J.C. Nichols' Role in Kansas City History
By the late 1930's, the Nichols Company had acquired control of more than 4,000 acres of land and was building racially restricted subdivisions in Johnson County, Kansas, across state line, and adjoining his original projects in Kansas City, Missouri. Between 1906 and 1953, Nichols developed over 6,000 homes and 160 apartment buildings that included more than 35,000 white Kansas Citians and would eventually encompass entire communities such as Prairie Village, Roeland Park, and Fairway in Kansas. (Gotham 42)
Jesse Clyde Nichols, better known as J.C. Nichols, was undoubtedly a major player in the development of Kansas City. His efforts still have a major impact on our city today. Many people do not know that he did most of his world famous work pandering to rich Whites who preferred segregation in their neighborhood because they associated the presence of minorities, especially Blacks, with declining property value.
"The exclusion of blacks from specific neighborhoods during the post-war period stands in contrast to the increasing integration among white ethnic groups in the US. Legal reforms in the 1960's in principle ended many of the institutional barriers to residential integration. And yet segregation remains, particularly in urban areas, where much of the research by sociologists and economists has focused." I will explain how Nichols gained so much national popularity, the economics of residential segregation, and the impact his developments have had on modern day Kansas City.
August 23, 1880 J.C. Nichols was born in Olathe, Kansas. His father was a farmer turned executive who organized one of largest co-operative farmer's markets in Kansas and who later filled the position of treasurer for Johnson County. His father had many friends from work who later would become financial backers of Nichols' ventures.
Nichols learned the value of education early on in his life. He received a degree from the University of Kansas. He was a student who maintained good grades while also participating in students' clubs. His hard work earned him a scholarship to study at Harvard University where he studied economics and land development for a year. When Nichols returned to Kansas City, he was ready to get busy.
Nichols began his adventures in Kansas and later converged his operations to both sides of the border. He used his fathers' connections to finance his acquiring of large plots of land to develop into subdivisions that were filled with modest homes. Nichols began to make decent money and develop a reputation as an honest, hard working builder of quality houses. "As the young entrepreneur's reputation grew he was able to persuade major landowners such as the Wornall, Armour, and Ward families to let him market their land for his developments" (NEWSPAPER). Nichols had various odd jobs that led him to Missouri over the years and on his trips, he began to notice the potential Missouri had for land development.
Nichols saw that the subdivision's quality of life was largely affected by the land around the neighborhood and how it was being used and not just by the actual subdivision plots.
"Mr. Nichols used golf courses as parklike borders for his developments, adding to their beauty and exclusivity. His first subdivisions [in Missouri] followed the outlines of the old Kansas City Country Club, now Loose Park. This gave rise to the description of the area as the Country Club District. . . In each development he provided free tree saplings-more than 125,000 in the Country Club District- and birdhouses, and he set aside land for neighborhood shopping centers such as Brookside and Romanelli shops." (Newpaper)
Nichols molded sizeable portions of Kansas City into a creation of his imagination. He wanted control of all the land surrounding his developments. One way he was able to do this was moving his projects towards the suburbs when few people had cars.
"Kansas City suburbs are no longer extensions of the central city but are now autonomous and self sufficient political entities that provide many educational and employment resources, shopping facilities, professional services, and entertainment amenities that once drew residents into downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Today we can characterize Kansas City's settlement patterns as multinucleated, functionally dispersed, socially and culturally fragmented, and yet hierarchically organized. Racial and residential segregation and racial polarization remain basic to the ongoing development of this new urban form." (Gotham 21)
Nichols always looked to the future while also trying to stay in step with the times. There was a parks movement happening around the same time Nichols was taking off, so he tried to incorporate some of the feelings at the time into his work. He was putting garages in his development when most people assumed cars were just a fad for the wealthy. Nichols thought different.
In the US throughout the 1800's Blacks and Whites, rich and poor were intermixed.
"While white prejudice and hostility towards Blacks were central features of racial relations during the late 19th century, they did not translate into racially segregated living patterns. In no 19th century city is there any evidence of concentrated minority poverty, racial isolation, or residential segregation that are the hall marks of the contemporary metropolis." (Gotham 27)
Money was the key factor for separation to begin. All of the sudden it became very profitable to segregate neighborhoods and communities.
In the early 1900's, the largest internal population shift in U.S. history took place. During the Great Migration, over 5 million Blacks moved from the South to northern cities. The West and Midwest had considerable black population increases. These people were simply in hope of finding better jobs and greater equality. "These striking increases in black population of Kansas City and other cities established the basis for the formulation of an exclusionary real estate ideology that associated the presence of Blacks with declining property values and neighborhood instability" (Gotham 34).
Nichols was one of the first developers in the US to implement segregation into what ended up being entire communities. Anybody who was anybody in the real estate industry knew that racial mixing brought down the overall value of the neighborhood. This propaganda began to pick up speed nationwide through pamphlets, brochures, and real estate seminars. Nichols began placing racially restrictive covenants in all his properties. Since he was mostly developing large neighborhoods, this was major restricting on a relatively large part of the population. The more popular Nichols got, the more heated the debates got on whether what he was doing was legal or not. Even if racially restricting certain races was technically legal at the time, it was still creating a lot tension.
"Another major innovation that Nichols popularized was the requirement that residents in his residential developments establish a mandatory homeowner association to enforce racial restrictions. Nichols recognized that the success of racially restrictive covenants in keeping Blacks out of White neighborhoods depended on neighborhood solidarity. The objective of a homeowner association was to create an organizational base for maintaining neighborhood cohesion and identity that would be powerful enough to forestall attempts by property owners to breach the subdivision's restrictive covenant." (Gotham42)
Nichols was serious. Some of the homeowner associations filed lawsuits to revoke the licenses of real estate agents who sold houses to Blacks in their neighborhood, and won. The federal government was not doing anything to stop this action. It is as if they almost encouraged the separation to maintain level property values.
It became common practice for Judges, Lawyers, Doctors and other elite professionals in the community to live in subdivisions that had racially restrictive covenants. This practice was accepted as the norm for elite Whites and was picking up speed nationally. "Housing reports and analyses issued by local welfare agencies fueled much of this emergence of thinking about [the] relationship between race, place, and behavior" (Gotham 36). As the covenants and powerful homeowner's associations began to gain popularity, even middle class Whites began to request these powerful tools for segregation.
People began to correlate the presence of Blacks in a neighborhood with high crime rates, a decline in the value of their home, and poor schools. Real estate professionals were not helping the matter, "Central to the propagandizing effort of the real estate industry was the view that all white racially homogenous neighborhoods were a superior atmosphere for residential life and a requisite for protecting homeowner's investments" (Gotham 34). It was just a matter of fact that if a developer was not using tools to fuel segregation, he was not making as much money.
Nichols career was coming to an apex. He had a very central part of Kansas City under his control. He owned some of the most valuable properties in Kansas City. He had created autonomous communities. He wished to further isolate his communities with the development of the Country Club District. This was a humongous project with several different facets that had to be addressed. Nichols wanted a way to make Blacks disinterested in shopping on the plaza. He insisted on distancing minorities from his development.
"The planners were a conglomerate of players that included the university, the trustees of the old University of Kansas City and - to some degree - the J.C. Nichols Co., developer of the Country Club Plaza to the west. . . Keen in their sights was the Trolley Barn neighborhood to the north, so name because it once was the hub of one of the largest street-railway systems in the country." (Cambell 8)
This was part of the plan for helping keep the main shopping district homogenously wealthy all Whites from his communities that he developed throughout Missouri and Kansas.
The Trolley Barn neighborhood had been around for over fifty years and some of the houses were built for the trolley conductors who worked there. The big university was about to show the neighborhood just how much more powerful they were. The university needed breathing space.
"The university and the trustee made clear in the 1960's that the Trolley Barn neighborhood was an area of potential expansion, but residents there still were suspicious about the school's motives and tactics. Projections that enrollment would soar to 17,000 or more by 1992 seemed unrealistic. . . Further, Miller Nichols' [, J.C.'s son,] role with the trustees led to speculation that he was benefiting the Plaza, buffering it from the poor and minority areas east of Troost." (Cambell 8)
This is clearly what was being done. There is a theme amongst almost all of Nichols developments: No Blacks allowed. The land from the neighborhood Nichols helped acquire was never used for its originally intended purpose.
Nichols gained national recognition and worked to develop the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The ULI was created to share the wealth of knowledge Nichols learned during his years of being one of the most successful land developers in the US during his reign. He felt there was no reason to keep all the knowledge to himself any longer.
Nichols developments, even with legislation passed banning racially restrictive covenants, still seemed to have served their purpose. He was especially recognized by developers nationwide and perhaps worldwide for his work on the plaza. Even though his work was racist, it has been tremendously successful in generating income and maintaining value.
"His greatest single achievement was the development of the Country Club district, said to be the largest high class residence district in America. It embodies the best modern thought in scientific planning, and the district has already been accepted as a model throughout the country. He is a national authority in residence subdivision and the development work carried on under his direction in Kansas City has revolutionized residence property management and improvement, has created new ideals of beauty and new standards for landscape treatment and the laying out of residence property, so that landscape architects all over the country have gained new ideas and have closely studied all that he has done." (WEB SOURCE)
The Plaza still seems segregated even though so many years have passed since Nichols was actively working in Kansas City. There is still an imaginary line drawn down Troost Road.
An article published in the Kansas City Star this year talks about the "curse of the covenant" and how it still haunts our modern day city. Many Kansas Citians do not even realize that more than twelve hundred documents involving thousands of homes still contain racist language barring Blacks, Jews and others. Many of the covenants were never removed even though they were deemed unconstitutional as far as fifty years ago. The writers of the covenants made them so they would be nearly impossible to have amended. Segregation might seem outdated, but it is not. There is a lot more integration now than there was during the 1940's, but we are still separated somewhat. (paraphrase of KC STAR, CURSE OF COVENANT)
Real estate professionals still have monetary incentives to keep Kansas City segregated, to some degree, to maintain level property values. As long as there is money involved in segregation, I do not see the trend diminishing any time soon. I live at 24th and Brooklyn, east of Troost Road, and I am the only white person in my neighborhood. I witness the effects that Mr. Nichols racism has had on Kansas City daily. I drive west toward Main Street and the Plaza and watch the property values increase exponentially. History has a funny way of repeating itself and the only way we can plan successfully is if we understand the past and how to not succumb to the evils that have haunted our communities in the past.
Daniel Bennison, Laura Byram
Bennison Byram Team Realtors
Neighborhood Experts in Prairie Village and Overland Park