(originally published 8/22/19)
This week’s park tribute subject popped up during research for another topic altogether. In a book on Kansas City’s racial history(*). I’m learning me a finer grained view of Kansas City between the 1880s and the 1920s, a key period in the city’s history. In one area of town the book discusses, I found a park I didn’t know was there, had never even heard of. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, and not just because it’s (Not) City Park Month here at KC Backstories. Because it’s most likely that a year from now, Belvidere Park will have disappeared completely. So before it fades into the mist, here’s my little tribute to a park that’s seen a lot, even before it was a park.
Chances are, if you’ve crossed the Missouri River via the Christopher Bond Bridge (formerly known as The Paseo Bridge), you’ve driven right past Belvidere Park and never even saw it, let alone recognized it as a park. If it had an address, it would be something like Independence and Lydia Avenues, a wedge-shaped park just south of the bridge, tucked in between I-29/35/70 Highway on the north and west, Paseo Boulevard on the east and all that just north of Independence Avenue. So many streets, so many different names, it’s no wonder no one knows where Belvidere Park is.
Before 1900, the area was known as Belvidere Hollow, right next to Hicks Hollow to the east. If they were still there, these two neighborhoods would straddle The Paseo Boulevard for a few blocks from Independence Avenue to the river. Belvidere & Hicks Hollows together are one of four areas of the city where in the city’s early days, the share of African American residents was greater in that neighborhood than of the whole city. (*) In 1900, the hollows were considered part of the north end, which was already an enclave for Italian and Russian immigrants. In today’s parlance, Belvidere Hollows was a diverse community. Residents of all races were present, representing a diversity of jobs and incomes as well.
At the time, Kansas City, like the rest of the nation, was clawing its way back from a one of this country’s worst depressions, burdened with debt created by the surplus housing that had been built before the bubble burst. And so, in Belvidere Hollow and similar places around the city, those who could least afford decent housing had to make do with overcrowding in substandard conditions. The properties in Belvidere Hollow was described as “ramshackle,” the houses without sanitation, unconnected to fresh water mains, on unpaved streets. Crime and mortality were disproportionately high there. Belvidere become part of the city’s first generation of urban blight, blight that would be the characteristic that drove most of the city and private development for the next twenty years.
Belvidere Hollow never recovered. It just grew more blighted, more crowded and more dangerous until the 1929 depression delivered the body blow. What remained was left to fall down or burn down until the city tore it down and turned the property over to the parks department.
I scoured old Kansas City newspapers from the mid-40s forward to see how the park has fit into the community since it officially became Belvidere Park 1944. It seems always to have been a sports-dominated park. It started with baseball, which lasted until after 2000, but the busy years on the ballfields were the 1940s to the 60s, the same era when the community 4th of July celebration was held there each year, complete with sack races and fireworks. When the parks department starting running summer camps in some of their parks in the early 60s. Belvidere was one of them, and a playground was added in 1961. In 2006, in response to popular interests, the baseball fields were converted to soccer pitches. Just four years later, the now former Kansas City soccer team, the Wizards, led a partnership that helped bring $25,000 for improvements to the park, including clean-up, field maintenance and new bleachers.
A soccer pitch is a reasonable use of this kind of park property. It has no other equipment – no shelter, no picnic tables, no playground, no bathrooms. Belvidere Park offers no stunning views or beckoning walking paths, although in an ideal world, it once might have been connected to the chain of parkland that extends 3 miles to the east (Chouteau Trafficway/Benton Boulevard) and includes Cliff Drive. That would have been lovely, but it’s too late now.
It’s probably been too late for a while. In the end, even something as popular as a soccer pitch wasn’t enough to save the park. A few years ago, the city’s housing authority shuttered the Chouteau Court apartments that were adjacent to the park. Sadly, the current experience echoed those of 100 years ago. The complex was a perennial security problem for the city and for residents. Isolated from other neighborhoods in deteriorating, substandard housing, and crime a constant concern, the plague of problems impacted the park, too. For the last few years, the housing authority has worked a process to relocate residents. This spring, it solicited bids for the apartments’ demolition. Soon, the property will go up for sale to the private sector, and any trace of Belvidere Park will disappear.
At this point, it’s probably best. In light of when it was declared a park – in the booming post-war years where America was building interstates – its fate was sealed from the start. The city’s interest was moving ever southward. And not all parks are destined to be “stars.” In fact, most of them are what modest in amenities, but still great places for folks to enjoy being outside doing what they like, in the familiarity of their own neighborhood. But times change, and like all things parks have their life cycle – claimed from remnant properties, they fulfill a need, have troubles with changes and (often) decommissioned. Property available for another use.
It now appears that Belvidere Park is finishing at the end of its cycle. So, as a lover of parks and all they stand for, here’s my tip of the cap to Belvidere Park and to Belvidere Hollow, the long lost neighborhood that gave the park its name. It is a tribute to the commitment of those in the community, and others who remained dedicated to the programs and opportunities the park provided for the neighborhood, that it lasted as long as it did.
* Schirmer, Sherry Lamb, A City Divided: The Racial Landscape of Kansas City, 1900 – 1960, University of Missouri Press, 2002.
(Featured photo: Belvidere Park as it opened, 1944. Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri)