Kansas City Park Series – #2: Waterway Park and Big Eleven Lake

(originally published 8/8/19)

I was recently reintroduced to Waterway Park and Big Eleven Lake by my friend and long-time KCK’er, Patricia Lawson. Pat’s well known in local writing circles as an excellent poet and short story writer, but I didn’t know she had a journalist’s background until she shared with me some of her pieces in former local publications like City and The Kansas City Star Magazine. Her piece,“The Greatest Little Lake in Kansas City,” appeared in the Star’s Sunday magazine supplement in 1981.

Kansas City, Kansas was on my list of places to write about when I started this page. KCK stories need to be shared more. I have old ties there, but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I had the chance to spend time there, on a series of neighborhood projects sponsored by the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC). Working with the Douglass-Sumner and St. Peter/Waterway neighborhoods, and the Downtown Shareholders and community development organizations like CHWC and City Vision Ministries, I learned first-hand the high caliber of community involvement in KCK.

Waterway Park and Big Eleven Lake have been at the center of many of the revitalization discussions held in KCK, not just in my experience, but over the nearly 110 years the park’s life. Its fortunes have risen and fallen with the downtown area. Rarely is a park so much a bellwether of community conditions. And so was born the idea to look at the arc of the park’s history in terms of where it started, where it was almost forty years ago when Patricia wrote about it (using excerpts from her piece), and in what way, if at all, the last forty years have changed Waterway Park and Big Eleven Lake.

Back in the Day…

In April 1911, Kansas City, Kansas unveiled its city-wide Parks and Boulevard Plan, credited as the work of George Kessler, the architect of KCMO’s 1893 plan. But it was principally the work of Hare & Hare, the landscape architecture firm at the time gaining a national reputation from its work for the Nichols Company’s Country Club District development. Waterway Park was among the parks included in the KCK Plan, so-named for the series of ponds and lakes which were to define the park in every way.

When it was completed in 1912, the park had three distinct sections. Waterway Park (11th to 12th Streets, Armstrong to Orville Aves.) was the southernmost feature. Instead of the original plan of a half dozen smaller ponds, when built this section was one long narrow lake, in the midst of a neighborhood of small bungalows. At the northern end, between Washington and State Aves., with 11th Street its western border, Big Eleven Lake was designed to serve the larger KCK community as a gathering and recreational area. The name is generally believed to have come from the lake’s proximity to 11th Street, and that it was originally to have been the largest of the ponds. The reconfiguration of the southern pools into one lake made that the largest lake, ironically rendering the “Big” in Big Eleven inaccurate. But the name stuck. Connecting the two areas in a small block between Minnesota and State Avenues was a reflecting pool with fountains, surrounded by a symmetrical arrangement of formal plantings, sculpture and walkways. The plan referred to it as a “sunken garden” because the site was to be built below street level, with two sets of stairs connecting the street to the garden.

The Sunken Water Garden, Waterway Park 10th Street & Grandview Boulevard, Kansas City, Kansas. 1911-1912. Presentation rendering of view.

The whole design of the three water features fell apart less than ten years after it opened. By the early 1920s, the sunken garden was demolished. Costs had prevented it from being built below grade. Sitting beside a busy street, it lost its usefulness as an “oasis” of calm. With all the plantings, fountains and fixtures it was prone to maintenance issues and vandalism. For a while in the early 30s, the city installed a miniature golf course at the site, but that didn’t last either. The lot was paved over, and now sits dilapidated, with an unfinished parking lot behind an unoccupied commercial building.

The southernmost lake in Waterway Park was also removed. Reviewing newspaper reports of the time does not reveal a specific reason, but given that the lake was drained, maintenance was a likely issue. The city replaced the lake with baseball fields, a shelter house and tennis courts, so it may also have been that community needed more recreational facilities than water features.

The only other major change happened in the mid-1960s. The City wanted to widen State Avenue to six lanes as far as 11th Street. That meant that some 30 feet of the sound end of Big Eleven would have to be sacrificed. From there on out, the news about the parks was more about what was happening in them than what was happening to them. From the 1930s to the 1960s, each end of the park hosted events that were big draws for the community. Waterway Park’s ballfields were continually in use during the season for a whole host of amateur leagues, Negro league minor clubs and the occasional touring exhibition team. But over time the crowds took their toll on the small park. The little wooden grandstands burned, and the city lacked resources to maintain, much less improve the park. The structures, including the shelter house, were torn down and not replaced.

At the north end, Big Eleven Lake’s perennial draw was fishing. At about 3 acres, the lake is small, but it was well stocked with catfish, bluegill, carp and bass. It wasn’t until 1947 that children under 12 were allowed to fish there. Wednesdays were designated as kids’ fishing day, when the local chapter of the Kansas Rod & Gun Club volunteered to supervise. From that day forward, Big Eleven’s popularity soared. On just the second Wednesday the event was held, the club estimated 5,000 children spent part of their day fishing at Big Eleven. For years, the lake was the site of the club’s annual Fishing Rodeo, and was often the site of the winning catch in the state’s annual “lunker” competition. Though these organized fishing events are no longer held, fishing remains the activity most associated with Big Eleven Lake, and today the entire family comes to fish in the lake that the Unified Government of Wyandotte County continues to stock.

Yesterday and Today

So we come to the early 1980s. Using Lawson’s 1981 article on the state of Big Eleven Lake, the changes (if any) over time are apparent. Lawson starts by describing the lake, and noting it was relatively healthy.

1981: In summer, cattails grow abundantly around the lake and water lilies bloom at the north end. One of Big Eleven’s notable features for more than 40 years has been the “honeycomb” walls, a network of rock scalloping the slopes and helping to prevent erosion. Another is the different lampposts.

2019: I can’t speak to the plant species, but there is plenty of healthy growth around the edges of the lake. The honeycomb walls were added in the late 1930s with funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The walls were recently repaired and restored, and seem to being doing their job for there is no obvious erosion. The vintage lampposts ring the small amphitheater’s stage, another addition courtesy of the WPA. Except for newer fixtures like the picnic tables, Big Eleven Lake has remained true to its original design.

There have been subtle but significant changes to the surrounding neighborhoods, too.

1981: (In describing Big Eleven’s location) Washington Boulevard, the north boundary of the lake is a block lined with the houses of middle-class blacks. To the west across Eleventh Street is the Kansas State School for the Blind; to the east, across Waterway Drive, a small playground and the John F. Kennedy Recreation Center.

2019: It’s true that the blocks north of Big Eleven Lake have historically been home to many of the community’s black families, and I don’t doubt that is still true. In fact, as an indicator of that, the recreation center named for President Kennedy was renamed in 2017 as the Beatrice L. Lee Community Center, honoring a long-time president of the adjacent and historically black neighborhood of Douglass-Sumner.

Overall, there is much more diversity in the neighborhoods and downtown area than even 40 years ago. Neighborhoods are less “black or white,” and more “black and white” and everyone else. KCK’s has always been known for some great ethnic enclaves, but while there are still cultural centers within the city, the sense is that there is more of a sense of shared space than in 1981, one of the most segregated eras in our recent history. So Big Eleven Lake, and to a lesser extent Waterway Park, are now in service to a broader community with a greater diversity of needs, which increases the challenge of keeping the park relevant. Fishing has apparently been one of those community needs that satisfied residents across the cultural spectrum.

But fishing isn’t the only activity that’s long been associated with Big Eleven Lake.

1981: In recent years Big Eleven has been a setting for jazz…Big Eleven also has been host to many other kinds of events. [Some of the neighbors recalled being) a front porch witness to …baptisms performed there. (Lawson includes this account of one neighbor’s memory of a baptism) The minister and his assistant would go out in the water. They had on robes, usually white…And they would have the candidates for baptism there, too…They would go up to the edge and take them down the steps…and they’d dunk ‘em and bring ‘em back up…The people would be standing at the edge with blankets and things to wrap around them…and someone up there would let them use their (nearby) home to change clothes.

The lake has had other ceremonial uses as well – as a setting for Easter sunrise services, for summer revival meetings; even, one time, for a wedding… [T]he lake was the scene of a few small-scale swim-in demonstrations in the ‘50s, when black Kansas City Kansans protested the lack of public swimming pools…More recently Big Eleven has been the setting for the Juneteenth celebration.

2019: All those activities and more are still very much a part of the regular events at Big Eleven Lake. Perhaps not the baptisms, although that practice continued for many years, and in fact, in 1934 the city built a cordoned off baptism area, long since gone. But the concerts, the community celebrations, the rallies for social causes, all continue as a part of Big Eleven’s regular life.

One of the lake area’s oldest events is a local talent show. A newspaper article from 1955 promotes the evening’s talent show by promising tap dancers, an accordion band, a jazz band, and an AME church choir. About fifty years later, the talent shows continued, including one that featured the musical talents of a Schlagle High School student, Janelle Monae, taking her first steps toward international stardom.

More than the talent shows have improved in the parks in recent years. Since Lawson’s article, the efforts to reclaim and retain Waterway Park and Big Eleven Lake have continued to gather momentum. In 1983 Congressman Larry Winn secured a $79,000 grant for improvements to Big Eleven Lake, and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County continues to make improvements and repairs. A 2016 partnership between the neighborhoods and LISC sparked interest in reclaiming Waterway Park. Although it’s still a work in progress, the new playground, exercise course and soccer fields are bringing the neighborhood back to its park.

Legacy

History provides perspective. What may seem blighted, haphazard or out of place by contemporary standards can fit snuggly into place when considering context over time. Waterway Park and Big Eleven Lake were designed and built to serve their immediate neighborhoods, and to bring value and maybe even cohesion to the larger community. Sometimes, changes in the communities a park serves force the reinvention of a park. KCK has certainly had enough changes in the last century to expect big changes in a park this central to its identity. But in the case of Big Eleven Lake, and the rejuvenating Waterway Park, keeping true to their original purpose has given the community a meaningful legacy, a way to be a part of a tradition that’s less about transient needs than simple joys with timeless appeals.

This week’s guest contributor, Patricia Lawson, has published non-fiction, poetry, and fiction. Her most recent book (Fall 2020), “Odd Ducks,” published by BKMK Press, is a fiction collection of short based on her six decades of life experienced in Kansas City.

(Photos: Postcard view of Big Eleven Lake)

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