Columbus Park, adjacent to the River Market, is one of Kansas City most distinct areas. It has always felt unique, almost like you’re in an old East Coast town with its small brick buildings and row houses. Once our Little Italy, now as much our Little Vietnam, it has always been a cultural enclave in a city where immigrant settlements are usually more diffuse. Let’s take a brief look at how Columbus Park, a Kansas City gem, got to where it is today.
Columbus Park’s Italian roots
Originally it was known as the "North End," rather than Columbus Park and was a landing spot for Italians (mostly Sicilians) coming to Kansas City to work in the thriving meat packing industry. Even by the late 1800’s the neighborhood was dubbed “Little Italy” and Scalabrini monks, a sect focused on helping migrant Italians, established a local Catholic parish that would eventually lead to building the neighborhood’s iconic Holy Rosary church.
The North End provided the newcomers a sense of community and familiarity in their new, alien environment--the American Midwest. Their neighbors had the same culture, spoke the same language, and ate the same food. They didn’t have to worry about the anti-Italian discrimination prevalent in the rest of the city. Eventually the area became a thriving community, a hub for the Kansas City mafia, and the place to go when you were hungry for Italian, with restaurants like Garozzo’s and, the now gone but fondly remembered, Jennie’s.
Passing the torch
When it opened in 1940, no one would have guessed that the charitable work of the Don Bosco Community Center, named after the patron saint of Italian youth, would ultimately shift the composition of neighborhood. With a mission to help Kansas City's immigrants and refugees, it came to the aid of the Vietnamese seeking refuge after the fall of Saigon to the communists in 1975. Most of the refugees had either fought for South Vietnam or were otherwise dissenters to Ho Chi Minh and would have risked their lives had they stayed in Vietnam. Two prominent restauranteurs, Carl DiCapo, who ran Italian Gardens, and Tom Barelli, who ran Jennie's, were on the board at Don Bosco at the time and were instrumental in the creation of the programs that helped the Vietnamese resettle in the since renamed Columbus Park. The neighborhood of Italian immigrants was repaying the favor by offering Vietnamese immigrants some of the same opportunities to excel in a country free from political oppression. Fast forward to today and Columbus Park's Italian roots still shine through with great Italian options, like Garozzo’s and Carollo's in the River Market, but now Vietnamese fare is also represented with places like Vietnam Café and Nguyen Pho & Grill.
Who will get the torch next?
Continuing the family tradition of passing the torch, John DiCapo, Carl DiCapo’s son, would sell his Italian Gardens Pizzeria, in the East Crossroads, to Filipino restauranteur Theresa Santos in 2022. Tom Barelli’s Jennie’s restaurant would eventually become the home of a Vietnamese senior center. The neighborhood’s Vietnamese influences will likely become less pronounced as the Vietnamese population ages and settles in suburban areas, like many of the Italians did. With new housing developments around the neighborhood planned, Don Bosco still hard at work helping refugees, and with over 22% of Columbus Park residents born in another country, it will be exciting to see what’s next for the neighborhood.