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 façade 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.