Saturday, June 23

A review of "Community Builder: The Life & Legacy of J.C. Nichols"

It's become impossible to just sit back and watch white history documentaries, not constantly analyzing them in terms of race, noticing what they're missing, when those documentaries fail to constantly display a self-awareness as being white history.

My family's watching a documentary about J.C. Nichols and his developments in Kansas City. Probably this one. At one point, the movie mentioned that Nichols felt the restrictions in his original deeds, which only lasted 10 years, didn't last long enough. He came up with some way to get around Missouri's resistance to changing them to say, "applicable forever." Of this act, the movie's commentators said something along the lines of, "Nichols was known for being a great gatherer and synthesizer of other peoples' ideas, but in this case he acted as an innovator. He came up with this idea to effect his vision as his vision developed."

I asked my stepmother, "What kinds of restrictions were in the deeds?"

"No blacks," she responded.

"A gazillion things," my dad added. "Houses back a certain distance from the street."

"No Jews," my stepmother tacked on.

I was horrified that the movie hadn't reminded viewers that this innovation of his was mean! How could they just treat his cleverness as a good thing simply because it was clever? Didn't it matter to them what he was being clever for?

I thought, "Okay, well, maybe if most of the restrictions were about the neighborhood's physical structure itself, then this bit could actually fit into the section we're currently in about how wonderful for people the physical layout of Nichols's neighborhoods were."

I pressed my family, "So, for example, in the original deeds, someone could tear down his/her house and build it closer to the street in 10 years?"

"Or build an addition onto the front," Dad added.'

"Okay. I see."

So yeah, I guess that's what was going through the filmmakers' heads, but yeesh. If they're going to be so centered on the physical layout of these neighborhoods, and they know that along with the layout went demographic restrictions, for the love of all things realistic can't they please approach it from the perspective of, "Within Kansas City's white neighborhoods, Nichols cleverly created rules that preserved the community-creating physical layout he'd dreamt of."

I mean, if this were a Ken Burns documentary about Kansas City's black neighborhoods, it'd be acknowledged (even if indirectly) over and over again that the only judgments of "good plan" or "bad plan" one could make were how good or bad of an idea they were in the context of those black neighborhoods alone.
It would be understood that what was indeed a good thing for the black neighborhood could still be anyone's guess whether it was going to remain a good thing for the entire physical city.

Why can't my fellow white people be more freakin' self-aware and do the same thing with their own documentaries? If it's "white areas" we're talking about, then don't talk about it as a history of "Kansas City." Talk about it as a history of "white neighborhoods [from 18__-19__ that later became mixed neighborhoods from 19__-20__] in Kansas City."

It'll make documentarists' hard academic work so much more helpful to city planners!

This is a really important distinction. Historians, please set viewers up, mentally, to be able to think, "Okay, but when the segregation rules faded and people were in cars at varying proportions depending on race, did these physical constraints help or hurt community in those same places? What kinds of physical layout ideas would blacks have had if they hadn't been forced into already-developed territories? Would they have had some even better ideas, based on their experiences, that could have made Kansas City more like the Twin Cities and less like, well, the Kansas City it is today if they'd been able to suggest ideas for undeveloped, open land, too?"**

**(Kansas City is a hideously spread-out area, even in its urban core. Buses don't work because everything's so far apart and lots are so big and streets are so tangled in key areas. Lower-middle-class shopping districts are simply upper-middle-class Nichols developments that have lost their old customers (like the outskirts of Brookside) and that still do poorly rather than stable-income-providing shopping districts like Lake Street (in Minneapolis). What if blacks had been able to say, "Listen, Nichols, some of us have enough money to move into Brookside, but we're not quite as well off at the moment, so we don't anticipate having as many cars quite as fast. Keep making the pedestrian-friendly stores right here in the area, too, so that people with and without cars will be able to keep both types of place thriving."

Or something like that. I have no freakin' clue what they would have said in 1800-19__. I'm not any of them. But I imagine that this stupid, overly spread out, badly laid out city would be a lot better if it'd taken excluded peoples' ideas of "good design" into account a lot earlier in its development.

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