Monday, February 27, 2012

Fourteen and a Half Years Later

On Friday night, September 5th, 1997, 1500 people packed 18th and Vine for a black tie gala. After eight years and $26 million, Kansas City celebrated the grand opening of the jazz and Negro Leagues museums and the rebirth of the historic district.

Fourteen and a half years later:

From the west, you enter the 18th and Vine district on Eighteenth Street at The Paseo. Atop a building on the north side of the street, a sign rises, lit at night with giant red, green and blue letters, facing Interstate 70, announcing 18th & Vine District. The sign would better fit Disneyland.

On the south side of the street, you see an original district building. Its door facing Eighteenth Street is boarded and plastered with this notice:
Dangerous Building
Do Not Enter
Unlawful to use or occupy this building
Continue down Eighteenth Street. On the north side sit buildings erected for the district’s restoration. Once along here you’d have found the Street Hotel, with the original Blue Room nightclub; the Subway Club, where Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young and Ben Webster jammed; and the Shannon Building, with a third floor boxing club where Joe Louis sparred.

But those structures have been gone for decades. The buildings here now mostly replaced grassy lots, and they're full of activity. A new restaurant is moving into the corner space, The 9th Inning Sports Bar & Grill, appropriate a block from the Negro Leagues museum. From there to Vine Street are offices, the district’s daylight life.

Then turn south onto Vine. Deluxe Night Club, a sign left from when this street served as the backdrop for Robert Altmans’s film, Kansas City, decorates a building where the ceiling appears to have caved in. Next door, an empty lot, once stood the Kentucky Tavern. The next door down was the Cherry Blossom, where Bill Basie was first billed as Count and where Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Ben Webster brought down Coleman Hawkins in a legendary jam session. It burned in 1984, and only a braced facade remains. Across the street stood the Booker T. Washington Hotel, where musicians like Hawkins and Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra stayed. At the end of the block, the Roberts Building, boarded but standing, was the first black-owned auto dealership in America.

This is one of the most important blocks of 20th century American history anywhere. It’s a mess.

But return to Eighteenth Street. On the corner at Vine, the Lincoln Building is filled with professional offices, and on the first floor a cajun restaurant. Across the street, last Saturday night at The Blue Room, I heard jazz legend Benny Golson. You’ll find live jazz there four nights a week. The club is part of the complex housing the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Museum. The museums have their critics, but I’m not aware of any other museums in any other cities built to embrace jazz, or the Negro Leagues, as vibrantly or as successfully as the ones here. Across Eighteenth Street, the Gem Theater, also part of the district’s renovation, was filled Saturday for an original play.

Turn south onto Highland and walk towards Nineteenth Street, and you’re on a block undergoing remarkable transformation. The last half dozen single family homes in the district and the Rochester Hotel are in the midst of renovation into senior housing. Highland dead ends at Nineteenth with apartments on the right and a multi-family home development across the street. All of this surrounds Kansas City’s jazz jewel: The Mutual Musicians Foundation, a National Historic Landmark jumping with incredible joy every weekend late night for over eighty years. You can envision it now. When the housing is complete and occupied, this block will be amazing.

Return to Eighteenth Street. At the corner with Highland, an NEA grant has funded planning to redevelop the old Boone Theater as the home for Folk Alliance International. Across the street, between a bar at one corner and the offices of Friends of Alvin Ailey at the next, sit some empty storefronts in buildings erected for the district’s redevelopment. This is where fingers point when exclaiming the development failed. But these are three story buildings. The upper floors are apartments, all occupied.

Yet, across from the apartments stare back false fronts. These are part of the district’s redevelopment, erected to hide the buildings behind them, one the club where Buster Smith taught a young Charlie Parker, which the city accidentally started to tear down in 1987.

Welcome to the 18th and Vine Historic District, fourteen and a half years later. Your greeting defines what to expect: a Disneylandish sign on one side of the street and a condemned building on the other. On Highland, renovation is creating something wonderful. But Vine between Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets is history in disgraceful disrepair. Empty storefronts and false fronts dot the district and should not, yet they’re outnumbered by offices and homes and museums and nightlife.

Last week, The Atlantic published an excellent story on the district, The Jazz District Authenticity Problem (here). The next day, NPR’s A Blog Supreme questioned whether jazz is sustainable branding at a time when it’s learned and experienced very differently than during 18th and Vine’s heyday (here).

In Kansas City, it’s not.

But then, jazz never did thrive here on its own. It was part of a culture of gangsters, prohibition-era booze, gambling, prostitution and segregation. In Kansas City, it was the score to sin. Kill that culture and jazz needs new cohorts. Perhaps a sports bar or a folk alliance. Here, jazz alone cannot spark a district. It never did.

18th and Vine in 2012 is an incomplete success. Jazz is a critical element, but it’s one element.

2012 is not 1932. Today, romanticized history supplemented by diversity is more likely to thrive. And that’s what 18th and Vine, fourteen and a half years later, has embraced.

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