Monday, April 26, 2010

if I have to walk I'm going just the same...

In about 1991, the only place I thought was worth visiting in the 18th and Vine area of Kansas City was a run-down old Wings ‘N Things restaurant.  On warm spring days, we would often sneak out of the side door at Lincoln Prep and walk down Woodland Street for some wings.  I never thought about my safety in those days – it never occurred to me that the safest place for a white girl might not be walking by the dilapidated old homes lining that street.  My parents would have killed me.  Or maybe they’d have been proud of my tenacity.  I might never know.  What I did know, even back then, was that the neighborhood in which my high school was located was full of rich history and amazing stories – even if that history had faded over the years, replaced by empty storefronts and only the stories of what once was there.  The area of 18th and Vine in Kansas City, Missouri has a story to tell, and this past Sunday afternoon, I tried to share a bit of that story with my family. 
We left our home in the Waldo area after lunch on Sunday and drove north down The Paseo, heading toward the once thriving historic district.  It had been nearly 16 years since I had driven that route and I was struck, sadly, by how little had changed.  There were newer houses, sure, and the occasional new apartment building that had sprouted up around the Rockhurst University campus, but in all, much was the same as it had been in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was in high school at Lincoln.   All of the dilapidated old homes that once lined the street across from the school are now gone, replaced by overgrown brush and trees.  The building itself looks entirely the same, save for the “Blue Ribbon School” signs hanging on the outside.  Good for you, Lincoln. 
When we turned right onto 18th Street, heading west of Woodland, we caught sight of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum as well as the historic Gem Theater, and I got really excited.  Then, I saw the lack of people and cars and I started to realize that the shiny new buildings and attractions are great, but only if they draw a crowd to the area, right? I guess the answer to that is “maybe”.  In the late 1980s, many millions of dollars were spent to revitalize the old historic district, and to the bare eye, it’s clear that there are new apartments and buildings as well as a few restaurants, but where are the people? 
Well, quite literally, the numbers are like this:
·      Number of people per square mile in the 18th and Vine area: 2,744.  Number of people per square mile in Kansas City: 1408.
·      Median household income here ($27,508) is significantly lower than US average ($56,604).
·      The median age here is 30.6.  There are 3,542 men and 3,243 women living in the 64108 zip code. Of those numbers, 2,197 are African American.
·      The average home value here ($46,500) is significantly lower than in the Kansas City metro area as a whole.
There are three primary schools, one middle school and two high schools in the zip code, but the first thing you see as you drive into the area is the boarded up Attucks building, sitting at the corner of 19th and Woodland.  Attucks is the communication and writing magnet school that has since moved to 24th and Prospect and it is rumored that Charlie Parker was a notable alumni.  He was also a Lincoln High School alumnus.
It was disheartening to see the beautiful old Attucks building sitting empty, but it would be only the first of many boarded up buildings we would see.  Steve described 18th street as being akin to an old Warner Brother’s cartoon.  Remember the old Wile E. Coyote cartoons where he would spray paint a horizon or a scene and whomever was chasing him would go crashing into it?  Those are the cartoons I’m referring to.  There is an entire block of storefronts painted to look like they are the old historic district, but there are no stores occupying them.  There are blocks of apartments with “for rent” signs up in the windows, and I counted at least 3 boarded up churches in the area. 
The saving grace of the old 18th and Vine historic district are the museums, which we toured and really enjoyed, but I left feeling like we had only begun to discover the deep history of the area.  I wanted to know more about the original shops and restaurants and the people who founded the area – not just the brief description we got in the Horace M. Peterson visitor’s center and gallery.  I wanted to know about the place that people would often compare to New York’s 52nd Street.  Where is the “…community full of spirit, diversity, and an incredible hub of commerce, culture and entertainment…” as the visitor’s guide touts?
According to the Jazz District Revitalization Corporation, “When the 18th & Vine District was at its peak, Kansas City was strictly segregated, African American homes and businesses traditionally sat north of 27th Street and east of Troost Avenue.  When desegregation occurred in the mid-1960’s, many residents moved to other neighborhoods.  Because of segregation, 18th & Vine became a self-contained, self-sufficient community. Black-owned business ranged from law offices to accounting firms to dentins – even the first African-American owned car dealership in the U.S.”
I realize that much time has passed, but for the amount of money that was put into the area for revitalization ($81 million according to the Downtown Kansas City Council), I had hoped to see more.  I wanted to see an area thriving with people, shops and things to do – and what I saw were a lot of businesses that didn’t make it, closed up storefronts, lifeless streets, and the fa├žade of a neighborhood that just doesn’t exist anymore.  While the experience we had at the Negro Leagues and the Jazz Museums was both interesting and educational, I was disappointed that we didn’t also find a neighborhood thriving once again. Probably one-time visitors such as myself have a lot to do with that.  It made me wish the people of Kansas City (myself included) would embrace the rich, fascinating history that is right at our doorstep.  Maybe then we would be able to claim responsibility for something positive instead of having to watch another failed restoration project in our city.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I'm with stupid...

I’ve always prided myself a bit on pointing out the stupidity of others.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m better. Well. Okay, maybe I do.  But mostly I just feel like God gave me a knack for spotting ridiculousness.  Tonight I was telling Steve and Kelley about some things that happened to me today and I suggested that some people are naturally talented at things like, maybe singing, dancing, or coming up with a haiku on a whim.  Personally, while I might be really bad at sports and say, not spending all my money in one place (sorry, Dad), I am really good at a few select things: laughing, writing, drinking and…pointing out ignorance. Today gave me plenty of opportunity to do the latter.
What I’m saying is this: if the X-Men suddenly appeared in Kansas City needing help, the situation would go as follows: “Hey! Hero UP! What is your super power?” And the answers from others will vary: “I have sharp claws, I can teleport myself, I have a radioactive dog who can sniff out bad guys…” (Is it clear that I’ve fallen victim to the Super Hero Squad?) My answer? “Um...well. I am good at matching my clothes, I can name that tune in three notes or less, AND...I am fantastic at pointing out stupidity”.  And really? Isn’t that more helpful than sharp claws? Really. I’m not sure it will help me save the world, but I can certainly weed out the idiots who are collectively bringing us down on our way there.
Last night we were watching “Glorious Funniest Videos” – or what the layperson might call “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (we dance to a different tune at this house) and finally I looked over at Steve and told him I felt badly because really, the only thing funny about the show was that we were laughing at other people’s misfortunes.  They should call that show “America’s Biggest Dumbasses Who Didn’t See That Crotch Shot Coming” or “Seriously, What Is Wrong With You People???” The more people falling off of bikes and getting slapped in the face the better, I say.  It’s like Darwinism with a whiffle ball bat to the groin. My children love this show, and I am secretly thrilled that they like it so much because I feel like I might be passing down to them my need to laugh at morons.  I mean, really? Is there anything better?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

if I were a boy...or a girl with some junk

I might or might not have had a little wine tonight, but I was on my way home and in my CD player was something Steve made for the girls. On the CD was a Beyonce song called “If I Were a Boy.”  Twice today I’ve listened to this song and on the way home tonight I was a bit more attentive and I got all up in arms about it.  I’m a girl and am the mother of two girls and I do NOT want my girls to listen to songs like this and get any crazy ideas.  First of all, how come you have to be a boy to roll out of bed and throw on whatever you want to wear? I’m pretty sure I do that every day.  I know I might not be the typical lady, but for the love of God, teaching girls that they need to be all dolled up to leave the house is absurd.  Maybe I embrace my sweats a bit too much, but give me a break.  Then, Beyonce sings that if she were a boy, she’d put herself first because the girl would be faithful. What the WHAT? Come the hell on, people. I know I’m an old lady and I’ve had my share of dumb boy experiences, but this song is officially off limits – no matter how catchy and fun it is to belt out at the top of my lungs after a little tiny bit of wine. 
Seriously, though. I have two sweet baby girls and I will say this – no one did me the favor of telling me it was okay to be strong and cute at the same time. It took me a lot of years to figure that out on my own. Oh, but I did. I was told to be smart and…well. I’m pretty sure I was told to save my money and to not flash anyone.  It’s probably sad that Beyonce Knowles has given me a little push to teach my children how NOT to be. Oh, Mrs Jay Z, your song makes me want to siiiiiing…but not about being a ridiculous pushover.

Friday, April 9, 2010

the best ship of all is friendship

Today I had lunch and hung out with one of my dearest friends in the world.  She has a five-month-old baby and we hadn’t seen each other very much since the baby, (or my babies, for that matter!) it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to hang out on a regular basis.  We lived together for a few years before I met Steve, and by far she’s the best roommate I’ve ever had – and I miss sharing her closet and her bed.  Before you jump to conclusions – go head, jump, why don’t you? – I’m a huge slob and when my bed was too covered in clothes, I would go sleep in Julie’s room.  I still ask her if she’d like to spoon every chance I get.
We were sitting on my front stoop talking and watching my girls get along for once in their lives, and I started thinking about the best kinds of friendships.  The ones where you don’t see each other for four months, but you talk as if not one day has passed.  The best friends are the ones who are friends regardless of your finances, your weight, or the fact that you would some days choose wine and cheese over your family.   A true friend will love you for all of those things and will not pass judgment when you talk about your marriage, your job or, when, in the middle of lunch, your daughter announces that her “butt is like garbage.” 
Our lives have changed immensely from our days at the LaBobbi, which was the name of our apartment complex – and also the entire reason we chose to live there.  We no longer have the luxury of time in our friendship. Time to shop, time to sleep, time to decide over brunch to get a tattoo that day, or even time to fight over who got the couch and who got stuck with the big chair during lazy Saturday afternoon TV marathons.  What hasn’t changed throughout the years are the things that matter the most – oh, and also that if I asked Julie to sleep in her bed, I’m certain she would scoot over for me. Her husband? I’m not so sure.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

his eye is on the sparrow and mine is on everything else

This morning I attended the funeral of a coworker’s mother.  During the service, the minister talked about death being life’s one true common denominator, and while that is certainly true, I also think it is true that death is something people deal with in a million different ways.  I don’t like funerals – maybe because the ones I’ve attended have all seemed so stuffy and regimented to me.  I’m just going to say this, there is not really any PC way to do it, so I’ll just put it out there – white people, in my experience, tend to think of funerals as a part of the grieving process, and therefore, they are sad, weighty, terrible events – never really celebrations of life, even if that is how we think of them. 
This funeral, in a room filled to capacity with African Americans of all ages, shapes and sizes, had its sad and solemn moments, but was mostly a great celebration of a long life well spent.  I sat there watching and listening to this event in awe; I was so taken by the way these people turned to God in their moment of great need.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m not hugely religious, I am what one might consider a religious bystander.  I grew up in a church and I can recite scripture, prayers and I know a handful of hymns by heart.  I am interested in the history of Christianity and other religions and scripture and the Bible are intriguing to me.  But I have problems with organized religion in general – problems that I won’t go into for various reasons…mostly because, try as I might, I can’t put them into words that would make sense to anyone but myself.
What I took away from this funeral is that there is more than this life. But this was a group of people who knew this already and seemed to have a faith and an understanding of God’s love that spanned generations and generations.  I love the idea that it doesn’t matter what your faith looks like, how you come to your faith, or how it comes to you. You don’t put a suit and tie or a flashy dress on your faith to dress it up every Sunday so people might think you are someone you are not.  The lesson today was that death is the thing we all share in life – the common denominator, and there is no time like the present to consider this notion.  The woman I attended the service with lost her husband very suddenly and tragically several years ago and is raising her two sons by herself.  I admire and respect her more than just about anyone I know, and after I got home, I began thinking about how she and I must have heard the same words at the funeral very differently today.  It made me think about how our individual experiences shape faith more than just about anything else.
Probably the best part of the service (I know that sounds crass, but there really was a best part to this funeral) was the little old lady sitting several rows up from us – whom we later learned was the sister of the deceased.  This woman was VOCAL and praised the Lord every chance she got.  At one point, the minister was quoting a verse from Matthew and he paused, and she finished the verse for him!  It was such a moment for me – that this little tiny thing KNEW the exact verse, and that she stepped up to finish the scripture for the minister.  It was amazing and I’m glad I went today, it was definitely an experience I won’t soon forget.