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Each week, KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

Want to explore Columbus Park? Start with this beginner's guide to the neighborhood

A person walks across the street between a restaurant and a two-story brick building that has the words "Little Italy" on it with a band of green, white and red paint.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Evidence of Columbus Park's Italian history can be seen throughout the neighborhood.

If River Market is popular and trendy, Columbus Park is the offbeat, cool flip side to that coin.

This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

Just north of Independence Avenue and split off from River Market by Missouri Route 9, Kansas City’s historic Columbus Park neighborhood is a peaceful and eccentric Northeast island. And that’s what makes it so great.

Despite the closeness of downtown and the multiple highways and train tracks circling the North End, as it was once called, Columbus Park doesn’t lose any appeal from existing as its own little pocket. In fact, there’s a magic here rarely found elsewhere in the city.

If River Market is popular and trendy, Columbus Park is the offbeat, cool flip side to that coin.

Historically, Columbus Park wasn't always peaceful. Italian immigrants — a large majority from Sicily — were once prevented from applying for jobs outside of the neighborhood specifically because of their heritage. At the turn of the century, Kansas City was expanding, which meant redlining, unequal distribution of wealth and segregation for people of color and immigrants.

One thing’s for certain: Columbus Park has always housed a diverse collection of movers and shakers. A storied past hangs over the area, sure, but that’s far from a bad thing.

New, immigrant-owned small businesses are popping up on these old streets right beside Kansas City staples, grassroots operations and community centers. Together, they are the bright stars of Columbus Park.

Café Cà Phê

Café Cà Phê
Emily Standlee
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Kansas City’s first Vietnamese coffee shop Café Cà Phê is adding a brick-and-mortar location to its beloved rolling coffee truck.

Hot on the heels of the Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month festival, Kansas City’s first Vietnamese coffee shop is adding a brick-and-mortar location to its beloved rolling coffee truck. And yes — you can see the building a mile away, thanks to the signature Café Cà Phê dragon painted over the brick in bold primary colors.

Founder Jackie Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American, as well as the staff at Café Cà Phê, have long advocated for AAPI visibility and radical inclusivity in the Midwest.

Throughout the pandemic, the coffee shop partnered with other small businesses, taking up residence in the West Bottoms and Crossroads and hosting a vigil last year that honored victims of violence against the AAPI community.

“We have found the perfect home in Columbus Park,” Nguyen says in a video linked to the shop’s fundraising account.

So far, Café Cà Phê has raised nearly $61,000 towards HVAC, plumbing and electrical. “Kansas City has a 2% population of Asian people, and even less Asian-owned businesses,” Nguyen continues. “We want to change that.”

Harrison Street DIY Skatepark

Harrison Street DIY Skatepark
Emily Standlee
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The Harrison Street DIY Skatepark was built in 2014 by local skaters. It now faces leveling due to recent (and future) development in the neighborhood.

Truly an example of collaboration transforming a community in real time, the Harrison Street DIY Skatepark was built in 2014 by local skaters. The 12,000-square-foot space it occupies was once a tumbledown plot of land at the edge of Columbus Park.

Due to recent (and future) development in the neighborhood, the skatepark faces leveling, according to a March article by photojournalist Chase Castor. The land isn’t sold yet but the vibe is bittersweet: Columbus Park could benefit from the affordable single-family homes the neighborhood association wishes to construct where the skatepark currently stands.

It seems there’s no concrete answer yet regarding the skatepark’s future, but advocates for the park — including Councilman Eric Bunch and construction firm Burns & McDonnell — want to provide all the materials for another park beneath the new iteration of the Buck O’Neil bridge.

Happy Gillis

Happy Gillis
Emily Standlee
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The aesthetic at Happy Gillis is extremely satisfying — think homemade ceramic mugs and fresh-picked flowers on every table.

Though owners Josh and Abbey-Jo Eans recently moved to Spain and left the café in the capable hands of general manager Jeffrey L. Gatton, Happy Gillis remains as charming as ever. It’s the kind of space that allows for any occasion: parents visiting from out of town, mimosas with friends or the early-morning brunch date.

The aesthetic is extremely satisfying — think homemade ceramic mugs and fresh-picked flowers on every table. What’s more, with sous chef Christopher Davis in the kitchen, the food is first-rate. Happy Gillis works with local farms to procure fresh, high-quality ingredients. Not everything is vegetarian, but the chickpea-tomato toast with herb yogurt is a standout.

Since opening in 2013, Happy Gillis has also had a hand in organizing neighborhood gatherings such as the Columbus Park Art Crawl, which takes place on the third Friday of each month. Guests can peruse local art and sip from the cafe’s special drink menu.

Keep an eye out for their Beer Dinners, where five delicious courses are paired with five beers.

Garrison Community Center

Garrison Field House
Emily Standlee
/
The Garrison Community Center was named for white abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison, who published the antislavery newspaper The Liberator in Boston from 1831 to 1865.

Over on East Fifth Street, flanked on all sides by a lush, green lawn, sits the historic Garrison Community Center. The space was first known as the Garrison Field House and designed in 1914 by architects Adriance Van Brunt & Co. It included administrative buildings, club rooms and an auditorium with a stage.

The center was named for white abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison, who published the antislavery newspaper The Liberator in Boston from 1831 to 1865. Garrison was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and actively opposed war, racism and imperialism.

Now, the Garrison is available on weekdays to any member of the public from 8 a.m-5 p.m. as a heating and cooling headquarters, free of charge. Adults can buy a facility pass for $3 to $5 per day, and youth can take part in a free boxing program until August 31. Students enrolled in these evening boxing classes can expect to learn about health and self-discipline while having fun and picking up a few new skills.

Garozzo's

Garozzo's
Emily Standlee
/
Today, potential diners will be pulled down the streets of Columbus Park by the 1940s and 1950s music being piped from Garozzo.

No introduction to Columbus Park would be complete without an introduction to 1989 Italian staple Garozzo’s. Born and raised on The Hill, the historic Italian American neighborhood in St. Louis, owner Michael Garozzo grew up watching members of his family waiting tables and dreamt of one day opening his own fine dining restaurant.

Talk to most any Kansas Citian about local Italian food and they’ll mention the infamous Chicken Spiedini: often imitated, never duplicated and created by Garozzo himself. The restaurateur also established a private wine label, Garozzo Cellars, after visiting Italy in 1991.

And the Garozzo family’s old school tomato sauce, or sugo, is bottled and distributed throughout grocery stores in the metro area — along with a spicy version and their classic Italian dressing.

Today, potential diners will be pulled down the streets of Columbus Park by the 1940s and 1950s music being piped from Garozzo’s exterior speakers, and may even catch a flashy Italian sports car parked outside. You just can’t miss the iconic green, white and red sign, nor the proud history behind it.

A woman walks two dogs on a curvy sidewalk next to the shade of a large tree.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Columbus Square park offers plenty of sidewalk space and shaded areas for visitors.

And that's just scratching the surface of Columbus Park! A special shout-out to the Columbus Park Community Garden and Vietnam Café, plus J. Rieger & Co. distillery and Knuckleheads music venue, both located in nearby East Bottoms. Check them out next time you’re in the area.

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