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J.C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City: Innovation in Planned Residential Communities.

J. C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City: Innovation in Planned Residential Communities "Cities are the handiwork of the real estate man. Whether our cities are physically bad or physically good is our responsibility" (p. 89). In J. C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City, William S. Worley quotes this statement by Jesse Clyde Nichols to a realtors' association in 1916. It clearly expresses the theme of his book. Worley's purpose is to explore the city-building process, which he does by examining Nichol's career. Nichols is known to many for his establishment of Kansas City's Country Club Plaza and the residential district that surrounds it, but these constitute only a portion of his work. In showing how Nichols achieved his goal, which was to create a planned residential community that would retain its value, Worley achieves his purpose.

Worley outlines several factors that in combination distinguished Nichols's developments from others in Kansas City while influencing those elsewhere. These included more effective use of restrictive deed covenants, design features, mandatory associations for homeowners, events and devices to build community identity, and well-placed shopping centers. Worley notes that except for the shopping centers, Nichols was not the first to use any of these features. Rather than being an innovator, Nichols was an astute student. He observed, followed, and capitalized on existing trends in the development of both land and Kansas City.

Worley explains Nichols's role by providing background information on land development practice and on the early history of Kansas City, then devoting chapters to the Country Club District, planned communities, restrictive covenants, homeowners' associations, the building industry, the shopping center, and Nichols's promotional efforts. He concludes by examining the "myth" of J. C. Nichols.

In Worley's discussion several themes or figures recur. One is the importance of landscape architect George Kessler's work and of other design features. Another is Nichol's connection to E. H. Bouton, the developer of Baltimore's Roland Park. In several places unregulated development poses problems for residents, Nichols, or the city. The vast scale of Nichols's developments is repeatedly brought out. Through his professional activities, Nichols emerges as a synthesizer of real estate and city planning practice. Finally, many actions were designed to perpetuate Nichol's control over his developments.

J. C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City effectively blends business history with urban history. It is not the biography of a business so much as the story of that business's impact on its surroundings. In focusing on a single city's physical growth, Worley clearly illustrates the unmistakable importance of the private sector in the United States. J. C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City follows up on and extends many points in Marc Weiss's Rise of the Community Builders (1987) and confirms some observations about suburbanization in Kenneth T. Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier (1985). Worley demonstrates the same connection between real estate and city planning that William H. Wilson's The City Beautiful Movement (1989) showed between downtown business leaders and city planning.

Worley used a combination of private records from the Nichols company scrapbooks and public records on land development. To these he added information from the Proceedings of annual meetings of the National Associations of Real Estate Boards, the National Conference on City Planning, and the Developers of High Class Residential Property. Secondary literature on real estate, homebuilding, land development, and urbanization informed Worley's research.

Though well executed, J. C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City is not flawless. Many photographs enhance the story, but the paucity of maps make parts of it difficult to follow. Also, because he has organized his work by topics, events are not in strict chronological order, and Worley sometimes digresses forward in time, causing occasional confusion. Worley has nicely related Nichols's work to developers in other cities, but some questions remain. Did Nichols's mandatory homeowners associations exclude "undesirable" neighbors by allowing certain residents to vote on prospective members, as has occurred elsewhere? Why did Nichols annex his developments to Kansas City rather than encouraging incorporation as separate suburban municipalities like developers in other areas? These issues are not crucial to Worley's story of Nichols and Kansas City's expansion, but discussion of them would enhance Worley's work as a more general discussion of the role that developers play in urban growth.

J. C. Nichols and the Shaping of Kansas City is a welcome addition to the literature. Worley's prose is very readable and Nichols was a major influence. Worley neither lauds nor condemns Nichols; he can recognize Nichols's abilities without approving of the less beneficial results. He also dispels some of the Nichols myth. J. C. Nichols worked to provide a "good" environment for residents of his neighborhoods and to "boost" Kansas City, but ultimately, J. C. Nichols worked for J. C. Nichols.

Patricia Burgess Stach is assistant professor in the School of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Arlington. Her work, which includes "Real Estate Development and Urban Form: Roadblocks in the Path to Residential Exclusivity," Business History Review (1989), has focused on the relationship of residential development to urban spatial and social structure and on other aspects of the history of land use controls.
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Author:Stach, Patricia Burgess
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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