While there are races to fill two vacancies in the Missouri House of Representatives on the Nov. 5 special elections ballot in Kansas City, and four questions authorizing the Parks and Recreation Department to sell off some excess land, there is not an issue more contentious than the ballot issue to change the recently named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd back to its original name: The Paseo.
CITY OF KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI
SHALL THE FOLLOWING BE APPROVED?
Shall the City of Kansas City change the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., which is approximately 9.98 miles in length from the center line of Lexington Avenue south and east to a point south of the center line of East 85th Street, back to The Paseo Boulevard?
• A vote Yes, changes the name to The Paseo
• A vote No, keeps the name Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
In January 2019, the Kansas City, Mo., City Council voted to change the name of Paseo Blvd to Martin Luther King, after what some consider limited input from the community. The 8-to-4 vote was immediately controversial and by spring, enough signatures had been secured on a petition to force a vote on the issue by the citizens of KCMO.
The Paseo History
The Paseo, built as part of the city’s beautification effort, dates back to the late 19th century. The beautifully landscaped boulevard features fountains, benches, and pergolas, and connects to some of the city’s grandest parks.
“It was really the crown jewel of the park system and of the City Beautiful movement in Kansas City," said Jeremy Drouin, manager of Missouri Valley Special Collections.
At 10 miles, it is one of the city’s longest roads. The name "Paseo" was inspired by a famous thoroughfare in Mexico City. As a boulevard, the maintenance and control of The Paseo falls under the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The Name Change History
Kansas City was believed to be the only major city in the United States that didn’t have a street named in King’s honor. As an organization that advocated for the vision of Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) - at the urging of the Rev. Charles Briscoe - took the lead on the effort to name a KCMO street after King.
With the support of numerous organizations, political leaders and community organizations, in 2016, the SCLC asked the Park Board to approve changing the name of The Paseo to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. They were turned down, citing the historic significance of the name.
In 2018, the issue gained revived steam and Mayor Sly James appointed an advisory group to make suggestions on how the city could honor King. Four months later, the group recommended naming the new airport after King as their first priority and renaming 63rd Street after King as their second choice.
The City Council weighed a vote on the name change in November and December 2018 but put it off. An effort was supposed to be made to engage members of the community, but it appears little of that was done, and in January 2019, the City Council voted 8 to 4 to approve the name change.
The ‘Save the Paseo’ Viewpoint
Feeling they were blindsided by the council’s vote, Paseo area residents and concerned citizens found like-minded individuals on social media and in their neighborhoods. By spring, they were organized behind a petition drive to put the name change to a vote of Kansas City residents.
They had two major concerns. Chief among those concerns was preserving the historic Paseo name. However, as their knowledge of how the name change was approved, group members became almost equally concerned about the process.
What they say is not their motivation is racism.
“They want to paint a face of who this issue is,” said Kelli Jones on a local podcast. Jones, one of the Save the Paseo core organizers, is an African-American female, lives on Paseo, and says she “loves Dr. Martin Luther King.” Jones says her opinion reflects those of her friends, family and neighbors; they don’t support the name change they don’t like that their opinion wasn’t considered.
They’re concerned the city didn’t follow its adopted process for changing street names, which requires them to contact 75% of the property owners who will be affected.
“It’s about how when you elect people into office, you want them to listen to you, you want to feel like you’re being heard and you just want to feel like you’re a part of the process,” said Jones.
The Pro King Viewpoint
For those who support changing 63rd Street to King, and suggests it’s a better option because as an east-west corridor that runs through a multitude of diverse communities, Howard rejects that concept. “It’s a misnomer that you don’t have diversity on MLK Blvd,” said Howard on a local podcast. “While MLK is predominately Black, it’s not totally Black.”
Unlike the Save the Paseo group, the effort to change The Paseo to King Blvd. was the result of a grassroots effort by people most impacted by the name change, said Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Greater Kansas City SCLC. The SCLC reviewed the addresses on the submitted ballot petition and says the majority of them had zip codes west of Troost.
Across the country, where efforts have been made to change street names to honor King, there has often been a lot of disagreement, particularly along racial lines and Howard says he sees a lot of racism around this local issue.
“This is a perfect epitome of the pathology of White privilege that suggest that White people can decide what a street name, or boulevard, will be named in a predominately African-American community in which White folks in the city have had very little interest in investing, in living, keeping up, beautifying and maintaining,” said Howard. “We believe there is something wrong with that picture and we believe there are White people of goodwill who understand how significant this is to the broader community.”