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Beautiful and Damned: Geographies of Interwar Kansas City

  • Author(s): Owen, Lance
  • Advisor(s): Johns, Michael
  • et al.
Abstract

Between the World Wars, Kansas City, Missouri, achieved what no American city ever had, earning a Janus-faced reputation as America’s most beautiful and most corrupt and crime-ridden city. Delving into politics, architecture, social life, and artistic production, this dissertation explores the geographic realities of this peculiar identity. It illuminates the contours of the city’s two figurative territories: the corrupt and violent urban core presided over by political boss Tom Pendergast, and the pristine suburban world shaped by developer J. C. Nichols. It considers the ways in which these seemingly divergent regimes in fact shaped together the city’s most iconic features—its Country Club District and Plaza, a unique brand of jazz, a seemingly sophisticated aesthetic legacy written in boulevards and fine art, and a landscape of vice whose relative scale was unrivaled by that of any other American city. Finally, it elucidates the reality that, by sustaining these two worlds in one metropolis, America’s heartland city also sowed the seeds of its own destruction; with its cultural economy tied to political corruption and organized crime, its pristine suburban fabric woven from prejudice and exclusion, and its aspirations for urban greatness weighed down by provincial mindsets and mannerisms, Kansas City’s time in the limelight would be short lived. In the end, Kansas City's apotheosis of identity was—like that of every city's—as tenuous as it was definitive.

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