The Hollows of Kansas City
The history of the Kansas City National Training School for Deaconesses and Missionaries and its intersection with Kansas City history is fascinating. I’ve been reading A City Divided: The Racial Landscape of Kansas City, 1900-1960 by Sherry Lamb Schirmer (University of Missouri Press, 2002) hand-in-hand with The Kansas City Deaconess, November 1909. Both sources, written nearly a century apart, tell about the horrible living conditions in the steep ravines called “hollows” of Kansas City.
Kansas City at the turn of the 20th century was an ugly place with stockyards, soap factories, rail yards, and other industries polluting the air and water in the prone-to-flood West Bottoms. Brambles and shanties covered the bluffs that rose to the east. The wealthy built on the high places surrounding themselves with parks and boulevards. But the poor lived in the poorly developed hollows that riddled Kansas City. Schirmer writes:
… housing in the hollows was cheap … Unfortunately, it was also ramshackle. Landlords jammed flimsy frame structures onto the hollows’ unpaved streets and alleyways. Sanitation facilities were scant, and just a fifth of the buildings were connected to city water mains, so that householders often drew their water from contaminated cisterns or carried it home from nearby saloons. (Schirmer 2002, 37)
Belvidere Hollow in the North End was an enclave of mostly black households, whose residents had moved there to “escape the dreary West Bottoms” (ibid). In The Kansas City Deaconess of November 1909, a visit to Belvidere Hollow is described:
… we descend a flight of seventy steps and find ourselves in Belvidere Hollow, or the North End … We are not real sure about the street number, so by mistake go up the wrong street. At the last house we stop, thinking it to be the place we are to visit. We enter the house, going into the front room. The first thing we notice is that the plaster is mostly off; the windows no longer have glass, but old shades are nailed over them to keep out the cold. In this small room is a bed, an old cot, a small stove, a trunk, and a few old chairs. (November 1909, 4).
The story in The Kansas City Deaconess doesn’t do the scene justice. That would take a video and a scratch-and-sniff book. Two young women, dressed in long black dresses, walk down steep stairs into an overgrown, muddy, smelly hollow. They then find their way along unpaved, neglected roads, possibly through open sewers, to a desperately poor home. In the first home they don’t even know the people, but they go in and finding an old woman and her orphaned granddaughter, they set to work doing what they can to help. The woman’s son is at work, but they learn he has tuberculosis, so the deaconesses put contacting the local health nurse on their “to do list.” Leaving that home and retracing their steps, they find the house they were looking for, only to discover no one home. The return trip takes them back on the bad roads, but as they approach the flight of stairs, they see a couple on the stairs “drinking from a jug” (ibid) so they decide to go another way. After cutting across a yard, they go up another stairway out of the hollow.
Current projects in the Saint Paul library include applying for a grant to get The Kansas City Deaconess scanned and online.