Ollie Gates takes command of the room with a brief discussion about How Things Were.
He's at a recent daylong symposium convened by Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser to talk about bringing economic development to the urban core. The place is a sun-soaked conference room on the top floor of the Central Library. The time is after lunch, when a less arresting presence than a 6-foot-3 barbecue impresario might put the politicians, academics and business leaders to sleep.
Gates, the president of Gates Bar-B-Q, who turns 77 next month, begins by talking about what the city's East Side was like before 1950. Slave descendants, he says, built a city within a city. "Twenty blocks of black," they called it. "Our social life, our educational lives and churches and health facilities and professional facilities were all in this area," Gates says.
The room is quiet as Gates speaks. Seated at a conference table, he seems to loom larger than anyone in the room — including the mayor, who bends over through doorways.
Gates leads his audience on an imaginary tour of the old neighborhood; describing cab stands; drugstores and the corner where G. Lawrence Blankinship Sr., one of the first African-Americans to serve on the City Council, sold Ebony magazine from a sack. Did you know that Arthur Bryant was a mechanic? Charlie, his brother, was the original barbecue man in the family.
At the center of all this was Vine Street, a thoroughfare so synonymous with black life in Kansas City that its name changes to Wayne once it crosses south of 28th Street. "That's where the white community started," Gates will explain later.
For an entrepreneur like Gates, the history of black commerce takes on special significance. In his view, social progress came at a cost to black businesses. "Segregation was the economic engine that propelled business in the area."
The end of Jim Crow integrated neighborhood schools and allowed blacks to explore Swope Park beyond Shelter House No. 5. It also meant that African-Americans could spend their money where they chose. And they did, causing black and white businesses alike to flee the East Side. Gates describes the outward migration as "a big whooshing sound."
"Segregation was the culprit that caused the good, the bad and the ugly," he continues. "That's why we're here today."
Gates belongs to the Intra Urban Economic Council, a group that has come up with an idea to revitalize an area where other programs have failed. The proposal is simple: Eliminate state and local taxes on goods and services in the area from Ninth to 29th streets, Troost to Prospect.
Removing the 7.725-percent sales tax, the group hopes, will increase the buying power of residents and attract merchants to empty storefronts.
"We're promoting an incentive package to level the playing field," says Chester Thompson, the president of the Black Economic Union, after Gates' presentation.
Funkhouser and the City Council support the concept of what Gates and Thompson are calling the Black Heritage District.
The city isn't the only government to rely on sales tax, however. The tax-free district would also need to be approved by Jackson County and Missouri legislators. The task is daunting. Bringing economic development to Kansas City's distressed East Side isn't necessarily at the top of the agenda for state lawmakers from the Ozarks.
But it's hard to bet against a man with a brand for a last name.
At the corner of 27th Street and Troost, even the liquor store has gone out of business.
Gates is standing in weeds up to his kneecaps. The mayor has called a May 15 press conference to announce the city's commitment to the Black Heritage District. A podium has been set up in the parking lot of the B&C Party Shoppe, a former 7-Eleven that neighborhood leaders complained was a source of blight because of the volume of gin and beer it sold. The B&C Party Shoppe is gone now, as is the China Kitchen ("$2.99 carryout") on the other side of 27th Street.