When the director of Open Spaces, the upcoming city-wide arts festival, came to Kansas City to explore the selected hub location, all he saw was something “spectacular”: A large piece of land that lived up to its designation as the “crown jewel” of Kansas City’s park system.
But Dan Cameron isn’t a local, and there was much he needed to learn. Swope Park, which is more than two times the size of the most famous park in his hometown of New York City, was the place city officials had selected as the landing place for the two-month long biennial. But some members of the arts community didn’t think this was a good idea, which flabbergasted Cameron.
People he spoke with questioned the “safety” of the park and then promptly shifted that mentality onto “other people.” As in: “People might not want to go there. Not me, but other people might not want to go there,” Cameron told Gina Kaufmann on a recent episode of KCUR's Central Standard.
“It was always someone else,” Cameron added.
This “other people mentality” isn’t new. It’s a remnant of language used when the park became a Civil Rights-era battleground for the issue of desegregation.
In the mid-Twentieth Century, two black men who'd been prohibited from playing on the park's golf course filed a lawsuit. Then, in 1951, then-NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall took on the issue of the "whites only" swimming pool. It was a lawsuit that propelled officials to close the facility for two years.
“And again, the rationale for that was, ‘Well, there's too much risk of public discord while this issue is being litigated,’” said Daniel Serda, an urban planner in Kansas City. The sentiment was: “For everyone’s safety it's probably better we just closed the pool … not because we have any particular racial animus, but because there may be broader sentiments out there among the public at large.”
Serda said the very nature of publicly accessible parks makes them prime places for such discussions, especially in a city with such deep roots in segregation.
“The moment anyone raises a question, no matter how subtle or how egregiously the question is raised, that certain people maybe shouldn't be there,” he said, “that really throws into the fore a lot of underlying, very deep-seated assumptions about how society ought to function.”
Those deep-seated assumptions would continue to surface even after Brown v. Board of Education struck down “separate but equal.” With that ruling, segregation took on a different flavor as “white flight” set in.
Swope Park, a byproduct of the parks and boulevard system implemented in Kansas City at the turn of the century, started to see the racial makeup of its visitor population change.
Eric Wesson, a senior staff writer at the Kansas City Call, said white people continued to visit Starlight Theatre and the Kansas City Zoo, but didn’t seem to frequent the rest of the park.
“Blacks moved in and whites moved out,” he said.
Wesson remembered going to the African-American designated portion of the park in the 1960s — the so-called Watermelon Hill. He also remembered going to the pool (only on Sundays), but it was so crowded he couldn’t swim.
The area remained a gathering place long after members of the black community were allowed in the entire park. During the 1970s, '80s and '90s, members of Kansas City’s black community would drive down 63rd Street to “The Circle,” a driveway near that section of the park (now occupied by the Soccer Village).
“It used to be a traffic jam,” he said. “You would be sitting there literally for hours trying to get through the circle.”
But segregation isn’t a thing of the past, nor is shying away from conversations about race.
Cameron said he was told early on that the thing about segregation in Kansas City was that it worked: powerful people wanted Kansas City to be segregated, and it was.
And it’s still working, Wesson said, noting that the park continues to not attract a racially diverse crowd and people continue to avoid conversations about race and inequality.
“There’s lots of segregation here,” Wesson said. “People just don’t want to talk about it.”
At the end of August, artists will descend on the park to create displays and performances. One of those artists, the first to travel to Kansas City ahead of the event, is Jamaican visual artist Ebony Patterson.
On that first visit, Cameron said he drove her around the park, giving her the lay of the land. Patterson had researched the park’s long history and was drawn to a road that led to a small pool.
The pool she found wasn’t the one from the 1951 lawsuit, Cameron said, but a pool nonetheless. Now, he said, it's an overgrown one, an “eyesore, officially something to avoid, not look at … it’s dangerous.”
But Cameron said Patterson had plans for the space.
“She told me … 'I want to make this a space not of ugliness or something to avoid. I want to make it a space of contemplation and I want to make it beautiful.’”
Open Spaces KC will be held at venues across the city from August 25 to October 28. To find out more about the artists and exhibits, visit OpenSpacesKC.com.
These interviews were conducted as part of a Central Standard program hosted by Gina Kaufmann. Listen to the entire conversation here.