‘The Paseo & Ward Parkway’ by Mike Sinclair

Mike Sinclair, “Mercier Street and Ward Parkway”

The well-known KC photographer’s new book tells a tale of two (Kansas) Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” Well, maybe not the worst of times. But looking through the latest project by photographer Mike Sinclair, “The Paseo & Ward Parkway,” it is hard not to think along these Dickensian lines. These two streets — The Paseo and Ward Parkway — had similar beginnings but are very different now. Ward Parkway mansions are home to the rich while on The Paseo, many of the beautiful homes have seen better days.

In this offshoot of his earlier series, “City Beautiful,” Sinclair focuses on the green spaces that were created to remedy unsightly urban sprawl. At the turn of the century, the rapid and unchecked growth of cities across the country resulted in dirty, congested spaces with inadequate roads and little regard for pedestrians. The City Beautiful movement sought beautification through the creation of parks and boulevards that would increase civic pride, boost the local economy and elevate the standard of living.

William Rockhill Nelson, the owner of the Kansas City Star newspaper, and August Meyer, first president of the Parks Board, hired landscape architect George Kessler in 1893 to create a series of parks linked by one major boulevard — The Paseo. Running from Independence Avenue to 85th Street, The Paseo involved a series of precise tree plantings (marked by the heel of Kessler’s shoe), carefully manicured sunken gardens, rolling parklands, and hardscape elements including pergolas, fountains, ponds and memorial monuments. Ward Parkway, begun almost 15 years after The Paseo, had similar aspirations. Created to maintain the natural beauty of the area and to prevent commercial development, Ward Parkway was a part of developer J. C. Nichols’ grand plan to provide green space for residents along with carefully designed subdivisions and neighborhoods. By the 1920s, Ward Parkway had eclipsed The Paseo as Kansas City’s premier roadway.

Mike Sinclair, “Dunn Park, 67th and The Paseo (Daniel Boone farm)”

Tracking time’s passing

True to his purpose, Sinclair’s photographs are about planned green spaces and the ways they are meant to enhance the lives of residents. Indeed, a cursory focus on the images, without regard for the captions, might lead one to confuse the two areas as belonging to a single road in Kansas City. The grandiose intentions of the city planners are evident: the rhythmic planting of the trees, the tennis and basketball courts, monuments, terraces, meandering streams, sidewalks and pathways — all exist for the use and enjoyment of the public. But there is a palpable melancholia that runs through this series. These photographs are also about the passing of time, a wistfulness about “what once was.”

Sinclair, a lifelong resident of Kansas City, knows many of these spaces intimately — he played tennis on the courts as a kid and watched single trees grow large and craggy with age. Although the parks were an important part of his childhood, Sinclair notes that “Now, it’s kind of a burden to the city. Some of these things are becoming ruins.” Indeed, trees are missing, new plantings impact the once balanced scene. Many of the flower beds were removed with only the footprint remaining.

Mike Sinclair, “Sycamore Trees 50th and The Paseo”

Sinclair photographs both boulevards throughout the different seasons; in some images, trees are bare and sculptural, in others, leaves litter the ground. The lush spring bloom surrenders to dry summers followed by snowy winters and the detritus of fall. Most photographs are taken on overcast days or early evening, when the shadows are long. Landscapes are largely unpeopled. Sinclair places himself at a distance, much removed, as if looking backward through time.

Going slowly back through Sinclair’s photographs and reading the accompanying captions, another aspect becomes evident — the racial and economic disparities between the two streets. Sinclair concedes the similarities were much easier to reckon with than the differences. In the prologue to the book, he writes: “(in) describing the idea to people . . . I did not talk much about their differences, that was harder. One had a monument dedicated to ‘The Loyal Women of the Old South’ and one was involved in a debate about whether to change its name from The Paseo to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.”

Although Sinclair never directly references the income disparities of the two areas, some of his captions provide clues. In one photograph of Ward Parkway, Sinclair questions the reasoning for benches located on only one side of the street, wondering if it was “so the maids who worked in those big houses would have a place to sit and wait for the bus.” Some dissimilarities are less obvious — well-tended dogs wait patiently with their owners for the traffic light to change on Ward Parkway while a pack of feral dogs congregates alongside a barren cul-de-sac on The Paseo. A winged lion — one of several European sculptures imported by J. C. Nichols — stands at attention on Ward Parkway while the Gates Struttin’ Man with top hat and cane pauses on The Paseo.

More than 100 years have elapsed since the beginning of either The Paseo or Ward Parkway projects, and time has not been kind — in an uneven sort of way. Nevertheless, these green spaces are still used — for pick-up basketball or hockey games, for picnics or Easter egg hunts. They provide a welcome respite from the traffic and concrete, even if only experienced briefly, while whizzing by in a car. Thankfully, photographer Mike Sinclair takes the time to slow things down and quietly, thoughtfully, and skillfully capture the past and the present, all in a single shot. Nice job, Mike. o

A big thank you to Eve at the Missouri Valley Special Collections Room of the Kansas City Public Library for help with this article.

Copies of “The Paseo & Ward Parkway” can be preordered at www.mikesinclair.com/the-paseo-and-ward-parkway, available Aug. 20. Photographs from the series will be featured in the 2023 Kansas City Flatfile & Digitalfile exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace from July 7 through Sept. 23.

Jane L. Aspinwall

Jane L. Aspinwall is the former curator and collections supervisor of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Holding a PhD in art history and an MBA, she has authored and curated numerous publications and exhibitions on photography. Aspinwall is currently working on a project about the early work of Alfred Eisenstaedt.

  1. Natasha Ria El-Scari says:

    I grew up one block from 75th and Paseo and it is a major reason I love KCMO. As an African American girl I played with my friends, played my guitar silently and walked my dogs. We considered the green space a sacred ground but also something black folks didn’t or couldn’t use. It was never said but deeply implied. I was often called white for using the green space for what it was designed for—enjoyment. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

    Natasha Ria

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