Monday, January 14, 2013

Three Tales

It must have been the mid 1970s, because I started driving in 1973 and it wasn’t long after that.

The family business stood on Locust, just south of 18th Street. I worked there that summer. One afternoon, I drove a customer back to his business, on 18th Street between Vine and Highland.

I pulled the car up to a worn door, paint peeling from it, of an old brick building. Before stepping out of the car, the man turned to me in his seat and said, “You’ve heard of the ghetto, son? This is the ghetto.”

I had heard of the nation’s ghettos. I’d heard talk of them on TV, on The CBS Evening News, at dinner time in our suburban home. I’d wondered if Kansas City had one and where it was.

I didn’t know Kansas City’s heritage then. The closest our family came to jazz was listening to Frank Sinatra on 8-track tapes in the Buick, our nicer car.

All I knew was that a man who worked in an old building on 18th Street between Vine and Highland, in the mid 1970s, identified his neighborhood as the ghetto.

I’d ridden through there dozens of times, going to the ballpark on Brooklyn, to see the A’s play, or the Chiefs, or to eat at Arthur Bryant’s.

I never realized that was the ghetto.

*****

It was 1983 or 1984 and I was three or four years out of college. A friend I’d attended high school with now sold records at Penny Lane in Westport. He’d introduced me to Kansas City jazz. He’d sold me albums by Count Basie and Charlie Parker and Big Joe Turner. He steered me towards the classic Basie and Big Joe, not their newer recordings on the Pablo label. Those, he advised me, weren’t nearly as good.

I was attending the first or second 18th and Vine Heritage Festival one Saturday afternoon, walking down 18th Street, blocked off from The Paseo to Woodland, from stage to stage. My friend, who sold records, saw me and grabbed my arm. “Come with me,” he said.

We walked over to Highland Street then up to 1823 and into what I would later learn was the Mutual Musicians Foundation. There, on a chair on stage, sat Big Joe Turner. I worked my way up front, through the crowd, and stood an arm’s length away from Big Joe. I listened, awed, while Big Joe Turner shouted the blues.

I returned to the Mutual Musicians Foundation repeatedly through the 1980s. That decade, more than once, on a summer afternoon or evening, a woman might lean out from a second or third floor window of the Rochester Hotel, next door to the Foundation, and ask me if I wanted to come up for a good time.

People lived in the houses across the street from the Foundation and the Rochester then. Older people, who had probably lived there forever. Over time, they moved out, or died, I’m not sure which. Plywood replaced the houses’ windows and doors. Surely, eventually, those houses would fall down.

*****

I’d heard the homes were nearing completion. Then, last Thursday, a story on them spanned the front page of The Star. So I went to see for myself.

The 18th and Vine district once thrived through a mix of businesses and homes. A smattering of churches attests to the residential. Churches generally don’t locate where you only find music and booze. And the Mutual Musicians Foundation building itself was originally either a duplex or apartments (I’ve seen references to both).

I parked on Highland at 18th Street and walked south, past a church. About midway up the block, I stopped.

Music flowed from the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Inside, a band was rehearsing. Across the street I heard hammering and sawing. And I stood and gazed at beautiful homes. Rebuilt, quaint, nearly ready to rent. 

Three of the houses on Highland, as a workman walks by.
It’s not the Rochester Hotel next to the Foundation anymore. A new sign identifies the building as The Rochester at Highland Place. An enclosed staircase has been added to the north side. This building looks clean, inviting, a blue awning shading each new window. A banner facing Highland proclaims, “Your Search Is Over! Apartments at Highland Place.”

The Rochester, left, and the Mutual Musicians Foundation, from the porch of one of the houses.
Just to the south, wrapping the corner of 19th and Highland, stand more newer and occupied apartments. And directly across 19th Street, where Highland dead ends, sits a modern residential community.

It’s a piece of the 18th and Vine District. There’s still work to do in the district. Historic Vine Street remains an embarrassment.

But this piece is bustling with music and life. People will come to the Foundation for music. People will live here, too, in enviable homes and apartments. It’s a piece of the district, presumably, much as it thrived long before I knew it.

Nobody will lean from these windows.

This is not the ghetto.

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