In the summer of 1857, J.V. Fitch, proud resident of Quindaro, sold ice-cream sodas in his shop, one of many new businesses in the fast-growing hamlet on the banks of the Missouri River. Ground had broken on the freshly platted community only six months earlier, but by August, Quindaro's population was more than 600, primarily runaway slaves and free blacks, members of the Wyandot Indian tribe, and free-state white settlers. There were soon 100 buildings, including a large hotel.
Thank goodness for Fitch's ice-cream sodas — by the following year, Quindaro had outlawed liquor. But it was something else that turned a fast-booming river city into a ghost town. "The Civil War really gave Quindaro its knockout blow," one of the last residents wrote in a letter. "All the young men left to join the Union Army."
War emptied Quindaro, but Ricardo Khan, a visiting professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City who mounted an original play, Quindaro, in 2008, says yet another factor brought the community to a halt. "It was bypassed by the railroad, which built tracks closer to Leavenworth," he says.
Today, Quindaro's ruins remain on the banks of the river, on the northeast side of Kansas City, Kansas. "There's little left to evoke the dramatic events that took place there in the days of slavery," Khan says. Quindaro was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad. "The town was created in a wooded, hilly setting that was ideal for the runaway slaves that came there to be free after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act." That 1850 law mandated that runaway slaves be returned to their owners, no matter where they were captured.
By the 1900s, two areas in KCK were known as Quindaro: the crumbling ruins of Fitch's 19th-century town and a middle-class neighborhood beyond the bluffs. The latter's more prosperous stretch, bordered by Quindaro Boulevard, included stores, movie theaters, restaurants and churches. "It was an African-American community from about Seventh Street to 18th Street," says Richard Mabion, longtime historian and booster of the Quindaro neighborhood.
It's still primarily an African-American community, but the modern Quindaro has had much more drama than the old one did, including crime, abandoned homes and businesses, and a serious economic downturn. The movie theaters along Quindaro Boulevard were either razed or turned into churches years ago, as have the supermarkets (one of which is now a rental hall called the Nefertiti Ballroom).
A decade ago, Mabion took me to a new restaurant in the heart of Quindaro, Food for Life Supreme Diner, a primarily vegetarian restaurant (give or take organic salmon and white fish) operated by members of the United Nation of Islam. The restaurant was an attempt to breathe new life into the community. Today the building is occupied by the Gotti Boyz Motorcycle Club.
"Restaurants come and go in the Quindaro," Mabion says. "It's hard to keep a business going when most of your clientele comes from the neighborhood — and it's not a wealthy neighborhood."
It's hard, yes, but Ruth Scover has run her tiny soul-food restaurant, Ms. R's Café, for 28 years. "It used to be the R &R Café," she says, "but I got divorced." Other things have changed, too, but she has kept going. "I used to stay open late and got a lot of business when the clubs in the area closed," she says. "But there aren't as many clubs as there used to be, so I close early now."
There are only a couple of tables inside the café, which is dominated by two counter areas. Most of Scover's business is carryout. She sells a lot of burgers and chicken wings and does a good business offering full dinners, a revolving list of daily specials, including smothered chicken, neck bones and pig ears on Mondays and fried chicken or liver and gravy on Fridays. Patrons order from a window that has a framed "Serenity Prayer" hanging above it. Pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X hang on the walls.
I've eaten the best Salisbury steak of my life at Ms. R's. Hers comes smothered in gravy, with greens and macaroni and cheese. Great cornbread, too.
Another veteran of Quindaro's restaurant scene is Wilson's Pizza & Grill, which has been in the neighborhood for two decades and in its current location, a former drugstore, since 1998. Owner Gary Wilson says he sells just as many burgers and fried-chicken and shrimp baskets as he does pizza, but his thick-crust pies are excellent. Wilson is generous with his toppings — the 18th Street Special, thick with pepperoni, sausage and ground beef, is the best-seller. And his prices are very modest.
"Most of my clientele comes from the Quindaro neighborhood," Wilson says, "but business has been good."
Veteran barbecue restaurateur Ricky Smith, who runs Ricky's Pit Bar-B-Que, has operated a couple of locations in Wyandotte County over the years and served some celebrities along the way (including President Bill Clinton). He took over a former ice-cream parlor on Leavenworth Road (Quindaro Boulevard flows into this street) four years ago, and it's the smallest space he has run: five tables and a counter. He no longer serves smoked catfish ("It got to be too expensive," he says), which was one of his signature dishes in better times. But his brisket sandwich is still a winner — thick and tender and dripping with a sharp, cayenne-spiced sauce. And the burnt-ends platter, at less than $10, is one of the best barbecue deals in the metro. (The peach cobbler here, when it's available, is fantastic.)
Not too far from Ricky's is the newest snack shack in the community, J's Chicken and Fish Market, in a former Church's Chicken building. You can buy fried chicken (with a light, peppery crust) or fried shrimp, catfish, perch and tilapia — or you can buy raw chicken, shrimp and fish from a refrigerated case and have the kitchen crew fry it for you for a buck. ("They do that so customers can pay with food stamps," Mabion says. "You can't use them for prepared foods, but if you buy it raw and have them fry it, it's legal.")
Mabion says he expects more restaurants — and more residents — to move into Quindaro. (Next to join is likely to be Louisiana Smoke Bar-B-Que, which has been closed for renovation. "We'll be open again in about a month," the owner tells me.) He points out that home construction along Quindaro Boulevard is up these days. "Maybe the people who buy these houses will demand a new supermarket in the neighborhood and other new businesses," he says.
The Quindaro of 2013 doesn't need a railroad to keep it alive, but a good 19th-century-style ice-cream soda might help. So would an influx of customers from the other side of the river for Wilson's Pizza and Ms. R's Café and Ricky's and whatever worthy places next join them.