Monday, December 2, 2013

Blueprints and Lost Clarinets

It’s pure coincidence. The Star ran a pair of articles examining the languishing development of 18th and Vine and the American Jazz Museum, 25 years after their announcement. Meanwhile, I was posting a brochure detailing the museum promised us at that time.

The Star’s evaluations of the district ranged from unflattering to downright appalling. But probably most appalling was the anecdote opening the second article:

“Back in 2004, the Woody Herman Society lent the jazz great’s clarinet and a few other things to the American Jazz Museum. But when it came time to return the stuff, the museum staff came up empty.

“It took three years to find the clarinet.

“Herman’s lifetime achievement Grammy award? Missing even longer, although museum staff eventually tracked it down in 2012 after the Woody Herman Society filed a police report and threatened a lawsuit.”

Later, the article notes: “...The American Jazz Museum is a signature institution that needs more revenue if it’s going to improve its own exhibits and programs.”

And when looking to improve those exhibits, don’t use the Woody Herman Society as a reference. I’ve never run a museum. But I can’t imagine that losing loaned historic artifacts is recommended for building donor confidence or winning accreditation.

Yet, disturbing as it is, that tale stands as but one impediment to the museum’s and the district’s growth. The articles touch on what I’ve maintained for decades is the district’s greatest hurdle: its isolation.

In 1987, two years before these articles begin, I was shown plans for the area. I had just taken over as chairman of the Kansas City Jazz Commission, and the then-director of the Black Economic Union (BEU) was recruiting my support.

In the BEU’s office, blueprints covered a table. These were the plans BEU was pursuing to redevelop 18th and Vine. The building known today as the Boone Theater (and then as the Armory building) and the Mutual Musicians Foundation were cornerstones. Structures along 18th Street, eventually torn down to accommodate the museums, would have mostly remained. New buildings would fill long-empty lots at 18th and The Paseo and at 18th and Woodland. Housing would dot but largely surround the core district.

It was a beautiful vision. But the vision was an oasis ringed by blight.

You cannot surround Disneyland with a moat and expect it to thrive. I saw plans for a magnificent island edged by blocks of decay. Driving through streets of industrial buildings and old structures ripe for demolition would not constitute a warm welcome. Surrounding neighborhoods were worse then, more dilapidated, before Bruce R. Watkins Expressway lapped 18th Street, removing some of the rot, and before anyone imagined the Crossroads as an artsy/restraunty district.

Except for people who already knew the area, I predicted that day, few would come.

Oh, I was told, there were plans for more housing and more businesses to ring the district, beyond what I saw in the drawings on that table. But there weren’t more plans. There were unrealistic dreams.

It was obvious that 18th and Vine needed to connect with the rest of the city. Only then could the district anticipate a critical mass, a daily density of people needed for restaurants and retail to prosper.

18th and Vine’s planners needed it to be a core cultural and retail area surrounded by ongoing waves of homes and shops. That’s the Plaza. That’s Brookside. That’s Prairie Village. That’s Leawood’s Town Center.

That was 18th and Vine in the 1930s. And that’s what, in the 1960s, had decayed beyond revival and was removed through urban renewal.

18th and Vine once thrived with homes and movie theaters and service stations and bars and doctors and lawyers and accountants and undertakers and the offices of the Kansas City Monarchs. Jazz was an element that helped build a unique environment at a unique time. But so was gambling and vice and the confinements of segregation.

It’s not coming back.

Today, beautiful new homes along Highland Street are offset by the embarrassment of historic shambles a block over on Vine.

According to The Star’s articles, the Jazz Museum took in just $159,000 on admissions in its last fiscal year. At $10 per adult, less for children, that suggests 20,000, maybe 25,000 people paid to tour the museum last year. That’s the number of people they need to be drawing in one day at their annual festival.

But you can’t put Disneyland in a moat.

How inviting is it to drive past the shell of a building with the word Asylum rising from its roof? That’s the historic Wheatley-Provident hospital, and thank God it’s still standing. But it was last used as a haunted house in the 1990s. Two decades later it’s still branded with Asylum. Doesn’t anyone recognize the image conveyed? Doesn’t anyone understand how that hurts?

It’s just one example.

It’s critical that 18th and Vine and the American history captured in that district survive. But jazz and Negro Leagues baseball alone cannot carry the district. They never did. The area still needs to connect with the city. In isolation, I don’t know how it grows the traffic necessary to thrive.

Twenty five years later, nobody has figured out how to draw people from all of those other waves of homes in the metropolitan area to a museum that can’t find the historic artifacts loaned to it.

That last sentence holds a heckuva lot of issues to overcome.

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