Published January 25th, 2021 at 12:04 PM7 minute read
The mighty chime of church bells echoes through orderly rows of old brick buildings, some of them marked with now-faint hand-painted advertisements.
There’s something about walking the streets of Kansas City’s Columbus Park that suggests the neighborhood has a storied past.
Whether it was an evening at Garozzo’s Ristorante, where Frank Sinatra tunes croon over patrons and passersby, or perhaps a portrayal of Kansas City gangsters on the latest bingeable TV series, curiousKC reader Brian McAree inquired: “What life was like in Columbus Park during its heyday?”
Before digging in, it’s worth noting that yet another dive into Kansas City’s organized crime chronicles wouldn’t paint a picture of what everyday life was like in Columbus Park.
While stories of local mobsters might hit the true crime spot for some, for a moment consider the living family members and friends of those whose lives were altered forever because of organized crime. Romanticizing those very real moments gets pretty old.
Plus, to fully tell the story of the Italian immigrants who built livelihoods and legacies once on the ground in Columbus Park would require a screenplay longer and way more feel-good than “The Godfather.”
Rather, this curiousKC story offers a panoramic view of the historic Italian neighborhood. You know, like what the huddled pigeons may have seen from Holy Rosary’s bell tower through the years.
The first Italian immigrants arrived in Kansas City in the 1860s. Word spread among Italians pondering the promise of American opportunity and there was a steady influx of immigrants to the area, about 85% of them coming from the island of Sicily.
The brave caught wind of life in the far off land of Kansas City, Missouri, and set out for the streets where brothers, cousins and neighbors landed and sent letters home saying they made it.
Back then, Columbus Park didn’t exist. The neighborhood was simply known as “The North End” and roughly stretched between Cherry Street to the west and Tracy Avenue to the east. The neighborhood’s original north-south boundaries spanned from Third Street and the Missouri River bluffs to just around Admiral Boulevard to the south.
Why the north end of town? Proximity to the old meatpacking houses, the River Market and Garment District promised work. Back then, sidewalks were made of wood, streets were dirt and corner lamps were lit by hand.
The new residents spoke mostly Sicilian and still cooked tomatoes down into spicy sugu. Each morning, new countrymen and women would set off for a shift sewing patch work, selling vegetables or even scavenging local hillsides.
In 1897, a Kansas City Star reporter detailed an account of “squatters of different class” searching for dandelions and rhubarb just outside of the North End.
“One day last week a reporter for The Star came across a pair of them clinging to the clay wall in the cable loop out gathering greens,” the reporter wrote. “A fat baby was perched on a hammock… ‘What are you gathering?’ the women were asked.”
For some, the plan was to make American money and head back to the old country. For others, there was no going back. So where the Kansas City Italians now lived, they would die. In between, of course, they would pray.
By 1890, a parish was established by Scalibrini monks. In 1898 and 1902 came the LaPetina and Sebbeto funeral homes, respectively.
And just like that Kansas City had its “Little Italy.”
hey·day /ˈhāˌdā/ noun The period of a person’s or thing’s greatest success, popularity, or vigor.
With closed eyes, imagine the opening number to a musical set in a small town. Maybe, a woman dumps a bucket from a second-story window, a huckster hawks tomatoes, old men gather on stoops to discuss world events, before breaking into song.
If it were on Broadway, the story of the North End would open just so, with shopkeepers sweeping, cuts of meat swinging in butcher shops, while children played baseball in vacant lots and linens hung high above the street.
This was the North End in its heyday.
Streets were eventually paved and hucksters soon drove vegetable trucks instead of pulling carts.
It didn’t take long for the first few generations in the neighborhood to build a community and functioning local economy. It was all right there, in what today is referred to as “the old neighborhood.”
The first half of the 20th century in the North End meant family owned grocery and dry goods stores on seemingly every corner.
Cheebay’s Drug Store operated at the corner of Pacific and Gillis, right up the street from the beauty shop. That’s where women gabbed about the latest issue of the Il Piccolo Messaggero church newsletter, while their husbands perhaps shot pool at the hall on the same block.
Barber shops, a bakery, the credit union, it was all right there in Little Italy, partially because it had to be. The xenophobic and racist sentiment that exists regarding immigrants today existed long ago.
In a 1977 issue of Kansas City Magazine titled “The Good Italians of KC,” Marion Trozzolo, the publisher of the Ethnic American Newspaper, recalled the discrimination that generations before him encountered outside of the North End.
“They’d arrest you if you were south of [the North End],” he said. “There were signs in windows that said ‘No Italians May Apply.’”
Like any immigrant hub, authentic restaurants popped up in the North End. The smell of garlic, fresh bread and homemade pasta filled the air.
Popular spots included LaSala’s, home of the “Poor Boy” sandwich, which is still a menu item today at the deli’s modern concept “The North End,” Lucian’s, located where Garozzo’s is today, in addition to Jennie’s over on Cherry.
Blocks of split-level flats and apartment buildings became packed with multi-generational tenants. Living in close quarters with no air conditioning made space on the balcony premium, wrote Dale Castle of The Northeast News.
He interviewed the legendary Badami sisters who, at the time, had spent 91 and 86 years of their life in the North End. The lack of modern convenience meant steamy nights in the neighborhood’s mostly brick housing. The sisters Anna and Minnie recalled nights spent sleeping on the balcony to stay cool.
The North End’s children were sent off to school in the neighborhood at either Holy Rosary or to The Karnes School, located in the southeast corner of Little Italy. The younger generations learned English and translated for the strictly Sicilian or Italian speakers.
Language is a bit of a sticking point among Kansas City Italians, said Jody Valet, a fourth-generation descendant of immigrants and local archivist.
Valet has a language test for any area Italian. If someone refers to pasta sauce as “sugu,” their heritage runs back to the old Sicilian language.
“This means that immigration most likely occurred before Mussolini standardized Italian as the taught language across Sicily,” Valet explained.
“Sugo” suggests post-Mussolini influence.
“So no one is wrong or right,” she concluded.
Establishing the parish with native-speaking clergy was a first priority for the early inhabitants of the North End. But building a church took time.
Five years after the parish was established, the first Holy Rosary church was erected at 5th Street and Forest Avenue.
Eight years later, it burned to the ground on Easter Sunday of 1903.
By the end of that year, the church was rebuilt at the southeast corner of Missouri Avenue and Campbell Street, where it stands today.
Well regarded as the rock of Columbus Park even today, Holy Rosary was as much a part of the lives of North End residents as its bells are a part of the city sound.
Baptisms, funerals, weddings, St. Joseph’s tables, confessions and other community events officially had their venue following the Dec. 20, 1903 dedication by Monsignor Hogan.
A testament to the church’s dedication to its people came during World War II, when Italian prisoners of war were allowed to attend mass at Holy Rosary. Even as members of the opposition, they could pray in their native tongue.
In her recent book preserving the history of the neighborhood church, Valet painted a picture of Victory over Japan Day in the North End. Of 695 families belonging to the parish, 673 men and women served in the war.
“Tremendous joy and relief spread across the neighborhood in the early morning hours of August 14, 1945, as news spread of Japan’s surrender. The war was over. Father started ringing the bells just before 4 a.m. and by 5 a.m. the church was packed and he said mass. The celebration then turned into a parade either marched or drove to the Kansas City Star building and Liberty Memorial. LaSala’s passed out free sandwiches and pop to anyone who passed by on 5th Street for the rest of the day.”
At the end of the war, the prisoners of war gifted the church a wooden statue of Mary carved in wood.
In 1940, construction of the Don Bosco Community Center was completed across Campbell Street from Holy Rosary. Named after the patron saint of Italian youth, the Don Bosco Community Center served as a space for immigrants to acclimate to life in the United States.
Families joined at the center to play basketball, take sewing classes, and get boxing lessons, among other activities.
By mid-century, the North End’s heyday was coming to a close.
In the 1950s, an infrastructure project to transform Sixth Street Trafficway into what would eventually become Interstate 35 cut the south side of the North End in half.
As generations of Italian-Americans earned an education and went off to universities, young families moved out of the neighborhood. Many relocated to the northeast, others to North Kansas City.
The neighborhood’s name was officially changed in April 1967, when a vote was held to call the North End “Columbus Park.”
Additional research for this story was provided by Michael Bushnell of the Northeast News, who formerly provided a walking tour of the neighborhood for the Kansas City Museum.