In 1940, a troop of Works Progress Administration employees hit the streets of Kansas City, Mo., with a camera and an assignment: document every building.
The resulting photographs, pasted to placards representing complete blocks and neighborhoods, produced a record originally used as a reference for property taxes. But today they offer a unique glimpse back at a growing midwestern city during a year of unprecedented activity.
Such is the background for 1971 SM East graduate John Simonson’s second book, “Kansas City 1940: A Watershed Year,” which delves into the profound historical events swirling about as those WPA employees were canvassing the city: the exit of Tom Pendergast’s political machine, the opening of City Market and the expansion of the city’s road system, not to mention the expanding war in Europe
“They never talked about jazz clubs,” Simonson says of his family. “But you could tell they had a distant respect for way [Pendergast] pulled the town through the depression.”
Simonson first came across the photo collection at the Landmarks Commission while doing research some 15 years ago, but it wasn’t until the photos were donated to the Kansas City Public Library for digitizing that he had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with them. (The story — perhaps apocryphal — goes that the placards were once rescued from a dumpster before being given to the Landmarks Commission decades ago).
Intrigued by the time they were taken, he decided to use them to flesh out many of the stories he’d heard from his family growing up in Johnson County in the 1950s and 60s. Simonson’s great-grandparents and grandparents were devote Christian Scientists, and consequently had serious qualms with corruption rampant in the city during the Pendergast era.
“They never talked about jazz clubs,” he said. “But you could tell they had a distant respect for way [Pendergast] pulled the town through the depression. They would never have condoned the things he did, though.”
Simonson has built a name for himself among local history buffs on the strength of his first book, “Paris of the Plains,” a series of vignettes recreating different eras from the city’s history, as well as his blog of the same name.
And while Simonson has to-date focused almost exclusively on Kansas City proper, he says he’s likely to expand his work into the history of his native Johnson County as well. A blog post published on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ introduction to America recalls how the British invasion sounded to a boy learning trombone in the Toon Shop basement in 1964.
“Our formative years for pop culture corresponded with the Beatles,” Simonson said. “So I thought the Beatles anniversary was a good way to start going beyond the strictly Kansas City history a bit.”
Simonson attended Baker University after SM East and then spent periods living in California and New York before moving back to the area 20 years ago.
“Kansas City 1940” is available locally at Barnes and Noble, Rainy Day Books and area museum book stores.