Working families and freed slaves built historic Plaza Westport neighborhood

cut-house-in-plaza-westportAlthough some streets have now been lost to development, the Plaza Westport neighborhood holds a special space in Midtown history for two reasons: its development as a working class, immigrant area and its “enclave” of freed slaves known as Steptoe.

Plaza Westport lies, as its name implies, between Westport and the Plaza, from 43rd to 46th Streets between Madison and Broadway, just west of St. Luke’s Hospital.  Much of the neighborhood has disappeared over the decades, but Plaza Westport has several interesting stories to tell.

From the beginning, the area was meant to be a working-class residential district. The first wave of development came in 1887, when developer S. H. Taylor advertised lots in Bunker Hill, a subdivision around Jefferson and 45th Streets. He induced buyers with the promise of the Westport Cable line, then under construction. Once complete, he said, it would cost only five cents to ride to the city business district for work.

plza-westport-and-steptoe-1911-copyBunker Hill, he said, was “surrounded by fine schools, churches and elegant residences. The addition lays high and commands an excellent view of the surrounding country.” Taylor’s ads boosted the sale of 100 lots in 1887.

A second wave of construction came around 1906, when Corbin Realty invited people to move in to Corwin Park, “where the bungalows grow.” Corbin offered “thoroughly modern and up to date bungalow cottages and two-story houses” on 40-foot lots for $28 a month. Once again, proximity to streetcar lines was a selling point.

Perhaps the most interesting slice of history is the story of Pate’s Addition. After the 1850s, the northern section of Plaza Westport was settled by slaves who had purchased their freedom. Neighborhood life revolved around Steptoe Street (now 43rd). In the 2007 documentary A Step Above the Plaza (available at the Kansas City Public Library), former residents who grew up in Steptoe described it as a small village.

“Though there were segregationist attitudes, little overt racial tension was exhibited,” Jackson County Historical Society archivist David Jackson wrote in 2006. “Longtime residents called their community ‘a little island’ and talked about having white, Jewish, German, Italian, Hispanic and Swedish people for neighbors”

Steptoe had two churches. The St. James Baptist Church still stands at the corner of 43rd and Washington. It was also home to the oldest school for African Americans west of the Mississippi, the Penn School, which closed in 1957.

According the to Plaza Westport neighborhood webpage, only eight of the original Steptoe homes remain.

5 Comments

  1. Judith Rupard says:

    I loved learning about this. I was
    Born at home in West Plaza, 4519
    Wyoming of Swedish and Welsh descent. 1963 Grad of Westport High.
    Thanks so much.

  2. Willaim says:

    “Though there were segregationist attitudes, little overt racial tension was exhibited,” Jackson County Historical Society archivist David Jackson wrote in 2006. “Longtime residents called their community ‘a little island’ and talked about having European Americans, Jewish, German, Italian, Hispanic and Swedish people for neighbors”

  3. kaythomas says:

    Lived in Westport for 5 years. good people, lifelong friends.

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