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Highway 71 And The Road To Compromise

Suzanne Hogan

Mamie Hughes, 85, stands in the middle of a bridge that’s named after her, and she marvels at the power of the road below. The power of Highway 71.

“Sometimes I just like to stand here and look and watch the traffic,” she says as cars and semis zoom underneath. “Seeing how much goes, and it’s just kind of fun.”

The Mamie Hughes Bridge crosses Highway 71, or Bruce R. Watkins Drive as it’s also known, at Meyer Boulevard.

And to Hughes, this is a bridge “for the people.”  It was part of a compromise decades ago that made the highway possible, to make sure it wouldn’t divide communities, but would connect them, she says.

But whether this highway unites or divides remains an open question.

The 10-mile stretch of road - from the Three Trails Crossing at 435 North to the downtown loop -- was once houses and businesses.  According to James R. Shortridge, author of Kansas City and How It Grew, during the 50 years it took to build the highway, more than 10,000 people were relocated.  

The South Midtown Freeway

In 1951, Kansas City officials proposed the South Midtown Freeway, a north-south link to U.S Highway 71 through the heart of the city. The city and Missouri Department of Transportation wanted a way to connect people in Lee’s Summit, Grandview and the Northland to downtown.

One of the proposed destinations was the streetcar tracks along Brookside Blvd. But the city decided on a more direct and cheaper route in Kansas City’s eastside, closer to Prospect Avenue and Euclid.

Hughes says people were upset about the route’s location.

“It was the feeling that 71 freeway is going to divide a segregated area,” says Hughes.

The communities along the proposed route — like Ivanhoe, Beacon Hill, and Key Coalition — were home to mostly African-Americans. And a lot of changes were taking place in those neighborhoods in the 50's and 60's. Neighborhoods were starting to integrate. There was white flight, block busting. Also, there was a post-war economic boom, suburban development, traffic and sprawl.

As the city and Missouri Department of Transportation started to buy up properties, people didn’t understand why houses had been purchased but were sitting vacant for so long.

Willie Culclager, a retired police officer who has lived in the Ivanhoe neighborhood for over 50 years, says this led to higher crime, disinvestment and confusion about how the roadway would affect the area in the long-term.

And, he says, the burden fell unevenly.

“Whenever compromise was made, if a compromise had to be made, most of the time the minorities had to pay the price,” he says.

Less of freeway, more of a parkway

Concerns over splitting up neighborhoods, plus, questions about potential environmental impacts led to a major lawsuit filed in 1973 that lasted 10 years. The lawsuit didn’t stop the roadway’s construction, but it led to a series of compromises. One, that Highway 71 would be less of a freeway and more of a parkway.

Hughes was hired to be an ombudsman and serve as a community representative. She educated people about their property rights. She says this distinction was very important to residents.

“Some of this roadway, the residents feel that the road is right in their front yard, because it is very close,” Hughes says.

Emanuel Cleaver who was on the City Council during the lawsuit’s litigation, and was mayor during highway’s construction, pushed for beautification plans to put plants and trees along the roadway. Cleaver also renamed the roadway to Bruce R. Watkins Drive, after a local civil rights leader.

Because it wasn’t a freeway, the road would have lower speed limits and perhaps most controversial, the addition of bridges and streetlights. Hughes took a lot of the heat for that.

“These are arteries that are there for the people who live there. They need to be able to go across, back and forth, and those traffic lights control that,” says Hughes.

When Bruce R. Watkins was finally completed in 2001, 50 years after its inception, there were three traffic lights on the roadway, at Gregory Boulevard, 55th Street And 59th Street. These intersections have proven to be some of the most accident-heavy spots on Kansas City’s roadways,according to Steve Porter of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

“It’s as safe as we can make it. What is going to make this corridor safer, is going to be the behavior of the people,” Porter says.

Some people continue to criticize the lasting impact of the highway’s construction on surrounding neighborhoods. Some people say that there aren’t as many plants or trees as there should be, or that the roadway is too slow or unsafe because of the lights. Still, the Missouri Department of Transportation says the roadway's use has only increased over the years and it has proven to be a vital connecting piece within Kansas City's roadways. More than 80,000 cars travel on the road each day, with plans to enhance public transit on the horizon.

This look at Kansas City's east side is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what's being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences east of Troost with KCUR.

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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