In 1831, Reverend Isaac McCoy established the village of Westport to supply traders on the Santa Fe Trail. Westport itself was supplied by trade along the Missouri River, unloaded at Westport Landing. The landing itself was soon recognized as the more advantageous location, and the Town of Kansas was incorporated there in 1838, becoming the City of Kansas in the 1850s. It competed with, then supplanted Independence, MO as the supply point and trailhead of the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon trails. From its inception, Kansas City was the border between what was seen as civilization and barbarism, between order and chaos. It was the end of the “easy” part of the trip west. Kansas City escaped the worst of the Bleeding Kansas violence, but was not spared completely. The area’s experience in the Civil War was a microcosm of the war itself, with Confederates winning battles but lacking the strength to convert those victories into territorial control.
The river gave Kansas City its beginning, but it was the railroad that would see it grow. In 1869, Kansas City was chosen over Leavenworth as the site for the first bridge over the Missouri River. The Hannibal Bridge, a railroad bridge extending the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. This shifted the focus of commerce away from the River Market area. Though it remained a brisk market for local produce, the once prosperous neighborhood became a transient town. Bars and brothels were the most common sights, prostitution competed with produce as the primary commercial activity.
A Great Depression era effort to revitalize the area saw the bulldozing of nearly every building in the early 1930s, to clear the way for new activities. Reflecting the national shift toward automobiles, much of the new open space was used for parking lots. The River Market became a destination for political rallies and jazz performances. Its newest revitalization was short-lived, and by the 1970s real estate developers were again attracted to the River Market’s unused potential.
Marion Trozzolo conceived of revitalizing the area by bringing in townhouses, boutiques, and artists’ studios. Trozzolo branded the area and his efforts to transform it River Quay (pronounce like key). He sought more capital to realize his vision, but struggled to convince investors. The New York Times of April 19, 1977 quoted him saying, “I was told to get rid of the winos, but it wasn’t really that. They were concerned I was letting a lot of long-haired kids in. What they didn’t realize was those kids were great artists and craftsmen and businessmen. The business interests in Kansas City were hung up on their prejudices.” Without the capital to continue to invest, his project stalled.
Despite Trozzolo’s efforts to create a family friendly destination, William “Willie Rat” Cammisano, of Kansas City’s Civella crime family, moved his bars, strip clubs, and X-rated theaters into the neighborhood. The arrival of the mob was resisted by local organized crime, including Fred Bonadonna, who controlled the parking lots and opposed the influx of pornography and prostitution. The violence was kicked off with the Cammisano’s murder of Bonadonna’s father, which prompted Bonnadonna to burn down a lucrative Cammisano tavern. Murder victims began turning up stuffed into the trunks of their cars. Some were shotgunned in as they sat in a restaurant. 100 pounds of dynamite reduced Cammisano establishments Pat O’Brien’s and Judge Roy Bean to rubble.. In a way, the Bonadonna’s came out on top, with Bonadonna himself acting as an FBI informant and helping to send Cammisano to prison. In the end, though, as is so often the case in wars, no one truly won. The murders, bombings, and arsons saw this historic neighborhood full of potential reduced to boarded up and bombed out buildings. River Quay, the latest effort to revitalize River Market, self-destructed.
The River Market district once again devolved into a virtual ghost town. Yet despite repeated failures, the potential of the site remained. In 1984, Dana Gibson and Mel Mallin began buying properties in the hopes of transforming the River Market yet again. KCUR, an NPR affiliate, quoted Gibson describing the beginning of his project: “At that point, there were maybe 20 people who lived in the River Market. They were wacky artists living in mostly abandoned buildings. After River Quay, everybody had quit coming.” Mallin and Gibson created cheap spaces for artists to live and work, hoping to stem the flow of art students graduating and fleeing for greater opportunity. Soon, more residences were added, open to all, not just artists. The City Market itself was overhauled, as well. Throughout all, River Market’s produce trade remained strong. Primarily wholesale for all these years, the city began promoting a progression toward retail, to attract visitors. The City Market became a farmers’ market that attracted visitors.
Now the River Market brands itself as an “urban village.” It consists of old warehouses converted to lofts, bars, and restaurants. Visitors can find a variety of locally owned small businesses, including antiques, jewelry, and specialty grocery stores. The site’s historical significance is not forgotten; one of the greatest attractions of the area is the Steamboat Arabia museum. Though the Arabia sank near Kansas City in 1856, due to the shifting course of the Missouri River, it was found 132 years later buried 45 feet beneath a Kansas cornfield. Its cargo, much of it intact, not only makes for a wonderful museum, it also shed light for historians on both the river trade and the upriver communities the Arabia was meant to supply. River Market has also become a destination for some of the finest and most exciting cuisine to be found in Kansas City. With the proximity of the farmers’ market, it has become a bastion of the “farm-to-table” movement, with locally owned restaurants buying and serving local produce.
Despite its history of repeated failures, this latest revitalization of Kansas City’s oldest district seems to have stuck. A recent influx of fresh capital ensures that the ongoing project to transform the River Market into Kansas City’s premier destination for both the modern and the historical has a long, bright future ahead of it.
Author: Jeff Cox