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.