Head north out of downtown Kansas City on the Broadway Bridge, take the exit for the downtown airport and at the roundabout take a right turn into the tunnel. In less than five minutes, you’re in Harlem.
This once bustling river town played a pivotal role in the development of Kansas City — but most Kansas Citians have never heard of it.
In its heyday during the early 1900s, this 50-acre town was home to nearly 600 people but today it looks like a ghost town. Most of its original structures have been torn down leaving just three homes, a handful of businesses, a church and a former Holiday Inn converted into apartments.
“It’s not what it used to be,” Art Homer says surveying the barren landscape from his truck. Homer was born in Harlem in 1940 and lived here for the first 11 years of his life.
On a rainy July morning he takes me on a tour through the forgotten streets. Most all of the homes have been torn down. We pull up to one of the three that are left.
It’s a small, tan house. The path up to the front door has disappeared into the unkempt lawn and a canopy of trees engulfs the second floor. A worn “beware of the dog” sign nailed to a wood pole is proof that at one time, this house had an owner.
Harlem is just the river’s width away from downtown but the property hasn’t exactly been sought after. That’s surprising to many former residents including Homer.
“The thing I heard all my life was that they’re gonna take Harlem over eventually so hold on to your property, it’s gonna be worth a whole lot," says Homer. "Well, that didn’t really ever happen.”
How Harlem got its start
Former Clay County Commissioner Charles Broomfield grew up in Harlem but says no one knew much about the history of the town.
While doing research for a book he’s writing on his hometown he discovered that Harlem predates Kansas City.
“Harlem was Harlem when Kansas City was Westport Landing,” Broomfield read in a Kansas City Star article that dates back to 1907.
The first settlers to Harlem were Germans who came over from the Netherlands during the mid-1820s Broomfield says.
They named Harlem after a city in the Netherlands, the same city the better-known Harlem neighborhood in New York City is named after.
Shortly after they arrived they established Harlem’s ferryboat landing. The ferryboat crossing quickly turned Harlem into a center of commerce and transportation hub. People could transport food and supplies from the North, across the Missouri River, to present-day Kansas City.
Moreover, before the Hannibal Bridge was completed, the railroads stopped in Harlem.
“The railroads brought merchandise, produce, goods of every kind and color. So Harlem contributed to the growth of Kansas City by being the place where the railroads offloaded those goods,” says Broomfield.
The demise of Harlem
Harlem had all the makings of a growing and prosperous town but once the Hannibal Bridge opened in 1869, people didn’t need the ferryboats anymore. The trains could travel directly to Kansas City.
Then in 1911 a second bridge opened — the ASB Bridge — and it created a direct link from downtown Kansas City to North Kansas City. Soon almost everyone was bypassing Harlem.
While bridges kept people from coming to Harlem, floods kept people from staying.
Flooding is a constant threat but the major floods of 1844, 1903, 1951, and 1993 ate away at the progress of the city.
“We always looked with some joy and intimidation. The river rose every spring. Still does,” Broomfield says.
Broomfield was 14 when the flood of 1951 hit.
“Policemen came through Harlem with loud speakers and said, ‘Evacuate immediately, the levee is going to break and everything is going to be flooded,’” Broomfield recalls.
Broomfield and his family loaded up what they could fit in their pickup truck and escaped north for a week before they were allowed back into Harlem. Broomfield’s family returned, but many others didn’t.
A future for Harlem?
Today one of the few signs of life in Harlem is the former Harlem Baptist Church. After a lack of attendance forced the 100-year-old church to close in 2006, it remained vacant for several years until Pastor Gabriel Riak came across it in 2012.
“I like the location. The space … we do like 50 to 60 people every week,” Riak says.
Riak and the majority of his congregants are from South Sudan. The church is nondenominational now, though many still refer to it as the Harlem Baptist Church.
They started with less than 10 members and today it’s grown to about 100 — but none of them live in Harlem, Riak says. Most of the congregation is divided between North Kansas City and Olathe, Kansas.
They don't live there, at least in part, because there aren’t a lot of places to live in Harlem.
The apartment complex that used to be a Holiday Inn houses the majority of Harlem residents. Steve Jones is one of them. He moved in about a month ago, and says it’s not a good place, but it’s cheap. Rent is $600 a month or $150 a week, all utilities included.
“Man look if I knew it was like that I probably wouldn’t be down there,” says Jones.
The complex was the site of two homicides so far this year and Jones is skeptical the neighborhood will turnaround.
“I can see people moving in with their families. It might turn into something. But that’s if you got that type of people in there. Right now they’ve got drug addicts, sex offenders, and all that type of stuff down there,” he says.
Harlem was annexed by Kansas City in 1950 and while much of the vacant land has been bought by the small businesses, Broomfield says the area has a lot of potential for development.
“It would be an excellent place to build apartments, an entertainment district, condominiums, a shopping area,” he says.
Just across the river a 275-unit apartment development is slated to be completed by fall of 2016 and its construction is a sign that people are starting to see value in riverfront living. That change in attitude could help to revitalize Harlem’s side of the river one day.
But, it will probably never be the Harlem Broomfield knew.
“We swam in the river when we were kids. We climbed on the bridges … We were relatively poor people, frankly didn’t know it, didn’t realize it. But I’d love to go back and grow up there again,” Broomfield says.
For now, Harlem will get some recognition as the town that helped Kansas City grow. A historical marker will be erected in the fall and Broomfield along with other former residents and the Native Sons and Daughters of Greater Kansas City will be there to dedicate it.
This look at the Missouri River 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.