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Some Black Kansas City Residents Say Renaming Paseo Has Erased 'Our Ward Parkway'

Michelle Tyrene Johnson
KCUR 89.3
One block away from what's now Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard, West Paseo will keep the "Paseo" name, which is tiled into the pavement.

Updated, 11:15 a.m. Thursday: On Wednesday, the Kansas City council's finance and governance committee recommended that the the street name restoration measure, which would restore the Paseo name, be placed on the November 5 ballot. The full city council is expected to vote on the measure in two weeks.

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Micheal Logan remembers a time when blacks in Kansas City, Missouri, weren’t allowed to go south of 27th Street.

So for him, when Paseo Boulevard officially became Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in February, it felt as if the opinions of many black residents had been ignored.

“Black people know this, know Paseo more than the average citizen of Kansas City. We have a lot of history up and down Paseo, businesses that have closed down that blacks went to on Paseo,” says Logan.

Petitions to reverse the name change were certified in early May. It's now up to the city council to place the issue on a ballot, potentially in August or November elections. Although the neighborhoods that include Paseo are ethnically diverse now, including about 1,200 people in 14 neighborhoods, many residents don't want to lose what Paseo means to the black community. 

The effort to name a street in Kansas City for Martin Luther King, Jr., started back in 2011, when Councilman Jermaine Reed tried to rename Prospect Avenue. Kansas City is said to be the largest city in the United States without a street named for King. Reed's effort failed, but in 2016, a group of black clergy members proposed the Paseo name change.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Rev. Vernon Howard, pictured in the bowtie, with the Southern Christian Leadership Council was one of the leaders in the movement to change the name of the Paseo to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Vernon Howard of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City said on KCUR's Up To Date last year that this recognitionwas long overdue.

"Dr. King is one of the most iconic and impactful voices for peace in the globe, in the nation and certainly in our community," Howard said.

After the city's parks department declined the request, a mayor-appointed task force studied the issue and recommended renaming Paseo as its third choice (the top choices were the city's new airport and 63rd Street, because it runs east-west). Several black leaders in the community supported the Paseo idea, including Urban Summit president Ken Bacchus and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, former pastor of St. James United Methodist Church on Paseo.

After months of speculation about what street or city-owned property would be named to honor King, the city council side-stepped a requirement to survey nearby residents and voted for Paseo Boulevard.

Many residents objected, saying that there was not sufficient buy-in. Objections also came from a diverse range of residents from around the city who didn’t want the name of the historic boulevard changed. In the past few months, however, most of the street signs have changed, though city officials have warned residents they might want to hold off on changing their addresses with the post office.

The role of race in the controversy

Many black residents say that despite the number of white opponents to the name change who have been featured in media coverage, no one should assume that they don’t care.

Brian Booth lives one block away from what was formerly Paseo Boulevard in a house that has been in his family since his grandparents built it.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Brian Booth speaks to community members who live along the Paseo about the issue of the name change.

He said the street name's strong legacy in the black community is a big reason he signed the petition to change it back.

At a recent meeting at the Vineyard Community Association, Booth said he was particularly concerned that the voices of the black homeowners along and near what's now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard are not being heard.

“There’s just so much history, black history, along Paseo," Booth told those gathered to discuss the issue. "The families that were black, that maintained those homes — my grandparents, my parents, my people — they worked years, with all kinds of issues in society, maintaining their houses for their kids and future generations.” 

Councilwoman Alissia Canady, who represents the 5th District in southeast Kansas City, which includes MLK Boulevard, says she's heard from many of her constituents, of different races, who were against the name change.

Canady says the concerns were about the process of renaming the boulevard rather than about race, but that race got mixed in with the process.

“It was about race because race was used to — I’m being generous or being kind, in saying — motivate several of my colleagues in spite of the letters of opposition our office received from residents along Paseo,” Canady says.

As a candidate in the mayoral primary, Canady allowed her campaign office to be one of the places where people could sign the petition to reverse the boulevard name change.

“It would be interesting when people of color would come in and it would almost be like they were sneaking in there to sign it, because they didn’t want to be assumed that they weren’t supportive of Dr. King,” Canady says.

Credit Missouri Valley Special Collections / Kansas City Public Library
Kansas City Public Library
A historic stoplight sits at the corner of Paseo Boulevard and Linwood Avenue.

Another uncomfortable reality about the change to honor King is the stereotype that streets named after him in other cities are the most run-down streets in the black community, says Canady.

"What usually follows is disinvestment and redlining and a number of things that are the opposite of growth and economic development," she adds.

Kansas City resident Emanuel Walker does not agree with that analysis.

"To me, it’s a great big plus because in most cities, all over this United States, it’s the black, ghetto, run-down-already neighborhoods. So (the MLK name) is a plus, not a negative," Walker says.

However, the special significance for many in the black community is that owning a nice house on Paseo Boulevard was aspirational, a sign you had done well.

“Paseo Boulevard is like our Ward Parkway,” Canady says.

Alice King can see the street from the porch of her home. She says her opposition to the new name has to do with history; she's all for honoring King.

Credit Michelle Tyrene Johnson / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Sharon Dean stands in front of the the house her grandparents built in 1966 after the racial covenant preventing a black person from having a home there was lifted.

“We’ve already named a hospital after King, we had a school after King, we actually have an elementary school named after King and a park. They say they want to honor him. How many more different ways do we have to honor him?” says King.

Sharon Dean lives on West Paseo Boulevard. And even though her street is keeping its name, she still doesn't approve of the way this change was handled. She says residents who live on or near Paseo should be the decision makers. 

“The history that that street has though, I don’t want it changed." Dean says. "I know people are going to say, 'Well we put up the signs, it will be a cost to take them down.'-Inclusion is worth whatever it costs.”

Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a reporter at KCUR 89.3 and part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Kansas City, St. Louis, Hartford, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon. She can be contacted at michelle@kcur.org.

Michelle is a reporter covering race, identity and culture and is an assistant talk show producer.
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