Decades before the Google Street View Car guy, there was the 1940 Jackson County Tax Assessment crew.
By BRIAN BURNES
The Kansas City Star
That year 10 of them crossed Kansas City, photographing properties for a tax assessment financed in part by the Works Projects Administration.
The thousands of images documented structures large and small, almost all of them sharing one poignant feature: a man, sometimes wearing a straw boater, holding a sign with an identification number.
Sometimes the men look defeated, with heads down.
In other moments they appear snappy, hats at a jaunty tilt and arms raised, holding their numbers high while standing before skyscrapers.
Seventy years later, Kansas City writer John Simonson began following their path after encountering the photos at Kansas City City Hall.
In his book, Kansas City 1940: A Watershed Year, Simonson artfully selects 64 images and, using the 1940 census and newspaper microfilm, builds vignettes around each property.
Ive always been of the George Washington Slept Here school of history buffs, Simonson said recently.
I like to wonder, What happened in this place?
Historians consider 1940 a Kansas City transition year. Machine boss Tom Pendergast, having pleaded guilty to income tax evasion the previous year, began the year in federal prison before being released. Kansas City voters, meanwhile, elected reform candidate John B. Gage as mayor.
Pendergasts fall prompted the tax survey, Simonson said.
The machine had assessed taxes based on what a person could do for the machine, he said.
The images Simonson selected include buildings big and small: Kansas Citys Municipal Auditorium, the Hotel Muehlebach, and both the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Journal. There are small buildings with large reputations: the Reno Club, once frequented by a young Charlie Parker; a barbecue stand operated by Henry Perry, mentor of Arthur Bryant.
The Kansas City Public Library since has accepted the 1940 Jackson County Tax Assessment Photograph Collection as a donation; theyre part of the librarys Missouri Valley Special Collections.
These are 64 little stories that make one big story about Kansas City, Simonson said. I intended it to honor these pictures.