Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Whitney Terrell on How the Federal Highway Project Gutted Kansas City in "The King of Kings County"

(This interview originally appeared in the Westchester Journal News on September 25, 2005)

By Dylan Foley

In his new novel, "The King of Kings County" (Viking, $25), Whitney Terrell chronicles the destruction of his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., by the federal highway project that ripped the city apart in the 1950s and 1960s.

Terrell focuses on Alton Acheson, a would-be real-estate developer who is part visionary, part con man, who sees the new highways and the inevitable suburbs as an opportunity for great riches.

The rise and fall of Alton is told through his son Jack, as Alton throws his lot in with the wealthy and unscrupulous Bowen family, which owns much of Kansas City, and borrows money from the local Mafia chieftain to fund his land speculation. Through shady dealings, Alton helps the Bowens buy large tracts of land in the future suburbs and spurs white flight from Kansas City by selling homes to black people in formerly all-white neighborhoods in the city. By the 1980s, downtown Kansas City is a ghost town, after hundreds of thousands of white residents flee to the bland Kansas suburbs.

Alton is the most compelling character, with his tacky yellow suits, his unrepentant drinking and his larger-than-life persona. "Alton's the one guy who does all the things that are supposedly so bad," says Terrell in a telephone interview from his home in Kansas City. "In writing him, I found him to be an incredibly entertaining character, and I cared about him deeply. Alton says, 'This is the system. This is how it works, and I am going to try to profit from it.' He's trying to trick people, and he is willing to do something dishonest to get a deal done."

Terrell's debut novel, "The Huntsman," a grim interracial romance set in Kansas City, won rave reviews when it appeared in late August 2001. Its fragile traction as a literary novel was wiped out, however, after 9/11. Americans bought primarily nonfiction books in the months after the terrorist attacks.

With his second novel, the 37 year-old Terrell has written a vivid story about grandiose hopes for wealth, conflicts between fathers and sons, the destructive nature of unchecked development and America's unsettled history with race. As William Kennedy did with Albany, Terrell uses Kansas City and its dreams and dark history as a way to dig towards the American soul.

The story for "The King" came from Kansas City's desolate downtown. "My family had been living in the city since 1904," Terrell says. "My grandmother and great-aunts had told me stories about how vibrant Kansas City was in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. I started to think about how did this happen - why was the downtown empty, why was it segregated?"

Terrell started exploring Kansas City's tortured story of race and development. "I started moving backwards," he says. "Why would people move across the state line into Kansas? What were the triggers? The highway went in during the 1950s, right at the time that Brown v. Board of Education was decided. When you link it to the idea that Kansas City had a history of valuing property with the racial makeup of the neighborhood, it made sense that people would expand into an area that had no nonwhite population. I was trying to figure out what was in the developers' mind that said 'We should go to Kansas.' "

The massive federal highway project of the 1950s allowed America's suburbs to explode. People pursued the postwar American dream of home ownership, but the new suburbs also allowed for white flight from the cities. Kansas City is not alone in its empty downtown. Small American cities from Syracuse to Cincinnati had their lively business districts sucked dry by fleeing urban whites and the suburban malls.

What Terrell does so well is to take the story behind a real-estate manipulation that destroys a city and turn it into a moving literary novel. Along the way, he had to take some liberties with history, condensing numerous developers into a fictional family like the Bowens. "There is a difference between Kansas City's history and the book's history," he says. "Whenever you take a change in population of hundreds of thousands of people, you are going to simplify it for a novel.

"Part of the point of the novel was to talk about real-estate development as an expression of pure capitalism, similar to the railroad building of the 19th century," he says. "Pure, unfettered capitalism turns out being something like socialism, because one person ends up with a monopoly. Developers have the power to do things in a city with no restraint. The Bowen company in the novel is an example of a real-estate company dominating a city. They can basically determine where they want people to live. City planning by private interests has been disastrous for American cities."

Terrell sees Alton Acheson as traveling in a proud line of American capitalists. "The history of American capitalism is not about the history of impeccable conduct," he says. "It's a history of swashbucklers. I like that Alton knows his history. He goes back to men like [robber barons] Jay Gould and Tom Durant as source material. Their stories are purely American, outrageous and wonderful. These men themselves put a human face on American capitalism."

In the hands of the Bowen family, preying on white Midwesterners' racial fears becomes a cynical tool. "I think they use race as a way to make money," Terrell says. "It's something to be manipulated, and they are dispassionate about it."

In both his novels, Terrell has made a point of dealing with race. "It's the great American subject that's present in the work of Twain, Melville, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison," he says. "Kansas City is a particularly apt place to write about it. Kansas City is a hypersegregated market. It's different from the South, because race hasn't been such an explicit issue here. It's been under the covers. That's true in such cities - Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit - that experienced white flight and suburban growth."

As Terrell begins work on his third novel, he plans to set it, too, in Kansas City. He points out that the Midwest is now the crucible for the modern culture wars - the anti-abortion forces are strong in nearby Wichita, Kan., and the new evolution battles are being fought in the Kansas schools.

"Kansas City is the place I know best," Terrell says. "I think the Midwest right now is in a position to uniquely show the effects of our current economic and political policies. Kansas City is in the heart of the red-state area, a Democratic city in the heart of a heavily Republican territory. This is the flashpoint. It's really between blue and red."

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