Pendergast Prosperity

".people were hungry, people were cold, people were starving. The organization fed them and gave them coal. We bought coal by the carload and delivered it to people."
Judge Bernard Gnefkow

Pendergast's political machine turned out more than coarse nightlife and crooked politics. To keep the constituents happy, it also generated jobs, support, and a measure of prosperity that other cities could only hope for, especially during the Great Depression. Due in large part to the necessity to buy votes, reward supporters, keep the nightlife swinging, and his own liquor and building concerns thriving, "Pendergast Prosperity" shielded Kansas City from the worst of the Depression, albeit at the loss of civic integrity.

Musicians, gangsters, and corrupt public servants weren't the only ones to benefit from Boss Tom's machine. The stories of coal deliveries in the dead of winter and food distributions to entire neighborhoods are legion. Though Kansas City didn't escape the Great Depression entirely-as some Pendergast loyalists still claim-it fared much better than most cities. Even so, Kansas City was not immune to unemployment, homelessness, and hunger, as this downtown soup line from 1929 attests.

Image courtesy Kansas City Museum Assn. Click for larger view
Image courtesy Kansas City Museum Assn. Click for larger view

The city's political machine aided many Kansas Citians. For some it was a small handout-a bucket of coal or a Thanksgiving turkey for a needy family, a ride to the polls for an elderly voter-for others it was a more lucrative gift, such as a city job or a construction contract. Still, whether it was a county judgeship or a food basket (such as this machine-sponsored giveaway at Main Street and Warner Plaza), the price was cheap compared to the payoff in return: votes and continued control.

Kansas City's political muscle knew that votes equaled power. They also realized that even though polling places were separate, the votes they produced were equal. For this reason, Pendergast prosperity didn't stop at Troost Avenue. Though inequality remained a fact of life, Kansas City's African-American community was an important voting bloc, and benefited accordingly.

Image courtesy Kansas City Museum Assn. Click for larger view
Image courtesy Kansas City Museum Assn. Click for larger view

The city's already thriving jazz scene exploded during the Pendergast years. Not because Pendergast liked jazz, but because of the payoffs and kickbacks his political machine got by keeping the city's nightclubs, brothels, and gambling halls open. Musicians flocked to Kansas City where jobs were plentiful and clubs, such as the Lone Star Gardens pictured here, never closed. They were followed by revelers, dancers, gamblers, and music fans all taking advantage of the underside of Pendergast prosperity.

Image courtesy Kansas City Public Library - Click for larger view Image courtesy American Memory Project - Click for larger view

Click for larger view  

Despite the bounty of the Pendergast machine, the real beneficiary was always Boss Tom himself. During the Depression Pendergast kept Kansas City's unbridled nightlife jumping, which, in turn, kept his wholesale liquor business thriving. He was also instrumental in getting a $40 million bond proposal passed that helped the local economy almost as much as it did his own Ready Mixed Concrete Company. From the late '20s to the mid '30s, Kansas City witnessed a construction boom that was the envy of the nation.  It brought well-paying jobs, a new county courthouse and city hall (above left), police headquarters, and a municipal auditorium-and even the paving of Brush Creek! (above right)

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