Topeka has its challenges and opportunities.

  • Challenge: Institutional racism and racist policies have made life hard for people of color in Topeka.
  • Opportunity: Both our state and our Capital City have proud traditions of abolition and liberation.
  • Challenge: Our city budget is stretched — We need to grow our tax base to fund existing city services.
  • Opportunity: Our downtown is successful and growing.

These problems are adaptive challenges. There aren’t clear-cut, easy solutions to the struggles our city is facing today. Here at Bike Topeka, we’re big fans of the Strong Towns approach to identify and act on opportunity:

  1. Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.
  2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?
  3. Do that thing. Do it right now.
  4. Repeat.

We know that downtown is the most profitable district in the city, with the highest rates of property tax per acre, and the most valuable buildings. If we want to add to the city’s bottom line, we should add more residents and businesses to the downtown district.

But after some recent research, we realized that downtown used to be a lot more heavily populated than it is today. Our city leaders, presumably with the best intentions, changed that forever in the 1950s.

Take a ride with us through the past as we look at the Keyway Urban Renewal Project and its effects on communities of color in Topeka — and how we can use the fiscally-responsible Strong Towns approach to do something about it today.

Urban Renewal forced 3,000 people to move out of downtown Topeka.

In the 1950s and 1960s, more than 3,000 Topekans were forced to leave their homes and businesses in The Bottoms district in downtown to make way for new real estate development and the construction of Interstate 70, all as part of the Keyway Urban Renewal Project. 1

The country was at the peak of the Baby Boom, when all roads seemed to lead to prosperity. Topeka’s population was growing rapidly, construction was constant, and no one could predict an end to the wave of economic success brought by the post-war population explosion.

The Housing Act of 1954 opened up a huge federal grant program for cities to rebuild their downtowns. Two years later, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Millions of dollars in economic development money were made available to every city with a plan. So, Topeka made a plan.

Topeka’s Urban Renewal Agency conceived and oversaw the “Keyway” project, which would eradicate so-called slums in the downtown area and clear lots for new retail and light-industrial development. Instead, the program decimated a neighborhood called The Bottoms — more than 20 blocks of residences and businesses, and decades of Topeka’s history. 2

The Apex was the first Topeka movie theater owned and operated by African Americans. Located at 122 SE Fourth Street, it was the main hangout in Topeka for African Americans, a place for movies as well as for parties to entertain honored guests visiting the city. Community members frequently supported special events with free movies and ice cream for children. (From “African-American Topeka” by Sherrita Camp)

East 4th Street in the Bottoms was the heart of a thriving Black Business District, with more than 50 different businesses: doctors, lawyers, dentists, bars, restaurants, cafes, community cornerstones like Lytle’s Drug Store, as well as shops, nightclubs, and the beloved Apex Theater.

The Bottoms district also hosted a robust and connected Latinx community, with strong ties to Topeka’s Oakland neighborhood and Our Lady of Guadelupe Parish.

This Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1950 shows a view of downtown Topeka. The approximate area of The Bottoms neighborhood — and the Keyway Urban Renewal Project — is outlined in black. Commercial properties are shaded pink, and residences yellow. Click to see a larger version.

This area’s history is inextricably linked with Topeka’s history. Many of Topeka’s Latin-American immigrants came to Topeka to work for the railroad; and African-Americans came to Topeka looking for a new start.

Cyrus Holliday founded Topeka, brought the railroad, and with it, economic development and jobs. But it was the influx of free Black Americans and immigrants who truly put Topeka on the map. After the end of the Civil War, thousands of free Black families moved from the eastern U.S. to Kansas to start new lives, later known as Exodusters.

By 1906 in Topeka, 28 of the city’s 71 churches were Black congregations. Black families in Topeka settled in Tennessee Town (many Exodusters were from Tennessee), in Mudtown just south of the downtown area, in Redmonsville in North Topeka, and also in The Bottoms. In 1907, Topeka hosted the 8th annual meeting of the National Negro Business League, Booker T. Washington’s organization built to support black business and entrepreneurship across the country. 3

The Lytle Family

One Exoduster, John Lytle, born into slavery but freed by the 13th amendment, was a barber and later a salesman in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Though he and his family were free, they had limited opportunities for land, worship, and education in Tennessee. Reconstruction had failed to deliver the equality it promised, and in fact, local and national racist policymaking, as well as outright mob violence — escalated in the 1870s, especially in Tennessee.

In 1882, John and Mary Ann Lytle heard the call of the Exodusters, and uprooted their family of five from Tennessee and moved to Kansas. In Topeka, John established a barbershop at 207 S. Kansas Avenue. He went on to serve on the city’s police force, and was politically active in the state’s Populist Party.

The Lytles’ children were successful, too.

Crediting her experience working for newspapers and for the Legislature in Topeka, the Lytles’ daughter, Lutie Lytle, was the first black woman in the U.S. to become a law professor.

Their son Charles also went into barbering and law enforcement like his father, but became better known as the owner of Lytle’s Drug Store at 112 SE 4th Street. 4

By 1956, the Lytle family had grown to almost 20 members in Topeka, even with Lutie and her family settling elsewhere. Lytle’s Barber Shop was even listed in the Green Book entry for Topeka at that time. Though John had passed away in 1933, by all measures he had established a successful and comfortable home for his family in Topeka.

Lytle’s Drug Store in the 1950s via KSHS.

In 1958, Lytle’s Drug Store, as well as Velvet Freeze restaurant, La Michoacana Tortilleria, Star Lounge, the Apex Theater, and dozens of other businesses and residences were closed and vacated in order to clear the land for urban renewal.

This 1956 City Directory shows more than 50 businesses from Kansas to Adams along SE 4th St., many of which were black-owned or immigrant-owned. Click here for a larger version.

The demolition crews came and went, leaving bare earth in their path.

Ten years later, in 1966, not a single Lytle remained in Topeka.

The departure of the Lytle family is a tiny example of the unfathomable loss caused by urban renewal.

Urban renewal demolition in Topeka, via KSHS.

If you were lucky enough to own property in the Keyway area, the program would buy your property as compensation for your loss. Some residents found new homes in the Oakland and Highland Park neighborhoods. But if you were renting — many black families and immigrant families were prohibited from securing loans or buying property due to redlining — the Urban Renewal Agency offered no compensation or relocation assistance.

Today in 2020, The Bottoms district is more vacant and less diverse than it ever was, and the poverty in Topeka is deeper and more pronounced than it was in the “slums” of the 1950s.

There are a handful of houses on the fringes of the district. One two-story, two-bedroom house in the area sold in 2016 for $5,000. 5

Turn-of-the-century buildings were bulldozed to build a Montgomery-Ward department store and massive surface parking lot. In spite of the intentions of urban renewal — to keep downtown relevant to suburban residents — the department store left the downtown area after two decades, to move into the mall on the edge of the city. After an extended period of vacancy, the building was eventually repurposed into the Law Enforcement Center. Yes, the police station sits in the middle of the former Black Business District. And the city can no longer collect property tax from that parcel.

The intentions of urban renewal may have been noble. But its effects caused long lasting economic and social devastation.

Downtown is our best prospect for economic growth

We have worsened our city’s economic outlook by spreading out our population into suburbs easily-accessed by city highways. This ever-expanding outline has created massive maintenance liabilities for our city budget without expanding our tax base. Topeka’s population has been the same for 50 years, but our square mileage has steadily increased in that same time. That’s more miles of streets, sewers, and water lines for the city to maintain, on functionally the same property tax revenue from decades ago. At the same time, we wrecked a high-performing district in downtown and gave up taxable land to non-taxable uses.

Urban Renewal became “Urban Removal,” sending thousands of residents out of the downtown district, and building a highway express route to the suburbs. Commercial properties have proliferated on the fringes of Topeka. We grew our city on the edges, rather from the middle, and we are financially suffering as a result.

If you’re curious to learn more about massive maintenance liabilities, the example of Lafayette, Louisiana may sound familiar. Lafayette is a city of 125,000 (about the same as Topeka) that would have to raise taxes by $3,300 per household today just to maintain the roads and drainage systems they have already built. We’re in the same situation. Topeka has a $60 million liability on water lines alone.

Census YearTopeka Population
2019 (est.)125,310
Topeka population numbers from the U.S. Census.

Instead of urban renewal, a better bet in the 1950s would have been to help residents of The Bottoms improve their properties, block by block. After all, poor neighborhoods make the best investments. The biggest gain in value for Topeka would have been to build and improve incrementally within The Bottoms district. Downtown creates some of the best property tax revenue in the city, with many parcels bringing in the highest value per acre compared to any other part of Topeka. Sadly, incremental investment in The Bottoms neighborhood is not an option any more, but maybe we can still make good on the destruction that urban renewal caused.

As we look at KDOT’s plan to rebuild and expand the Polk-Quincy Viaduct section of Interstate 70, it’s time to pause and consider what happened when this highway was built. The highway project and the Keyway Urban Renewal Project pulled the plug on downtown Topeka and drained it of significant, valuable population and commerce. Now, we are desperate to add residents and businesses to the area, but it’s a slow project. Maybe there’s a better way.

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it

The real problem is right in front of us, and it’s not the noisy, polluting highway. That’s just a nuisance. The real problems are the silent struggles of our neighbors and residents who live within reach of the most valuable real estate district in all of Shawnee County, but don’t have enough food to eat, don’t have stable employment, and don’t have access to the power needed to make change in the future of their city — all because we cut apart communities of color in the 1950s.

These wounds will never be fully healed; we will never have the community like we might have had. But the pain and damage can be acknowledged, and we can work to give today’s generations a better start. We need to do that with real, physical acknowledgement — with money and land for economic development.

Because The Bottoms was the most affordable place to live in Topeka, many families had nowhere to go when urban renewal started. The Topeka Housing Authority was founded, and the Pine Ridge housing project was built. In its first year, it had 300 applications for just 100 apartments. We took a housing challenge from one part of the city and moved it to another area.

In 2016, black families nationally had on average 1/10th the wealth of white families. That is not to say that white families are necessarily wealthy — just that black families have significantly more barriers to education, employment, healthcare, and homeownership. Black families have been left behind, because they were legally prohibited from securing loans to buy homes in the 1940s and 1950s. At the same time, white families were investing in property and land, most of which appreciated significantly in the last five decades. Furthermore, in Topeka, the unemployment rate for black men in 2018 was 12.9% and only 5% for white men. 5 6

Despite a promising start as a free state, and a sort of ‘utopia’ for black families fleeing continued harassment after the Civil War, Kansas has not delivered on the promise of equality that our Constitution guarantees. From the late 1800s to the 1950s — a span of about 70 years — black families built community, built businesses, and built their families in Topeka. But the Keyway Urban Renewal Project, in about four years, shattered that dream for thousands of people. The racist policymaking of redlining, urban renewal, and urban highways exacerbated inequalities in Topeka, and ensured that our downtown would be less diverse in the future than it was at the turn of the 20th century.

Right now, we have the chance to do something different than KDOT’s proposed plan for rebuilding the Polk-Quincy Viaduct. We don’t have to add lanes (and add traffic) and bulldoze more buildings to keep our city on track for progress. We can tear down the highway and route traffic on boulevards instead. Streets like 10th Street, 8th Street, 6th Street, and Topeka Boulevard are all designed to carry plenty of traffic. If you’re just passing through, Google Maps reports that I-470 is only a minute different from using I-70. We can fill in the hole left by the below-grade highway downtown, and resurrect land where it used to be. We can offer that land, and capital, to former residents of the area, and any current resident of Topeka Housing Authority who writes a business plan.

One city’s path to rebuilding downtown

Topeka is far from the first city to consider closing part of an interstate. Take a look at the Inner Loop East project in Rochester, NY.

Rochester closed a section of below-grade highway, filled in the hole, and developed new construction on top of that land.

In the foreground is the new Charlotte Square residential and retail development, part of more than $200 million in private development spurred by Rochester’s removal of its Inner Loop East highway segment, via Rochester Business Journal.

Instead of rebuilding the highway, they closed it and filled it in with dirt, and the Mayor led the charge to encourage new development. The city saved millions of dollars in maintenance. And now, more than $200 million has been spent in private investment for housing and retail. In the near future, Rochester will be earning new property tax on land that has been un-taxable for decades.

The rebuild of the Polk-Quincy Viaduct is expected to cost more than $300 million to complete, mostly federal and state funding, with $20 million coming from Topeka (all debt). But if we close the highway, how much will we save? How much will we gain? It makes sense that Topeka should invest in land, especially its most valuable downtown land. After all, they’re not making any more of it.

Topeka has its opportunities and challenges.

  • Challenge: The Polk-Quincy Viaduct Segment of I-70 is too old to maintain.
  • Opportunity: The PQV uses 9 acres of land in our most valuable district.
  • Challenge: I-70 is an important corridor for commercial traffic.
  • Opportunity: I-470 is a newer highway, closer to some of our region’s industry, and a potential alternate route for through-traffic.

These ideas are dramatic in order to provide a starting point for discussion. What are the barriers that people of color are facing in Topeka? Some of them are physical — like highways dividing the community — but some are more nuanced. Can we work together on these challenges, and improve our city’s financial outlook, too?

Again, we’ll point to the Strong Towns approach for problem-solving. We need only to talk with our neighbors to start addressing our community’s needs.

  1. Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.
  2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?
  3. Do that thing. Do it right now.
  4. Repeat.

Topeka has its opportunities and challenges. Let’s not repeat our mid-century mistakes. Today can be the first day of the next 150 years in Topeka’s history.


  1. Community Resources Council – CRC History (1950s and 1960s tabs)
  2. Urban Renewal file, Topeka Room, Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library; press clippings
  3. National Negro Business League, 1906 City Directory, Topeka, KS (Topeka Room, TSCPL)
  4. I Shall Talk to My Own People”: The Intersectional Life and Times of Lutie A. Lytle, Iowa Law Review, 2017
  5. Shawnee County Appraiser, Property Record for 221 SW Harrison St.
  6. Brookings, Examining the Black-White Wealth Gap, Feb. 2020
  7. Kansas Health Institute, Socioeconomic Status: Disparities in the Sunflower State, (PDF) April 2018.

3 thoughts on “Suburban Renewal: Depopulating Downtown Topeka

  1. Excellent article. The alternate plan better be perfectly drawn up to make a good impression on those that make the decisions. I cry every time I read about the loss of the Bottoms community.

  2. I grew up in Topeka, in a new home my folks purchased in 1959 in Highland Park. I was a newborn baby when this interstate system ravaged our community. I had no idea this occurred. What a loss. Imagine what Topeka could be like if families like the Lytle’s had been allowed to continue to thrive.

  3. In his novel “Not Without Laughter,” Langston Hughes vividly evokes a neighborhood called “The Bottoms” in the fictitious town of Stanton, Kansas. It’s generally understood that Stanton was modeled on Lawrence, but I have a strong sense — based on his descriptions of it — that Hughes was drawing mainly on his memories of Topeka, not Lawrence, when he was writing about “The Bottoms” in Stanton. I’m going to research that further. I remember learning that 4th Street in Topeka was where the good early jazz was played in the ’20s. I’ll see what I can learn about that, too; it’d be fascinating to know what pioneering jazz artists performed there. Thanks for all the excellent work you’ve done here.

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