Hello, Kansas City!
Maybe you're here visiting for the Big 12 tournament. Or maybe you live here. Either way, chances are, you might need a fresh introduction to this place.
Downtown, where all the hype and buzz are concentrated this week around the Sprint Center, things are looking mighty different than they have in ... ever. The work on our new entertainment district isn't quite done. We were expecting all of those sparkling new storefronts and clean brick buildings to be filled with people laughing, eating, drinking and spending cash. The developers at Cordish, to whom we sold our souls when they agreed to build this entertainment district, originally said everything would be open last fall. When that didn't happen, they said it would be finished this week. But everyone's excited — or trying to be because we're in debt to the tune of $295 million for this good-time place, and the economy ain't so great right now, which is worrisome.
But this is a time for cheering and celebrating! So welcome to the new Kansas City!
You might notice the cool mural that takes up a whole block along the southern border of the Power and Light District. Kansas City artist Alexander Austin painted it in browns that look like barbecue sauce and blues in the shades of midnight and cold daylight. The mural marks our glory days, with a nod to legendary cats such as Charlie Parker and Count Basie. It also refers to 18th and Vine in a way that might give you the impression that such a place no longer exists. But it's just a few blocks away. C'mon, let's take a tour.
Here at 18th and Vine, you'll see some sparkling new storefronts and clean brick buildings that look ... wow, they sorta look like those buildings back in the Power and Light District — all new and full of promise. It's still a mostly empty promise over here at 18th and Vine, though. More than 10 years ago, then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver made this neighborhood one of his legacy projects; he's in Congress now. (Similarly, our last mayor, Kay Barnes, made the Sprint Center and the Power and Light District her legacy projects; she's running for Congress now.) We started with $25 million to build those new storefronts at 18th and Vine back in the early '90s, and it's hard to keep track of how many tens of millions we've poured in since. Things never really seem to get going full swing over here.
But we won't get into all that. This is a time for enjoying our new city.
Besides, there's some cool stuff over here. See, there's the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. There's jazz most nights at the Blue Room, sometimes a good show at the Gem Theater. And there's the Mutual Musicians Foundation, where real Kansas City musicians jam at happy hour on Fridays. There used to be a high-class soul-food restaurant, the Peach Tree, but it's moving over to the Power and Light District, which was sad news for 18th and Vine. But a new restaurant called Harper's has opened down the street, and the Friends of Alvin Ailey have moved in on the Woodland corner.
Oh, and just ignore all those other fake storefronts — the ones advertising a tailor and a dry cleaner and Sylvia's Soul Food restaurant. They were put up more than 10 years ago, too, when Kansas City native Robert Altman filmed his mob and jazz movie, Kansas City. More than a decade ago, it was ironic that fake historic storefronts were all that made our historic district look real. Back then, we all thought public money would bring back 18th and Vine. Now, the fact that Altman's fake façades are still there isn't even ironic anymore.
It's ... well, this is a time of celebration, so let's not talk about all that.
Let's just continue the tour. Austin's mural at the Power and Light District also depicts street signs for 12th Street and Vine. You know about this place because in 1959, Wilbert Harrison sang about how he was going to be standing on that corner, getting some crazy little women and drinking Kansas City wine. Sometimes here, you'll see Europeans in skinny pants, carrying maps and cameras, looking around with expressions of hope and bewilderment. They're looking for 12th and Vine, but it's an empty field. This grassy expanse is actually a piano-shaped park named Goin' to Kansas City Plaza at 12th and Vine. See, just off the sidewalk, there's a post with a reproduction of white street signs that say "S. 12th Street" and "Vine Street."
Here rests the soul of Kansas City.
A couple of kiosks in the park display pictures and tell this district's story. "Commerce and pleasure strolled hand in hand down 12th Street, which sported a host of nightclubs, saloons, amusement palaces ... and grand theaters." That sounds a lot like an "entertainment district." But supposedly, 12th Street had grown too seedy by the '70s, so we tore down this one-time entertainment district for what in those days was called "urban renewal." Now we're spending almost $300 million dollars on a brand-new entertainment district in an effort that we might as well call urban renewal.
But this is no time for pointing out bittersweet contradictions in a city's life cycle.
It's a time for celebrating our almost-finished new downtown.
So when you see Count Basie and Charlie Parker depicted in the Power and Light District's mural, just raise a glass to the real 12th Street a few blocks to your east. There, a sign reminds us: "The Basie Band held court at the Reno Club, tucked behind the police headquarters at 12th and Cherry. Musicians lined up in the alley behind the Reno Club to challenge Lester Young, Hot Lips Page and other stars of the band during freewheeling all-night jam sessions. A few blocks east, Charlie Parker cut his musical teeth playing at the Green Leaf Gardens and the Bar-Du-Luc. The Sunset Club at 12th and Woodland featured boogie-woogie pianist Peter Johnson and Big Joe Turner, who served thirsty patrons drinks while shouting the blues from behind the bar."
Those words, about Kansas City's most famous entertainment district, are an epitaph written on a kiosk in an empty park.