Melinda Henneberger

No perfect option in KC vote that could change MLK Boulevard back to The Paseo

My decision to join my Star Editorial Board colleagues in recommending that Kansas Citians vote “no” on Tuesday, to keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s name on the street formerly known as The Paseo, probably sounds easy, but it wasn’t.

Why? Because I’ve been uncomfortable about the process for renaming this street since then-City Councilwoman Alissia Canady told me that the majority of her African American constituents who actually live on The Paseo weren’t for it and weren’t consulted.

So, if they did not want the name changed, and naturally resented not being asked, why should this switch be forced on them?

That is how I see what happened, and now a citizen petition drive has put changing the name back on Tuesday’s ballot. (A “no” vote on Question 5 means no change, keep MLK’s name on the street; and “yes” translates to put it back the way it was.)

Usually, the answer I heard back was that if we changed the name back to The Paseo, the world beyond Kansas City would inevitably see that as motivated by racism.

But if it was on the contrary done in deference to the opinion of the African American Kansas Citians directly impacted by the name change, who cares what The New York Times says? (Granted, I am not yet as sensitive about Kansas City’s image as some others are.)

Another thing that bothered me was the way this railroading mirrored the not-always-so-lovely history of The Paseo — and for that matter, of this newspaper.

In his award-winning 2007 book, “Boss-busters & Sin Hounds: Kansas City and Its Star,” Harry Haskell wrote about how the African Americans who lived in the area that became The Paseo were displaced to make way for it.

According to Haskell and others, city fathers were not apologetic about this, but gleeful. He wrote that in 1905, senior Star editor Henry Schott bragged to World’s Work magazine that the area had previously been “covered largely with cabins and shanties occupied mainly by Negroes.”

“Now, Schott gushed, ‘the shacks have given way to fountains and gardens. A pergola, that with its garlands and canopies of green appears as if decorated for a feast day, stands where were ramshackle houses, barns and sheds. The pickaninnies have disappeared with their homes, and apartment houses of the best type have come to the Paseo.’ ”

Good God. And now that African Americans have repopulated the street, we’re again going to tell them what to do with it?

That’s the feeling I got from the “Save The Paseo” proponents who met with our board.

Still, my colleague Toriano Porter has such strong feelings about what going back to calling it The Paseo would mean for the city as a whole that I can’t ignore his passion.

He argues that if he as a younger African American man were coming out of college today, he wouldn’t even think of moving to a city that had taken its Martin Luther King Jr. street signs down.

Right or wrong, taking down those signs means something different than never putting them up in the first place would have meant.

Sometimes, as I know all too well, optics are reality.

And so, with apologies to those on the MLK/Paseo who were failed by this process, I too will vote “no,” don’t take the new signs down.

I would not say that I feel I’m right about this, but that to vote “yes” would be even more wrong.

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Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.