People complaining about the conditions of Midtown sidewalks is nothing new. In fact, practically since the first wooden plank sidewalks were erected, the city has struggled with how to keep sidewalks in good repair.
When Kansas City was a rough young town in the 1860s, sidewalks were a luxury it couldn’t afford. I.H.C. Royce told the Kansas City Star in 1909 that, when he arrived here in 1865, “there was only three blocks of sidewalks in the city.
But as the city grew and boomed, there was a growing understanding of the importance of giving pedestrians the easiest way to get around. And since there was an abundant supply of lumber, it was the material of choice for sidewalks in the 1880s. But by the end of that decade, city officials were complaining that the city had advanced beyond plank walks. They were easily stolen for fuel, and sometimes so sloped they offered little protection. The city, in fact, banned the building of new wooden sidewalks in 1898.
This story is part of our MidtownKC Walks project
As the city developed over the next decades, different types of building materials came into use – sometimes on the same block. Eventually the city would have to develop standards. It started by requiring property owners along each block to agree on one type of sidewalk material.
By the 1890s, the city, like most others, had incorporated into law the principle that property owners were liable for building and maintaining sidewalks. But the city faced lawsuits when property owners didn’t adhere to their responsibility and people were injured. As far back as the 1890s, people in Kansas City were complaining that sidewalks were impassable in snow and ice, and in the late 1980s they called for the police to arrest people who didn’t clear their sidewalks.
Mud, weeds and pools of tobacco spit
Cleanliness was another issue. The city had trouble enforcing its law that window washing and sweeping along downtown sidewalks could only occur between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., so that sidewalks were clean when workers and shoppers arrived and people were not subjected to unhealthy dust in the air.
The Kansas City Star ran an editorial on March 25, 1891 complaining about dirty streets. One problem it cited was the often steep grades of Kansas City streets, which led to dirt washing down the hills and sometimes covering sidewalks to the point that they disappeared. News reports told of residents sinking two to six inches into the mud or clay when stepping along sidewalks.
In the 1890s, sidewalks became an emerging issue for women.
“Men have little use for sidewalks outside of the business quarters. They take the cable downtown in the morning and back home in the evening, and few see the neighborhood sidewalks from one year’s end to the other. But it is different with women. Women are great patrons of sidewalks. They cannot ride to the neighborhood grocery. It is not on the cable line; or if it is, it is too near – and yet how far! They therefore walk, or, more properly speaking, they, under the able system of street improvements, wade through mud and mire. If a woman calls upon a neighbor she must carry to that neighbor’s parlor the city’s trade mark, which is Mud,” the Star wrote in 1892.
Women complained of another sidewalk-related problem as well – that of men spitting tobacco, and in letters to the Star that year they called for the popular habit to be outlawed.
“Many women in the face of necessity have their street dresses made short enough to escape contamination. The necessity is to be deplored, for few, indeed, are the women who do not look ungraceful in these ankle dresses. But saving one’s skirts does not mean comfort. The vile stuff on the soles of her boots is enough to make the cold chill run up and down the back of any women with an ordinary love for cleanliness.”
Another problem with the city’s policy came from absentee property owners who frequently ignored notices from the city that their sidewalks were out of repair. In the new south side area (today’s Midtown), weeds often covered the sidewalks in front of vacant lots.
As 1900 rolled around, development was booming in Midtown. Sidewalk contractors, in fact, could not keep up with the demand for their work. As new public schools were built, parents complained there were no sidewalks around them. For example, at Thirty-Fifth and Jefferson where the Norman School opened in 1901, there were no sidewalks within a block of the building. In 1908, there were calls for sidewalks on Gillham to get students to Westport High School.
Sidewalks became passe
A big change came in the 1920s, when more and more people relied on automobiles. Successful real estate developer J.C. Nichols addressed the Chamber of Commerce in 1921, and urged the city to consider widening streets – by shrinking sidewalks – to lessen congestion. “This could save millions because people walk less now,” he said.
By the 1960s, the pendulum had swung back, however. In the Johnson County suburbs, parents demanded sidewalks around schools where none had been built when new areas developed.
Mayor Ilus Davis became vocal about the need for sidewalk repair in the late 1960s, and the Kansas City Star called the state of curbs and sidewalks a disgrace. By 1974, as the city council debated a proposal to use federal revenue sharing money to build sidewalks on busy streets near schools, council members admitted the city had made a mistake in taking its eye off their importance.
“There was a time when sidewalks were passe. People wanted green. Now they want sidewalks. Times change.” Councilwoman Sarah Snow said.