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Two Americas: Temporary exhibit highlights how redlining shaped Kansas City, suburbs

Posted at 6:55 AM, Jun 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-21 07:55:07-04

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Michael Toombs started gravitating towards art in the sixth grade.

A program at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, led by local artist Matthew Monks, helped Toombs escape the realities he faced living with his siblings and single mother in a public housing complex in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Trying to find a place for us to live that was going to give us an opportunity to advance our lives, that was a difficult challenge,” Toombs recalled.

Toombs’ situation was a reality in part due to lingering effects of redlining. Redlining is the systematic disinvestment of certain neighborhoods on the basis of race.

Private and public organizations redlined more than 50% of the Kansas City metropolitan area in the 1930s, meaning they viewed those areas as a poor investment because of the Black, Jewish, Italian or other ethnic groups who lived in the areas. Areas in Brookside, or along Ward Parkway, and across the state line in Johnson County, Kansas, where the population was mostly white, were green or blue-lined, meaning banks saw investments in those areas as worthwhile.

Redlining became illegal in the 1960s, but decades later the effects of those decisions remain obvious in both the city and suburbs.

“When it’s being designed so that certain factions of our community get substandard quality in those things, what happens is, eventually, as young people become adults, they’re going to substandard in what they are able to contribute in our society,” Toombs said.

One of Toombs’ newest works of art now hangs in a temporary exhibit at the Johnson County Museum in Overland Park, Kansas. The exhibit is titled Redlined: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation.

Toombs’ 12 inch by 12 inch acrylic painting depicts a building on the east side of Kansas City, Missouri’s Troost Avenue and a building on the Country Club Plaza, which is west of Troost Avenue.

“Everything on the east side of Troost is one way and everything on the west side is another,” Toombs said, pointing out how blight and advertisements for cigarettes and alcohol prevail on the east side - which was redlined - whereas the west side is well-maintained.

“These policies are impacting people. People live in the redlined and yellow-lined areas on these maps,” explained Andrew R. Gustafson, the curator of interpretation at the Johnson County Museum.

He spent more than a year researching redlining in the region and crafted the temporary exhibit on display now with the help of the African American Artists Collective.

“We sometimes say history will repeat itself if we don’t pay attention. This history is not repeating, this history is continuing,” Gustafson pointed out.

His goal with the exhibit is to raise awareness about how the issues of redlining continue to shape our society and encourage the public to look for solutions. The museum highlights several people and groups who combated racism and redlining at the time.

“Thinking about what the community wants its future to look like in equity and in things like that is really key,” Gustafson said.

And the message appears to be resonating — he said the museum has received more requests for guided tours of this exhibit than any other exhibit in its history.

“If we don’t deal with it, our kids are going to have to deal with it. It shouldn’t be that way. We should make things better for them and they should make things better for their kids,” Toombs added.

The exhibit runs from now through Jan. 7, 2023 at the Johnson County Museum, located at 8788 Metcalf Ave.

Two Americas is part of a KSHB and Scripps signature issue to help introduce our community to the America you know and the America you might not know. Our role as the media is to share the news of the day, but we also seek to give a voice to people we don't hear from often.

Of course, there are many parts that make up our community, so we’re not just showing you two and we’re not pitting two sides against each other. Instead, we’re hoping to highlight solutions and showcase different perspectives to help us all better understand our area's culture, our area's past, and why our community feels the way it does today.