Redistricting could change Kansas City's Northland council districts by changing the boundary to run east-west along Barry Road. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

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Kansas City’s Northland has always been home to Madison Hays. She lives in a house that’s more than 100 years old, in a neighborhood south of Barry Road where the median income is about $38,000.

“We are a poor and working class neighborhood — multiracial and multi-generational,” Hays said. “There’s a lot of people in this neighborhood who have been here for 40-plus years. There’s also a lot of people who, as they’re being displaced from areas south of the river, they’re moving into my neighborhood. So it really is just the purest mix of everyone in the city.” 

Hays, 23, and her family have taken a keen interest in recent talks to redraw the lines of Kansas City Council districts based on population counts in the 2020 U.S. Census. Proposed changes for the Northland would dramatically alter political representation there.

Currently, the 1st and 2nd Council districts are separated by a north-south line that runs along the border of Clay and Platte counties. But the City Council members who represent those districts usually live in wealthier neighborhoods in the northern parts of the districts. 

Like other Northland residents, Hays has long felt that her neighborhood was ignored, while wealthier, more economically robust areas claimed the city’s attention and money. 

At a public meeting on the redistricting process, Hays asked the commission to consider socioeconomic status — particularly income — when redrawing the Northland districts. 

“We know that we’re poor, we’re certainly not generally wealthy,” Hays said. “And then whenever you put the socioeconomic information on a map, it’s just very clear that the horizontal divisions are already there, like the people are divided that way.”

The citizen-led redistricting commission listened to voices such as hers. The nine-member panel, which includes representatives from each of Kansas City’s six council districts, voted 6-3 to recommend a map to the City Council that eliminates the north-south border between the 1st and 2nd Districts. 

The redistricting commission voted to recommend this map to City Council. (Courtesy of kcmo.gov)

Under the commission’s proposed map, the 1st District would change to encompass the neighborhoods north of Barry Road until Kansas City’s northern boundary. The 2nd District would include all neighborhoods south of Barry Road down to the Missouri River, except for one area that will be part of the 4th District. Both proposed districts would include parts of Clay and Platte counties. The new map would also put parts of school districts into different council districts.

Northland residents who support the change see it as a chance for better representation on the City Council. Ryun Smith, 24, views Barry Road as a socioeconomic dividing line, where more working class residents live south of the street and more affluent residents live north of the highway. 

“There’s been a Northland divide for a long time, as far as economics go,” Smith said. “It’s really just time for change. “I’ve never felt like I had a voice in the city and I would just like to.”

The most recent Census data support Smith’s contention. A majority of Census tracts between Barry Road and the Missouri River have a median income below $60,000. More neighborhoods north of Barry Road show a median income above $60,000. There are more Census tracts with a median income above $100,000 north of Barry Road.

But the drastic redistricting plan has raised concerns among other Northlanders, including current 2nd District City Council member Dan Fowler. He objects to splitting up school districts, and calls the proposed change “devastating” and “wrong.” 

The City Council has until Dec. 31 to review the commission’s work and approve a new map. How each district is redrawn will determine governance and representation for at least the next decade. 

Census shows growth of the Northland

Kansas City, Missouri, began expanding north past the Missouri River starting in 1950. The Northland grew large enough to split into two districts following the 1990 Census. 

Since then, the Northland has seen years of booming commercial and residential growth. From 2010 to 2020, the population of the 1st City Council District grew by 24% and the 2nd District’s population grew by 19%. Combined, the population of both districts increased from 149,014 to 181,649. 

Projects like the Zona Rosa shopping complex, located north of Barry Road, are commercial testaments to the Northland’s growth. 

But residents of poorer neighborhoods still struggle with issues like an absence of sidewalks, scarce public transportation and, increasingly, a shortage of affordable housing.

“I feel completely forgotten, if I’m being honest,” Hays said. “I know all of that growth is happening north of Barry Road, while our economic hubs — like Metro North Mall or Antioch Mall — have just been allowed to completely empty out and then they just became vacant buildings for a decade.”

Residents calling for better representation

Three of the four council members currently representing the 1st and 2nd districts live north of Barry Road, with one member living slightly south of the road. 

Hays said that circumstance — made possible because of the vertical council district boundary — deprives residents who live south of Barry Road of a voice on the council to speak for the issues that impact them the most.

Madison Hays in front of her home in Kansas City’s Northland. Hays supports changing the boundary between the 1st and 2nd Districts to run east-west along Barry Road so that working-class neighborhoods like hers have better political representation. ( Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Those include public infrastructure improvements like sidewalks, and affordable housing. A horizontal redistricting could mean gaining a representative whose life experiences more closely reflects Hays’ and those of her neighbors.

“Our infrastructure is not good,” Hays said. “There’s not a single sidewalk in my neighborhood. I can’t get to a bus stop. My neighborhood is so hilly that it’s dangerous for me to walk. … And I’ve never once heard my council people trying to talk about that.”

Kaylove Edwards, 31, has always lived in the Northland — and she perceives a difference in the socioeconomic status of people who live north of Barry Road and those who live south of it. Edwards also notices the lack of reliable public transportation and community centers for her family. 

“It would be nice to feel like I have a council member that I can relate to, and I can talk to who might understand, not because necessarily they have a similar story, but because they’re more likely to know somebody with similar stories,” Edwards said. 

Northland council members oppose redrawing district boundaries

The proposed changes are drawing opposition from city leaders.

At-large Council member Kevin O’Neill represents the 1st District, which currently encompasses most of Clay County. He doesn’t support redrawing the boundary east-west along Barry Road. He sees the potential change as another example of the rest of Kansas City viewing the Northland as a problem. 

“​​I feel like we get beat up a lot for being the suburbs of Kansas City,” O’Neill said. “I think most of my constituents feel like this is just another attempt at separating us.”

In response to arguments that a Barry Road boundary would result in better representation, O’Neill said the City Council — at the urging of himself and 1st District council member Heather Hall — has directed public improvement funds to neighborhoods south of Barry Road. His focus has been on safe streets and sidewalks around neighborhood schools, O’Neill said.

Damage on one of the few sidewalks in Madison Hays’ neighborhood located south of Barry Road in Kansas City’s Northland. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Fowler, the 2nd District representative, said he’s concerned about how the east-west boundary would split up school districts. The Park Hill School District is currently in the 2nd District and the North Kansas City School District in the 1st. Under the proposed map, parts of those school districts would be in both the 1st and 2nd districts.

When it comes to political representation, Fowler said the issue is not so much where people live, but who has the time and financial means to commit to public service.

“I don’t think a change of boundaries is going to be best to change that,” Fowler said. “The people who run for office, look at all of us, we are in a position personally and financially that we can do it.”

Fowler and O’Neill also pointed out that, based on current growth patterns, the proposed new northern district would quickly outpace the proposed southern district in population. 

“Within several years before the mandatory redistricting, you will be out of constitutional balance, because there’ll be many more people in what would be the new 1st District, then there are in the other parts of the city,” Fowler said.

What’s next for redistricting?

In addition to the proposed Northland boundary change, the redistricting map chosen by the commission would mean changes for Kansas City’s four other districts.

The northern boundary of the 4th District would move farther north to include a bigger slice of the Northland. The rest of the 4th District would still include downtown, midtown, the West Side and the historic northeast.  

But the Country Club Plaza and the University of Missouri-Kansas City — which currently reside in the 4th District — would move into the proposed 6th District that encompasses southwest Kansas City. 

Now that the proposed map has moved to the City Council, residents can still engage in the process by attending or watching the council’s deliberations.

Ryun Smith hopes the council approves the east-west boundary change along Barry Road. He said Northlanders like himself are pushing for this change to fight for what’s best for Kansas City — that includes better representation for working class residents. 

“It’s not about dividing the north (and) south further,” Smith said. “It’s about unifying people with a voice so that everybody is heard.”         

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Celisa Calacal is a former reporter for The Beacon covering economics and civic engagement issues.

Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.