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Cleaver pressed on, with a final budget of $26 million. Acting on behalf of the 18th and Vine Authority — an agency set up inside City Hall — he famously bid $140,000 on a plastic saxophone that Charlie Parker had used in 1953.
The jazz museum opened in 1997. Cleaver said the project transcended the obstacles of race and geography. Others weren't buying it. Eddie Baker, the president of the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation, called the museum an embarrassment. "It's being run by politicians who don't even own a record player," he said.
Baker, who died in 2001, was bitter that he did not have influence over the project. Still, the attendance numbers supported his opinion. This year, the city will spend $1 million to support the jazz museum and other operations at 18th and Vine.
In a way, the effort to remake the jazz district was a victim of bad timing. In the late 1980s and early '90s, cities operated on the Field of Dreams model: Hang the word "attraction" on a building and people will show up, eager to give you their money. But creating a powerful draw takes imagination and resources. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 1993, makes efforts such as Science City, at Union Station, look like junk.
A half-assed jazz hall might not stand out if other aspects of the development had succeeded. But all these years and tens of millions later, the district remains a thinly inhabited island. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alone has contributed $20.7 million.
Cleaver did not understand that migration patterns had made the past glory of 18th and Vine nearly impossible to restore. Population in what City Hall planners now call the Black Heritage District — two square miles east of Troost and north of 29th Street — has fallen by 84 percent since 1950.
Efforts have been made to create more places for people to live (thanks, HUD!). But the demographics taunt any merchant who tries to make a go of it there.
Cleaver serves on the board of the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation, an organization that has cycled through several executive directors, each as ineffectual as the last. The agency seems ripe for a shake-up. The chairman of the board, Peter Yelorda, has been an officer since the group's inception. Might be time to give someone else a try, Pete.
When I was working on this week's feature story, I put in a call to Cleaver's office. I wanted to know whether the congressman had any response to an angry letter sent to him by Lisa Henry, alleging racism and mismanagement at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. His spokesman, Danny Rotert, avoided the question. Later, I sent Rotert a follow-up e-mail, asking again for comment.
"Also," I asked, "would the congressman be willing to share his general thoughts about 18th and Vine? What's given him satisfaction? What's given him disappointment? I've always thought the critical decisions were made at 18th and Vine's inception. Seems like the city tried to do too much with too little money, creating disappointment for both taxpayers and East Side residents. Is this off-base?"
No word back.
It will be interesting to see whether Cleaver's inattention to detail damages his latest initiative, the Green Impact Zone.