It is depressing and, at this point, arguably boring to run through the many failures of the city's revitalization efforts at 18th and Vine. (Search "Pitch 18th and Vine" online if you're interested in a stroll down memory lane; if you're feeling especially masochistic, look up The Atlantic Cities' recent article contrasting the thriving Beale Street in Memphis with KC's limp Jazz District.)
Lately, though, I've been feeling a strange optimism about 18th and Vine. In addition to the Mutual Musicians Foundation, which serves up jazz jams and booze until 6 a.m. on weekends, there are four nightlife establishments open for business: the Blue Room, Danny's Big Easy, the Kansas City Juke House, and the 9th Inning Sports Bar & Grill.
OK, so it's not exactly booming, and who knows how long any of these places will manage to stick around. But six years ago, there was only one joint in the neighborhood that served food. For the time being, let's call that progress. Let's also note the historic district's proximity to, say, the Crossroads: It's about a two-minute drive from Grinders to the Blue Room. Is it possible that the natural winds of gentrification might do for 18th and Vine what civic redevelopment plans and millions of dollars could not? I don't know. Maybe not. But I'm rooting for it.
Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of observing what 18th and Vine might be like if crowds actually, you know, hung out around there. Juneteenth, a holiday memorializing the abolition of slavery, was being celebrated in Parade Park, just north of the district. Bellied up at the 9th Inning, which opened this past March, I watched streams of folks pass by the window, on their way to the park or dinner. My Budweiser draft came in a frosty, Moe's Tavern-style mug. The window of a storefront across the street said "Owl BBQ," and from my bar stool, I couldn't determine whether it was an authentic sign left over from the old days or one of those fake storefronts that Robert Altman built when he was filming Kansas City back in the 1990s.
That I was one of only a handful of white people participating in the festivities added to the surreal quality of the evening, although I felt no less welcome at Juneteenth than I would at your average midtown rock show. Which is to say, I was mostly ignored and occasionally eyed with suspicion.
In the park — it cost $15 to enter, which is way too high for a couple of bands, a flea swap, and some food trucks — I spotted no fewer than five gentlemen wearing all-white linen outfits. Lots of fedoras in the house, too. Folks sat in picnic chairs and watched a band, the Sequel, lite-funk its way through a set of smooth jams. One of my favorite genres of music is 1980s urban adult contemporary. If it sounds like the Charlie Rose theme, I'm probably really going to like it. One of the Sequel's songs was called "Super Swanky"; another was called "Brown Skin." I sat on a curb, chewed on a brisket sandwich, sipped a PBR tall boy, and watched the band perform Prince's "The Beautiful Ones" as the sun slowly began its descent. It was a level of happiness I don't often achieve.
The emcee who took the stage after the Sequel used some of his time to get the word out about registering to vote.
"We're celebrating Juneteenth here," he said. "We don't vote, we're celebrating shackles again. I ain't even kidding. You all need to register right now if you haven't. We've got volunteers in yellow shirts walking around. Go find them."
He asked if there were any white folks out in the audience. There were about 150 people gathered in the vicinity of the stage, and I did not see a single other white person. A woman sitting on the curb a couple of yards to my left looked over and laughed at me. The emcee was searching for a volunteer to guess the name of the next song, I think. I don't really know. My brain shuts down when the threat of public speaking looms.
"Go on up there. I'll give you the answers," the woman said, cackling. I stared straight down at the concrete, hiding. Then some white guy who seemed to enjoy the attention materialized, and the crisis was averted.
Back out on 18th Street, the Blue Room was charging an additional $15 at the door. "Um, I'll be back," I lied to the money taker and headed across the street to Danny's, where the cover was $5. Danny's is a New Orleans-style restaurant with white tablecoths (its former location was 16th Street and Main, just up the street from The Pitch offices) where you get live music with your meal. The Cousins Band, as I believe it was called, treated the crowd to a set of very loud blues, funk and soul. The place was packed. The single women in the house were instructed to clap their hands. A dance party developed in front of the band. A version of Cameo's "Word Up" was performed. A waitress emerged from the kitchen carrying a small plate with the largest slice of cake I've ever seen served at a restaurant.
Is this all just a dream? I wondered as I scanned the room. I'm still unclear on that. But I'll be returning to the neighborhood soon to verify one way or the other.