Susanna Says: Burning it all down and building back up again

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Photo courtesy of Susanna Lee

I’m a Kansas City native, born and raised. As a pro comedian and storyteller, I travel a bit, and find myself in small-talk situations quite often, which usually include questions of where I’m from and what it’s like there.  Whenever I’m asked about Kansas City, I say the same thing: No town adores itself like Kansas City. If KC was a band, it would wear its own t-shirt onstage at the concert.

These days we’re told at every turn that we need to celebrate who we are, how we are, to embrace our flaws, which I am in total favor of, but could we also accept that it’s possible to love ourselves (our city) fully and without reservation, but still let a doctor see and remove that worrisome rockstar shaped mole before it requires chemo? 

That’s what I wanted to use my space in this fine publication to do: point out the moles and try to get you to do something about them because as much as we like to champion our town, they do exist.  

But then…

Around noon on March 14th, I got into my friend’s car for brunch, and she opened with “Dude, did you hear about Davey’s?” 

Davey’s Uptown was destroyed by a fire. Shit. 

I love that place, everyone loves that place. There’s nothing not to love, it’s a perfect bar, comfortable for everyone, all the time. I’ve done shows there, been to shows there, and gone there for no specific reason, because it was always welcoming, without false fanfare. After we ate, I made my friend drive by three times, each time kicking a foot deeper into my gut. I hate when things get taken away when I’m not ready to let them go, and identifying that feeling was like finally being able to read the label on the can of worms I’ve been carrying around with me for most of my life. 

2016:

My father had died unexpectedly, he was my guiding voice, and I really lost my focus, and my grounding. LA isn’t the place to be when you can’t keep your eyes on the prize, it’s easy to get swept away and lost. So I moved back to KC, as I’d done before, from Chicago, from Portland,  but instead of taking time and space to stop, grieve, reflect and introspect, I kept myself busy, very busy, so busy.

I opened a business, closed a business, got a job, left a job, got another, and another, and another on top of those two. Three and a half years will pass really fast when you stay way too busy to heal. Enter COVID-19.  Quarantine has eliminated my busy work, all of my performances are canceled, and side jobs are on pause, so I find myself with an abundance of solitude and open time that’s made it possible to start considering what lessons I’m supposed to be learning here and now. 

I’m pretty sure a big one is to appreciate what I have while I have it, because everything is temporary, and there’s no way to predict how long we get to spend with what and who we love. I think another lesson is about ego and hubris. Who am I to tell anyone, especially a full city of individuals, that they’re fucking up and how to fix it? 

All I’m an expert on is myself, my life, my experiences, and I doubt I’ve learned nearly as much as I should’ve from those. I’m a very lucky person, and aware of that so much so that I got the word tattooed on my chest, as a permanent reminder. But like many, I’m prone to extended fits of melancholy and am guilty of getting distracted from celebrating what I love by the annoyance of small potatoes. 

I don’t want to spend more of my limited time being bitter and angry about things that don’t matter, I want to share the song, not the static.  So let these columns be that, instead, a multi-part love letter I didn’t think I’d write.  Where to start?  Where else: home.

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Davey’s // Photo by Artie Scholes

Quarantine: I won’t call it lockdown, that’s not what it is, there are no locks on the outside keeping us in. We can go to the store, we can go for a walk, and calling it lockdown is illustrative of ignorance about what actual imprisonment is. I’ve seen a number of pics of signs painted to say “You’re not stuck at home, you’re safe at home”, and I love that view of it because my current home is the best place I’ve ever lived. I am one of the Kansas City artists fortunate enough to have found residence at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, aka Leedyville.  

I look around myself and I do feel lucky.  I not only have the freedom to create here, but it’s also what’s expected of me (in addition to paying rent, of course). 

Jim Leedy’s intention was to create space for artists to live and work, so they didn’t feel like they had to leave Kansas City in order to have careers and community. He was the catalyst for the development of the Crossroads Arts District, buying his first building in the area in 1984, at 1919 Wyandotte, and moving to its current location of 2012 Baltimore in 1989. There is so much to tell about the beginnings of the gallery, and how it grew into what it is today, I mean, Jim Leedy, who’s referred to as “the mayor of the crossroads” is the original seed from which the current arts community sprouted, including First Fridays.

Briefly, I can tell you that this building itself started as a hardware store, and was then the original Folgers plant in KC, with roasters on the roof. Stephanie Leedy, Jim’s daughter and head of operations here, told me that in the early days, when large trucks would drive by, the vibrations would shake loose old coffee beans, which would rain down from the ceilings of the upper floors. Even now, I occasionally find a petrified bean or two in my kitchen.

After that, it was an animatronic figurine and toy factory, in one of the current galleries remains a control panel on a back wall from when it was a showroom for life-sized waving Santas. There are still boxes of doll parts in the basement, and if I learned anything from the incredibly factual film Poltergeist, it’s that we are affected by what came before us in the spaces we occupy. Living on top of unembodied doll heads might freak some people out, but I love it. 

In the same way that building the Freeling’s house on top of disturbed graves released angry spirits, this place has released and stoked my creative spirit. See, I’m a highly sensitive person. I won’t use the “E” word, because I think a lot of people who say “I’m an empath” really just mean “I smoke weed with art school dropouts”, but I do feel connected to the energy that exists in this building, inspired by the residue of the many artists of various disciplines who have called this place home.

In the time I’ve lived here, I’ve been inspired to create outside of my usual genre of performance, playing around with installation art and sculpture, using found objects to create stories and commentary on the temporary nature of things and their potential for beauty and renewed utilization beyond the prime of their initial purpose, and as a woman who’s made a living off telling dick jokes in bars. (That’s a handful of words I never expected to use.)

I first met this building in 2008. 

As one of the top burlesque performers in the city, I was often called upon by people interested in private parties or classes: unique entertainment for a 50th birthday party, glitzy glitter for a rooftop pool opening night, quick classes in bump-n-grind for brides-to-be and their bachelorettes who wanted pre-game fun before getting trashed at P&L, you name it, I showed up and twirled my tassels for it. 

Part of my ego was mired in having lived in “big cities”, and I had the hubris of thinking I’d seen everything interesting Kansas City had to offer. So when I was asked to co-produce a show in a private loft above an art gallery, I agreed but didn’t expect anything that would make my eyebrows raise. Then I showed up for the initial meeting, and holy shit, it was like stepping out of a sepia-toned farmhouse into technicolor Oz. 

The walkway up to the door was painted with various designs and icons, part of it was literally a yellow-brick road. The stairs inside had an eye painted on them, the top few were adorned with teal paint proclaiming “I love you every step of the way”, and the loft where the show would be held looked like the product of a fairy-tale castle mating with the Berenstain Bears treehouse. It was multi-leveled, with a suspended bridge-type of walkway from the upper living room space to the kitchenette,  

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Davey’s // Photo by Artie Scholes

Where the fuck was I? How had I never heard of this place? Did it even really exist, or was I having a coma dream? I’d never in my life coveted someone’s home more than this place. I needed to be here. 

But there were no spaces open, and besides, it wasn’t like other buildings, where you see an ad and fill out an app, the residents, like an exhibit, were curated. So I told myself not to hold onto hope, eventually moving to California and forgetting about it. I didn’t think about it again until 2018, when someone I knew moved back to KC, and into the building. They posted pictures of their amazing space, hashtagging everything #leedyville. 

Now, I was living in the northeast neighborhood, across from Kessler Park, in a building owned by a creepy guy who split his time between being too drunk to fix things in KC, and too drunk to call someone else to fix them while partying in LA. I was on the top floor of his crumbling building, and at night, the raccoons living in my ceiling (that is not a typo) would shriek and scream as they chased each other, claws scraping and scratching above my head. Between that and the nightly gunfire, I was operating on very little rest. I was so tired that I actually dated the stupidest man I’d ever met in my life, just in hopes of spending the night at his place and being able to get some real sleep.

Then, my friend told me about an open space in the building, some intended tenants had backed out. I called immediately, and as I walked up the stairs to see the available spot, I read the words again: “I love you every step of the way” and could barely keep from crying. Sometimes that’s a powerful message to take in, and at the time, one I really needed.

How was this building giving me a mother’s hug?

I started moving in 2 weeks later. My first overnight here was the first time in over a year that I slept soundly enough to dream.

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Davey’s // Photo by Artie Scholes

I realize I’ve spoken about this building as though it’s a sentient being a couple of times now, but to me, it is. It was developed differently than the multitude of new repurposed factory spaces in the downtown area.  There was no crew of contractors who came in and shaped the space into uniform “lofts”, with stainless steel fixtures and three-quarter height walls painted some shade of boring neutral designed to match the furniture and lifestyles of Pottery Barn.

This place was handcrafted by Jim Leedy’s friends and family. These walls were put up by individuals, by artists who loved and believed in this vision, the idea of community. My shower was built by the hands of someone with a name, Sean Ward, a former resident here who also built the catwalk in the studio where I performed 12 years ago, and painted the op-art design adorning the walls of the cargo elevator that I use to get to the loading dock that leads to the alley where I take out the trash. 

I talked at length with Stephanie Leedy, and in hopes of understanding why I feel so connected to it, I asked her why this place is so special, why I love it so much. Leedy said “Everyone who’s lived here has special feelings for this place, everyone thinks that when they lived here was the best time.”

I believe that the sustained significance, the ability a place has to touch deeply so many lives, means that all of us who’ve thought that are absolutely right. Except for the dude who stole my weed that one time. Fuck him.


A GoFundMe for the Davey’s Uptown staff is here.

Categories: Culture