A faint but strong heart beats for 18th and Vine. That much was obvious last Tuesday night, when a crowd packed the lobby of the Gem Theater to take part in what might sound like one of the most boring activities of good citizenship: a city planning meeting.
At least a hundred people showed up to hear what City Hall had in mind for the district -- and listening to City Hall talk about 18th and Vine can be emotionally risky. After all, it's been a long time since Emanuel Cleaver's administration, when we dumped the first $20 million into the district's rehab (with tens of millions to follow). If City Hall had delivered on the promise back then, 18th and Vine would have been jumping for years now.
"In the past, there have been a lot of plans and initiatives," Chris Cline, one of the people working on the plan, told the audience. This one, he said, would be different. The new Black Heritage District Economic Development Plan will incorporate all of those past efforts "into a strategy that can see things built."
A description of the Vine Street District Economic Development Plan (covering the neighborhoods between 9th and 29th streets, Troost and Prospect) is here. It's in the beginning stages. The point of last Tuesday night was to get people involved, and the way organizers did that was to break up the crowd into four focus groups -- young adults and professionals; the faith-based community; businesses and entrepreneurs; neighborhood residents and community leaders -- and make them talk among themselves about the city's assets, its character, its leadership and its opportunities.
The brainstorming session with the young adults was both agonizing and inspiring. Agonizing in how much these young people wanted to help, but felt helpless. A random sampling of their observations:
"We have no culture."
"The city's serious about arts--"
"But other than First Fridays, what is there to do?"
"There is culture but it's watered down, or hard to find."
"18th and Vine is in the shadow of the Power & Light District."
(The woman from the Michigan consulting firm who was trying to lead the conversation stopped to say she'd been hearing about this Power & Light District and wanted to know what it was. Everyone groaned, saying they didn't have nearly enough time to explain. At this point, Councilwoman Melba Curls, who'd come in late and was making the rounds, introduced herself and said something about how she'd worked to get the P&L's dress code changed. She listened for awhile and then was gone.)
One woman, who was writing people's comments in magic marker on a big white pad of paper, kept telling the group that everyone needed to move back into the neighborhood.
"I have friends who live here," someone else said. "The problem is there's nothing here."
"Look at all of this beautiful energy in this room -- but none of us can give it. None of us live here -- there's no housing stock. Me and my wife really wanted to buy a house here. We looked. The houses either needed too much work, or they were $300,000."
"The city never finishes anything. Here you get two buildings, four buildings -- the Power & Light District's a mile long but it's complete."
"You all need to come back!"
One man, who puts on comedy shows, said he'd tried to rent the Gem Theater but was told it would cost $2,000, and he found out he could do his shows cheaper at Zona Rosa.
"My dad had a business here for how long? Where were his employees supposed to eat?"
"I want to be involved. Is there a task force I can join?"
It went on like this for a long time. After awhile, everyone was supposed to get back together and one person from each group was supposed to report on what they'd discussed. Some people stuck around, but it had been a long night and a lot of folks scattered.
A couple days later, Sean O'Byrne of the Downtown Council, which has been working with the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation to rent the empty storefronts along 18th Street, told The Pitch he had signed up a couple of tenants. The Full Employment Council is renting a space, and by September, he said, the Kauffman Foundation is scheduled to open an entrepreneurial center where people can come to learn about starting their own businesses.
Maybe not the sexiest storefronts, but at least they'll bring in some bodies. "Those are two good users who will create a lot of foot traffic," O'Byrne says. With a little density, maybe he can lure in a coffee shop.
Meanwhile, the young people who were at the Gem Theater last week should keep an eye on Facebook. Folks at the City Planning Department say all of the meeting notes will be posted online, and there will be more public meetings, more chances to get involved (there's another meeting on September 1 and another on October 20).
And the inspiring thing last Tuesday night was how much the people in the young-adult group cared. Like the man said, they did have a lot of beautiful energy. Maybe some of them will start their own businesses with the help of the Kauffman Foundation's entrepreneurial center -- but it seemed like most of them already knew what they could do if they just had a chance to show it.
With so many empty storefronts now, would it really be so hard to just lower some rents so the young people could lead the way?