African-Americans who remember a segregated Kansas City called it Watermelon Hill — the one section of Swope Park that wasn't off-limits.
"The only way you got into Watermelon Hill was 63rd Street," said Eric Wesson, editor of The Call.
Wesson believes there's a resonance to the 7-mile route, which runs east-west through the heart of a still-divided city, from Raytown to State Line Road.
Renaming it Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, he said, would send a message of connection, linking neighborhoods black and white, prosperous and struggling.
"Going across places that were traditionally segregated from people of color. That would be something symbolic and in favor of what his message really was," said Wesson, one of 11 community leaders appointed to a panel by Mayor Sly James to recommend how best to honor the martyred civil rights leader.
Sixty-third Street is one of the options to emerge from a complicated, politically fraught citywide conversation. It was the secondary choice of the mayoral panel, which reported on May 20 that a majority favored the renaming of Kansas City International Airport.
James unexpectedly put his own stamp on the group's recommendation at a press conference last week, insisting that only the planned new terminal, not the airport proper, could be named for King.
It wasn't what many supporters of the idea had in mind. James cited concerns about marketing an airport without "Kansas City" in the name. He also said securing federal approval for the change would be difficult, a claim not supported by the Federal Aviation Administration or the experience of other recently renamed airports.
At the same time, a coalition of east-side clergy, contending that King's name belongs in a historically and predominantly black community, are gathering signatures to put The Paseo to a vote on the November ballot.
Even panel members with other first choices acknowledge the symbolic power of 63rd Street.
"I'm compelled about 63rd Street," said the Rev. Bob Hill, minister emeritus at Community Christian Church and a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Kansas City chapter.
Hill favors The Paseo but likes 63rd because "it would be completely socio-economically inclusive."
It takes a 20-minute drive to view the city through the prism of 63rd Street: from the affluent, tree-lined enclaves east and west of Ward Parkway through the Brookside shopping district and across Troost, where payday loan outlets, fast-food restaurants, liquor stores and car lots dominate. Farther east there are the Blue Hills and Town Fork Creek neighborhoods and the green expanse of Swope Park, home to Starlight Theatre, the Kansas City Zoo and the Swope Soccer Village.
Census data produces its own snapshot of diversity and disparity. Population along 63rd Street is almost evenly split by race — 48.8 percent African-American and 44.7 percent white. But 80 percent of white households are occupied by the owners, compared to 51.6 percent of black homes. Twenty-eight percent of 63rd Street's black residents live below the poverty line, more than three times the white rate.
By comparison, along The Paseo, African-Americans comprise 70 percent of the population, and about a third of the boulevard's 28,000 residents live in poverty.
The prospect of a street name change along 63rd produces a diversity of opinions.
"Anything that recognizes him in a way that honors his memory would be fabulous. He touched many different kinds of lives," said Cheryl Barnes, president of the Blue Hills Neighborhood Association, which covers an area bordered by 63rd Street on the south. It appeals to her because, unlike King-named thoroughfares in other cities, much of 63rd "is well established and positive. Other parts are on their way back."
Sharon McNulty, president of the Country Club Homes Association, just south of 63rd, said the street lacks any substantive historic tie to King.
"My opinion aligns with a lot of people I've talked to," said McNulty, a real estate agent. "It seems to be overkill."
Developer Butch Rigby, who owns several commercial and office buildings along the resurgent 63rd Street corridor between Oak Street and Troost, said he'd welcome the change.
"I'd be very proud for the revitalization to bear his name," said Rigby. "Sixty-Third Street is a great connector."
The upfront costs of a street name change would be relatively modest. The public works department estimates it would take $150,000 to switch out 53 signs on street corners and the 30 hanging from overhead traffic signals.
As a boulevard, future construction could be subject to more stringent requirements for landscaping, building materials and parking. Businesses like liquor stores and low-end motels would be prohibited.
But political and legal uncertainties complicate 63rd Street's chances.
The city code covers only procedures for honorary street re-naming that involves small segments of a thoroughfare. The proposal must be vetted by a committee composed of the directors of city planning, public works and parks and recreation, along with the chiefs of fire and police.
More significantly, any name change would require approval of 75 percent of abutting property owners — a high bar.
City officials said that section of the code could still be used as a guideline for renaming a major street. But the provision could also be superseded by voter approval of a ballot question calling for a name change, the path being pursued by the ministers on The Paseo.
Charles d'Ablaing, owner and chef at Brookside Poultry Co., which opened earlier this year at 63rd and Oak, wonders why Kansas City has to "follow the herd" like other municipalities and name a street for King. But on balance, he said, it would be a positive.
"Maybe I can get my street paved better," he said.
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