On a Sunday morning around the corner from Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue, we found things understandably quiet on 18th and Vine. The historic 18th and Vine District in downtown Kansas City is long recognized as an incubator for a distinctive form of blues-based jazz. The 18th and Vine District is also a downtown Kansas City African-American cultural center. As such, it is home to a diverse number of attractions: the Black Chamber of Commerce, the Black Economic Union, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the American Jazz Museum, the Gem Theater and the Blue Room Jazz Club. In the light of day, an 18th and Vine District visitor’s overall impression is not only of what once was, but of what could have been. Urban renewal has been underway here for quite some time, but falls short of the mark.
Historically, the business of entertainment manifested in the 18th and Vine District through several eras. The neighborhood’s heyday began in the 1920’s when the local Pendergast political machine was lax toward Prohibition-related activity. Flourishing juke joints, dance halls and nightclubs were home to musicians with a syncopated jazz style that had elements of blues and ragtime. The district thrived well into the 1950’s, and then succumbed, victim to black suburban flight, musicians migrating to bigger markets, and the advent of the freeway system, which sectioned downtown Kansas City less organically. Urban renewal for Kansas City took a back seat to projects such as Crown Center and Country Club Plaza.
Current critics of urban renewal in downtown Kansas City often compare efforts with the 18th and Vine District to those associated with the Kansas City Power & Light District. This is probably unfair. Power & Light received about $500 million vs. the $70 million 18th and Vine did. The Jazz Redevelopment Corporation, while committed to a “memorable experience for all who live, work or visit” there, acknowledges the need for “private investment in order to complete the rest of the district, attract new tenants and take the district to its next phase.” The next phase seems fairly elusive to some.
The 18th and Vine District is Kansas City’s ticket to the big leagues of tourism, but it’s treated like a minor leaguer with a bad back. – Tyren Rushing, in “Don’t Overlook 18th and Vine: Why Kansas City should Cherish its Jazz District” – UMKC’s University Newspaper
Residents and business owners alike attribute the District’s failure to thrive on scattershot urban renewal which leaves abandoned buildings and vacant storefronts contributing to an overall impression of blight. District marketing has been targeted toward the historical aspects while neglecting its potential as an entertainment destination in downtown Kansas City. The unfinished quality is palpable. Positioning 18th and Vine with the likes of Beale Street in Memphis, Maxwell Street in Chicago or Frenchmen Street in New Orleans would be an easier marketing task if there were a more comprehensive urban renewal structure incorporating taxable entities into the business mix.
It is the most significant historic black neighborhood in Kansas City. During the Jim Crow era of Kansas City history, blacks boycotted shops downtown and began to practice self-sufficiency by shopping primarily at 18th and Vine. This is the block where the Negro League was founded in 1920, where Prohibition never existed under Thomas Pendergast’s reign over Jackson County and where Charlie Parker mastered the saxophone. – Tyren Rushing
If you’re visiting Kansas City, you’ll want to check out 18th and Vine. Listen and see with the past in mind, celebrate the remaining authenticity and try to overlook the intrusion of the present.