Monday, February 1, 2010

On 18th and Vine

A friend angered me a week or so back, because I’m tired of hearing it.

I mentioned I was heading out to The Blue Room.

“Where’s that?” the friend asked.

“18th and Vine.”

“Really? Down there? You’ll be safe?”

Background: I grew up in Prairie Village. I graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School. I graduated from Kansas State University. I now live in Overland Park. I’m 52 years old and as white bread as it gets.

More background:

I remember, as a child, walking around in Matlaw’s, then a clothing store in the Lincoln Building at 18th and Vine, with my father, while he bought a hat.

Through much of the 1980s, as a volunteer organizer of the Kansas City Jazz Festival, I walked into shops around 18th and Vine, asking to tape up posters.

In the late 1980s, I served as chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission. Our office was on the second floor of the Lincoln Building, maybe right above where Matlaw’s once stood. I was there regularly, meeting with our Executive Director, meeting with leaders of other organizations.

I celebrated at the 18th and Vine Festival through much of the 1980s and into the '90s, before the museums were built, back when stages were erected on 18th Street at Paseo and on an empty lot at 18th and Woodland.

I helped organize a couple of those festivals, carrying tables and chairs in and out of the National Guard Armory at 18th and Highland.

I partied at Eblon, and at Mardi Gras, and drank at El Capitan, all district nightspots, all now gone.

I remember touring the area, before the museums, the guide pointing out a building which housed a club where Charlie Parker played, and where a building once stood that was Count Basie’s home.

I’ve been to the museums, the Swing Shop, The Blue Room, dozens of times. I’ve been at every Rhythm and Ribs Festival held.

I’ve been in the Mutual Musician’s Foundation more times than I can anymore count. I’ve been there in the afternoon. I’ve been there at 5 am. I was there before it was designated a historic landmark, and since. The day I stood next to Big Joe Turner there, as close as an outstretched arm, while he shouted the blues, remains a thrill.

I’ve been going to 18th and Vine most of my 52 years. Me, this guy who’s as white bread as it gets.

Enough background.

So how many times have I been assaulted around 18th and Vine? How often have I been robbed there? On how many visits have I felt threatened? Or endangered?

Not once. Not ever.

Oh, I’ve been assaulted and robbed. But that happened on the Country Club Plaza.

And how many times have I met extraordinary people near 18th and Vine?

Every visit.

When I chaired the Jazz Commission, I met often with the Executive Director of the Black Economic Union. He showed me plans for revitalizing the district, and for a jazz museum. This was not the museum which was eventually built. But I saw pages of blueprints designed to revive the area, plans with apartments and offices, with retail and a theater and a museum.

I told him that the plans looked wonderful, but I saw a paradise surrounded by (especially then) less inviting neighborhoods. I feared too many people would feel uncomfortable with adjacent areas to feel comfortable driving into that paradise.

Image and undeserved reputation remain an impediment to attracting some suburbanites to the historic district which, though still not a fully developed paradise, is one of Kansas City’s jewels. I suppose that contributes to my friend’s ignorance.

Yet, I tire of hearing it.

“Really? Down there? You’ll be safe?”

Yes. Just as I have been every visit of my life.

1 comment:

Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.