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History of U.S. 71: How it continues to divide neighborhoods today

71 highway sign
Posted at 6:54 PM, Aug 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-15 19:54:51-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — On Monday, city leaders announced a $5 million grant that will study U.S. 71 and fund improvements along the highway.

The highway has always been a contentious topic, not only because of safety concerns but also how it divides neighborhoods.

U.S. 71 is a part of Alan Young's every day life. If he's not driving on it or over it, he's making sure the areas around the highway look as best they can. He mows lots and heads up community gardens throughout the neighborhood.

Young is a longtime resident and leader of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, where U.S. 71 splits it almost down the middle.

He started living in Ivanhoe in 1987, before U.S. 71 was finished.

"We're trying to make it a plus," Young said. "Because of the freeway, this neighborhood becomes more accessible to the stadiums or downtown or if you want to go out south to Overland Park."

U.S. 71 has been a part of daily life since it was finished in 2001 but for many years, many people didn't see it as a plus.

"There were mixed feelings," Young said. "There were some people who were against it completely because of how it disjointed the neighborhood and how good neighbors had to leave because their houses were bought up."

The idea for U.S. 71, or as it was once called, the South Midtown Freeway, started back in 1951.

The goal was to create a faster commute into downtown for folks out south. But its construction meant that it would cut through the east side of Kansas City, right through predominantly Black neighborhoods.

This is a map laying out the plan from an U.S. Department of Transportation environmental impact study in the 70s.

old 71 highway map
A U.S. Department of Transportation map showing where 71 Highway would be constructed.

More than 3,000 people were displaced as the State Highway Commission at the time bought up the properties, razed homes and started construction throughout the 60s and 70s.

Originally, the plan did not include off-ramps, which would have shut off access to the neighborhoods the highway cut through.

After public outcry and input, several off-ramps and stoplights were included.

The freeway was supposed to be done by the 80s, but litigation surrounding environmental impacts and unhappy residents slowed the project down.

"The worst thing it did was for 25 years, that area became an eyesore and a dumping ground," Young said.

With city leaders like Emanuel Cleaver and Mamie Hughes urging the project along, U.S. 71 was finally finished in 2001.

Young says the highway continues to impact his community.

"It is a clear divide. Even within this neighborhood you could almost say the personality or the feel of Ivanhoe on the east side is different than the one on the west side," Young said. "As far as our organizing, it was hard to organize on the other side of the freeway. When you're walking door to door, it's kind of hard, you know. It is a barrier. Some of the streets don't go through."

While many recognize Troost as KCMO's racially segregating line, Alan said he feels like U.S. 71 is more like the dividing line.

Policy directors with BikeWalkKC not only see U.S. 71 as an unsafe crossing for residents, but also as a barrier to access. Many people have to walk or take the bus every day.

"You're effectively starving these communities of access to things like groceries, healthy food, medical care, schooling. These are things that were being voiced by the neighbors back then and we're seeing play out in a real time today," Michael Kelley, policy director for BikeWalkKC, said.

City leaders, like Mayor Quinton Lucas, said the city can't go back in time to right fundamental wrongs, but they can move forward.

"It's time we improve not just the public safety of the area but it's time we bring the community back together," Lucas said.

But everyone still has their own thoughts about it.

"I think it's a good thing for the city," Young said. "I think it would be better if it was not a 45 mile per hour speed limit. No one wants to go 45."