The Redevelopment Blues
MELVIN CLIFTON RUFFEN, BETTER KNOWN AS “MC,” stands on the corner of 18th and Vine, casually looking around. Not much is going on. A few cars and trucks zoom up and down 18th Street, but the neighborhood is empty of the hustle and bustle MC describes when talking about what the historic jazz district was like back in his day.
“No place in the world had anything on 18th and Vine in those days,” says MC. “Kansas City was the heart of music and we had a good time. I mean, there would be people everywhere and they all looked sharp.”
The district has a lot of critics, but not many are as qualified as MC. The 82-year-old worked, played, and lived in the 18th and Vine area when it was red-hot and jumpin’. A former cab driver and part-time blues singer, MC witnessed the area’s decline in the ’70s and ’80s as black people abandoned the neighborhood to try to assimilate with white folk. Now he is witnessing politicians and developers struggle to bring the district back to life.
Singing the blues
The 1959 Wilbert Harrison song “Kansas City,” an R&B number with a blues feel and the city’s unofficial anthem, chronicles Kansas City’s glory days. Hearing the song, people think of Vine Street. But it’s the blues beyond the song that describe the current state of the 18th and Vine Historic District. Efforts to revitalize the area have been going on for more than a decade and, according to the latest set of plans, will stretch on for at least another six years — if everything stays on schedule. In the meantime, plywood facades hide many of the area’s scars while buildings crumble behind fancy, re-created storefronts.
“When we started integrating, 18th and Vine lost its popularity and things died down,” says MC. “I don’t care what they put down here, them days when you could walk out of one tavern and zigzag right into another are gone.”
From the 1920s to 1950s, the historic district was a mix of residences, businesses, and entertainment establishments. The area flourished as a community, largely because blacks were not allowed to live or shop anyplace else. The triumph of integration, unfortunately, snuffed out much of the energy around 18th and Vine.
But the area never completely died; it sputtered along with activity. In the 1980s and early ’90s, Club Eblons, located in the Lincoln Building, attracted hundreds of young adults several nights of the week. Culturally Speaking — a book, art, and card store (now Nia’s Hallmark, located in the Linwood Shopping Center) — provided some retail choices and a cultural presence. A barber and beauty shop, along with a television repair business and a restaurant, also managed to stay in business. One of the most popular destinations was the El Capitan bar, a fixture in the area for years. The tiny dive had a loyal following that enjoyed the down-home feel and stiff drinks.
When construction of the American Jazz Museum facility and renovation of the Gem Theater started in 1996, many of those businesses, most located on the north side of 18th Street, relocated or closed. Only Club Mardi Gras, the Zodiac Motorcycle Club, Mutual Musicians Foundation, and a beauty salon kept their doors open.
With the new construction came the promises from politicians, city bureaucrats, and developers that 18th and Vine would become the next French Quarter of New Orleans or Beale Street in Memphis. It hasn’t happened. So far, the seven-square-block historic jazz district — from Paseo on the west to Woodland on the east and from 19th Street on the south to 17th Terrace on the north — remains a virtual dead zone when it comes to street life.
The challenge remains for the city and developers to restore the area as a center of commerce and culture for Kansas City, its African-American community, and out-of-town visitors, many who know Kansas City only through the jazz legacies of Count Basie and Charlie Parker. Today the district is a community divided into a fragmented organizational structure that splits developmental leadership among various groups. The result is a stifling of the district’s growth potential as a business and cultural center.
Pulling the district different ways are nonprofit development corporations, businesses, civic leaders, and churches, each with its own ideas for zapping the district back to life. There is no one unified plan for rejuvenating the historic district, and communication among the various entities seems to be on par with two tin cans and a piece of string.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Rowena Stewart, executive director of the 18th and Vine Authority, disputes such a characterization. “It appears to be fragmented, but it really isn’t,” she says. “We all need one another. None of us could develop the entire district by ourselves.”
One entity doing it all was tried already. The 18th and Vine Redevelopment Corp., under the Black Economic Union (BEU), began redeveloping the district in the mid -1970s, acquiring tracts of land, tearing down many dilapidated buildings, renovating old buildings, and constructing new ones. BEU still owns the 30,000-square foot, three-story Lincoln Building, which was renovated in 1981 and now houses a Sprint call center. BEU also co-developed the 88-unit Basie Court apartment complex and several other housing developments near the historic district.
The City of Kansas City owns the American Jazz Museum facility — home to the Blue Room, a visitors’ center, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) — and the Gem Theater building and property. The 18th and Vine Authority manages the museum facility for the city under a contract and directs operations at the American Jazz Museum, The Blue Room, and the 500-seat Gem Theater, which was built in 1912. And the Jazz District Redevelopment Corp. (JDRC) is in charge of development of the majority of the district.
Also in the mix are three churches: the Barker Temple Church of God and Christ, Centennial United Methodist Church, and Holy Ghost New Testament Church. Church leaders often have a say in what goes on in the district. The Centennial, a 46-unit senior citizen home, is under construction at 18th and Woodland, behind The Kansas City Call newspaper building. That project is a joint venture between the church and BEU.
Besides The Call, other private businesses and nonprofits in the area include the financially struggling Mutual Musicians Foundation, located at 1823 Highland and home to countless early-morning jam sessions, and the Black Archives of Mid-America, located at 2033 Vine, just outside the so-called boundaries of the historic district. The Archives plans to relocate to the old parks and recreation facility near the museum at 17th and Woodland.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Horace M. Peterson III, former director of the Black Archives of Mid-America, began to push the idea of revitalizing 18th and Vine. After Peterson’s death in 1992, then-mayor Emanuel Cleaver took up the effort. Cleaver included the district’s redevelopment in his “Cleaver Plan,” a 1989 sales tax revenue package that also devoted funds to the Brush Creek Flood Improvement Project and expansion and renovation of the American Royal Facility that he pushed through as councilman. Brush Creek and the American Royal project quickly got off the planning stage and into a construction timetable. The 18th and Vine part languished as parties quibbled and as the project failed to attain a high-priority status among most city leaders.
Cleaver gave the project a boost in 1992 by purchasing Charlie Parker’s plastic saxophone in an auction for $140,000, outbidding a Japanese jazz enthusiast. It was this bold and controversial display of aggressiveness that helped create momentum to get construction of the museum facility started.
“There had to be a starting point, and the museum’s facility and the Gem Theater represent the progress that we needed to attract the federal dollars that we have now for additional development,” says Cleaver, who currently serves as president of the American Jazz Museum Board of Trustees and president of the 18th and Vine Authority.
Throughout his two terms as mayor, Cleaver made developing the area a priority. Newly elected Mayor Kay Barnes does not seem to share Cleaver’s passion for the historic district. But to be fair, finding the funding for redevelopment of the area has always been a challenge.
Difficulties getting money and eliminating political red tape caused the initial plans to be scaled back. Original plans called for the historic district to include separate buildings for the jazz museum, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and the Black Archives. There also was to be retail and housing components, along with fountains, a walk of fame, and statues of jazz greats, as well as a huge outdoor amphitheater. An amphitheater is under construction and is scheduled to be completed in August, according to city development specialist Claude Page. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing $250,000 to the 18th and Vine Authority to construct the Outdoor Jazz Pavilion.
The district showed promising signs of life in the fall of 1997 with the completion of the American Jazz Museum (the first museum in the world devoted entirely to jazz), the accompanying Blue Room and Visitors Center, the Negro Leagues Baseball facility, and renovation of the Gem Theater. So far the city has spent approximately $26 million on the 18th and Vine Historic District. HUD spent an additional $1.5 million on the Gem Theater, and private donations paid for the $2.5 million NLBM exhibit. Both the construction and Gem renovation amount to the biggest capital improvement project in the economically beleaguered Third Council District in several years. The hope was that a revitalized district would pump much-needed capital into the predominantly African-American community, providing jobs and attracting businesses, city residents, and tourists.
After three years of stalled progress, 18th and Vine business owners and many community residents are grumbling about the area’s slow development and a general lack of atmosphere that would stimulate investment.
“The museums and the whole area is not realizing its full potential in two ways: We’re not attracting as many people down here in the first place, and secondly, the ones who come, we are not capturing as much revenue as we could,” says Bill Musgrave, who was recently hired as a marketing and public relations consultant for the American Jazz Museum. “The last thing you like to hear is a tour leader say, ‘Let’s get back on the bus’ so they can go and eat someplace else.”
Tariq’s Deli, located in the Lincoln Building, is the only restaurant in the historic district. Other restaurants neighbor the district, but none is within walking distance.
Much of the fingerpointing for the district’s problems is directed at the American Jazz Museum because most people associate the area with the museum. Some also assume that the museum was to have been a catalyst for further development.
In reality, the museum is not tied to economic development of the historic district. Lack of restaurants and retail, decaying buildings, poor upkeep, and shortage of visitors — the most frequent complaints about the district — are not the museum’s responsibilities. Yet in the eyes of the general public, the museum remains accountable for the area’s shortcomings.
Such thinking has had a devastating effect on the museum’s attendance. Last year 250,000 people (100,000 less than the first year) visited the American Jazz Museum, NLBM, and Gem Theater — modest figures compared with Kansas City’s other tourist attractions. However, those attractions generally are well funded in marketing efforts and promotion. Last fiscal year, the museum’s budget for marketing and advertising was $233,000, a miniscule amount considering that those efforts must overcome the false perception that crime plagues the area.
The job of dispelling misconceptions and trumpeting the district’s potential falls on Stewart, who was recruited to head the Authority and run the museum. Previously, the 68-year-old was director of the Harriet Tubman House in Boston, founder and director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, and executive director of the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia. Most notably, she restored Motown Records’ “Hitsville House” in Detroit, where she was executive director from 1992 to 1995.
But considering the vastness of the historic district, its small marketing budget, and the limited resources her job provides, being executive director of the 18th and Vine Authority has to be her most challenging job. Unfortunately, what some call an unyielding personality and leadership style has won her few fans in the community.
“A lot of the criticism that has been aimed at me has been about people not knowing me and understanding my way of working,” says Stewart. “I’ve been in the business 30 years, and I understand what it takes to be a success. I’ve watched programs grow and I’ve watched them fail, and you learn from those experiences, and I did not like people telling me what I couldn’t do when I first arrived. I also believe I was perceived as a threat because I was an outsider.”
Cleaver, who has supported Stewart since she was hired in 1995, says, “Dr. Stewart has been the target of significant criticism, but she has been able to get things done. We needed somebody to take over the 18th and Vine project who was willing to break some eggs in order to get an omelet.”
Public perception is important, but much of the museum’s future success is tied to how quickly the entire district is developed and maintained. “It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” says Musgrave, who joined the Kansas City Museum in 1992 before coming to the jazz museum and had worked on the Science City at Union Station project. “The independent businesspeople who have to invest their own equity in their business say there are not enough people (coming) to justify an investment in the area, and the people say they are not coming to the district until there is something to do.”
The NLBM has faired somewhat better in public appeal than the American Jazz Museum, partly because of NLBM spokesman John “Buck” O’Neil. The former Kansas City Monarchs player and coach has participated in local and national talk shows, been featured in documentaries, and appeared in major television commercials.
Looking for a similar marketing approach, American Jazz Museum officials are trying to enlist major jazz artists to help promote the museum, which changed its name from the Kansas City Jazz Museum to the American Jazz Museum last year to give it more national appeal.
The obstacle to overcome: The museums and the Gem Theater are beacons of redevelopment surrounded by decay and neglect. The Lincoln Building, managed by BEU, is in solid shape, but most of the remaining structures are in terrible condition. The Jackson Building, next to the Gem, has a collapsed ceiling; yellow caution ribbon and bright orange signs warn pedestrians the building is unsafe. A strip of buildings on Vine between 18th and 19th streets, which were refurbished by Robert Altman in 1995 for his film Kansas City, continue to deteriorate. At one time a favorite photo op for tourists, they now appear damaged and weather-worn. The BEU recently transferred the property to the JDRC as part of an agreement to turn district control over to that organization.
Cleaver established the JDRC in August 1997 to enhance the progress of development in the district. Cleaver felt that the BEU, through the 18th and Vine Redevelopment Corp., was not making satisfactory progress. The JDRC is guided by a high-profile board that includes former Kansas Chief and president and CEO of United Beverage Deron Cherry; Jake Mascotte, president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield; and Third District councilmember Mary Williams-Neal. Cherry and Mascotte are co-chairs.
To acquire property and construct, maintain, and operate redevelopment projects that will contribute to the district’s economic rebirth is the JDRC’s mission. The corporation has done a good job of raising money ($20 million for housing from Fannie Mae; $14.2 million from HUD as part of the EDI/108 program, which is part grant and part loan; $1.8 million from the Hall Family Foundation; $1 million from the Kauffman Foundation; and $400,000 from the Missouri Housing and Development Commission) but has gotten tangled in the development approval process at city hall.
Developer Al Fleming from California was brought on board May 18, 1998, to serve as president and CEO of the JDRC. He oversaw various development projects in Maui and Oahu, Hawaii, and Marin County, Calif. He admits that he knew very little about Kansas City or the 18th and Vine area before coming here. But he quickly immersed himself, getting trapped in the slow development process.
“We had to basically start from scratch getting the plans approved, getting financing, and obtaining the necessary permits that the city requires in order to start construction,” Fleming says.
City development specialist Page is not apologetic when it comes to Fleming’s having to follow the bureaucratic ropes. “The city took the first step building the cultural facilities, but Al (Fleming) has all of the rest of the work to do,” he says.
The JDRC’s redevelopment plans consist of 80,000 square feet of commercial and retail space and 203 residential units. Construction is broken down into three phases. Phase one is to begin June 1 and includes the construction of retail and housing space on 18th Street and a parking facility at 18th and Woodland. Completion is scheduled for fall 2001. Phase two will add housing and retail space. Planning begins this fall and construction is scheduled to start in the summer of 2002. Phase three will add still more residential units and is due to start in the summer of 2004.
Delays have so far dominated the process, which Fleming says is standard in such a complex development.
Plans had to be rewritten and approved. Then there was the parting of ways between the BEU and JDRC. The BEU-controlled 18th and Vine Redevelopment Corp. at first had development rights to the area. On June 4, 1998, it split rights to the area with the JDRC, a state-chartered entity. The JDRC now owns the development rights for the majority of the district. BEU retained the Lincoln Building, and the City of Kansas City owns the museum facility.
The split caused two things: The Chapter 353 (tax abatement project) had to be rewritten, and the city council had to redesign and approve the urban redevelopment district (URD) rezoning plans. Stormwater runoff improvements further complicated matters. Over the past year, engineers have worked with the city to establish where underground water storage vaults should be located, and the JDRC is working with utility companies to determine who will be affected by future construction.
Things are beginning to move forward. Building permits have been issued and plans for the Centennial Villa Apartments, the Attucks parking facility, residential and retail space near Barker Temple, and residential and retail space near the Charlie Parker Memorial are making their way through city hall.
“We have gone through every necessary step … to begin construction,” says Fleming. “There were some unusual circumstances because the area is a historic district.”
He says that those circumstances make the development process more involved. “The first step is you have to submit an urban redevelopment plan and it has to be approved by the city,” says Fleming. “The plan was delivered to the city in April 1998.” The city council approved the plan in May 1998, and then the JDRC started the financing process. The corporation received financial commitments by the end of 1998.
Plans were changed again due to the addition of the Charlie Parker Memorial, which was not part of the original plans. That site was originally proposed for parking. The plans were revised in February 1999 and resubmitted in March. Then they were amended to allow for construction of a parking structure at 18th and Woodland, near Attucks, a former elementary school. The approval process was delayed once again because the city said the JDRC had to prove it controlled the site. The JDRC bought the former Attucks School from the KCMOSD for $250,000 in April 1999 and was approved for $6.7 million in tax increment financing to construct a two-tier, 332-space structure.
The Attucks building, built in 1905 and added on to in 1922, is being considered as a community performing arts center and for office space. The JDRC is studying the structural integrity and space utilization of the building, which is listed on the national and state historical registers. There is currently no funding for the performance arts and office space components.
The JDRC is making progress, but the corporation has stumbled through the development process. City hall offers no apology. “Our ordinances, rules, and regulations are very clear about what you have to submit,” says Lisa Briscoe, division manager for Long-Range Planning, Preservation, and Urban Design for the City of Kansas City.
The buildings’ historic status means dealing with the Landmarks Commission. Its responsibility is to ensure the protection and integrity of buildings that reflect the city’s historic, cultural, aesthetic, and architectural heritage. The commission is responsible for approving all exterior design alterations to existing buildings and for any new construction in the district because of its historical designation. Any renderings or design schemes for the historic district would have to be filed and presented to the commission.
To construct a new building, the commission needs substantial drawings that convey materials, full dimension drawings, floor plans, site drawings, and elevations. For an existing building, the same requirements for a new building apply and the developer has to explain what part of the existing building will remain, explain the rehabilitation techniques, and convey the information graphically and in written form.
“If you submit a complete application, you are done in 30 days. That’s how long the approval process takes,” says Briscoe.
Holding it down
Club Mardi Gras is the oldest continuously operating jazz club in Kansas City, a fact few Kansas Citians know. The club, located on the corner of 19th and Vine, has been there since 1932. Current owner Alex Thomas believes the establishment is an important part of the 18th and Vine district’s history and feels left out, considering his establishment has never been included in promotional efforts for the district. For example, a calendar produced by the American Jazz Museum and a slick promotional piece designed by the JDRC, says Thomas, didn’t mention Club Mardi Gras.
“There has not been a working relationship between us and the rest of the district. It’s as if Club Mardi Gras does not exist,” says Thomas, who has tried to get the attention of the American Jazz Museum and the JDRC. “Rowena Stewart will not return my calls, and I’ve only had brief conversations with Al Fleming.”
Stewart says Thomas’ club is a private business and he should be responsible for marketing and promoting his business. Fleming doesn’t take quite that approach. “I goofed when I wrote the literature,” Fleming says of the JDRC promotional material. “The mistake was my fault.” Fleming says he apologized to Thomas and offered him an opportunity to place an insert in the JDRC’s marketing material.
Thomas is also upset that his wasn’t the winning bid to operate the Blue Room. When the Blue Room opened in 1997, Thomas submitted a proposal to the 18th and Vine Authority to become the club’s operator. The contract was awarded to Dave Winslow, who was then operating another jazz club in the River Market area. Early this year, Roger Naber, co-owner of the Grand Emporium, was awarded the Blue Room operations contract. According to the Request for Qualifications (RFQ), the authority’s goal was to include certified minority, women, and disadvantaged businesses in its contracting for professional services.
Thomas questions whether Naber’s minority partners, Gidget Hawkins and Renee Bassett, have the experience needed to operate a nightclub. Naber, who has operated the Grand Emporium (often recognized as one of the best blues clubs in the country) for 20 years, says he and his team were more than qualified and prepared to enhance the level of service at the club. “I don’t feel anyone is more qualified in Kansas City in club promotion and management,” he says.
Hawkins has worked as a waitress and was a manager for Caribbean Yacht Charters in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Bassett is no longer affiliated with Naber and was replaced by Jayne McShann-Lewis, the daughter of jazz legend Jay McShann.
“According to their (18th and Vine Authority’s) specifications, I was the most qualified person,” says Thomas. “I grew up in this community, I was educated in this community, went to church in the community, and I’ve run a nightclub for five years in the community. I was operating this club when there was nothing else going on down here, and I cannot understand how they can bring someone in from outside the community.”
The Jazz and Blues Association, Black Chamber of Commerce, and Southeast Bar and Restaurant Association also submitted letters of support for Thomas.
Thomas, undaunted by the Authority’s decision, has found a way to attract a diverse clientele at Club Mardi Gras. The club is open five nights a week and emphasizes jazz and blues. But it is the club’s hip-hop night that brings in the biggest crowd. The young — yet orderly — crowd adds a unique flavor to 18th and Vine that may be the key to its survival.
But Thomas remains dissatisfied. “Business is good, but not as good as it should be,” he says. “There are abandoned buildings right next to the club with signs that say boarded up by inmate labor. That’s not helping me or the image of the district.” The JDRC owns the property to which Thomas objects. Fleming says that the JDRC would paint over the tag that promotes the Municipal Correctional Facility’s Board Up/Clean Up program, which no longer exists.
“I haven’t received any benefits from (construction of) the museum other than from the Blue Room’s no-smoking policy,” says Thomas. “A lot of people will come up to the Mardi Gras who want to hear music and be able to smoke and eat.”
Lack of food
According to 54-year-old Tariq Kalimullah, he cooks the best chicken in town, and many people agree. Those who know say it is “off the hook” — the best in the city. But Kalimullah doesn’t have the resources to spread his message beyond serving his fried chicken to the hip-hoppers on Tuesday night at Club Mardi Gras. He’s also limited in promoting the deli sandwiches and homemade pies served at his location on the first floor of the Lincoln Building.
“It’s my responsibility to promote my establishment, but I don’t have a lot of operating capital to do the type of advertising I would like to do,” says Kalimullah, a former brick mason. “Most of our advertising has been by word of mouth.”
The business is the true definition of a “mom and pop” operation. Kalimullah runs the small deli with his wife, Delores. There are three tables, and the atmosphere is best described as quaint.
The couple operated Tariq’s Deli and Unique Pies, located at 24th and Brooklyn, for four years before moving into the district. Tariq never had any problem with the gang activity in the area, but it was not a good setting for his clientele, he says, so he decided to relocate. The deli has survived, thanks to a clientele that works in the area, mainly employees from the Sprint call center in the Lincoln Building and those from the nearby Black Chamber of Commerce, Black Economic Union, ATA, museum, and Kansas City Call offices.
Kalimullah expected to benefit more from promotional activities and resulting foot traffic at the 18th and Vine district. He’s been disappointed. “I have steady business, but it should be a lot better. People always want to eat,” says Kalimullah. “There seems to be a lack of cooperation between the existing parties down here, and communication has been poor.”
Kalimullah grew up in the area and wants to be a part of the district. “Back when I was a kid this was the black mecca of the Midwest. Ain’t nobody told me about it, I was here,” he says. Kalimullah shined shoes as a child. “Every night this area was flooded with people, and the place was jumpin’.”
Now, he says, “We are just barely able to keep our heads above water.” Kalimullah serves only lunch because nights are slow, and he has stopped serving on Saturdays due to lack of traffic.
But he calls himself “an optimist. I believe it’s going to be all right. Hopefully, the situation will change for the better and benefit the entire area. In the meantime, I gotta exist down here until they work the kinks out.”
Phase one includes space for four restaurants, a deli, and a coffeehouse. Three local establishments have signed letters of intent: one is an existing restaurant and two are start-ups. Fleming would not disclose the owners’ names. The JDRC has not received any letters of intent from national chains. “I would love to have some national tenants, but I believe we have bankable local tenants,” says Fleming. “We have received some strong business plans.” Kalimullah plans to submit a business plan to the JDRC soon.
Years before anyone thought of reviving the district, several businesses thrived in the area that many had left for dead. One was Papa Lew’s Barbecue and Soul Food, located at 17th and Vine (now the site of the Charlie Parker Memorial), which opened in 1982. Years later, when the district revitalization plans were approved, owners Dorriss Lyman and her late husband, Lewis Lyman Sr., were forced out of the area as the city gobbled up their property to construct the jazz museum facility. Lyman said she was told that they would be the first to have an opportunity to move back into the district when the construction for retail space was complete. That was in 1994. Six years later, Lyman says lease rates are too high for her to consider relocating from the restaurant’s current home at 1504 Prospect.
“I was upset to have to move, because it took a long time to get re-established and a lot of promises made were not kept. And I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to move back into the district,” says Lyman, who cooks lunch and dinner seven days a week. “Everything has changed; nothing is what they said it would be like.”
Lyman owned the building that originally housed Papa Lew’s. Now she owns the building at her current location. Lyman says she is not interested in giving up ownership to pay a lease, particularly at rates she is not comfortable with. Rates, set by the JDRC, are negotiable, says Fleming.
Lyman’s son Marvin is working on a business plan, and the family is waiting for the district’s retail phase to be completed. “We were told by city planning that we would have the right to move back into the area when they finished construction of the retail space,” says Lyman.
The Black Economic Union’s courtship of New York-based restaurant Sylvia’s to locate in the district greatly upset Lyman. “Why pay somebody all that money to come from New York when you have soul food restaurants right here?” she asks. “They did not offer us the same incentives they offered Sylvia’s.”
The deal fell through, and the family-owned restaurant decided not to build a restaurant in Kansas City after much public celebrating from city officials that an out-of-state operation would be coming to 18th and Vine.
Lyman still hopes to relocate in the district. “If I get a fair deal I will consider moving back into the area. I never lose faith,” she says.
A young lady walks into EthnicArt and wants to get four large pictures framed for a new Midtown restaurant and bar called 50/50 (formerly 39 on Main), owned by former Kansas City Chief Wayne Simmons. The pictures are images of Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, Barry White, and the Rat Pack, an eclectic mix of legendary artists. It is these large types of corporate orders that have kept Ronald and Dorothy Chaney in business for the past three years.
“If it wasn’t for large corporate orders, we would be out of business,” says Ronald Chaney. “If we had to depend on foot traffic and people bringing in orders one by one, we would have been gone.”
The couple entered the art business in 1989. They had a small space in Culturally Speaking, which was then located in the Lincoln Building. The couple then opened their own gallery in 1992 in a Midtown location. EthnicArt specializes in framing and high-end art. The gallery features work by prominent African-American artists and is the premier black art gallery in Kansas City.
The Chaneys wanted to be urban pioneers and decided to relocate in the district during the early phase of redevelopment in June 1997. When they arrived, the museum facility’s construction and the Gem Theater’s renovation were in their final stages. The gallery, located on the first floor of the Lincoln Building with a storefront facing Vine Street, is the only retail outlet in the district other than the Swing Shop, the museum’s gift shop.
The couple now questions their decision to move from their Gillham Road location. “We did better over there, and we were in a location where people would often get lost,” says Dorothy Chaney. “It’s too bad that there is nothing (here) for a business to thrive. We are here every day. There is an opportunity that should be in this area, but thus far, it hasn’t proven to be fruitful.”
The Chaneys say poor communication is the main problem in pushing along the district’s revitalization. “If there was one umbrella that promoted the 18th and Vine district, people would not just come to the museums (and) would know that there is also a gallery here,” says Dorothy Chaney. “Additionally, the problem is there are no restaurants or any other retail points developed so people can come and spend the entire day learning, shopping, and eating.”
The 18th and Vine area does not have a merchants’ association.
“There are no inclusive promotional materials…. There doesn’t seem to be any cohesive thinking,” Dorothy Chaney says. “The entire district has not been promoted to our satisfaction.” EthnicArt has developed its own marketing and promotion campaigns.
The Chaneys are disappointed with quarterly meetings held by the JDRC to provide district progress updates. Attendance is generally sparse and information repetitive, they say. “They claim they have the money and the tools, but for some reason they can’t seem to get started,” says Dorothy Chaney. “We can’t afford to keep waiting. If we had been a new business we would not have made it, because the numbers are not here.”
Promises made for new construction leave Dorothy Chaney cold. “How long do you listen to that?” she asks. “Even if they start to develop today, it’s going to take at least a year and a half of construction, and that means bulldozers and other heavy equipment … streets will be closed and potential customers will not have easy access, which will make it harder on our business. The few people that come down are not going to want to go through that hassle. We are barely surviving now.
“They brought Fleming in to develop this area … why isn’t he getting it done? It’s not acceptable to say he is having trouble with city hall; he has been saying that for months. It can’t be that difficult to get the issues resolved, especially when you have a councilmember (Williams-Neal) on your board,” says Dorothy Chaney.
“I feel that no one has a real passion to develop the area,” she adds, later remarking that the area would be better developed if Stewart would have retained control of the entire district.
If the 18th and Vine district is on life support, it’s being kept alive through events not related to jazz. And those crowds have come without anyone affiliated with the district spending a dime on advertising. Riding a national wave, poetry groups have been drawing young adults to the area.
For the past two years, the Black Poets Collective, Verbal Attack, and NEON productions have drawn sizeable numbers to the Blue Room, the Gem Theater, and Club Mardi Gras. The Black Poets Collective recently held a poetry workshop in the Blue Room for high school students. The event not only introduced poetry to approximately 100 high school students but also exposed the students to the area’s rich history.
Open-mic spoken-word sessions presented by Verbal Attack at Club Mardi Gras have regularly sold out for three years. But the organization recently went on hiatus. “We were under the impression that a lot of new businesses would be moving into the area and that there would be a large variety of entertainment available, but that has yet to happen,” says Glenn North, president of Verbal Attack. “Thanks to the Mardi Gras, Blue Room, and the Gem, we were able to do our productions, but we had to utilize other areas of the city to make our presence known.”
NEON Productions has presented a series of poetry readings, Girl Talk I and II, and Teen Talk at the Blue Room. “I decided to have the readings in the historic district to introduce an audience to an area where the best of the best used to perform and the entertainment industry was alive and well back in the day,” says NEON owner Michele Lewis. “The area is a part of our history and reminds the audience of our past, and it is something special to be a part of a rebirth.”
Another non-jazz success in the district is Club Mardi Gras’ hip-hop night, called Central Hot Zone, produced by Heet Mob Records for the past two years. Hip-hop derived from jazz, and the beats, with the wizardry of DJs and lyricists from Central Hot Zone, attracts 300-plus crowds every Tuesday night.
The district must create a link between music’s past and future if 18th and Vine is to keep attracting the younger demographic. The emphasis by civic leaders has been to promote traditional jazz. But as the young poets and their fans prove, the artistic box must be expanded — much like the way Charlie Parker experimented with the saxophone — so that 18th and Vine can capture the attention of a generation more in tune with hip-hop than bebop.
The American Jazz Museum has attempted to connect to the hip-hop generation with an educational component, festivals, and performances that cater to their tastes. But most people don’t clearly understand the link between jazz and today’s music, though the museum staff is trying to inform the public.
“We have not done the best job of teaching what jazz is and how inclusive it is; we have just not done it,” says Stewart. “Our focus now is on young people, and our next marketing campaign will target the 21-to-45 age group.”
Preserving the tradition
The marketing problem the district faces is inexplicably linked to jazz. Yet the popularity of jazz is at an all-time low; 1999 sales figures of all recorded music sold in the U.S. show that jazz represented only 1.9 percent of the market and that jazz sales declined for the past five years, according to the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM). The largest segment of the American population is under 30 and feasts on a steady diet of pop, R&B, and hip-hop, which together represent more than a third of all recorded music sold.
Gerald Dunn believes that with the right educational components in place, people can develop an understanding and appreciation for the different types of jazz. The 34-year-old musician is part of the Dunn/Freeman Mix, a quartet that has gigged around the globe and features some of Kansas City’s best young musicians. Dunn, a saxophone player, was on the cover of the local Yellow Pages two years ago, blowin’ his horn. Dunn is now the entertainment coordinator for the Blue Room, a job he acknowledges is challenging.
“When I first started booking for the Blue Room, a lot of club owners told me I was crazy to take the job,” he says. “They said it was no way they would ever consider doing it.” Dunn initially came to Kansas City to teach music at the Jazz Institute, an educational program through the American Jazz Museum that’s designed to develop area students’ musical talents. Dunn decided to stay in Kansas City after he was recommended for the entertainment coordinator job.
Dunn says the scene was stagnant when he first arrived but it’s now growing. “Kansas City is considered a secondary market by jazz booking agents, so they never really focused on this market,” he says. “Now that the museum is presenting more national artists at the Gem and in the Blue Room, they are beginning to recognize Kansas City as a serious jazz market.”
Attracting big-name artists is difficult because of a lack of advertising dollars and because it means fighting the misconceptions many Kansas Citians have about traditional jazz. But Dunn’s tenacity is having an effect.
Jammin’ at the Gem, a series of concerts and special jazz events, just completed its most successful year. “People are just now realizing that we are a jazz presenter and that it’s comparable to any presenter in the area, and things are coming alive,” says Dunn. The series has showcased such notables as Thelonious Monk and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
The Blue Room once was the haven for local artists, but Dunn has begun to book such national acts as Greg Osby, who performed there last month. His booking procedure is part of a strategy to help Kansas Citians and visitors become more accustomed to traditional jazz and aspects of contemporary jazz.
The Blue Room is for serious jazz listeners. Dunn has been criticized for booking artists who challenge the audience instead of booking artists whose music the crowd can boogie and jump to. Dunn’s approach is risky and has caused some Blue Room patrons to flee to other clubs where the music is secondary to the crowd noise and drink specials.
“Some people have said that they are going to go down to the Phoenix because it is a party atmosphere and they can have fun,” says Dunn. “This is a performance room. You need an environment that is going to be thought-provoking and that is the environment the Blue Room provides. People walked out of Greg Osby because it was too intense, but that is because there is a lack of understanding of the music. You need different stuff; a balanced diet is important.”
Dunn views the Blue Room as a vital part of the museum facility because it functions as an interactive experience. “The Blue Room is an extension of the museum even though people look at it like a club,” he says. “There are few places in Kansas City that provide top-notch quality jazz performances, and we do it on a regular basis.”
The Blue Room has been criticized in its operations. Because it is an extension of the museum, the club houses exhibits — that means no smoking and no food. Unfortunately, some exhibits also block the view of patrons who sit in the back of the small club, which accommodates 110 people.
Open on Mondays and Thursdays through Saturdays, the club still attracts a steady flow of patrons. Although attendance has been fair, according to Dunn, the club has been crippled by the lack of development in the area. “People are always asking where they can get food,” says Dunn. “Many of our regular clientele know that they have to eat before they come or plan to dine after the performance at the Blue Room. They have learned to adapt.”
The decision to hire Naber to manage the club also stirred up some members of the African-American community. “Naber manages the bar; his job is not to book entertainment,” says Dunn, who recognizes Naber’s connections to the national and international jazz community. Although Naber’s club, the Grand Emporium, is primarily a blues venue, he has booked jazz acts. Dunn hopes Naber continues to book jazz acts at the Grand Emporium so the city has more venues that bring in top-quality performers.
Rebirth of the cool
Kansas City boasts about its jazz heritage but often is not very supportive of the genre. “Jazz is a harder sell than I think people realize,” says Musgrave. “I’m not convinced that a lot of people share the same enthusiasm for jazz as other genres of music. Historically, Kansas City has a reputation for jazz, but it probably is not as popular among the masses as it used to be.”
But doom and gloom does not dominate the 18th and Vine district. The American Jazz Museum facility and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are impressive attractions, and the Blue Room and Gem Theater offer the best live jazz performances in the metro area. But people put a lot of stock in the old saying “Seeing is believing,” and until bulldozers and construction workers invade the district, criticism will continue to mount.
“I’m not satisfied with the progress, but at the same time I realize that the 18th and Vine project was the least developed idea of those included when it was known as the ‘Cleaver Plan,'” says Cleaver. “The project started at ground zero. There were no plans and no architectural renderings. When we first started, people were critical before anything happened. They were critical of the idea.”
Cleaver cites a time he had conversations with local corporate leaders who told him that if he was truly interested in preserving the jazz and Negro League history, he should move it to another part of the city, such as Union Station or Kauffman Stadium, because it wouldn’t work at 18th and Vine.
The JDRC says construction on phase one projects will begin in the next few weeks. But it will still be at least a year before people can sit down and order breakfast, lunch, or dinner at a restaurant in the district or, hopefully, look out their apartment windows at throngs of people participating in activities in the historic district.
“The district is headed toward the vision I had,” says Cleaver. “We’re moving in that direction but it’s slow, but that is due to the difficulties of developing in the urban core, particularly when the area is predominantly African-American.”
Lack of unity still hampers the development process, a problem area boosters recognize. “I see all of the different relationships coming together. It’s been slow but it is finally happening,” says Dunn. “I think everyone has learned that you either have to come together or you make things worse. You can’t do it separately; we all depend on one another. It’s our culture that we are trying to preserve, and if we don’t care, no one else will care.”
MC cares and is glad to see 18th and Vine finally being revitalized. He frequently hangs out at the jazz museum, where he works as an unofficial tour guide.
MC loves telling his stories to students visiting the museum. During an educational game in the Blue Room, MC interrupts the lesson and begins playing a blues song on the piano for the elementary students present. His slice of what the music actually sounded like is far more entertaining to the students than viewing old black and white photographs or walking by the instruments on display.
“It will never be like it was because most of the buildings are gone and times have changed,” says MC. “But you gotta move on and keep creating history.”
Contact Shawn Edwards at 816-218-6778 or firstname.lastname@example.org.