© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
A podcast about the everyday heroes, renegades and visionaries who shaped Kansas City.

Parade Park offered Black Kansas City families a chance for home ownership. Now it's crumbling

David White, KCUR 89.3
Images Courtesy of the Kansas City Public Library and Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
Parade Park became a symbol of pride for Black families in Kansas City who — after bearing the brunt of redlining and racist housing policies — finally had their chance at a share of home ownership.

As Kansas City’s first Black-owned housing co-op, Parade Park helped residents pursue the American Dream of owning a home and building a community. But after 60 years, it’s uncertain if it can survive foreclosure and redevelopment.

For more stories like this one, subscribe to A People's History of Kansas City on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Stitcher.

Tucked between Woodland and Brooklyn Avenues in Kansas City’s famed 18th and Vine District sits Parade Park Homes, a neighborhood thought to be one of the nation’s oldest Black-owned housing co-ops.

With its dedication ceremony 61 years ago this month, the townhouse complex became a symbol of pride for Black families in Kansas City who — after bearing the brunt of redlining and racist housing policies — finally had their chance at a share of home ownership.

Parade Park Homes also stood as a rare instance in which an urban renewal project — a popular redevelopment tool in the 1960’s — enhanced a Black neighborhood instead of destroying it.

In its early years, Parade Park was the kind of place where people could prosper and raise their children.

Diane Charity, who lived in Parade Park for 30 years along with several of her family members, cherishes photographs and memories from her time there.

On a driving tour of the neighborhood, Charity points out a large tree with low-hanging branches in front of her mother’s old unit. She holds up a photo she has saved to her phone, taken there decades ago.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Diane Charity stands in front of a burned-down unit in Parade Park where her daughter used to live. The unit is now vacant and boarded-up, like many others in the neighborhood.

“This is the exact same spot, right there by that tree. That’s my grandson, and I’ve got others I’ve been collecting,” she says. “That’s my mom, holding my grandson right there at the tree . . . he’s 25 years old now.”

Parade Park Homes today is not the safe, comfortable neighborhood that Charity remembers. Of its 510 townhome units, only about half are occupied. Many are boarded up, and even inhabited units show the marks of decades of wear and tear.

But for Charity and many of the other current or former residents, Parade Park is more than decades of neglect. More than just another aging property now likely destined for redevelopment.

It’s a Black community built on empowerment and ownership.

‘A slum is in the eye of the beholder’

To understand the story of Parade Park is to understand the complicated story of post-war development in America. In the 1950’s and 60’s — as the nation was shaking off the Great Depression and World War II — developers in Kansas City and other places were working on plans that would completely change the face of their cities.

Essentially, planners and developers would go into “blighted areas” in the urban core, demolish whatever stood there, and replace it with interstates, industrial buildings and more — a type of development called "urban renewal."

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
This tree, which used to have low-hanging branches, has a lot of sentimental value to Diane Charity. It sits in front of her mother's old unit and her children and grandchildren used to climb it.

The concept was flawed from the start, says Michael Frisch, an associate professor and department chair of architecture, urban planning and design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“The problem with urban renewal is that a slum is in the eye of the beholder,” Frisch says. “So this idea of what a slum is or how we’re going to remake our cities, gets to … the audacity of post-war planning.”

Many of the “blighted areas” that city planners wiped off the map were Black or brown communities. According to a study by the University of Richmond called "Renewing Inequality," from 1950-1966 more than 3,000 families were displaced by urban renewal in Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas, combined.

People of color were in the minority in both those cities, but they made up more than half of the displaced households. This raises a lot of questions for Frisch.

“Can we really remake the city? And if we displace a neighborhood of people living in poor housing conditions, where will they go?” he asks. “The other thing is, if you raze the slum area, what are you going to put in its place?”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Michael Frisch pours over literature on his desk at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he is an associate professor of urban planning and design.

Around the same time that urban renewal was taking hold in poor and minority communities, the U.S. was constructing major highways and interstates. Roadways that large take up a lot of space, and often the parts of the urban core that were cleared to make way for them were Black neighborhoods.

“Wherever you find, across this country, a Black community, you’ll find that there’s a major interstate that goes through it,” says Archie Williams, a Parade Park resident who has researched urban renewal. “It cuts through it and divides the community, and that also impacts the growth and development, the whole texture of the community.”

In Kansas City, roadways like I-435 or U.S. Highway 71 (also known as Bruce R. Watkins Drive) cut through the hearts of several prominent Black communities. Noisy, pollution-laden highway systems loomed over neighborhoods on the city’s east side.

For the most part, this was on purpose. These intra-city interstates were built largely to serve white, suburban communities by connecting them to downtown.

According to a 2021 article by Reuters, Kansas City planners intentionally rerouted highways away from white communities and planted them in Black communities instead.

The destruction of Attucks

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Professor Michael Frisch holds an old 'before and after photo' of the Attucks site. The top photo shows houses on Attucks before the land was developed. The bottom photo shows Parade Park Homes.

Before Parade Park Homes came to be, on the same plot of land, there was a place called Attucks. Attucks was a Black community, roughly 54 acres in size, where more than 600 families lived.

Houses there were old and did not have running water or electricity. Developers razed the neighborhood in the 1950’s and it sat empty for a while.

Frisch says this was a common practice in urban renewal projects; Properties were often taken down before there were plans for the land.

In the case of the Attucks site, the city designated some of the property for industrial-type buildings. But planners also wanted to put housing there.

It took awhile to put the pieces in place, but on August 11, 1961, a groundbreaking ceremony took place to commemorate the start of construction on Parade Park. Roughly a year later, its first residents moved in.

Urban renewal had displaced the Attucks families. But, unlike many redevelopment projects of that time, it created something that actually benefited low-income people of color.

Frisch says the creation of Parade Park Homes was uncharacteristically ethical for an urban renewal project.

“In many ways, this is a progressive development in what they were trying for, and they were trying to build ownership. It was targeted to a community that actually did not have the same level of access to good housing choices,” he says. “It's building in a kind of a community control.”

Courtesy Kansas City Public Library
A photo shows Parade Park Homes in the 1960s, when its townhouses were newly built. Well manicured lawns and a then-modern exterior design greeted new residents.

To secure federal funding below the market rate, Parade Park was built under the condition it would be a housing cooperative.

Fred Gibbs, president of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, says residential co-ops were created to provide an affordable route to ownership.

In a housing co-op, people don’t purchase an apartment outright. Instead, they purchase a share of the cooperative. The share itself is tied to an occupancy agreement or a proprietary lease, which gives the resident the right to live in a certain unit.

Unlike the usual landlord-tenant agreement, because co-op residents own a share of their community, they have a say in what happens to it.

They set policy, they establish their own rules, they set their own budget, and they decide based on the necessary expenses of that housing cooperative, how much per month they're going to pay,” says Gibbs. “That monthly payment is what the rental world calls rent, but in the cooperative world, it’s called carrying charges.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
This is only a small sample of the photos Diane Charity has from her time at Parade Park. She documented three generations worth of family photos there.

Feuding and decline

Monthly carrying charges for a two-bedroom at Parade Park in the '60s were advertised at $66, which would be about $620 today. These rates were affordable for low- to moderate-income residents and even put home ownership — or something close to it — in reach for Black families in the 18th and Vine District.

When Archie Williams and his now wife, Ivera, applied for Parade Park Homes in 1975, they were not married. They had a toddler and newborn baby, and the board at the time told them in order to move into one of the townhomes together, they would have to come back with a marriage license.

Although it was a hassle at first and took a few months to get approved, Williams says he was impressed by Parade Park’s high standards.

“I said, ‘Well, it’s inconvenient right now but it’s cool, you know.’ It shows you have some standards and values so that was my introduction to it,” Williams says.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Archie Williams, a longtime resident of Parade Park Homes, sits on a bench in his neighborhood. Williams has lived in Parade Park with his wife, Ivera, since he was in his early 20's.

Williams says Parade Park was the perfect place to raise children. Neighbors kept an eye on each other’s kids.

“It was like a cocoon, you know, especially during the '80s when my kids were becoming adolescents,” Williams says.

Over the years, Parade Park’s carrying charges remained low. This eventually became a disadvantage. Williams, who still lives there, says the board failed to keep up with the current economy and with maintenance.

“With time, everything changes, and if you don’t adjust to the changes then you have other results. Parade Park in my opinion, to a degree is a victim of its own success,” Williams says.

As deterioration increased at the complex, so did disagreements among board members. Both Williams and Charity were long-time members, and they say there was constant infighting. Members fought over how to spend money and what issues to focus on.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Diane Charity holds photos of her time at Parade Park Homes. On the left, she holds her baby grandson while her son watches. They're standing in front of their "favorite tree". In the photo on the right, Charity's grandson plays with a water hose. Charity has dozens of photos like these, depicting smiling family members at birthday parties, cookouts, and wedding receptions at Parade Park.

Charity thinks some of the neglect was intentional. In her view, management is allowing Parade Park to fall into disrepair to make it easier for a developer to swoop in.

“It's not the property of course, it’s not Parade Park that developers want, out-of-state developers want, they want this land, cause it's so close to downtown,” says Charity.

Parade Park at a pivotal moment

Parade Park’s present and future are looking grim. The aging townhomes scored some of the worst scores possible at 2019 and 2022 inspections by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Residents are living in almost uninhabitable conditions, suffering from black mold, leaking roofs, and other issues.

The board was given a deadline — which has passed — to sign a deal for repairs with a developer. Otherwise the property could go into foreclosure.

Two plans are currently on the table for Parade Park. One, by the Community Builders of Kansas City, would mean a large-scale redevelopment and Parade Park would lose its cooperative status.

The other option, by the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, would enable Parade Park to keep its co-op status, but only about half of the townhomes would be rehabilitated. The rest of the property would likely be sold to a developer.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
A sign facing Woodland Avenue welcomes people . . . to a community of crumbling townhomes.

Residents, who feel like they are not being heard on the matter, recently cast an informal vote on the proposals. The Community Builder’s plan received 68 votes, while only 12 residents voted for the National Association of Housing Cooperatives’ plan.

Williams, who has long coveted the autonomy that a housing co-op is supposed to provide, reluctantly thinks it may be time to let go. He says Parade Park is too far gone to reclaim.

“And that's crushing. That's really hurtful,” Williams says.

Regardless of what happens in the coming pivotal months for this historic place, Parade Park stands as a rare example of an urban renewal project that actually benefited lower-income, Black people — the ones who typically got displaced by highway construction or the other fixtures.

Today, as Kansas Citians search, sometimes desperately, for an affordable place to live where they can control their own destinies, Parade Park reminds us of what is possible — and why we need to keep looking for solutions.

This episode of A People's History of Kansas City was reported and produced by Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga, with editing by Barb Shelly, Suzanne Hogan and Mackenzie Martin. Sound design and mix by intern Paris Norvell.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.