More than half of Kansas City — 51 percent — is located north of the Missouri River, in the area widely referred to as the Northland.
Standing in Berkley Riverfront Park looking across the Missouri River, the Northland is just a stone’s throw away. Yet from south of the river, the Northland can feel like another city altogether.
To figure out why, I spoke with people both close to and far from the Missouri — in the River Market area near downtown Kansas City and at Oak Park Mall across the state line in Overland Park, Kansas.
I met Jozy Van Engen in the massive parking lot of the mall. She is from the southern suburbs of Johnson County.
“The Northland? Like, the area? I have no idea, I’ve never been there. I guess I just haven't ever heard about anything about there ... Maybe because it is far,” she says.
It’s almost a half hour drive from Overland Park to the Northland, so maybe it makes sense that Van Engen doesn’t travel north of the river that much. But I was surprised to get almost the same response from Leslie and Jennifer Ortega. They live in the River Market, just about as close as you can get to the Northland without actually being there.
"I don’t know, I mainly stay down here," says Jennifer. "What’s going on over there? Like, I never know, so I don’t venture that way. I mean, you always know what’s going on around down here, but nothing really ... up there.”
You’d think that closer to the river, people would have a better sense of what goes on in the Northland. It’s practically their own backyard.
“This office is like six minutes from downtown, and people will say, 'What? All the way up north?' And I think, you can get here faster than you can get to Westport!” says Deb Hermann, CEO of Northland Neighborhoods, Inc.
She believes the perception that the Northland has little to offer goes back to when it was annexed in the 1950s and 60s, and deliberately developed into upscale bedroom communities. As a result, Hermann says, it’s a corridor that’s been kind of pushed to the side.
“Some people like to think, well, it’s the Northland ... there’s nothing going on up there,” says Hermann.
But that’s not true. According to the 2010 census, the Northland region has experienced notable growth in the past 10 years — some communities by more than a 20 percent increase in population. A lot of that growth is from families.
In addition, Zona Rosa and Briarcliff, relatively new retail and residential centers, have added commercial and leisure time activities to the Northland. The mixed-use development of Zona Rosa alone brings in more than 7 million annual visitors to the area, according to its developer, Steiner & Associates.
Regardless of recent commercial growth in the Northland, many people who choose to live up north do so because they see the Northland as a small, family-oriented community. They like that the community stands apart from the rest of the metro, Northland resident James Morgan explains.
“I think most of the people there have just a family perspective on things," says Morgan. "It’s close to the city, but it’s not as urbanized.”
In fact, Brent Lager, communications director for the Northland Chamber of Commerce, says this is one of the Northland’s major attractions.
“It’s a good place to live. It’s good people. It’s a great place to call home. If I had kids and a family, I know where I’d go,” he says.
But even Lager, a Northland native, chooses to live in Kansas City's Midtown neighborhood — south of the river.
“Being a 28-year-old single male, I find it easier to get out and experience what there is to offer when I live down on 39th street," he says.
So that leaves the question — does the river actually create the divide that many perceive between these two communities?
Brent Lager, recognizing the inconsistencies here, laughs.
“That’s a good question. Obviously we are a part of KC. But there’s also a kind of pride you take in being north of the river, in being labeled a Northlander.”
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.