It's a tossup whether the bathroom walls or the patrons sport more ink at Buzzard Beach. On weekend nights, the Westport bar is a hive of beer-sloshing partiers with fashionably mussed hair and stepped-on shoes, all part of a meticulously cultivated posture of not giving a fuck. When someone does give a fuck, it typically follows several hours of drinking and is sometimes accompanied by a sloppily thrown right hook.
Ryan Shank, a 32-year-old drummer in several local bands, was certainly drunk in February 2009 when he made his bad decision. After leaving Buzzard Beach, he hopped into his car instead of walking the four blocks home. At Westport's core intersection, Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, he began to make a right. As he turned, he narrowly missed a security guard who was crossing the street on foot.
Seeing the near accident, security guards swarmed Shank's car and banged on the windows. Shank pulled over. The guards ordered him to walk home — a generous offer considering that he almost flattened one of their comrades. But then they said something peculiar: They ordered him to stay out of Westport. For a year.
Shank recognized his luck. Had he been dealing with Kansas City police, he figured, he likely would have been reciting the alphabet backward on his way to jail. But Westport's streets are public property, so how could the security guards ban him from an entire neighborhood?
Three days later, he headed back to Westport. He was walking toward Buzzard Beach when a nearby security guard spotted him.
"Hey, what the hell are you doing?"
In a matter of minutes, Shank was wearing handcuffs and shivering in the winter chill while security guards radioed the Kansas City Police Department.
Getting banned from an entire swath of city may have sounded absurd. But as Shank was about to find out, the consequences would be very real.
Date night? Drop a paycheck on dinner at the Country Club Plaza. Got some new game to try out on the ladies? Try Power & Light. But for Kansas Citians looking for a night of plain old drinking, Westport is their favorite pair of jeans: familiar, unpretentious and perfectly happy to absorb a spilled beer.
The neighborhood's crop of locally owned bars, restaurants and stores draws a loyal-to-KC crowd that is proud of the district's reputation for driving out chains. When Broadway Café outlasted a Starbucks there in 2008, it merited a David vs. Goliath business story in The New York Times.
The lingering recession has smacked around Westport's bar and restaurant owners, just as it has everyone else. And those owners worry about competition from the three-year-old Power & Light District, which is operated by Baltimore's Cordish Company and subsidized by taxpayer dollars.
But Westport's stakeholders have learned over the years that even in a good economy, challenges arise. That's why they chose to form a united front.
The Westport Merchants Association started circling its booze-fueled wagons in 2001, when it asked the city to do away with the public right of way on two major streets in the heart of the neighborhood. Portions of Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue would have become private property, giving business owners more control over who did — and, more important, who didn't — frequent the area.
"Privatization would allow our officers — working with police but independently as well — to enforce more of the rules of behavior at all times," Craig Glazer, then owner of Stanford and Sons Comedy Club, said at the time.
The proposed ordinance provoked a groundswell of public protest. The American Civil Liberties Union argued that privatizing the streets "creates a zone of inequality and authorizes private merchants to violate ... constitutional rights." The NAACP accused bar owners of wanting to keep blacks and Latinos out of their businesses. Before the City Council's vote, activists distributed handbills around midtown, urging citizens to fill the council chamber to oppose the plan.
The City Council rejected the ordinance.
With privatization off the table, Westport needed a new strategy. So in 2003, the business owners established the Westport Community Improvement District. Landlords agreed to pay an annual property-tax surcharge that, combined with a half-cent sales tax, would send the Westport CID more than $1 million each year to fund capital improvements and security. They also retired the Westport Merchants Association, replacing it with the Westport Regional Business League.
Jon Engelman has served as the WRBL's executive director since 2006. It's his job to corral the wants and needs of the district's stakeholders — a cast of characters whose interests diverge from one storefront to the next. But there's one thing they all agree on, Engelman says: Westport needs to be safe. One widely reported instance of violence could make for public-relations kryptonite.
When Engelman first took the job, Westport's security guards were managed in-house and were mostly off-duty police officers. That changed in 2008, when Engelman hired Atlanta-based security outfit Chesley Brown International, the same company that patrols the Country Club Plaza. And when Chesley took over, it inherited a policy that Westport had developed over the years of "banning" certain patrons from the businesses and other private property that make up the Westport CID — an area that stretches approximately from Broadway to Waddell and from 40th to 43rd streets.
"It's basic Private Property Rights 101," Engelman says. "We have agreements with all the property owners that they [Chesley Brown's officers] can act on their behalf. The bars are definitely all in agreement that a troublemaker for one is a troublemaker for all."
And the troublemakers aren't usually one-time offenders, says Terry Burns, who co-owns Californos.
"When they [security guards] encounter a repeat offender, one that many of the license holders have encountered, they attempt to head off a bad situation by not allowing that patron access to the bars," Burns tells The Pitch in an e-mail. "It's a help to not have to deal with the same trouble over and over again."
The bans apply only to private property within the Westport Community Improvement District, says Charles Renner, an attorney for the CID. Renner says security guards know the difference between public sidewalks and streets and private parking lots and businesses. "I don't believe that you have instances of people being detained for trespass from being on public property," Renner says.
Engelman plays down the bans altogether. People on Chesley's "banned" list should be able to re-enter Westport without hassle as long as they behave, he says. "Your ban isn't going to come back to haunt you unless you go back into that pattern and you do it again," he says. Plus, the bans are rare, he says. Of a dozen names that The Pitch gave Engelman — all people who say they've been banned at one time or another — he says six had never even been on the "banned" list.
But what Engelman and Renner describe — a rarely used tool for reprimanding a handful of out-of-control partiers — looks different from the stories told by the banished. And those stories have lawyers circling.
The list of the banned is long and diverse: a nurse who works at a metro hospital, a server at a midtown music venue, a former Sprint employee, a couple of tattoo artists, a glass blower, a taxi driver and a construction worker.
And those are just the ones who are talking.
Caleb Calandro, 27, says he was banned from Westport after a scuffle outside Buzzard Beach in the summer of 2006. Two men, who'd been kicked out of the bar for fighting, jumped Calandro as he exited the bar, he says. He defended himself, he says, and received a face full of mace and a 30-day ban.
Kitty Mitchell, a 27-year-old cocktail waitress, says she probably deserved to be banned in the summer of 2008, given the smartass remarks she slurred at security guards on her way home from Westport. The guards told her that she was banned for 60 days.
Steven Drew, a 46-year-old tattoo artist who works at Westport's Irezumi Body Art, says he found trouble when he stopped to watch police and security guards arrest a man in front of America's Pub. He says he was watching the arrest from the opposite side of the street, "just to make sure nobody violates this guy's rights." He got himself arrested and banned instead.
Aaron Helve, 24, says he was sitting on the curb and getting a woman's phone number after the bars were letting out in June 2008. Security guards told the pair to get moving. Helve got smart, asking the guard whether his mother ironed the military creases into his uniform. Guards followed him as he walked toward his car, parked behind World Market, where they told him to put his hands on a wall as they searched his pockets. After finding nothing illegal, Helve says, the guards told him he was banned for a year.
Anthony Wheeler was banned for a year after trading blows with a friend on a Westport street last October. He returned eight days later and was arrested for trespassing, despite being on what his lawyer contends is — and always has been — public property. Wheeler's first trespassing charge was dismissed. But security guards caught him in Westport again and, he says, literally sat on him until police arrived. He's now facing trespassing charges again.
Troy Tils is the rare lifer. While he was hanging out at Buzzard Beach, Westport security officers learned that he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest, so they told him that he was banned for life, Tils says. Six months later, with his other legal issues sorted out, Tils met with Westport CID officers. They shortened the ban to six months.
The stories continue and, like these, often include people who weren't inside a business or on obviously private property when they were banned. Many of them believed that they were being blackballed from an entire neighborhood.
Their stories have gotten the attention of civil rights lawyers.
"We're talking about private security people trying to ban people from public space, and that's clearly unconstitutional," says Doug Bonney, chief counsel and legal director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. "These are public streets."
"It will be interesting to see what they [the Westport CID] have done, that they think makes it private property," Bonney goes on. "Whatever it is, it doesn't work. And we may have to sue them over it."
Don Saxton, Wheeler's lawyer, plans to file a lawsuit against Chesley Brown and the WRBL for violating Wheeler's civil rights. "If it was private property, it'd be different, but it's not," he says. "Westport's security just wants to make you think that it is."
For the people who believe the security guards and believe that they've been banned from a neighborhood (streets and sidewalks included), the ban is an embarrassing, baffling hassle. But for the ones who don't believe them, or who just don't obey the ban, things often get even worse.
For many, the problem is a simple lack of communication. When partiers are banned, security guards provide no information about what businesses they're banned from or what they can do, if anything, to appeal.
Chesley Brown declined to share details about its policy with The Pitch, referring questions to Engelman. He says the names of the banned are entered into a database, and there is a matrix that suggests penalties for particular offenses. Alcohol-related assaults trigger an instant ban of 60 or 90 days, he says, "depending on the intensity of the event."
He defends the guards' use of the bans, and he says he conducted his own investigation as a result of a reporter's inquiry. "I walked up to two or three of our [security] guys right away, and I was like, 'Trespass ban, what does it mean? What do you know?' And I was actually quite surprised about how thorough they were about what they did know."
One thing is certain: They know more than the people they ban.
After he was blackballed for fighting, Caleb Calandro says he called Westport's Public Safety offices, asking to see something in writing that would explain the boundaries of his ban. "After a long time of asking, they gave me this loose boundary of 43rd Street to 39th Street and Broadway to, I think, Clark," he says. "I was like, 'I can't go to Sun Fresh, then?' They didn't give me a clear answer. They said, 'If we tell you you can't, you can't.'"
Shank says he made the same phone call to Westport's Public Safety offices and got a different answer. "Broadway to Mill Street and from the Beaumont Club to St. Luke's [Hospital]," said the person who answered the phone before hanging up on him.
Another Westport regular, who was banned for mouthing off to a guard, was confused about the terms of his ban as well. So he just steered clear. "I didn't even go during the day, to any of the shops," he says. (A local nurse, he asked not to be identified.) "I figured the police are going to listen to them [the security guards] over me anytime."
Engelman says someone who's banned from Westport should "absolutely" still be allowed to patronize retail shops and restaurants during daylight business hours, as well as Marsh's Sun Fresh grocery store.
"The intention is not for you to get thrown out of Westport when you were just going to get your cell phone checked," he says.
But once again, his calm and rationality collide messily with the stories told by the banished themselves.
When Shank returned to Westport a few days after his drunk-driving incident and found himself detained in the parking lot of Buzzard Beach, his heart sank as a KCPD officer pulled up in a squad car. The Westport guards told the cop to write Shank a citation for trespassing.
The officer wrote out a trespassing citation: "Did appear in Westport after being told not to," Shank says it read. But when Shank had his day in court last year, the prosecutors dropped the charge, municipal court records show.
After he was banned, Calandro says he ventured to the bar where he worked — then known as the Hurricane — to pick up his paycheck. He was promptly detained by Westport security, arrested by city police officers for trespassing, and banned for a full year, he says. He received a year's probation from a municipal judge.
"I thought only thieves and stalkers would have a trespassing charge," Calandro says.
Calandro has avoided his favorite Westport hangouts ever since. When his Achilles' heel — a craving for Korma Sutra's Indian food — flares up, he finds himself dashing into the restaurant, "ninja style," even during daylight hours.
Steven Drew, the tattoo artist, also was charged with trespassing. Although his incident began on a public sidewalk, he was ultimately cuffed as he walked through the parking lot owned by World Market. His lawyer urged him to plead guilty. "He said, 'It'll be easier,'" Drew says. "I ended up with six months' probation, and if I messed up, I'd get six months in jail. I'm like, 'This is crazy. I didn't do shit.'"
Drew's is a common tale: He wasn't detained in a bar or a restaurant, but he wasn't technically on public property, either.
"You may have instances where someone has trespassed on more than one occasion," says Renner, the Westport CID lawyer. "They're on a sidewalk in Westport; security goes to ask them what they're doing here; and if someone then goes on to private property, then they are trespassing."
This happens frequently. In 2009, 33 arrests were made for trespassing between West 39th Street and 43rd Street and between Southwest Trafficway and Broadway. From January through June of this year, 23 trespassing arrests were made in the same area.
Maj. Wayne Stewart, division commander of the Central Patrol Division, whose officers respond to calls in Westport, says he appreciates the extra eyes on the street that private security guards provide. His officers won't make an arrest if they don't think a Westport patron's offense meets the criteria for trespassing, he says — criteria that the city prosecutor says include a specific address of the offense.
But Stewart admits that there's some ambiguity when it comes to enforcing the district's bans. "Are they [Westport security] maybe nabbing somebody who they've seen before, and they may not be trespassing?" Stewart says. "I don't know if I have a good answer for you for that."
The summit of the outdoor drinking season is upon Kansas City, with each sweaty Saturday bringing a new excuse to celebrate. But if some barflies' ideas of a good time involve something out of Fight Club, they may find themselves in the chilly company of Chesley Brown's security patrol.
Many of their names will never even make it into the database of the banned. Of the names provided by The Pitch, Wheeler is the only person, according to Engelman, who's currently banned from the area. Calandro, Shank, Tils and the nurse were listed at one time, but their bans have expired. The others were never even on the list, he says.
Kitty Mitchell laughs when she learns that she was never "officially" banned. "Nobody ever did anything to me when I went back, but one security guard did tell me, 'You're not supposed to be here,'" she remembers.
As a result of The Pitch's inquiry, Engelman says Westport CID and Chesley Brown plan to "tighten up" their banning policy. One option they're discussing: Providing material that explains what a ban means and including the contact information to the Public Safety office so people can challenge their ban.
But unless a judge says otherwise, the bans will continue.
"We're reviewing how we implement it [the banning policy], not our right to do it," Engelman says. "That's rock-solid."