The signposts of history hugging the margins of 63rd Street are easy to miss.
The wooden marker that highlights the intersection with the dusty Santa Fe Trail juts awkwardly from the lawn slab in front of a UMB Bank. The ornate metal placard that commemorates Big Blue Battlefield, the site of a Civil War clash, is dwarfed by the 18-wheelers rumbling in and out of a Pepsi distribution center.
In recent years, it has become a Pitch tradition to get out and explore our city, one street at a time. In 2004, we went cruising down Metcalf in Johnson County. The following year, we took a jaunt along State Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. We crossed the Missouri River to North Oak Trafficway in 2006 and returned to the urban-core commerce of Prospect in 2007. Each year, we met colorful characters and discovered untold stories that made us love this cowtown just a little bit more.
This year, as I wandered down 63rd Street, I noticed the hallmarks of history and evidence of the past. I saw the packed parking lot at Fox's Drug Store, where the sign thanks customers for 70 years of patronage. From behind a rusted, chain-link fence, I surveyed the old 63rd Street Drive-In, now scattered with the skeleton scaffolding that hosts a weekly swap meet. I peered in the windows of an eerie, still-vacant building that's nearly swallowed by vines, where John and Mildred Caylor were murdered in their Bible store in 2004.
But 63rd Street, from Raytown to Mission Hills, still pulses with living history hidden in plain sight.
The other cars in the parking lot leave a wide berth for Dave Wehner. His vehicle is out of context with the Curves fitness center, the Apple Supermarket and the very notion of a strip mall.
Inside Ginger's Restaurant, Wehner is the center of conversation, standing in the middle of a dining area that smells of buttered toast and pumpkin-spice candles. Inside this 40-year-old institution, folks are finishing off their biscuits and gravy, lazily drawing out their conversations to fill their retirement days. None seem surprised that Wehner has arrived in a black buggy made of wood — a horseless carriage propelled by an early 20th-century engine.
"It does a whopping 17 miles per hour," Wehner says, sarcasm thinly disguising his pride.
He's been fixing up hot rods for nearly 35 years. His father was a gearhead, he says, inspiring Wehner's love of cars. His first project was rebuilding a 1965 Mustang. There would be plenty of others — a 1939 Ford Coupe, the horseless carriage at a car show in Drexel. He sees one and has to have it.
The waitress, Dede Meade, breezes by as the men chat. Always in motion, she chirps greetings to regular patrons and addresses strangers as "darling" or "sweet pea." She's been coming to Ginger's since she was pregnant with her son. He's turning 30 this year.
Without stopping her rounds, she joins their conversation for a second.
"You took that golf cart and made it into a fire engine," she says to Wehner. "That was my favorite one."
Wehner smiles. That one was a beauty. He added a ladder, sirens, lights, the whole shebang. The guys from the Raytown Fire Department took it for a spin on the greens during a charity golf tournament in 1997.
Today, though, Wehner is cruising in the horseless carriage. It's an odd vehicle to classify, and Wehner says he needs to find out what kind of license plate will let him "scoot" legally down Raytown's side streets.
But this hot rod was designed to be an outlaw. White lettering across the back bumper reads: "Run and Shine." Under the black canopy that shades him as he drives, Wehner has lined up six brown ceramic jugs plugged with cork stoppers — his homage to the bootleggers who hauled moonshine during Prohibition.
He would never outrun the cops in this slow-moving buggy.
"But I joke that I'm going to race the Amish and kick their butt," he says with a laugh.
Catch Neal Clevenger if you can.
Look here first: the Raytown Equestrian Center, a sprawling white barn surrounded by green pastures and hemmed in by a white picket fence that keeps horses from clomping into the parking lot of the medical building next door. On the walls of the center's office, next to framed photos of award-winning horses and trainers dating back to the 1940s, there are notes from Clevenger.
"This phone is for barn personal use only! No personal call's aloud!"
No? Try here: Raytown Car Wash, a vintage outfit with a wrought-iron sign and aging speakers that pipe out tinny versions of "Stand By Me" and "Dream Lover." The office is locked, but Clevenger's handwriting is scrawled on a note that promises, "Be Back Soon."
Late mornings, Clevenger is on duty in the back room of a squat stone building, as the manager of the Raytown Water Company.
His ambition was apparent as soon as he returned from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1962 with a degree in a business management. His first enterprise was the car wash. Times were different back then. He bought the ground with a handshake. "I didn't have a lease," he says.
He was still a car-wash proprietor when he fell in love with a Japanese karate expert. Mitsue Inaba was on a U.S. tour in the early 1970s when Clevenger's mom, a martial-arts fan, met Ibana at a Raytown exhibition and then introduced the young athlete to her son. They corresponded for three years before Inaba moved to the small Missouri town to marry the aspiring entrepreneur.
Their empire grew quickly.
"After the car wash, people got to know us," Clevenger explains. "As the old-timers retired, they'd ask, 'Would you buy my building?'"
The Raytown Clinic's current location was the site of the city's first doctor's office. Across the street from the water company was Raytown's first big grocery store. Raytown's first two-story
building — now a shoe store —
was a few doors down.
Clevenger owns them all.
"I've got a lot of firsts," he says with a weary smile.
Clevenger bought the equestrian center in 1992. The land had been owned by cigar magnate Miles Moser, who ran a profitable racetrack. The local fame lingered as the track became a horse stable and boarding facility; the manager, Sug Utz, had a reputation as one of the best breeders in the nation. He died last year, Clevenger says.
But that property holds little sentimental value for Clevenger. He grew up on a farm, rode in the local saddle club and trotted in Raytown parades, but unlike the family car wash, the barn is just an investment, something to hold on to until the right developer comes along. Clevenger already has more work than a normal business day can hold.
"They call me a workaholic," he says. "I should be in AA, but I'm legal."
Even Clevenger's wife has a hard time catching him — he's home for dinner but gone again for a second round of work as soon as he clears his plate. Then he'll usually slip into bed after two or three in the morning.
Deborah Stitt doesn't talk about her politics. She's a patriot, pure and simple.
Her and her husband's storefront is barely the size of a two-car garage, thick with the smell of chemicals from the neighboring barbershop, but it's a dual enterprise. Before September 11, 2001, it was the home base for the Stitts' heating-and-cooling business, little more than a room for taking phone calls and filling out paperwork. After the attacks, the Lee's Summit couple wanted to do something to promote American pride. Deborah's Flag Store overtook the empty walls.
"We felt drawn to the business," she says. "Patriotism, flag flying, showing your colors through thick and thin."
Now the dim retail cube drips with red, white and blue. Deborah and Jim Stitt stock American-made flags, of course. Deborah pulls out one of the standard varieties — nylon, sewn stripes, embroidered stars. It was made right here in Missouri, she says. She opens the box to show off the certificate of authenticity.
There are also little flags, the size of postcards. Collapsible flags go with patriotic travelers. Telescoping poles available with some of the flags hoist the nylon up 20 feet — perfect for courteous sports fans who want to show their colors at the big game but don't want to disrupt their fellow Americans' view.
There's a corner for decorative flags and spinning pinwheels, items to gussy up gardens. Deborah flips through some of these flags, corrupted with pastel shades and scenes of picket fences, with a hint of condescension. "These decorative ones are for people who aren't sure about their commitment," she says, half joking.
Deborah is more of a traditionalist. Her grandfather served in World War I, and her father fought in World War II. Jim is a Vietnam veteran. At their home, they fly their flags year-round, observing the strict etiquette laid out in the 48-page handbook Our Flag. (It's on sale here for $5.) Deborah pauses, mentally assessing her front yard. "We probably have 14 or 15," she says.
That's not counting what she calls "the little patriotic man" holding a flag on the lawn. Or the flag reserved for camping trips. Or the stickers on their cars.
Right now, Jim's bumper displays the Gadsden flag, a recent hot seller. She points to a side wall displaying the yellow flags, each with a snake curled above the phrase "Don't Tread on Me." The Gadsden is in high demand for tea-party protests and among conservatives.
When talk turns to "Don't Tread on Me," Deborah starts to tiptoe into her own politics. When she went to the Lee's Summit Tea Party a few months back, she took along a U.S. flag on that telescoping pole.
She looks again at the Gadsden. "But now I'm so disgusted with the system, I'll probably fly this next time," she says.
Abel bounces through the door at Joe's Barbershop, looking smooth in his navy slacks and white polo shirt. He bypasses the front desk. He barely looks up at the regular customer getting a hot-towel shave.
Abel is only 4 years old, but he knows his man.
"They call me Tone," says the barber, Tony, working the back chair.
Tony honed his craft in the military, then at barber school. He's been at this shop, one of the only remaining businesses open in the dilapidated Metro Plaza, since 2007. He likes its laid-back, old-school feel — the classic red-leather chairs and the wood shelves where the craftsmen line up their tools of the trade.
It's the first week of school, and kids are quitting the classroom about this time. Abel is one of them; he just finished his second day of pre-kindergarten at the Afrikan Centered Education Collegium, a few blocks east on Swope Parkway.
Tony's clippers glide over Abel's head, buzzing his hair down to a close crop as the youngster scrunches his shoulders and tries to bend his neck and bury his head. Tony has kids of his own, so he's used to the battle. When he's done with the cut, the barber raises his right fist in exaggerated achievement. Abel giggles and mimics him.
"So what kind of design you want?" Tony asks.
"Transformers!" Abel says.
His mom laughs. They settle for what the 4-year-old originally pointed to: a cursive name. Tony has barely started the A in Abel, using the edge of the clippers, when Abel gets antsy. He moves his head to dodge the blades.
"You gotta be a big boy," Tony says. "C'mon, man. C'mon, brother."
Abel's mom steps over, offering to hold her son in her lap and cradle his head to keep him from struggling.
"It's no-holds-barred now," Tony jokes as Abel's mom slides into the chair.
He puts down the clippers and pulls out a straight razor for the more precise edging. He looks Abel in the eye and says, "Do. Not. Move."
The 4-year-old continues to struggle. Doritos don't help. Tony tries to get Abel to count with him. No interest. The haircut becomes a delicate, slow-motion wrestling match.
"Oh, that looks so cool!" Abel's mother croons when the job is done.
"I want to see," Abel says, straightening up.
He cranes his neck, looking over his shoulder to see his name etched perfectly into the left side of his head. His lips curl in a smile.
There's no computer on Alexander Harris' desk, just a Black & Mild smoldering in a glass ashtray. A rectangular air filter, perched on top of a plastic file tray, labors unsuccessfully to clear the stale smell. The whole office smells like a workplace from a different era.
It isn't apparent from the entrance — a dingy brown door stamped with the initials NACCC — what kind of work is done here. Harris' explanation starts with his own childhood.
When he was growing up in the 1930s, Harris says, African-Americans weren't allowed to live south of 19th Street. He slipped past that dividing line to find work. "I started in construction when I was 9 years old," he says. "After school, I hung paper in all those fabulous homes in Hyde Park."
His dad had a contracting business, but black-owned companies didn't get much business back then. Whites didn't want them working on their projects, and labor organizations were hostile. Once, he says, a union man kicked his ladder out from underneath him as he was painting, sending him 40 feet to the ground.
Harris says he was a hell-raiser during the civil rights movement. When Metropolitan Community College was built in the 1960s, the young man protested the exclusion of black laborers. "Yours truly was arrested, beaten up, locked up," he says.
Such agitation had an impact, Harris says. In 1968, Congress passed legislation — commonly called Section 3 — mandating that any project using money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development give some preference to small, disadvantaged contractors. The next year, Harris created the Mo-Kan Contractors Association, a group that, he boasts, made millions for the minority community.
But he didn't stick around full time. A genius on the trumpet, he toured with bands that needed some brass. He traveled on the professional bowling circuit, too. "The celebrity lifestyle — it's a glorious thing," he says. "But it's a hard thing."
So, in the mid-1990s he settled back in Kansas City, working to reorganize the contractors association and develop a housing subdivision at 19th Street and Cleveland. In 2000, he was invited to Washington, D.C., to work on a federally funded guide for small contractors working Section 3 jobs. That spawned the National Association of Construction Contractors Cooperation — the NACCC. The nondescript, smoky office, next to an eviction company, is the national headquarters.
"This is the awesome task we have before us," he says.
And the reason, at 80 years old, that Harris isn't pondering retirement.
"Until I get this going, I'm stuck," he says.
But that doesn't mean he's giving up his old ways. He doesn't like phones or digital watches. Leaning back in his chair, he eases his feet up on his desk, careful not to jostle the ashtray. "I'm from the old school," he says. "What young folks do from a computer, I do from here."
Eyebrows raised, he taps his forehead.
"My job, really," he says, finally cracking a smile, "is to get young folks up off their butts."
Casey and Sloane Simmons aren't just sisters and business partners — they're a chemical reaction.
Wearing a clinging dress swirled with blue, green and purple, Casey sweeps to the front counter of Stuff, the vibrant art gallery that she co-owns in the Brookside shopping district. She speaks with brisk authority, her hands churning in front of her as if to release some of the energy pent up from standing still.
Flash back to the early 1990s: Casey and Sloane were successful political consultants, young professionals with some money to burn on the finer things. They were interested in art, Casey says, but put off by the pretension of galleries. So they developed their own space to sell art in a low-key setting that wouldn't intimidate customers. They called it Stuff, the irony subtle but intentional: Creativity isn't just for the elite.
They added their own populist twist. Before farmers markets here surged and before local became a cause, the sisters showcased work only from artists in the Kansas City area when they opened in 1996. The shop isn't just a bridge between artists and patrons, Casey explains; it's also a funnel that keeps dollars circulating in the community.
When they started, the Simmonses had to seek out artists; now they get 300 applications a year. And over the past 13 years, they have become collectors of a different variety, racking up small-business awards.
Casey chalks up their success to an almost magical sisterly bond. She and Sloane have been working together for 25 years. Each has her own style, but together, she says, the two spark.
Call it the Simmons Effect.
Sloane, wearing a baggy, button-down shirt, leans against a stool. Arms crossed, she allows Casey to dominate the conversation. At least on this afternoon, she's the chamomile tea to Casey's double shot of espresso.
"We don't think A-B-C. We're all out here," Casey says, reaching out as though trying to snatch invisible insects from the air.
"Throw anything into that process ... " she adds.
"And good things happen," Sloane finishes.
In fact, they're packaging that process into a consulting business — Two Minds Jam — that just went public with a Web site this week. The sisters will take a client's business plan or product proposal and do what paid consultants do — throw it outside the box, they say, rub it against the grain — and arrive at a Simmons-style prescription for creative success. Like their business, it's a playful concept with tangible results.
"We take what we do very seriously. We take our artists very seriously. We take our ethics very seriously," Casey says at breakneck speed. "But we don't take ourselves very seriously. It's part of our style."
She pauses for a breath and cocks her head, smiling at Sloane.
"Stuff style," she says, saying the first word fast and drawing out the second.
"Stuff styyyyyle," Sloane repeats identically.
T.J. stands at the corner of 63rd Street and Ward Parkway bearing two pieces of office paper with a simple announcement: "I need money." One is attached to a white rosary dangling from his neck and adhering to the sweat that has drenched his torn gray tank top. The other he holds in his left hand, inadvertently showcasing the gold watch on his wrist. The timepiece is missing both its hands.
The thickening traffic tells the time. Two skinny dreadlocks trail down the back of the young man's neck. Camouflage pants barely hide his boxer shorts. He's watching rush hour for the second time today.
He lives south of here — "in the 70s," he says, giving a vague approximation of his address. He's self-conscious about people he knows seeing him look for handouts. This morning, he panhandled along Ward Parkway, first at 75th Street and then at Gregory. As the day went on, he wandered north on Ward Parkway.
T.J. describes himself as a jack-of-all-trades. Since he lost his last job in a warehouse, he's been trying to find something new. But he doesn't have an impressive résumé. "A lot of jobs ask for too much for too less of a job," he says.
Before today, he says, he had never stood on a street corner and held up a sign. But his kids just started school. He has two boys and two girls, all of whom need new clothes and school supplies. He's flat broke.
"I thought I'd get some help," he says, turning his head toward the wrought-iron fences that ring million-dollar houses as smooth and white as wedding cakes. "All these nice houses, these nice Mercedes-Benz driving by — they could probably help out with a buck or two."
He's hasn't had much luck. Maybe he's being too polite. He smiles passively instead of approaching windows when the light turns red. But he doesn't want any trouble. "I ain't had anybody call the police," he says. He's surprised that he's been allowed to occupy this corner uninterrupted.
Beneath thick lashes, his eyes are genuine and kind. He sways like Ray Charles, wears a similar blissed-out smile. Standing here, waving as cars drive by, he looks meditative. His stance isn't threatening. He gives no hint of desperation or bitterness.
"Hey, cutie pie," he says all of a sudden, his eyes tracking a vintage car as it approaches him. It's the second time he has seen this particular woman cruise by in this blue Cadillac.
"Beautiful car, beautiful lady, beautiful day," he says. "No disrespect," he adds quickly.
That reminds him. One nice woman gave him some food, he says, and another gave him some snacks. He digs a beef jerky stick and a cheese packet from his right-front pants pocket. He reaches into the left-front pocket, where the money is. He counts the coins in his open palm: 57 cents.
Not even enough to catch the bus home.