Writer and former urban planner Ellen Barker is tapping into one of America’s most painful histories in a new novel, East of Troost (She Writes Press, Sept. 6), about a middle-aged white woman who returns to her childhood home east of Kansas City’s Troost Avenue—a real-life racial and economic dividing line in the Missouri city. In her mostly Black neighborhood, the narrator strives to make a home, all while confronting a legacy of discriminatory housing policies.
Barker was inspired to write the book—which fuses an engrossing plot with an exploration of social issues—when she visited her own childhood home in the area east of Troost Avenue. She had lived there during the Fair Housing Act, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and seismic shifts in American society.
“‘Peace, love, and rock and roll’ was an exciting, idealistic concept,” Barker says. “The assassinations and rioting that went on in so many American cities during those same years, especially 1968, revealed the dark, horrible underside of what that idealism was up against. We sang about peace and love but marched for equality and an end to hate. We were scared and hopeful in equal measure.”
Troost Avenue symbolizes segregation and disinvestment in Kansas City that continue to affect residents today. A recent investigation by the Kansas City Beacon uncovered that most of Kansas City’s condemned buildings are concentrated in areas east of Troost. While the fictionalized story is set in Kansas City, Barker delivers a broader account of inequalities.
“As a teenager, I think I assumed it was a few bad actors, isolated banks, and real estate agents,” Barker says. “I went to college and saw the same thing going on in Saint Louis and discovered in my coursework that it was a national phenomenon.”
The learning did not stop there. “I don’t think I realized for a long time how brazenly the hard lines were drawn and how early it was done,” she says. “And only very recently has it really hit home for me how critical home ownership is to future generations moving out of poverty.”
Barker hopes East of Troost will help readers understand more about the early years of integration and how they inform racist attitudes today. “From a distance, it looks like white residents were cruel and Black people brought in crime and falling property values,” Barker says. “Many people don’t see how orchestrated it all was, by banks and real estate agents and ‘city fathers.’ But everyone I talk with about the book has some bit of truth, some personal memory that they can hang this story onto and get a broader feeling for why things are still so fraught.”
As an example of how efforts to create a more just society must start in our own mind, Barker points to the book’s narrator. “She questions what she is doing,” Barker says. “She is pretty broken herself, so she questions everything, including her role in her mostly Black neighborhood.”
For Barker, this questioning of internal attitudes is essential. “It’s easy for me, in my California suburban life, to think that I am liberal and woke and conscious of my actions regarding people who are not like me—not white, liberal, educated, and comfortable,” she says. “But it’s easy to delude ourselves, whoever we are.”
Barker draws some of her thinking on today’s social issues from books including I Take My Coffee Black by Tyler Merritt and Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt. “I hope that East of Troost can work that magic in a few minds,” she says. “And so, when a related issue appears on a ballot, or a candidate makes some kind of statement, we can be better prepared to take note. What benefits the Black child, or the transgender woman, or the addicted man is most likely what will benefit all of us in the end.”