Finding Environmental Justice in a Jazz Melody

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.