Westport Road between Main and Broadway was blocked off in the last days of 2011 after an air-conditioning installation went awry, igniting a blaze that ravaged the 175-year-old Westport Presbyterian Church. Days later, the street reopened, and everything returned to normal in Westport. Right?
No, no. The same day of the fire, Stone Spirit Lodge, a "metaphysical store dedicated to awakening your wild joy," held a public auction of its inventory. The new-age shop closed after a little more than a year in business at 309 Westport Road. Looking for kyanite crystals and dowsing pendulums? Try online.
Spivey's, toward the western edge of Westport Road, fought the good fight for more years than could possibly be expected of a rare-book and map store in Kansas City. But owner David Spivey is retiring, and his collection of treasures has been liquidated via an online auction. As of 2012, Spivey's is officially no more, although who knows how long it will take to haul all those 18th-century encyclopedias and 30-pound books about Impressionism out of that cave.
The big year-end Westport whopper, though, was the departure of America's Pub. The club's lease at Manor Square expired and wasn't renewed. New Year's Eve marked the notorious nightclub's final evening in operation. How is the neighborhood feeling about this?
"We're anxious to see a new tenant join in the revival of Westport as a people-friendly district," says Colleen Kelly, day manager at Kelly's Westport Inn.
"I don't think America's Pub leaving will change the landscape in Westport too much," says Mike Tiffany, general manager at the Beaumont Club.
"I think it's probably a good idea," says Jerry Harrington, owner of Tivoli Cinemas. "There's enough bars in Westport as it is. One less is probably a good thing."
Even Harris Wilder, America's Pub's sound-bite-generating attorney, is getting in on the civility. "It's been a clean break with Manor Square so far," Wilder says. "At this point, Manor Square is being cooperative. We're doing everything we can to make this a clean break and to let bygones be bygones."
Such diplomacy! You'd almost have no idea how deliriously thrilled Westport is to see America's Pube — ahem, Pub — packing its bags, or know how bitter America's Pub is about being run out of an entertainment district in which it has generated high, steady revenues for 18 years. What's really going on?
As anyone with even a peripheral knowledge of the dynamics in Westport can tell you, sometime around the beginning of this millennium, America's Pub began attracting an African-American crowd that gradually earned a reputation for unruly, sometimes violent, behavior. Some lowlights: In July 2007, gunshots were fired outside the club, injuring two. And in September 2009, a brawl erupted outside America's Pub; a police officer on routine duty estimated that 50 people were fighting, and women inside the club were throwing bottles and drinks at each other.
In October 2010, 24-year-old Brian Euston was fatally punched outside the club after leaving Kelly's. Until Euston's death, most of the fights and trouble at America's Pub had been confined to its own patrons. But it's front-page stuff in Kansas City when a young, white male is killed in a major entertainment district by a black man.
Prior to that event, cries that Westport was unsafe largely came from white people in the suburbs who read something in the police blotter or saw some thuggish-looking people the last time they were at Kelly's after a Big 12 game. Nobody takes those people seriously — they're afraid of everything. But the death of Euston, a Missouri kid raised in the Brookside area, shook a different, less fearful community and gave considerably more credence to the idea that Westport had indeed become a dangerous place to party.
Westport can't afford such bad publicity these days. Once the only game in town, it now competes with the Power & Light District, a shinier, newer destination that's municipally subsidized to the tune of $10 million to $15 million a year.
"I have basic faith in Westport, but without real attention from the city and people who can affect public policy, without that loving attention, Westport will fall further behind," Wilder says. "Power & Light essentially has an entertainment monopoly. It's not fair. It's not right."
The city's liquor bureaucracy is fresh on Wilder's mind as America's Pub struggles to relocate. P&L isn't an option. ("Ridiculous, one-sided leases — a client would have to fire me before signing a Cordish lease," Wilder says.) And it's just about impossible to secure a 3 a.m. liquor license outside the P&L District unless you inherit one at an existing location.
Which is what may happen at 510 Westport Road, the now-former address of America's Pub. "We've had two or three people look at it," says Doug Krtek, property manager of the space. "Some nightlife, some retail and office. At this point, nothing's official."
Wilder is less guarded on the topic. "Another entity is in discussions with Manor Square to come in and be grandfathered in, and we'd pass our 3 a.m. license at the site on to them," he says.
And then a new day will dawn in Westport, or so seems to be the thinking. The former Chili's, across from America's Pub to the west, vacant for more than two years, will look more attractive to tenants, now that there won't be men in long white T-shirts and women in skintight garb loitering across the way. Things will start to snowball. People will start to feel safe in the area again, and bigger crowds will start trickling back.
It's certainly something to root for. But in the event that this doesn't happen, it will be interesting to see which direction the fingers point with America's Pub out of the picture.
"It's hard to get into other people's heads. I really don't know what Manor Square is thinking," Wilder says. "We wish them well. It's hard to understand a landlord walking away from a stable, well-paying tenant. But clearly they have other plans."