Tuesday, July 12, 2005

cut 3

Marcus dragged his feet down the halls of Shawnee Mission South. The corridors went on and on, turning abruptly every fifty yards or so to pass through handsome add-ons built over the years to accommodate the growing population. The school opened in 1969, amid new subdivisions twelve miles southwest of downtown Kansas City, near where construction crews were then laying out the first stretch of the metro area's outer beltway, I-435. That was the first year the Kansas City school district became majority black, and from day one Shawnee Mission South was an anti-Central, a white yang to the black school’s yin, as it had remained through fall 2002, when Marcus roamed its halls like a sleep-deprived zombie. Actually, Central didn't get good enough grades to be the polar opposite of Shawnee Mission South, where the drop out rate was a mere two percent and more than half the students tested at "advanced" or "exemplary" levels in reading, math, science and social studies. Still, the contrasting schools were a perfect symbol of Kansas City’s fractured community.

Whenever folks from Kansas City call national radio talk shows, the hosts almost always refer to them as being from Kansas, which annoys Missouri-side Kansas Citians to no end. Everything that makes Kansas City Kansas City, they believe, is in the Show-Me State. The Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums, where the Royals and Chiefs play, are on the city’s far east side, where the countryside begins rippling southeastward toward the Ozarks. The towers of Kansas City's skyline house Missouri-based corporations. Gates Barbecue and Arthur Bryant’s, which Calvin Trillin once declared 'the single best restaurant in the world,' both serve the city’s trademark beef sandwiches in knolls south of the Missouri River, not on the prairie west of where the river turns north. When Jimmy Witherspoon sang "Goin' to Kansas City," he was headed for a row of night clubs a couple miles east of the state line. But if the radio hosts are thinking in terms of demographics, they’re right: Kansas City is in Kansas. The bulk of the metro area's wealth and power is concentrated around Shawnee Mission South and the other turbo-charged high schools in Johnson County.

A few miles to the west of Shawnee Mission South, the Johnson County Museum History tells the story of how this came to be in a permanent exhibit called 'Seeking the Good Life.' There, a short video greets visitors, which begins with a quick nod to some early settlers, the Shawnee Indians, who were banished from Ohio and made to live in the area’s dry prairie. Then the missionaries come in the 1820s to tame the savages who, by the Turn-of-the-Century, would be pushed away again to Oklahoma. The county was a farm community until the Roaring Twenties, when wealthy Kansas Citians moved southwestward to, as the video says, "escape the filth of the city." The earliest of these escapees moved into homes built by J. C. Nichols, the nation’s pioneer of suburban, self-contained community development. In 1905 he began work on the Country Club Plaza, the United States' first shopping mall, and its surrounding neighborhoods of homes fashioned in the classic hard-wood-and-stucco style of old Europe. The district, located on the Missouri side, remains Kansas City's top tourist attraction, with its stately storefronts adorned with hand-made tiles imported from Spain. Dozens of statues and fountains line the sidewalks that lead shoppers to Saks Fifth Avenue, Armani Exchange and the Plaza III Steakhouse. For the shaded residential blocks around the Plaza, Nichols sought "an element of people who desired a better way of life, a nicer place to live and would be willing to work in order to keep it better." To realize this vision, Nichols mastered the art of the "restrictive deed," which was created in Boston in the 1840s to keep blacks and immigrants out of the Louisburg Square neighborhood on the city’s elite Beacon Hill. When he sold his new homes, Nichols made buyers sign a contract promising to not sell to blacks or Jews. His mastery of this practice came in the clauses he added to the contracts, which perpetually renewed the restrictions every ten or fifteen years unless a majority of the community's home owners voted to let them expire, which, of course, never happened.

By the 1920s, his empire was beginning to spread across Stateline Road, into a wooded area he called Mission Hills, which he set out to shape into "the most distinguished of American garden suburbs." The Country Club District, which is still revered as one of the greatest developments in American history and today serves as a model for "new urbanism," was a mere appetizer for Nichols’s ostentatious feast just west of the border. Among shaded knolls and streams, Nichols built scores of mansions and an exclusive golf and tennis club. The area is remains home for Kansas City’s high society, people like Royals legend George Brett, diamond tycoons Barnett and Shirley Helzberg (who moved in a while after the Supreme Court shot down restrictive deeds in 1948), the Halls and Hockadays of Hallmark Cards and Julia Irene Kauffman, daughter of Ewing Marion Kauffman, namesake for the place where the Royals play and for one of wealthiest charitable foundations in America (no philanthropic slouch herself, Julia put up tens of millions for a new performing arts center in downtown Kansas City). The median income there is just shy of $200,000. The median cost of a house is over half a million. In 2000 Census officials counted just three blacks among its 3,600 residents.

Johnson County really began taking shape, though, after World War II, when middle class families took advantage of long-term, low-interest FHA loans to claim their piece of "the good life." During 1950s, the county’s population doubled to 60,000. And by the end of the 1960s, when Shawnee Mission South opened its doors, it had doubled again. With new skyscrapers just south of I-435 from Shawnee Mission West, the area had become an "edge city," having lured some of the metro area’s corporate giants, such as Black and Veatch and Sprint Telecommunications, to set up shop in the Sunflower State.

Meantime, the Kansas City School District withered. In 1969, when Shawnee Mission South opened, the urban district boasted 75,000 students. By the time Marcus reached his senior year, his district had dwindled to 27,500 and was still shrinking. With close to 30,000 students, Shawnee Mission had taken its place as the largest district in the metro area. It also ranked among the best, with test scores at its five high schools well above the state average and loads of AP classes to choose from. Unlike Kansas City, where voters hadn’t approved a school bond since 1969, residents in the Shawnee Mission School District were so eager to fund their schools they frequently persuaded their mostly Republican state representatives to draft laws that would allow them to raise their own taxes beyond state limits. And Marcus could see the results of these political actions as he aimlessly navigated the sprawling school, past the pastel-colored tiles of the late 1960s that gave way to the glass, cinder block and steel of the 1980s and, finally, to the brick and blonde-wood trim of the 1990s. Not that he noticed. To him it was just another clean, colorful school for white kids. A place where segregation had shifted from overt evil to the simple nature of things. Marcus looked around and saw a place frozen in time, not so much because of its obvious counterpoint to integration, but because of the kind of debate they did here. Here, debaters argued the way their grandparents would have in the years before Brown vs. the Board of Education, a time when, if Marcus had been a teenager then, he sure as well wouldn’t be debating. Not because he because Jim Crow wouldn’t have let him, but because he wouldn’t have wanted to. He’d just as soon watch asphalt decay as debate the way these suburban kiss-asses did.

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