Keeping the Past in the Present: The Brookside Shops

By LaDene Morton | Arcadia Author
Author LaDene Morton has always been a lover of Brookside. After more than thirty years working in community development, and helping to build the Brookside district, she’s exploring the exciting history of Brookside in The Brookside Story: Shops of Every Necessary Character. Read on to learn more about her book, and its new ten year centennial anniversary edition!
 
 
In 2009, I started my publishing relationship with The History Press with The Brookside Story: Shops of Every Necessary Character. Ten years and two more History Press/Arcadia books later, I can happily say it’s been a great partnership, and I’m excited to celebrate that relationship with an updated edition of the Brookside book, to commemorate the shopping district’s 100th anniversary in 2019.

The Brookside Shops, at 63rd Street and Brookside Boulevard, rest in the heart of that part of Kansas City, Missouri that was built between the two World Wars.  The shops are but a feature in the visionary plan belonging to one of the most influential 20th century figures in urban development, Kansas City’s own Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols. In his lifetime, Nichols’ plan grew to cover some 6,000 contiguous acres he named “The Country Club District.” The Country Club District as conceived was more than just houses and streets. Nichols believed that a community with all the amenities planned into it would be a place in which residents would feel socially, as well as financially, invested. Nichols’ vision was that of a comprehensive network for community development, from homes, to churches and schools, to shopping districts. Districts that were not unlike Brookside, the first among many.

The Brookside shops under construction in 1919. Image courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.Though Nichols’ started building housing in 1908, it was another twenty-one years before Nichols began building the commercial areas that were always a part of his plan. The first building, eponymously named the Brookside Building, was completed in 1919. The first shop in that building – a dry cleaner – opened in the fall of that year. By 1930, the Brookside Shops were a multi-block district. The architectural style, a Tudor-esque half-frame construction with slate roofs, blends in with the surrounding homes. The fact that the architecture remains intact, even after 100 years and significant changes in every area of construction, is one of the reasons why the district is such a valued historical area.

Less familiar to Kansas Citians is the historically significant role the Brookside Shops played in the refinement of Nichols’ plan. Nichols used Brookside as a laboratory for creating his “recipe” for commercial development. Over time, his practices became the industry standards for every facet of commercial construction and management - where to place the street trees, the configuration of alleyways and parking spaces, the exact mix of shops, the means of calculating rents, the exterior embellishments, even the standards of service he expected his tenant to provide customers – nothing was too small for J.C. Nichols’ attention, and nothing was too established for him not to reconsider how it might be made better. His reputation was unparalleled among his national peers, and his standards were formalized in a 1947 Urban Land Institute publication, “The Community Builders’ Handbook.” The ULI’s most prestigious award for urban development is known to this day as the Nichols Award.

The Brookside dime store, circa 1942. Image courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.As important as Nichols’ plan – and Brookside’s part in it – may have been in the history of urban development, the Brookside Shops greatest value resides in cultural significance to the community over its 100 years. One reason regional histories like this one are so popular is that they tell the stories of a community’s life, from generation to generation. From the beginning, I wanted those stories to be front and center in Brookside’s history. So each chapter covered one decade, allowing the reader to reach into their personal memories, then read on to see life in Brookside revealed so much about life in that time. When it comes to history, we often have to squint our eyes and use our imaginations to envision what life was like “way back when.” Brookside is rare, for coming to there today captures much of what life there has always been like. The first dime store opened in Brookside in the early 1940s. It remains there today, creaking wooden floors intact. The gas station was built in 1931, one of the barber shops has been there since 1930, and the post office opened in 1925. That original tenant from 1919, the dry cleaner? Still there. The toy store, the pet store, the treat shop, the tailor, the dress shop, all are locally owned, one-of-a-kind, mom & pop, long-time tenants.

The modern Brookside store fronts. Image courtesy of the author.This special, perhaps unique character of Brookside is why a centennial edition deserved to be done.  While only a decade has passed since the original edition, there was certainly enough material for one more chapter to close out the last decade of Brookside’s 100 years. Looking as ever both into the past and future, the new edition considers the legacy of Brookside, how the name “Brookside” has come to define not just the shops but the community, and how the district’s contemporary role in development continues nearly seventy years after J.C. Nichols died.

Sharing all I’ve learned about Kansas City’s neighborhoods is always a pleasure, whether through the books I write, the blogs I post, or the presentations I make. But when I present, my joy is less about sharing than learning, as those audiences share their memories – of where they met their first love, of the shopkeeper who always stopped to chat, of a teenager’s first job bagging groceries or bussing tables. And the great luck of all that is that people remain interested in Brookside’s history, because Brookside remains a part of their lives. As long as that endures, Brookside may just continue to be there as it has been, a place where memories are made and shared from generation to generation.
 
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