Initiative Petition on November 5 Ballot
by Mary Wilson
Kellie Jones has lived on The Paseo for over 10 years. This year, however, her beloved community has been forced to alter, as the City Council approved a name change from The Paseo to Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
“I didn’t want this change,” said Jones. “When people hear Martin Luther King, of course they want to support that. It’s not about Martin Luther King. This is about the process. We want to honor him, just not in this way. You don’t see streets change like this. You just don’t. This is a huge change, and if you’re going to do it, you need to make sure you do it the right way. And, that just wasn’t done.”
Jones wasn’t alone. In fact, many of her neighbors in the community weren’t pleased with the name change either.
“It is, inevitably, the most historic boulevard in Kansas City,” said local historian and educator Diane Euston.
In the late 1890s, when the Kansas City Parks Department was created, according to Euston, August Meyer wanted to ensure that beautification of the city was a priority. Meyer hired George Kessler, a famous German architect, to help with design, and the first section of The Paseo was established from Independence Ave. to 17th Street.
“Paseo was his best creation,” said Euston. “He was so proud of that design. August Meyer, of course, has a boulevard named after him, and he was responsible for the naming of The Paseo. As a historian, I value the history and cultural significance in the city. This is cross-cultural. The Paseo doesn’t just mean a lot to historians, it means a lot to people who grew up there and are a part of that neighborhood. It is so uniquely Kansas City. I mean, it has a ‘the’ in front of it, which makes it so unique.”
The first fountain in Kansas City was placed on The Paseo in 1899. In the early 1900s, The Paseo was extended to Brush Creek. After a handful more extensions, further beautification and updates, in 1975, the Parks Board was given the authority to honor individuals with street names who make significant contributions to the city.
Euston explained that a group of ministers with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began to talk about potentially changing the name of The Paseo back in the 1980s, though nothing happened at that time. There is a process, Euston said, that Kansas City follows for naming or renaming streets, and boulevards, while they don’t fall under control of the government, are left up to the Parks Board to decide.
“The last time, I believe, that a boulevard was renamed in Kansas City, it was for Emanuel Cleaver,” said Euston. “When that happened, they actually only changed part of the boulevard in order to maintain the historic significance of Brush Creek and 47th Street.”
In August of 2016, the National Register of Historic Places honored the Kansas City Parks and Boulevard system and included The Paseo to 18th Street as part of a historic district. That same year, the SCLC approached the Parks Board about renaming The Paseo, but they were turned down due to the boulevard’s historical significance. In 2018, then Kansas City Mayor Sly James formed the MLK Advisory Group to determine the best options to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the city.
The MLK Advisory Group’s top two recommendations were to honor Dr. King with either the airport naming or renaming 63rd Street. The Paseo was third on that list. Out of the street names, 63rd Street was recommended by six of nine advisory groups’ votes. In October of 2018, former Councilman Scott Taylor’s Revive the East Side proposal included a provision to rename The Paseo for Dr. King, allocating up to $750,000 to do so. That plan was eventually approved by the City Council, but only after removing The Paseo naming provision from the ordinance.
However, despite efforts by community groups, the City Council voted 8-4 on January 24 of this year to rename The Paseo for Dr. King. Nearly 10 miles of road were changed from The Paseo to Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., with the first signs being replaced in February. On March 15, an initiative petition, started by five residents along The Paseo including Jones, began circulating the community. The petitioners would need 1,706 signatures from Kansas City, Missouri voters to put the issue out to the voters.
“I just did not want this change,” said Jones. “We are just regular people who feel like this isn’t right. I don’t like it and I want to be heard. Throughout this whole process, I haven’t been heard. Not only was my voice not heard, but as I started to reach out to my neighbors, I realized it wasn’t just me who felt this way.”
Jones overwhelmingly heard from her community the same thoughts she had: where was the engagement? How was the city council able to push this issue through without talking to the people who live on The Paseo?
“When I started learning more about the process that this name change went through, it enraged me,” said Jones. “Especially being a constituent, a voter and a person who has a vested interest, I felt so dismissed.”
The grassroots petitioners, named Save The Paseo, began engaging their community for support. The group garnered 2,857 signatures, over 1,000 more than required for the issue to appear on the ballot for the November 5 special election. When the petition was filed and approved for placement on the ballot, work on changing The Paseo over to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. stopped.
“We can honor Dr. King and we can keep Paseo,” said Jones. “Most people want to honor him, and they really don’t care if it’s Paseo. As a person of color who lives on Paseo, I feel ignored. They didn’t even acknowledge me. People were relieved to have someone come talk to them and give them a voice. We elected these people to do a job, and we are going to hold them accountable.”
Euston said that the Save The Paseo group understands their work is not complete on November 5. If the name change reversal passes, she said she feels as though another committee needs to be established to determine how best to honor Dr. King in the city.
“We want to be a part of that conversation,” said Euston. “We want the SCLC to be a part of that conversation. Let’s work together. This is not over, and we know that.”
Despite whatever outcome may prevail on November 5, Jones said she is proud to have worked with the group, as it has united people from across the city of all races, cultures and backgrounds.
“People really got behind this issue,” said Jones. “We made people think and listen. The next time the city goes to do something, maybe they’ll think of the Save The Paseo group. You know, Dr. King wanted to unite people, and we have done that; we have become united. But I think they’ll think twice about just pushing something through without having engagement and we would be successful in that.”
“We represent what Dr. King stood for,” added Euston. “The whole idea of uniting and shaking hands and working together, that’s what makes this all totally worth it. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve met so many amazing people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”
The initiative petition for changing the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. back to The Paseo Blvd. will appear as question five on the ballot for Kansas City, Missouri voters on November 5: Shall the City of Kansas City change the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., which is approximately 9.98 miles in length from the center line of Lexington Avenue south and east to a point south of the center line of East 85th Street, back to The Paseo Boulevard?