Published August 23rd, 2021 at 12:02 PM8 minute read
Just as you cross the state line into Kansas on southbound Interstate 35 the Cambridge Circle Business Park looms high on the right. Its warehouses and parking lots are terraced on a hillside overlooking the endless roar of highway traffic.
Nearly 50 years ago the same craggy hillside was a tightly knit and culturally diverse community known as Greystone Heights. But plans for the interstate were drawn to cut through the southern edge of the community, and create a setting for development.
Before long, the hill that families and children once called home was replaced with underground storage facilities and corporate offices. Its history has largely disappeared too and now exists only in the memories of its former residents and in faded newspaper clippings.
Maybe that’s why a reader wrote curiousKC to ask: “Was there an African American community that was displaced in building I-35 in the area south of Cambridge Circle? A nightclub frequented by African Americans on the bluff was torn down as well as houses of African American homeowners. Can you tell me more?”
The area in question is bordered by the Kansas River on the north, the stateline to the east, Turkey Creek to the west and the interstate to the south.
The limestone hill was a glacier deposit existing long before the city itself. Accounts from the late 1800s tell of a crime-ridden neighborhood that looped around the base of the hill called Toadoloop.
Origins of the name (and its spelling) are disputed, but it most logically derived from the French fur trapper post along the river known as “Tour de Loop” or “walk of the wolves.” That name was adapted to the local vernacular as the initial wave of the French trappers, led by the Chouteau family, dissipated.
After the trappers moved on, Toadoloop became what Westport historian Edwin Harris called, a “rough and rowdy lot of squatters.” The area became known for its rampant crime and many “joints” or bars.
An 1895 article in the Kansas City Journal details one clever “jointist” Bill Lewis, who situated his Toadoloop bar on the state line, allowing criminals to hop to the other side and evade arrest from either the Kansas or Missouri police who could only arrest in their own territories.
Eventually, officials sawed the joint in half on the state line and pulled the Kansas portion away. Effectively, Lewis’ clever game ended.
Soon Toadoloop ceased to exist, long before the interstate was to enter the picture.
Historians, newspapers and books offered nothing of this area after the fall of Toadoloop. However, a Rosedale historian, Wendy Wilson, helped track down some former residents of Greystone Heights, the neighborhood which had towered above, and survived, Toadoloop.
James Nave grew up in Greystone Heights at 14 August St. He estimates at the time of his birth in 1949, that 400 Black, white and Hispanic families threaded together the close-knit community atop what he affectionately called, “Goat’s Hill.”
“We had a lot of fun on the hill,” Nave said.
He remembers the “rockcrusher diamond” where he and his friends played baseball and got bloody knees from its rocky infield.
The roads weren’t paved and many houses didn’t have plumbing, but Nave said everyone was like a parent — they took care of you.
“Most of the people up in Greystone wouldn’t be pushed around, but they would give you the shirt off their back,” Nave said. “We weren’t actually kin, but we were kindred spirits.”
His mother, Odell Nave, was born in the neighborhood and her mother lived just down the road at 10 August St. Dewitt Nave, James’ father, found his way to the hill from Oklahoma.
Many people, Nave said, would come in on the train (the area was bordered by railroad tracks) from the south and settle on “Goat’s Hill” because it was one of the few neighborhoods people knew of.
“It was like a Black stopover station, and from there, they dispersed to Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri,” Nave added.
Dorothy Banks’ parents, Shedrick and Lillie, also came from Oklahoma and settled on the hill at 1174 Cambridge St. Banks grew up with Nave and has similarly fond memories of her childhood on the rocky streets.
Banks remembers the community doing what they could to help each other. For instance, the Smith family helped her dad build an extra section of their Cambridge Street house with concrete blocks. Community members stepped in when her mother would leave to take care of an ill neighbor.
“People just cared for each other,” Banks recalled. “My mother would feed anybody who was hungry. It didn’t matter what race they were, whatever we had, and we didn’t have a lot, but whatever it was that we were having for dinner, she was willing to share it with anybody who was hungry.”
Not everything on the hill was as picturesque as its spirit.
Banks said just south of her house sat the Thompson Hayward chemical plant and just across the street was the Sims Barrel Co. Her sister was allergic to one of the chemicals from the barrel company and her face would swell up sometimes when they played in the yard.
In 1958 the family was forced to leave their house, briefly, following an explosion and chemical fire at the plant. Banks remembers seeing the flames from her parents’ house and later, lawyers offering settlements to residents for potential exposure to toxic chemicals.
“From where our house was located, it shook the house and you looked out and you just saw flames,” Banks said.
Despite all of this, Banks said she has nothing but fond memories of the hill she grew up on.
Development of the Interstate Highway System spelled the end for Greystone Heights.
The Kansas Department of Transportation decided to connect the Kansas stretch of Interstate 35 to the Missouri side through the southern end of Greystone Heights. A newspaper article from 1964 estimated the construction would displace about 50 families from the area.
Lester Dean, of Dean Realty Co. began to approach the Kansas City, Kansas Commission with requests to urbanize Greystone Heights around the same time. Dean saw the interstate as an opportunity for industrial development in what appeared to be a decaying neighborhood.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the interstate that displaced most of the residents of Greystone Heights, but Dean’s growing empire.
Several years later, city officials met with state officials to ask for exit and on-ramps at Cambridge St. They argued this interchange would be imperative for the urban redevelopment (headed by Dean) of the area. An article in The Kansas City Star article stated that officials were not hopeful the motion would be approved, yet by 1970 construction began for the costly on and off ramps to, “open the area up for industrial development.”
The Banks family home was in the path of what’s now one of these exits, so they had to leave the area with the construction. Banks said the city gave what they thought the property was worth, but for many families that wasn’t enough to pick up and relocate. Her father had already paid off their home, and what the city gave him for it was only enough for a down payment where they relocated.
“It caused some debt that they possibly would not have had, had the highway not come through and taken our property like that,” Banks said. “I was old enough to remember that what the city gave was not what he really wanted and needed to actually relocate.”
By 1968, Dean requested the city name Greystone Heights a “blighted area” where urban renewal must happen. Operating as the Greystone Heights Development Corp. he cited unsafe housing without sewage and some without water as leading causes to revitalize the area.
Members of the Greystone community had asked the city, in vain, to fund the revitalization of the residential neighborhood with plumbing. A year later, Dean proposed privately funding the urban renewal project, and the city agreed to let him develop the 160-acre area.
Years later, when residents would be forced to move because of the development, they were ineligible for federal relocation benefits because the project was privately funded and run.
Advocacy groups pleaded for the area to be dedicated to low-income housing, but, according to a 1971 article in the Star, the city held that tenants in this area could not afford to install and maintain sewer lines through the rocky soil. Industrial businesses could do so.
The city, again, did not want to fix the area when someone else – Dean – was willing to do it for them.
Our curiousKC reader asked about a nightclub in the area, and while such a place didn’t exist in the original neighborhood, a bar and restaurant was built as the last few residents of Greystone Heights remained.
In early articles about the development, Dean talked about dreams of a Hilton and restaurants benefitting from the spectacular view atop Goat’s Hill.
In 1979 plans for Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine were released as Dean’s Fairmont Development Co. brought in the chain steakhouse from Denver. The restaurant employed some of the remaining Greystone Heights residents, offered a view of the city and an allegedly famous beer cheese soup.
Just five years after it opened in 1980, the walls and the floor started shifting and Baby Doe’s had to close. In a year, the ground was leveled and now, almost 40 years later, the 41-acre lot is listed for sale by Copaken Brooks.
Dean developed the land on both sides of the state line. In Missouri, he had the support of the city and was able to get all of the homes on condemnation ordinances, but because the Kansas side wanted to stay out of the project, the timeline was less predictable.
According to a feature article in the Star about Dean’s development, the corporation bought about 100 of the properties as tax-delinquent properties and others accepted low offers from the corporation for their houses.
By the late ‘70s, about 10 houses remained on the hill, one of which was the Nave residence. Odell Nave said there was no point in moving if they weren’t going to get a good price for their home.
James Nave didn’t remember the figures his parents were quoted for their home but said it wasn’t enough for his father to budge.
“They had to run him out of Greystone,” Nave said.
In 1984 about four Greystone Heights residents were still clinging to the hillside.
An article in the Wyandotte County Star details the Nave family and some others still fighting for a fair price. Dewitt Nave received an offer of $17,500 for his home, another resident was offered $4,600 for her seven-room home, neither of which were accepted, according to the story.
Residents were promised $25,000 in relocation costs, which would be far from enough to purchase a new home without debt. For context, a $150,000 house today would have cost around $56,000 in 1984.
Eventually, the city stepped in and forced the remaining residents to relocate, with promise of reimbursement by Dean.
When the community was broken up as the properties were bought, Nave said people went all directions. Many of them moved to the Missouri side of the city and others further away still.
“They scattered to the wind,” Nave said. “They really did.”
Today, Greystone Missionary Baptist Church, at which Nave is a deacon, has stayed on Greystone Avenue. It moved from its original location and has been rebuilt several times but continues to be one thing that brings the dispersed community together.
If Greystone Heights had remained what it was rather than the industrial park it is today, Nave said the families would have stayed, and younger generations would have built new homes to raise their families on the hill.
“I wish they hadn’t destroyed it,” Nave said. “It was a community that stuck together.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.