Recent past marked by confrontation

From social unrest to civic projects, Lawrence 'wants to have a say'

It’s no secret. Lawrence has always been different, more contentious, more progressive than most Kansas cities.

But why?

“History has shown, I think, that in Lawrence, the public refuses to be disinterested,” said Dennis Domer, a former Kansas University architecture professor who has studied the city’s development.

“Here, the public wants to have a say; it doesn’t want outsiders coming in, overruling its interests and running off with the money.”

Lawrence is different, Domer said, because it’s more democratic. And it’s more democratic, he said, because its downtown fosters a sense of community that other cities killed when they embraced the shopping-mall culture.

In the past 50 years, no other event, in Domer’s view, defined the city’s future as much its turning back a Cleveland-based developer’s efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s to build the so-called “cornfield mall” on south Iowa Street and what’s now 35th Street.

“Without question, that — the battle for downtown –is the single most important event in recent history,” Domer said.

At the time, malls were thought to be key to economic prosperity. A city without one, experts said, was sure to wither away.

The proposed 397,000-square-foot mall was to have housed three major department stores and 50 smaller shops, created 600 jobs, and generated more than $500,000 in property- and sales-tax revenues annually.

But the experts, Domer said, were wrong. Clearly, malls aren’t what they were cracked up to be.

Lawrence’s resistance, he said, proved prophetic. “It refused to follow the norm at a time when the norm was for cities to destroy their downtowns for the sake of an ‘external mall,'” he said. “By being a maverick, Lawrence has become a leader.

“Look at what happened to the cities that embraced the malls. They’re all saying, ‘Oh, my God! We’ve got to save our downtown! What can we do?'” he said. “Manhattan, Topeka, Wichita — they’re all looking at Lawrence’s downtown. But you know what? It’s hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Lawrence also spurned efforts to build an enclosed mall downtown, spanning the 700 and 800 blocks of Massachusetts Street.

“If the city had turned its back on its downtown — as so many cities had — it would have destroyed Lawrence as we know it today,” said Domer, a co-editor of “Embattled Lawrence/Conflict & Community,” a 2001 collection of essays on the city’s history and development.

Downtown, he said, defines Lawrence. “It’s a place that allows ‘community’ to happen,” he said. “By that I mean, it’s a 19th-century pedestrian space. It’s a place where business, government, retail, recreation and pedestrian traffic all come together. It’s democracy.

“You don’t get that in a mall, and you don’t get it in the Target parking lot,” he said. “Those are not civic places; they are places of consumption.”

Without its downtown, Domer said, Lawrence would be less democratic, less dynamic, more ordinary.

“Lawrence is to be commended for being itself,” Domer said. “By going its own way, it has become a jewel in the crown.”

Trafficway debated

Today, no one would argue that Lawrence would be better off with a mall and a half-empty downtown. The same would not be said about the debate over the South Lawrence Trafficway, a proposal to connect the Kansas Turnpike northwest of Lawrence with Kansas Highway 10 southeast of town by cutting through the Haskell and Baker University wetlands.

Deadlocked for more than 20 years, the project has as many supporters as detractors.

“It’s a culture war,” said Larry Kipp, a Douglas County “smart growth” advocate who has studied the trafficway controversy. “On one side you have people in power who favor the trafficway and who tend to marginalize the opponents as no-growthers. And on the other side you have the environmentalists who see this as an all-out attack on the environment.”

Kipp said environmentalists’ worst fears were realized in 1990 when a spat over the proposed route prompted landowner Jack Graham to plow an area west of Lawrence known as Elkins Prairie, then one of the largest tracts of virgin grassland in northeast Kansas.

“From the environmentalists’ perspective,” Kipp said, “that was an act of war. It showed just how high the stakes were.”

Elkins Prairie was known to include the rare Mead’s milkweed and the western prairie fringed orchid.

Sacred land

Opponents of the trafficway also have long argued that between Haskell Institute opening its doors in 1884 and the early 1930s, many students died from disease, injury or abuse and were buried in what is now the wetlands.

For many students, faculty and staff at Haskell Indian Nations University, the wetlands are considered a sacred site.

In 2003, former Haskell student David Farve filed a sworn affidavit, claiming that he had come upon “the bones of what appeared to be two children” while looking in the wetlands after a heavy rain in 1998.

Fearing that what he assumed was a sacred burial site would be disturbed, he did not notify authorities.

Earlier searches for remains by the Kansas State Historical Society and the state Department of Transportation had come up empty-handed.

Paul Brockington, an archeologist and president of Atlanta-based consulting firm Brockington and Associates, spent several weeks using ground-penetrating radar and other means to search for human remains in the wetlands. None were found.

“As an archeologist, I have to say it seems very unlikely that there are human remains in the wetlands,” Brockington told the Journal-World in 2001.

Brockington said he did not doubt reports of Haskell students dying or running away. But he does not think they were buried in the wetlands because, if they were, their remains would have been uncovered long before 2001.

“We’re talking about an area — the wetlands — that throughout much of Haskell’s history was active farmland,” Brockington said. “It was plowed, it was disked, it was hoed over and it had cattle on it. There’s been major canal, ditch and pipeline work done there, and there’s been a highway (31st Street) put in — and yet there are no documented reports of remains being found.”

Brockington said it was unlikely Haskell officials or confidants of the deceased had buried the students in an area that, at the time, was routinely plowed or grazed. Haskell stopped farming the area in 1936.

Still, many at Haskell say the area also was a place where students secretly practiced their religion at a time when school officials were trying to exterminate their cultures. This, they argue, justifies the site’s being considered sacred.

“The key element here is Native Americans don’t make the calls as to what is sacred or not sacred,” said Nick Luna, president of the Wetlands Preservation Organization at Haskell.

“Whether an area is sacred is something that’s relayed to them through a spiritual intermediary — a medicine man or a holy man,” Luna said. “For us, the wetlands are considered a sacred place. It’s a place where people can go and practice their religious rituals. They have in the past, and they still do today.”

Court challenges

Earlier this year, federal officials gave the state permission to run a four-lane highway along a 32nd Street alignment through the wetlands.

Trafficway opponents — a group that includes Wetlands Preservation Organization, Sierra Club, Jayhawk Audubon Society and the Prairie Band Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Sac and Fox, and Iowa tribes in Kansas — are expected to challenge the decision in federal court.

Earlier this year, David Prager III, tribal attorney for the Prairie Band Potawatomi, said the lawsuit would challenge the procedures used in selecting the 32nd Street alignment rather than a 42nd-Street, south-of-the-Wakarusa-River route that would have spared the wetlands.

Prager accused state officials of sabotaging the 42nd Street alignment. “Anytime you want to run up the cost of a route, put a big bridge on it,” he said, noting that the route was moved a half mile west, causing it to include “a milelong bridge that would be one of the longest bridges in the state.”

Trafficway supporters have said that the losses associated with the 32nd Street alignment would be more than offset by the construction of new wetland areas. Officials also are promising to create a wetlands education center as part of the project.

If approved, the trafficway is expected to cost more than $110.2 million.

“It’s been a fiasco,” said Rawleigh Zilliox, a longtime Realtor who’s followed the trafficway debate. “It’s sorely needed. We’ve got to get the trucks off 23rd Street. We’ve got all this traffic on 23rd that doesn’t stop; it’s just passing through. It ought to be routed around town.”

Few predict the controversy will be resolved any time soon.

“I don’t know how long it can go on,” Kipp said, “but I think it will go on as long as it can go on.”

It should be noted, Kipp added, that while the trafficway debate has been heated, it also has been civil.

“The great thing about this is that it has all been within a legal framework,” he said. “To my knowledge, there has only been one act of vandalism, and that, I think, involved somebody putting sugar in a gas tank. I think that says something about Lawrence.”

Civil unrest

The same cannot be said about Lawrence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a tumultuous era marked by racial tension, opposition to the war in Vietnam and the shooting deaths of Rick Dowdell, a black teenager, and Nick Rice, a white KU freshman.

“When I taught at KU, my students, many of whom were from western Kansas, always wanted me to tell them about the protests and the riots because that was KU’s reputation. That’s what they’d been told,” said Betty Jo Charlton, who taught Western Civilization classes at KU from 1970 to 1987.

“I would remind them we didn’t call them protests; they were demonstrations,” she said. “And than I’d explain that, actually, the students didn’t riot. We had a police riot.

“The two who were killed — neither one of them were involved in a demonstration,” Charlton said.

In 1970, Lawrence and KU were reeling. Demonstrations against the war were no longer peaceful; militant black students were arming themselves; and on April 20 someone set fire to the Kansas Union, causing more than $1 million in damages.

Also in April, a suspicious fire at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house caused more than $200,000 in damages. Gambles Furniture Store was firebombed and destroyed.

Racial tensions

Hours before the Kansas Union fire, roughly 200 blacks had stormed out of a school board meeting when their demands for an expanded black studies curriculum and more representation in student activities were acted on.

Minutes later, police and fire fighters began receiving reports of gunshots, vandalism and fires at Lawrence High School. Several windows were broken and some fire damage was discovered.

To quell the unrest, then-Gov. Robert Docking imposed a curfew, which lasted four days. Several dozen students were arrested for curfew violations.

Shortly after 10:15 p.m. on July 16, 1970, Dowdell, 19, was shot and killed during an altercation with police officer William Garrett in the alley east of New Hampshire between Ninth and 10th streets.

Dowdell’s death triggered several days of sporadic violence, including snipers firing at police cars and fire trucks.

Four days after Dowdell’s death, Rice, 18, was shot and killed during a confrontation between students and police outside the Gaslight Tavern, 13th Street and Oread Avenue.

According to witnesses, Rice was an innocent bystander.

Death awakens change

Rusty Monhollon, historian and author of “Is this America? The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas,” said Dowdell’s death forced Lawrence, then a quaint Midwestern college town, to confront the racism that had kept its black and white communities separate and unequal for as long as anyone could remember.

“What happened was a wake-up call,” Monhollon said in a 2002 interview with the Journal-World. “People finally started to realize that they had some very serious problems on their hands — but that a lot of these problems could be solved with some basic communication.”

In August 1970, the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce created a task force aimed at finding ways to improve relations between police and the community at-large. At the same time, the Lawrence City Commission brought in the Menninger Foundation to build bridges between the different communities within the city.

Later that fall and winter, KU officials opened discussions with black students leaders, eventually agreeing to start the department of African-American studies and the Office of Minority Affairs.

“By itself, Rick Dowdell’s death did not change Lawrence,” Jesse Milan, president of the Kansas State Conference of Branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a 2002 interview.

“Things were in place to make things happen before Rick Dowdell was killed, and they remained in place after he was killed. It’s not like we were dormant,” he said. “But his death became an awakening factor — awakening to the fact that nothing good ever comes out of violence. Violence only begets violence.”

Benefits to KU

The unrest left its mark on KU.

“It put us on the map,” said Wayne Sailor, who published the Lawrence-based underground newspapers, Reconstruction and Vortex, from 1969 to 1971.

“KU stood out as a place in the center of the country, in the heartland — where it was clear that people were paying attention to what was going on in the world and were using their right to dissent,” he said.

“We became an intellectual center for progressive thinking that allowed the university to attract a level of scholarship from outside the state –faculty and students — that fueled its ascendancy to the stature it enjoyed into the 1980s and 1990s,” said Sailor, now a special education professor at KU.

“If we hadn’t gone through all that we did, we’d be just another college basketball town.”