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Finding Environmental Justice in a Jazz Melody

2013 March 21

By Carlton Eley

When I was a student studying urban planning, I always wondered what the outcome would look like when environmental justice was properly addressed during the community planning process.  This question nagged me for years because I wasn’t finding satisfactory answers in an academic setting.

Perhaps, the initial project that helped to answer this question for me is the 18th and Vine Jazz District in Kansas City, MO.  My first visit to the District was in 1998, shortly after finishing graduate school.

Mural of John “Buck” O’Neil juxtapose to the Monarch Apartments.

Historically, the area encompassing 18th and Vine was the heart of Kansas City’s African-American community.  When the community flourished, it was filled with businesses, schools, entertainment venues, churches, and recreational facilities.  Kansas City’s reputation for jazz music grew out of this community because of local artists like Count Basie and Charlie Parker.  The District is also the place where eight independent black baseball team owners met and formed the first African-American professional league in 1920.

When the trend of suburbanization took effect in Kansas City in the 1940s, 18th and Vine, like so many inner-city neighborhoods, experienced a period of decline that spanned nearly forty years.   In part, this trend produced the physical conditions that environmental justice proponents have documented and strive to correct:  brownfields; poorly maintained infrastructure; health hazards from lead and asbestos; lack of services; and the social inequality that stems from prolonged disinvestment and benign neglect.

By the late 1980s, the 18th and Vine neighborhood had lost much of its charm.  However, the memory of what made it a great place lived on in the citizens of Kansas City.  Although the community was distressed, some local leaders realized that resurrecting the distinct historic and cultural legacy of the District could help make the neighborhood come alive once more.

Charlie Parker Memorial Plaza

In 1989, the 18th and Vine Jazz District was created at the recommendation of Emanuel Cleaver, II, who was a city council member at the time.  Cleaver’s vision was to balance the goals of economic development and cultural development within the city. Historic properties were renovated, jazz and baseball museums were constructed, residential and commercial development was added, and the performance arts and the humanities of the District were designated as local treasures.  As a result, the City was effective in accounting for environmental justice considerations through protecting the cultural assets of African-Americans who left a unique impression on Kansas City’s landscape.

As an urban planner and environmental justice proponent, I am so glad Kansas City moved beyond the false choice of social responsibility versus economic imperative in the case of the 18th and Vine Jazz District.  What started out as an attempt to spread the benefits of economic development has evolved into a $70 million success story with tangible results.  Because of stewardship, the Jazz District is once again a celebrated destination that offers visitors and residents “an authentic experience.”

Carlton Eley works for the Office of Environmental Justice.  He is an urban planner, sociologist, and lecturer.  Carlton is credited for elevating equitable development to the level of formal recognition within U.S. EPA as an approach for encouraging sustainable communities.  He interned with EPA’s Environmental Justice Program in Region 10 as an associate of the Environmental Careers Organization in 1994.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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20 Responses leave one →
  1. Deborah permalink
    March 21, 2013

    Thank you for sharing this blog with the readers. I have been to the Jazz District and had know idea the complete history that was shared here and on the link to the jazz site. It’s great to hear that they were able to leverage 70 million dollars in redevelopment and that it was done in a way that engaged many different groups in the process. You can feel the culture and history when you visit the area and now I have a better understanding why and how a similar process can be used in other locations that are considering a redevelopment process. Thank you Mr. Eley for sharing your experience and Kansas City for helping a vision become reality.


  2. Derrick Coley permalink
    March 22, 2013

    I enjoyed the article. Very indepth with the blend of historical significance and current bottom line of tangible economic benefits. The tax revenue generator of $70 million is impossible to overlook regarding the Jazz District. Thank you for the read and I look forward to more success stories highlighting the fact that a wrecking ball and bulldozer do not always equate revitalization/economic development. Sometimes a few façade improvements and a historical footnote can bring people back to a place in time. Continue being a beacon of light regarding equitable development.

  3. Dracha Arendee permalink
    March 22, 2013


    The ‘THEORY OF ICEALITY ON ENVIRONMENTAL ARTS’ is the Aesthetics of the relationship between Humans and their Environment through Arts and Culture, ultimately promoting an effective sustainable global Culture of Peace for all Living Things.

    At the ARK in Berea, global home of the environmental arts movement, David Jakupca, states that, “The special Theory of Iceality belongs to a class of “principle-theories”. As such it employs an analytic method. This means that the three elements which comprise this theory, Humanitarian, Environmental, Arts and Culture, are not based on hypothesis but on empirical discovery. The empirical discovery leads to understanding the general characteristics of natural processes”.

    Practical models can then be developed which separate the natural processes into theoretical-mathematical descriptions. Therefore, by analytical means the necessary conditions that have to be satisfied are deduced. Separate events must satisfy these conditions. Experience should then match the conclusions.

    The special ‘Theory of Iceality’ and the general natural processes are connected. As stated above, the special ‘Theory of Iceality’ applies to all inertial physical phenomena and its relation to all other forces of nature.

    Although it is widely acknowledged that American Cultural Ambassadors David and Renate Jakupca are the creators of the Theory of Iceality in its modern understanding, They are also responsible for enlightening the art community to the new genre of Art when they founded the International Center for Environmental Arts (ICEA) in 1987 at the historic ARK in Berea , Ohio. ICEA was organized into three divisions: Environmental, Humanities, Arts and Culture, and as the first professional art organization to be solely dedicated to this endeavor, this has made ICEA to be the leading force in the Environmental arts and a force for socially responsible activity.

    According to Jakupca, beginning with ICEA, the Environmental Arts Genre has grown professionally exponentially and has over the past decades spawned a wide variety of very similar phrases and art terms such as; eco art, land art, ecoventions, natural art, green art, outdoor art, earth art, recycled art, sustainable art, ecodedsign, etc. These can be all be considered sub-categories under the umbrella of the main Environmental Art Genre.

    Jakupca asserts that, “Respect for human and environmental rights and greater understanding between people from different racial and religious backgrounds must be the first goal of society in today’s fast-changing, globalized world.” The goal is accomplished according to Jakupca, “Is by focusing on the creative process and affirming that the “Theory of Iceality on Environmental Arts” is a catalyst for social change by empowering participants, transforming environments and contributing to collective healing and economic development.”

    Jakupca’s Theory on Environmental Arts (ICEALITY*) was enthusiastically embraced by the United Nations by 1990 and was featured in many of their World Conferences;

    1- 1992 Earth Summit on the Environment, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
    2- 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, Austria
    3- 1994 World Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, Egypt
    4- 1995 World Conference on Women, Beijing, China
    5- 1996 Habitat II- UN Conference on Human Settlements, Istanbul, Turkey
    6- 2000 World’s Fair, Expo2000, Hannover, Germany
    7- 2001 World Conference on Racism, Durban, South Africa
    8- 2002 World Summit on Sustainability, Johannesburg, South Africa
    9- 2003 World Conference on Peace, Verbania, Italy
    10- 2005 World Conference on Peace, Verbania, Italy
    11- 2007 World Peace Conference, Santa Fe, New Mexico

    The result of this major global public promotion at the United Nations level, is that the Theory of Iceality on Environmental Arts is now considered as the cornerstone of the modern sustainable global Environmental Art Movement and this concept is now replicated by artists, architects, urban planners and sustainable organizations throughout the World. However, it must be noted that not all of Jakupca’s contemporaries did accepted the new theory at once.

    *Iceality is the measure of the connection between arts, civic engagement and the environment, which can be defined as promoting a sustainable positive and peaceful quality of life for all living things.

    David Jakupca,

    American Cultural Ambassador
    Universal Peace Ambassador
    Spiritual Father of the Environmental Arts Movement
    Founder of the International Center for Environmental Arts

    Link to Full Story with Photos

  4. Kristen Jeffers permalink
    March 22, 2013

    This is good! Did not realize the area was that successful and I’m glad that it is. Still, people who are not into fully rejuvenating older communities will not appreciate the value of something like this.

    • Carlton Eley permalink
      March 22, 2013

      In 1997, the Jazz District was launched with $24 million in support from Kansas City. The return is huge when compared to the level of initial investment. In July 2012, KCTV5 in Kansas City reported the 18th & Vine Jazz District carries no public debt. In brief, the stewards of the Jazz District have been fiscally prudent!

      • Kristen permalink
        March 25, 2013

        That’s awesome! So many projects that wish they had that. And probably would if they would start small and start on the ground level. I wonder how many projects are saddled with convention center or stadium debts that never worked out.

  5. Paulo Rogerio permalink
    March 23, 2013

    That is a good post!! We need people like you in Brazil!! We have many challenges here on this issue!

  6. Jane permalink
    March 23, 2013

    I loved the title and like a jazz melody you weaved the empirical evidence of change with the historical need to protect cultural treasures. Its good that the EPA is finally taking a broader look at the environment and realizing that there are many components that are needed to create a healthy community.

  7. Larry King permalink
    March 25, 2013


    Thanks for posting. Far too often underserved communities and in this case a historical district face that false choice you have discribed.

  8. Matthew E. Goode permalink
    March 28, 2013

    Kudos to Carlton:He met this Herculean challenge of restoration and conservation of esthetic and human resources. I am a life-long resident of Roxbury Massachusetts who recently contributed to a video project that is archived at Northeastern University. This and other institutions have moved from across the tracks and now occupy much of the physical geography in which I grew up and saw people such as Paul Robeson nearly 60 years ago. Much of our area fell victim to ‘Negro Removal’ and cannot be restored to it’s earlier cultural glory. And we have not been able to reestablish a similar coherent black community since. Relationships and businesses that made our former communities vibrant and viable could not be replicated in other geographic areas of the city. And it took 20 years following Urban Renewal to construct the first new building in our old neighborhoods. What characterizes our inner-city today is enclaves of different ethnic groups who really don’t share cultural interests in common although we coexist in relative peace. This circumstance is not unique to Boston and the long -term effects remain to be seen.

  9. Brenda board permalink
    March 31, 2013

    Keep writing for environmental justice for neighborhoods.

    • Carlton Eley permalink
      April 1, 2013

      Thank you for the words of encouragement, Brenda and all who have responded to this blog post.

  10. Nahketah Bagby permalink
    April 8, 2013

    Thanks for a great article on the 18th & Vine Jazz District. During the 2013 New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Kansas City, I had the opportunity to take a wonderful tour entitled “ Strollin’ on the Vine: A Walk through the Past into the Future”. On the tour we visited the restored GEM Theater, the Blue Room, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum,the American Jazz Museum, and got a chance to tour newly renovated residential and mix-use developments. Thanks to Denise Gilmore (President/ CEO Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation) and Carlton Eley for being great tour guides and explaining in detail the history of the 18th & Vine Jazz District.

  11. Lionel Askew permalink
    April 10, 2013

    This is excellent.

  12. Cindy van Empel permalink
    April 14, 2013

    Nice blog, Carlton. The photo of Bird with the KCMO skyline reminds me of the walking tour you gave, which was the best conference tour I’ve had.

    • Carlton Eley permalink
      April 17, 2013

      Thank you Cindy. Shortly after your visit, the Apartments at Highland Place was selected as a winner in the Multifamily category for the 8th Annual Kansas City Business Journal Capstone Awards.

  13. Sherry Carter permalink
    February 24, 2014

    Hi Carlton, nice blog. I’m a planner specializing in Community CPTED with Carter & Carter Associates. I came across the Kansas City Walkability Plan and an using the 18th and Vine area as a case study where walkability and safety issues were addressed. Do you have any knowledge or insights on how or even if, CPTED was intentionally incorporated ibto impprovements as was recommended by the plan.

    Also, could I use this wonderful photo of the Buck O’Neal Center by the Monarch Apartments?

    Thanks for a speedy reply!!

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