Yael T. Abouhalkah

As whites flock to Kansas City, blacks pick the suburbs

The Zona Rosa shopping center has helped spur population growth north of the Missouri River in Kansas City.
The Zona Rosa shopping center has helped spur population growth north of the Missouri River in Kansas City. kmyers@kcstar.com

It’s a commonly known fact in Kansas City: For decades, white flight hollowed out large parts of the urban core, while black population climbed steadily.

Between 1960 and 2000, Kansas City lost more than 123,000 white people while adding almost 55,000 black people.

But this long-term trend has reversed itself in recent years.

Kansas city’s white population has surged by almost 9,300 from 2000 through the latest estimates available in 2013.

Meanwhile, the number of black residents has dropped by 2,600 in a city that’s steadily gaining population.

Overall, the percentage of black residents in Kansas City — which rose from 17.5 percent in 1960 to 31 percent in 2000 — has now dropped to 29 percent.

Only a few other large, growing Midwestern-area cities — or U.S. cities similar in size to Kansas City — are having the same experience. In Dallas, Minneapolis, Tulsa and Atlanta, overall populations have gone up since 2000 while the number of black residents declined through 2013.

In Kansas City, Kan., population has been flat since 2000, but the city lost 5,000 black residents and gained 6,000 whites.

The number of black residents also has fallen in St. Louis, Cleveland and Chicago, but all three cities have shed huge chunks of overall population.

It’s more common that black populations are still climbing in small and medium-sized cities such as Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Omaha, Fort Worth, Wichita, Mesa, Ariz., Virginia Beach, Tucson, Fresno and Sacramento.

The population increase in Kansas City has occurred north of the Missouri River — up 25,000 white residents since 2000. The Northland has attracted many people who could have opted instead for life in Johnson County.

The Northland also has gained 8,000 black residents, almost tripling since 2000, though black population south of the Missouri River declined even more than that.

Black residents who have left Kansas City and newcomers to the area have opted for the suburbs on both sides of the state line.

All 14 of these suburbs added black population in recent years: Overland Park, Olathe, Independence, Lee’s Summit, Shawnee, Blue Springs, Lenexa, Leawood, Raytown, Prairie Village, Liberty, Gladstone, Grandview and Belton. The leaders were Lee’s Summit (more than 5,700 new black residents) plus Overland Park and Raytown (around 4,300 each).

Peter Eaton, director of the Center for Economic Information at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says this shift has happened for several logical reasons.

Black residents who have the means to leave Kansas City are looking for “better jobs, better schools and safer environments,” he said. In addition, the quality of housing has “deteriorated substantially” in parts of the urban core, Eaton pointed out, while home ownership has fallen and the number of renters has soared.

Jeff Pinkerton, senior researcher with the Mid-America Regional Council, says this demographic shift is occurring in large part because more economic opportunities are available in Kansas City’s suburbs than in its central areas. He points to a positive aspect of the gradual shift of black residents, noting, “The community is diversifying a little bit.”

Still, left behind is a hollowed-out core in Kansas City. Remaining residents are counting on school district leaders to improve the education they offer children and on City Hall and civic leaders to succeed with economic redevelopment plans for east of Troost Avenue.

For now, current trends likely will continue. For example, the new Twin Creeks development could attract 75,000 residents in the next 30 years to the predominantly white Northland.

South of the river, the efforts to repopulate the core must continue to focus on reducing crime and reusing vacant housing, all to attract more people of all races to many still-viable neighborhoods.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter: @YaelTAbouhalkah.