As the night progresses, wayward revelers urinate on the property across the street. They have no idea that they're desecrating the lawn of the River Club -- a 1950s-era, invitation-only private dinner club for approximately 200 of the city's elite executives and their wives. No visitors may be admitted into the one-story, bay-windowed building unless accompanied by a member; extra blazers hang in the men's room in case someone forgets his coat.
Just outside, though, kids bomb a homeless man with beer bottles. Broken glass lines the ground like glitter.
A Kansas City, Missouri, police cruiser arrives at 10 p.m. The officers bullhorn a warning against trespassing, and JoJo Humphrey and other half-sober drivers pile into their cars and speed back down Jefferson Street. Humphrey takes a right on Tenth Street, parking near a graffiti-covered stone terrace that stands like a battlement near the park's southern bluffs. Fewer than 100 yards away from the River Club, Humphrey and his posse keep drinking.
Thirty minutes later, more people are partying at the Lewis and Clark statue. At midnight the cops warn them away again. Kansas City parks don't close overnight, so police exploit a technicality -- late-night parking restrictions -- to disperse the crowd. New drinkers arrive to reclaim the park at 1 a.m.
People have been congregating at the park since at least 1994, Humphrey says as he leans against his T-top '79 Trans Am. Some nights, crowds swell to more than 200 people, with so many tricked-out lowriders that the lot resembles a car show.
In the early morning hours, a seventeen-year-old in a Sixers jersey lights a blunt and passes it to a friend. He's from Wyandotte County. Comes here every weekend, he says.
This is The Point, the kid says, "Some good-ass territory and shit." From Case Park, a person can look out over the city lights of Kansas and Missouri. "You can patrol all sides from here," the kid says. It's neutral ground upon which gang members sometimes settle disputes.
When a flashbulb pops from a lamppost on the northeast corner of the lot, the beer-swilling crew stops to look.
A loudspeaker emits a taped message: "Your picture has been taken for security reasons. Enjoy the park. Have a nice day." The kids make no effort to conceal their identities as the security camera snaps a picture. Beneath the camera, a Chevy van with closed doors and rolled-up tinted windows bounces wildly on its shocks.
"It used to be the best place to hang out," another kid says. "Then people started shooting."
On Monday morning, workers from both the Parks and Recreation Department and the newly formed Downtown Community Improvement District spend hours picking up litter, sometimes pressure-cleaning sidewalks and vacuuming glass throughout the park.
By day, the area around the Lewis and Clark statue fills with Mercedes Benzes and BMWs and luxury sedans with pristine paint jobs, driven by members of the River Club. If city bigwigs linger long enough after work on a Friday, drinking at low, polished wooden tables near the fireplace or eating chips from wooden platters under what one member says is a $3 million Thomas Hart Benton oil panting, they can watch thugs roll past.
"Case Park has always been a place where you could take your best girl and watch the planes take off," says Commerce Bank Chairman Jonathan Kemper, who belongs to the River Club and is a member of Mayor Kay Barnes' Greater Downtown Development Authority, a body of power brokers assembled to oversee downtown's revitalization.
"We really need to have young people downtown. There is a vitality that people bring to an urban setting," Kemper says. But he's scared of the scene at Case Park. The club employs an extra-large doorman, but Kemper says female staff at the River Club are intimidated by what's going on outside. "Things that concern me are the fear factor down there. That's what will kill the rebirth of downtown."
The last few years have seen major investment in this corner of Kansas City's flagging business district. In the 1980s, McCormick-Baron, a St. Louis-based developer brought in by the Hall Family Foundation, began a $40 million project redeveloping the blocks surrounding Case Park in historic Quality Hill. In the '90s, DST funded the nonprofit American Cancer Society and Hope Lodge campus along the bluffs and aided the HNTB engineering and architecture firm in renovating the old American Hereford Association building. State Street Corporation built a six-story campus along Pennsylvania Avenue.
In 1996, the William T. Kemper Foundation joined other private donors and the Parks Department to renovate Case Park. Workers planted trees, replaced old cobra-head streetlights with lampposts and repaved the asphalt drive with brick from the Kansas City stockyards. In April 2000, Parks Department donors dedicated the Lewis and Clark Memorial as part of the KC 150 celebration. Author Stephen Ambrose spoke at the event.
But the people putting on their own weekly celebration there couldn't care less about famous historians. The kid in the Sixers jersey says he never knew the identity of the statue's bronze men. People look at that statue like it's George Washington, he says. Get their pictures taken with it like it's someone important. The President, maybe, or Superman.
Now gang tags cover park sidewalks and railings. Bullet holes riddle lampposts. Garbage cans have been burned and beaten by late-night ragers who also have unscrewed "No Parking" signs. Sean O'Byrne, director of the new downtown Community Improvement District, says someone shot out a window at the River Club last summer and that, over the past two years, someone's fired into the State Street building eleven times, prompting the company to move a computer room to the interior of the building.
"What's happened since the upgrade is that people really can have a party there," Kemper says of Case Park. But he says the revelry has gone "beyond the pale" if people are shooting in the middle of the night.
Police patrols have been sporadic, so three weeks ago the city installed the 35-mm, 36-exposure steel-encased camera to capture illegal activity. The camera is motion-sensitive, time-delayed, accurate enough to capture license-plate numbers, and equipped with a recorded warning telling offenders they have been photographed. (Four such cameras have been installed at parks with high rates of crime, vandalism and illegal dumping.) Steve Lampone, chief of operations at Parks and Recreation, says he has not seen a recurrence of any vandalism at Case Park since the camera was installed.
Pretty good idea, Humphrey says. Until someone decides to shoot it down.