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  • A River in the City of Fountains: An Environmental History of Kansas City and the Missouri River by Amahia K. Mallea
  • Brian Frehner (bio)
A River in the City of Fountains: An Environmental History of Kansas City and the Missouri River
By Amahia K. Mallea. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. Pp. 358.

The story of Kansas City's growth and its need for water have often been a story about racial and class inequality. The connection between water and inequality is so embedded in the city's history that public officials are, at this very moment, meeting to rename a fountain that serves as the centerpiece of a popular commercial district known as "the Plaza." The J. C. Nichols Memorial Fountain commemorates the man who built the district as the country's first automobile-friendly shopping mall and as the centerpiece of the suburban neighborhood sprawling southward where many white residents fled urbanization and Black Americans. Nichols is also widely known for creating stark racial divides in the city by instituting real estate covenants for the houses he built that effectively "redlined" neighborhoods, excluding Black Americans and Jews. In recent weeks, protestors have gathered next to Nichols Fountain to protest the death of a Black American man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police and to call for racial equality. Under its current name, the fountain has come to symbolize both the racist legacy of urban infrastructure and how inequality has marked the control of water in Kansas City, an idea at the center of this book. [End Page 1245]

According to the author, Amahia Mallea, A River in the City of Fountains is about the "long-term intimate relationship" between Kansas City and the Missouri River and "about how intertwined the city and river" have been (p. 2). Although "intertwined," the Missouri River curiously "became invisible to Kansas Citians" even though it supplied water for drinking, fountains, and sewers (p. 1). Mallea never entirely elucidates the reasons for the river's invisibility, which would have made the book's central ideas clearer and easier to discern. Instead, she argues "what we have is a complex relationship in which the social matrix is constantly and inseparably interacting with the ecological system, and together they make the urban environment" (p. 2). Thus, it is the relationship between Kansas City and the Missouri River the author seeks to capture, much as Richard White has done in his book The Organic Machine. White explains that it is "the history of the relationship itself" around which he organizes his ideas, and Mallea strives to emulate this approach.

The book's title does not fully express the broad scope of material covered, as the subject matter extends far beyond Kansas City and the Missouri River. Those who have never visited the Kansas City metropolitan area might not know that there are actually two urban centers named "Kansas City." The two cities are adjacent. One is in the state of Kansas and the other is in Missouri. The Kansas-Missouri state line divides the cities, as does a portion of the Missouri River. The Kaw River runs just south of Kansas City in Kansas and empties into the Missouri River near the state line where the two cities meet. Mallea's book is partly an exploration of how these political and geographical markers have complicated the broader metropolitan area's relationship with water over time, resulting in disparities among those who rely on these rivers.

The book's ten chapters are grouped into three parts and cover a chronological timeframe running roughly from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s. Part I examines the relationship between city and river in terms of flooding, drinking water, and sewage. Part II surveys the diverse constituents who relied on the Missouri River as well as the Kaw River in neighboring Kansas City, Kansas. Part III recounts efforts to manage the Missouri River as part of a broader regional plan, the 1951 flood, and public health values that increasingly informed the river's management. The book concludes with a chapter on recent efforts to remediate the river and some personal reflections by the author on her...


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pp. 1245-1247
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