth century when Kansas City decided, you know, we don’t just want to be a Cow Town. We want to be the Paris of the Plains. The frame was set by a group of men who were looking to Europe. There’s the monumental architecture of the building which is classical in its form and its relationship to its site. And that’s part of the City Beautiful movement. 

Glenn North: The basic idea of the City Beautiful movement was, if people are surrounded by beauty, they’ll be inspired to become better humans and live in harmony. The movement had an incredibly passionate following at the late 1800s or early 1900s. You see it in cities like Chicago and Cleveland and Washington, DC, with all their classical architecture. And it’s why there are wide boulevards and green spaces and public fountains everywhere in Kansas City. Our city leaders wanted this to be a sophisticated and cultured place. The Nelson-Atkins Museum was born out of that idea. 

(Music transitions to a deeper swing, a little more mysterious.) 

Emanuel Cleaver II: It is a beautiful building on a beautiful street, not far from one of the most expensive pieces of geography in the metropolitan area, called the Country Club Plaza. 

Glenn North: OK, so hold up here. Congressman Cleaver is talking about a high-end shopping district called the Country Club Plaza. We just call it the Plaza. It was the brainchild of a city planner and real-estate developer named J.C. Nichols. He was big on the City Beautiful movement. And those neighborhoods that my family would drive through on Sundays? Those are J.C. Nichols neighborhoods. He basically perfected the concept of the suburbs that we still have today, right here in Kansas City. 

Emanuel Cleaver II: (Echo) One of the most expensive pieces of geography in the metropolitan area. 

Old timey narrator: If your hometown be large or small, it is still the greatest city in the whole world. 

(A thrill of music flourish.) 

Glenn North: My producer found this crazy record from the 1950s. It imagines and reenacts moments in Kansas City history. Here’s one where J.C. Nichols describes his concept of the suburb to William Rockhill Nelson, the founder of the Kansas City Star. 

(Static buzz from an old recording.) 

J.C. Nichols Reenactor: Well, I don’t care much about past history, Mr. Nelson. I care about the future. Kansas City is gonna have its first planned residential section. It’s gonna be the most beautiful part of Kansas City. The section will have its own shopping center. It’ll have broad winding streets, nothing crowded. And after I sell all that land and those homes, I’m gonna buy more land close by, and build another section. And it’ll be just as beautiful. One section will be colonial. Another Elizabethan. Another Spanish, maybe. 

William Rockhill Nelson Reenactor: You mean, you’re going to decide on the type of homes people will live in? 

J.C. Nichols Reenactor: That’s right.  

William Rockhill Nelson Reenactor: What if people won’t buy?  

J.C. Nichols Reenactor: Oh, they’ll buy when they see them. Once I’ve finished these first ten acres, nobody with an ounce of sense will want to live anywhere else. 

William Rockhill Nelson Reenactor: Go to it, young man. I’ll back you to the hilt. Anything that helps Kansas City will have the help of the Kansas City Star. 

(Nostalgic, optimistic music swells and continues under narration.) 

Glenn North: William Rockhill Nelson liked Nichols’s idea ‘cause he’d already built a neighborhood of his own, which he called, wouldn’t you know, Rockhill. That’s where he lived, and it’s where the Museum sits today. So Nelson was all for this real estate guy’s idea of building pretty houses nearby. Here’s Nelson again, from that record: 

William Rockhill Nelson ReenactorThe Star has a greater purpose in life than merely printing the news. It believes in doing things. Kansas City will someday be the leader of the west, if I break my back making it so. Vision, gentlemen, vision. 

Erik Stafford: William Rockhill Nelson, you know, he said the Star never loses. 

Glenn North: That’s Erik Stafford. He owns a tour company that focus on local Black history. 

Erik Stafford: William Rockhill Nelson was forty years older than J.C. Nichols. So, he was like an older, older parent for J.C. Nichols. The two of them together had a huge impact on Kansas City. 

(Moody music comes in.) 

Jake Wagner: J.C. Nichols is absolutely critical to understanding American history, not just Kansas City history, because of the role of the real estate industry in promoting an exclusive suburban residential experience to your middle-class Americans. 

Glenn North: But wait a second. There’s just one thing. 

Erik Stafford: The properties that he bought and sold, the deeds attached to them contained restrictive covenants that stated if you purchase this property, you cannot rent or sell to a Negro or a Jew. 

Glenn North: You heard him right. Part of J.C. Nichols’s concept of the perfect suburb was to make it white-only. And so he used legal language that excluded Black folks and Jewish people from his neighborhoods.  

Angel Tucker: He commodified racialized space. 

Glenn North: This is Angel Tucker, she heads up this great educational initiative for high school students called the Race Project KC.  

Angel Tucker: We just had a workshop this past week and students, they were like, I can’t believe this happened. I can’t believe that this language still is readable and a part of our history.  

Glenn North: Here it is in black and white from Section 10 of the Greenway Fields Homeowners Association“None of the said lots shall be conveyed to, used, owned, nor occupied by Negroes as owner or tenant.” 

Angel Tucker: The very first event I went to at the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Library, there was a man in the audience that brought his deed and was shaking it. And he’s like, it’s right here. It’s still listed here. That’s a stamp that’ll never in a sense go away. 

Glenn North: Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, those restrictive covenants can no longer be enforced, but because J.C. Nichols was the most influential real estate developer in town, his racist strategy shaped Kansas City 100%.  

Angel Tucker: Nichols shared his industry best practices with high-end residential real estate developers from all over the United States. He exported the idea of the development of all white, suburban communities. It was taken to every other major city in this country. 

Jake Wagner: J.C. Nichols took it national. And by 1970, most Americans had been sold on that model of community, of the single-family home on a relatively large lot that they were the owners of. 

Glenn North: Now, there’s a lot more to this story, including a long history of redlining and blockbusting and other complicated factors that got us to where we are today. If you want to know more about how all that played out here in Kansas City, I recommend watching “Dividing Lines,” a 360 video by the Johnson County Library.  

Jake Wagner: The structuring of space and the role of race in that process has been there from the very beginning, from the get-go. Wealth in this country is linked to whether or not you, you and your family, are able to buy a home. 

Angel Tucker: That history defines all of our realities today in terms of our neighborhoods, our schools, the resources that communities have access to. The practice of these things devastated communities, just devastated them. 

Chiluba Musonda: I arrived in Kansas City as a young international student from the nation of Zambia. Zambia is the country where I was born and raised.  

Glenn North: This is my friend Chiluba Musonda, who works at the Kansas City Museum.  

Chiluba Musonda: I came across this individual and they asked me where I was from. And that person said, “Since you’re new in town, let me tell you this—,” and it was a Caucasian man, middle-aged. He said, “Since you’re new in town, I got one piece of advice for you, son. Whatever you do, do not go east of Troost.” 

Glenn North: Troost Avenue looks like any other street in Kansas City, nothing special. But because of the curse left behind by those covenants, it’s sort of a racial dividing line in Kansas City. For the most part, Black folks live on the east side, white folks on the west. 

Chiluba Musonda: I had just arrived! I had no idea what Troost was! Was Troost a place, was it a street? I had no idea. So guess what I did? I got on the Troost 25 bus. 99% of everyone on that bus was African American. So I began to ask myself, Why do they look different to the folks in Midtown? And why do the homes on the east side of Troost look different to the homes that are on the Plaza? Something ain’t right here. Something is not right. 

Glenn North: Like Jake said earlier. That’s no accident. That’s urban planning. Whatever the lofty intentions were of the City Beautiful movement, it turns out that beautifying Kansas City meant that some people ended up living in slums, and that ain’t no fairy tale. 

I wrote a poem a while ago about what MY City Beautiful looks like. And here’s an excerpt from it. The poem is called “1745 E. 21st Street.”

(Retro cool music by Eclipse fades up. Keys dance, drums tip tap, velvety bass keeps low.) 

the residence of my fondest memories
red kool aid, Captain Crunch memories
watermelon Now or Later flavored memories
that call to mind
a simpler time
when blinking street lamps
called us in for the night
while Stevie sang songs in the Key of Life
and we rode
the Ohio Players
Roller Coaster of Love
before it flew off the track. 

I’m talkin’ way back
pre-Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome
yes, those days are long gone 

Daddy, Moma, my sister and me
rode proudly in his car
slicing the breeze
headed for French Vanilla cones from Velvet Freeze 

Then it was on
to the Fairyland Drive-In
for a Friday night
I often wondered who’d win
if Superfly and Shaft ever got in a fight. 

This is my sappy-nostalgic
do-you-remember when poem.
My back in the day, by the way
whatever happened to the good old days poem.
And I wrote it for me
because every now and then
even if it’s only by thought
you just need to go back home… 

(Eclipse music ends on a cymbal tap.) 

Glenn North: Now, I do want to be clear about something. The Nelson-Atkins Museum isn’t inside one of those J.C. Nichols neighborhoods. It’s kind of in the middle of the two realities I’ve been talking about. It’s east of the Country Club Plaza. And it’s west of Troost. You can walk to either one easily from the Nelson-Atkins, so it’s kind of at a crossroads.  

Old timey narrator: (With dreamy music and a bit of static behind.) There stands the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art. That’s right. When old Rock Rib Nelson died, he left enough money to endow an art gallery. Eleven million dollars. He must’ve known you can’t take it with you. But he must’ve known something else. That money is best used when it’s spent on somebody or something you love. And William Rockhill Nelson loved Kansas City. 

(Romantic strings swell, continuing under the narration.) 

Julián Zugazagoitia: I truly believe that a collection like the Nelson is and should be used every day by everyone.  

Glenn North: This is Julián, the director of the Nelson-Atkins. 

Julián ZugazagoitiaYou know, we have enormous numbers of visitations, but sometimes it’s intimidating, the architecture. So all of our efforts is, is saying, no, no, this is for everyone. And it is for you. 

The power of looking at art at this juncture of our history in this country it has the possibilities of unlocking. And the opportunity to reflect and be more empathetic, that it piques your curiosity, your compassion, and also the ability to want to reach to the other. That gives you a sense of tolerance and saying there’s no one way of seeing the world. 

Glenn North: William Rockhill Nelson believed in that too. That art could reach across cultures and help us understand each other. That’s why he wanted to build a museum here. Say what you want about the guy, he did put his money where his mouth was. And when he died, J.C. Nichols helped make that dream a reality for Kansas City. He became one of the founding trustees of the Nelson-Atkins. His hands were all over decisions big and small about what the museum would look like, where it would be, what kind of art it would collect, and who would work there. 

Tara Laver: I’ve read descriptions of Nichols being sort of the son in business that Nelson never had. 

Glenn North: This is Tara Laver. She’s the archivist at the Nelson-Atkins. 

Tara Laver: His ideals and his aspirations for the museum were very lofty, in a good way. One of the documents in the archives that I think is representative of J.C. Nichols, is his speech from the dedication of the museum in December of 1933. So, I’ll just read some of it. “May these halls crystallize a greater love for beauty, a fresh enthusiasm for living. May they be a happy democratic meeting place for all groups, all races, all creeds, all men who call the Middle West their home.” 

(Paper rustling.) 

Tara Laver: So, we’re trying to reconcile, you know, what he says in this speech with some of his other actions. He really is a little bit of an enigma, I would say.  

Chiluba Musonda: How do we tell the story of Kansas City and be honest about it? We have to talk about what’s beautiful and what’s ugly and everything in between. The main pioneers, with all their contributions, and what they built, and, and the City Beautiful movement. We can celebrate them in one aspect. But you and I and everyone else in Kansas City, we’re still living with the effects of what these individuals did a hundred years ago, sixty years ago, forty years ago, ten years ago. Not everything in Kansas City’s history is, should I say, pretty. Some of it is difficult. 

Jake Wagner: I think that is the starting place, is to recognize the City Beautiful and ask the question, for whom? For whom was the City Beautiful created? And was it truly inclusive or was it exclusionary? 

Glenn North: I’m gonna be honest here. That mess that Jake and Chiluba are talking about is in our walls. It’s in our streets. And it’s in all those pretty fountains that we have all over town. So when a museum like the Nelson-Atkins tries to reach out and be genuinely welcoming to communities like mine, they have a lot to overcome. When your building looks like the Parthenon, it is inspiring, no doubt. But not everybody feels like they have the right to walk inside. No matter how many people like Dove are standing in the lobby. 

(Echoes of Dove greeting visitors at the museum. “Welcome to the Nelson-Atkins,” “We will have them print you out a ticket at the info desk and then bring it back here…” Sounds of museum visitors transition into sounds of a flowing fountain.) 

Glenn North: There’s a fountain in a park right by the museum. Standing next to it, you feel like you could be in Paris or Rome.  

It used to be called the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain. But in 2020, the Parks and Recreation Board voted to take his name off of it.  

Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners meeting: Next item on the agenda is Resolution #31460 considering board of this resolution supporting the removal of the name J.C. Nichols from the fountain located between J.C. Nichols Parkway and Main Street… (Continues under narration.) 

I think that was the right thing to do. Because a city is a space that holds all our memories, and we move through them every day. Whether we’re driving through Mission Hills, or crossing Troost on a bus, or walking into the Nelson-Atkins. We have to look at all of it, without flinching, to find a space where we all belong.  

(Theme music rolls up.) 

Thanks for listening to A Frame of Mind, the podcast of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Next up we’re gonna look even more closely at the land the museum sits on, and some carvings on the outside of the building that are hard to look away from. 

This episode was co-written and produced by me and Christine Murray, with editing and sound design by Brandi Howell. The voices you heard were Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, Dove Beattie, Jake Wagner, Erik Stafford, Angel Tucker, Julián Zugazagoitia, Tara Laver, and Chiluba Musonda. Interview recording by Tim Harte and studio engineering by Simpson Sound Lab. Fact checking by Kate Carpenter. Our theme music is by The Black Creatures. Additional music from Eclipse. Our cover art is by Two Tone Press.  

If you liked this episode, please leave us a review. It’ll help other people find us. 

This podcast is produced with generous support from Bank of America, N.A., Trustee of the John W. and Effie E. Speas Memorial Trust.  

See you next time. 

(Theme music fades out.)