Monday, March 26, 2012

We Didn't Have Another Way

Here, it wasn’t a question of waiting for a hero. We’d waited for decades. The visionaries had no money. Those with resources failed to see value in the risk, or lacked the passion to lead what we all knew was right. So here, it happened the only way it could.

The Atlantic has followed up their excellent story on Kansas City’s 18th and Vine District with a visit to Memphis and a thriving Beale Street (here). Beale Street has grown into a premiere tourist mecca, mostly through private development, spearheaded by developer John Elkington. Meanwhile, 18th and Vine, spearheaded by city government, has not.

Elkington argues, “You've got to have somebody who's saying, ‘Hey, I'm gonna risk everything ’cause I believe in what we’re doing….’ Government cannot do these projects. Government can do infrastructure, they can help with regulations, they can make sure that the building department makes life easier, they can help with zoning. There's a lot of things they can do. Anything more than that is really counterproductive because you want to be on the edge all the time in these developments, and government is always politically correct.”

He adds, referencing 18th and Vine, “That should be one of the great places in America. But I think they allowed government to really say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna solve this problem. Here’s what we're gonna do: We’re gonna recreate this.’ Can't do that. You gotta get people to take risks, as we did, and then what happens is if it’s successful then other people will come in and take measured risks too.”

He’s right.

And he’s wrong.

What worked in Memphis would not have worked in Kansas City. We lacked one critical element. And without that element, had city government not stepped in, 18th and Vine would still be a decrepit neighborhood of grassy lots and history mostly boarded tight.

Because 18th and Vine never inspired a private visionary with the resources to take risks. 18th and Vine never had a John Elkington.

But then, Kansas City approached its historic district from a different direction. Kansas City’s primary passion was to build an International Jazz Hall of Fame.

Organizations had been devoted to that goal since 1964. In 1969, Kansas City Jazz, Inc. explored establishing a Jazz Hall of Fame near 12th Street and The Paseo. But, as one organizer conceded to the Kansas City Times 15 years later, “We had lots of people with ideas but nobody with money.”

In 1979, the Music Director and Conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic advocated a Jazz Hall of Fame in Union Station. He got the assistant to the director of the National Endowment of the Arts involved. What he didn’t get was money.

Eddie Baker, president of the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation, argued passionately for an International Jazz Hall of Fame in the former Jewish Community Center building at 82nd and Holmes when it became available in 1983. The Kansas City Council responded by passing a resolution to establish a Jazz Hall of Fame in the 18th and Vine District. Eddie responded by accepting a check from Count Basie Enterprises for $10,000 for a Jazz Hall of Fame in the former Jewish Community Center building.

The chairman of the then-newly established Kansas City Jazz Commission responded by telling The Kansas City Star, “I think it ought to be where there’s some semblance of jazz history, and 18th and Vine certainly has that. The funny thing is, here’s all these people arguing over where the location should be and nobody has identified the money that will be required to do this.”

The Jazz Commission was in turmoil when I was named chairman in 1987. Yet, a City Council member confided that a then-recently defeated tax increase would have been used, in part, for a Jazz Hall of Fame, though the public wasn’t told. And in my first meeting with the Mayor, the Mayor emphasized the need for Kansas City to be home to a Jazz Hall of Fame. He asked me to meet with Emanuel Cleaver, then a City Councilman representing the Fifth Council District.

In 1989, after I left the Jazz Commission, Cleaver introduced a capital improvements plan which included money for a Jazz Hall of Fame in the 18th and Vine Historic District. As City Councilman and then as Mayor, Cleaver shepherded the development through to its grand opening in 1997.

That’s a third of a century after a group first discussed the possibility of establishing a Jazz Hall of Fame in Kansas City.

Elkington is right. An individual with resources, willing to risk everything because he believes in it, will drive a development with the necessary edge. But Kansas City didn’t have anyone like that. Maybe we didn’t because the bickering scared them all away. Or maybe we didn’t have anyone like that because in Kansas City, we just didn’t.

And The Atlantic’s writer is right. The 18th and Vine development we got – incomplete, but as far as the city’s money could take it – lacks the critical mass to thrive as a destination the way Beale Street thrives.

There’s the downside of how we did it.

But I remember what was there before. I remember the trash-strewn fields at 18th Street and The Paseo and at 18th and Woodland. I remember the buildings across from the Gem Theater which looked like they may or may not still be standing tomorrow. I remember the shack with barbeque (terrific food but questionable health standards).

I remember a decrepit neighborhood of grassy lots and history mostly boarded tight.

The historic Cherry Blossom nightclub burned in an arson fire in 1984. The city started to tear down historic Lucille’s nightclub in 1987. Both were privately owned. There were our visionaries.

We couldn’t wait any longer for a hero.

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