"Merchants and youths alike are frustrated. The merchants complain the young people block doorways, intimidate customers and discourage weekend business."
That report isn't from a Kansas City Star story two weeks ago. It's from two years ago -- August 1999. Tim Knight, who owns Westport's Precision Optics, had written an "As I See It" piece for the paper's editorial page, pleading with city and business leaders to find other places for kids to hang out -- and to develop ordinances "to protect the children from being in entertainment areas after midnight ... before next summer."
Maybe he forgot that the city already had such an ordinance -- Kansas City's uptight, kid-phobic curfew kicked in on September 1, 1991. By Knight's "next summer," in 2000, things only got worse. The cops tried herding the black crowd to one end of Westport so the mostly white partiers could leave their bars without feeling scared. At the time, the ACLU's Dick Kurtenbach told the Pitch that the police tactics were "surreal, more appropriate in South Africa during apartheid." Tensions peaked on August 27, 2000, when kids hurled bottles at the cops and punched a waitress as she left work; cops scattered the troublemakers with pepper spray, then finished out the summer with barricades blocking car traffic.
"We finally realized what we were dealing with," KCPD's Anthony Ell insightfully told the Star. "We had too many people congesting a small area."
As if that hadn't already been obvious for two long summers.
This year, police put up their barricades again and kept kids moving along. They finally decided to start using their curfew -- at the end of the summer. "City officials, merchants and patrons complained about throngs of juveniles gathering and sometimes acting rowdy," the Star reported.
Everyone knows the tricky problem has to do with deep social issues like the erosion of parental control. Westport merchants, elected officials and bar talkers all over town know that the cops were being cautious with their curfew because using it on a crowd of black kids looks mighty white.
But Westport's brilliant new strategy is to put up even more barricades -- and charge admission for crossing them. A cabal of landlords has asked the City Council to hand over ownership of Westport's busiest streets. "Privatization would allow our officers -- working with police but independently as well -- to enforce more of the rules of behavior at all times," says Craig Glazer of Stanford and Sons. Greg Lever, executive director of the merchants' association, was too busy setting up art fair tents to explain to Pitch readers the benefits of this circling-the-wagons solution. But as an indication that it must be a really, really bad idea, his group is even having a hard time selling it to city hall.
City planners have trashed the proposal, arguing that the city needs to keep control of its streets and that "there are alternative solutions to the seasonal, weekend crowd problems of the Westport business district." However, the council's planning and zoning committee is keeping it on the table -- giving the merchants more time. Glazer says the group's attorney, Kathy Hauser, "doesn't feel that the message is clear to everyone on council yet."
If anyone can help councilmembers understand, it's Hauser. Though she's now in the private sector at Lathrop & Gage, Hauser was city attorney from 1993 through 1997, and an assistant city attorney for almost twenty years before that; in fact, she was legal counsel for the same committee she's now courting on behalf of the Westport merchants. They couldn't have hired anyone better-equipped to strong-arm their land grab through the council.
Westport may even reap some financial rewards from black kids' lack of fun alternatives.
Glazer says he's going to start lobbying for new streets, sidewalks, outdoor restrooms and parking garages. "This four-block area's one of the biggest tax-generating bases for the city, but there's been literally no funding from the city, which is outrageous. Once Westport gets a freshening, a lot of these problems will go away," says Westport's king of comedy.
Public restrooms might stop seventeen-year-olds from peeing against the windows of Golds Gym at 2 a.m., but they won't stop kids from going there in the first place.
Here's an idea: Why not put a 3 a.m. all-ages club in that brand new Wild Oats building that, from all appearances, Wild Oats may never move into?
But that's way too scary. This city has a well-established history of shutting down privately owned clubs where teenagers can dance all night.
A more likely solution comes from a very sincere Councilwoman Mary Williams-Neal, who has led dozens of diverse citizens on Saturday-night fact-finding expeditions to Westport. The result? "I agree we need to provide activities for them, but I don't agree it should be 1, 2, 3 in the morning. I'd like to see them get some books in their hands, get ready for college, get ready for church on Sunday."
So what if that's like asking Britney Spears to put on long sleeves. Until Williams-Neal can rebottle the energy of 4,000 already-liberated teenagers, tuck them in safely at 10 p.m. and dress them in choir robes the next morning, she'll call in the reinforcements.
"Next year's coming and we want to be prepared," she says. "We've started warning them. By next spring, we're going to be serious with this curfew. This is not going to be just Westport. It's going to be citywide."
Now that's something everyone can look forward to.