Back to Square One

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Public square/park, picknicking, walking paths, Kansas City Explorers, holiday celebrations, festivals




Photo courtesy of David Remley
Photo courtesy of David Remley



Since the dawn of urbanity, in a time before solitary Netflix marathons and Kindles on the city bus, cities have invested pride and purpose into public meeting spaces. From the striking beauty of piazzas in Florence, to the Ancient Greek Agora where orators and philosopher’s duked it out among stalls ranging from gems to perfume oils and meats, to the political power of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, or the seizure-inducing flash of Times Square, these public spaces adapted trough time to serve the changing need of public gatherings.



In downtown Kansas City, Mo., there’s Barney Allis Plaza, nestled between the skyscrapers of 12th Street and Municipal Auditorium. Our modern public square’s population is scarce and its function, ambiguous.  Adorned with picnic tables and walking paths and the remnants of a pro-tennis court, Barney Allis Plaza is a modest, underutilized swath of city.
Dedicated as a park in 1956, its namesake Barney Allis—hotelier and avid downtown committee member—was still alive to see the patch cultivated in the shade of his Muehlebach Hotel. It was redesigned and renamed a plaza in 1985, and since then the square has been experiencing an identity crisis. The Kansas City Explorers, our previous hometown tennis team, briefly called the plaza home and played on a court there from 2006 to 2012. The team moved to Texas, and its stadium has vanished.



The square functions now more as a broad thoroughfare, a nice enough path to walk from one corner to another. Sure, when there’s a high school graduation at Municipal Auditorium you may find families snapping photos of their irked-but-smiling graduate in the plaza. Last year’s Cinco de Mayo celebration included a Chihuahua parade across the square, attempting to set a Guiness World Record for Most Dogs in Costume (they fell short). And out-of-towners at the Marriott (originally Allis’s famed Muehlebach) across the street may stop over to rubberneck at the skyline to the east.



But there is no bandstand in the public square. There are not summer socials or community dances; you won’t find political rallies or demonstrations. Surely most Kansas Citians, including those who dwell downtown, would squint curiously at the mention of its name.  No, Barney Allis Plaza is not the community hub that public squares have historically been, but its function has simply evolved.  Its attraction is quite different from the public squares of yore.

Barney Allis Plaza is a nice patch of downtown to find some peace and quiet.  On fair weather lunch hours one might find chatty groups of business associates populating the picnic tables, but generally it’s easy to be the only person strolling the plaza. Instead of arriving to crowds or clamor, one could easily get lost in their book on a bench in Barney Allis Plaza, and remain fairly undisturbed.



Is it wrong that the plaza should be so underutilized? Does this make it any less of a public square? Surely not. Nowadays we are steeped in interaction, with enough social media at our fingertips that one might feel like they’re in a crowded public space in their own bedroom.  Barney Allis Plaza is serving the new demand for public space: somewhere open-aired and screen-less where a person can sit down and tune-out.