Pros: rich history; beautifully restored buildings, interesting artifacts and culture
Cons: buildings still left undeveloped
Kansas City, Missouri is my hometown. If you have read my other reviews, you will note that I talk a great deal about the restaurants, family hot spots, and shopping in our fare city. And although it is true that Kansas City is known for good food and great entertainment, you don't often hear about the rich African American history that has graced our city for centuries.
Too often when travelers think of Kansas City, they automatically assume it is nothing but flat lands with acres and acres of wheat or corn, with little else to offer. In the state of Missouri, it is true that we have our share of farm country with glorious crops and livestock, but unless you are visiting the outskirts of Kansas City, you can bet you won't see cattle crossing the downtown streets.
Our city is host to a thriving black community with a culture and history all their own. In recent years, an investment of over 27 million dollars has been laid out to develop and restore that history. After films like Altman's 'Kansas City' hit the big screen, the city was eager to develop that area as a tourist attraction and rightly so. With new attractions and much-needed facelifts to the decaying buildings, the 18th and Vine area has become an area that any city would be proud to slap on the cover of a brochure.
I invite you to take a tour with me of some of the unique offerings available to travelers that want to learn about the African American culture and the part their community played in making Kansas City one of the more diverse cities in the United States.
The historical 18th & Vine district is home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the African American Museum, and to the Gem Theater. Admittedly, at one time this area of town was not one that was frequented by most residents and certainly not an area that anyone would suggest to visitors of our city but that has changed since the development, making this one of the highlights on anyone's travel agenda.
In years past, the 18th & Vine district was a Mecca for black entertainment and commerce. During the 1930's, it was the hub for jazz greats like Count Basie and Charlie Parker to stop and play at one of 120 clubs offered in the area at the time. Jazz expert, Claude "Fiddler" Williams, "Kansas City was the center for entertainment and commerce for points North, West, and South. This was a railroad hub, so if you wanted to get to points West you had to come through Kansas City. And there was a lot of prosperity here, even during the darkest days of the Depression." Prohibition and gambling laws were basically ignored by ciy officials, making this a thriving commerce for clubs and taverns. The district from 12th street to 18th street and Vine was known as the "Paris of the Plains", the sin capital of the Midwest. According to Chuck Haddix, jazz archivist, "There was a red light district on 14th Street. And the prostitutes used to--the ladies of the night used to lounge in these storefront windows in lingerie and tap nickels on the glass to attract the patrons."
Mr. Haddix believes that it was during WWII that the reform of the city took place and changed the face of that district forever. During that time "reformers" took over the city and started a clean up effort, which included shutting down many of the clubs. Musicians were unable to travel due to "a shortage of gasoline and also rubber used in tires". The district was no longer a portal for entertainment and soon became run down, leaving many businesses to die with it.
Regardless, the 18th & Vine district is once again a beautiful landmark and memorial to those that graced our city with their musical talents and contributions to our rich heritage.
There are numerous attractions in the 18th & Vine district, with more improvements on the way. The Gem Theater originally opened its doors in 1912 as a movie theater for the black community. Today the theater is restored and the neon sign glows with pride in the night, taunting passerbys to enter the doors and gasp at the beauty that awaits you inside. The Gem Theater is no longer a movie theater but instead offers a contemporary performing arts center with technologically advanced sound and lighting for musical and theatrical performances. The Gem is also available to the community for special events, meetings, and performances by local groups at reasonable rental rates.
Just a block away at 17th & Vine is a bronze memorial statue to jazz great, Charlie "Bird" Parker. Sculptor, Robert Graham, created an amazing tribute to this legend in the Charlie Parker Memorial Plaza. Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, but because his career was based across the river on the Missouri side, our city felt the jazz district wouldn't be complete without paying homage to those that made it what it is.
Inside the Horace M. Peterson III Visitor Center, is the American Jazz Museum. Here you will find well documented and attractively displayed artifacts from the jazz era in Kansas City. There is the Blue Room, which offers a glimpse into the past with displays of original artifacts and images lining the walls of jazz greats that were present in our city. With video technology, you can view performances by the likes of Fats "Your Feets Too Big" Waller and Billie Holiday, just to name a few. The Blue Room is transformed into a working jazz club a few days a week, where you can stop to have a cocktail while listening to historic performances from some of the great musicians from the past.
When touring the Visitor Center, you will also want to visit the Changing Gallery, which is an art gallery displaying the artistic genius of Palmer C. Hayden, a Harlem Renaissance artist. One of the most notable pieces in the collection is 'Midsummer Nigh in Harlem'. Granted, this is just my opinion and if that piece doesn't grab you then there are close to 40 other paintings by this artist for your viewing pleasure.
Another must-see for tourists and residents alike is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, opened in 1991 as a tribute to the Negro baseball players that made sports history. The Negro Baseball League was started when Andrew Foster, a former player and manager for the Chicago American Giants, met with seven other Midwest team owners in Kansas City to form the Negro National League.
The Museum has stunning exhibits including a "Field of Legends" sculpture, which is simply awesome. There are 12 life size bronze sculptures of some of the greatest players the league history. If you can pull yourself away from this display, there are film and interactive exhibits of player greats like Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neil, and Josh Gibson as well as league history from the 1860's to the 1950's. The league started a steady decline to their end in the 1960's.
Before ending your visit to the 18th & Vine district, you will have certainly worked up an appetite so absorb a little more of Kansas City's history while sinking your teeth into some of the most amazing Barbecue available in the area at Arthur Bryants, located at 1727 Brooklyn. Bryants definitely earns the term, 'BBQ joint', with its simple decor including covered metal framed tables with matching red vinyl backed chairs, the assembly line ordering system, and the employees that operate the restaurant. While standing in line, you will notice a plaque featuring one of the employees that has worked at Bryants for over 60 years. Along another wall are dozens of framed photos of famous patrons to the restaurant including former President Jimmy Carter.
There is no menu, just a lighted sign on the wall featuring brisket, pork, ham, or turkey sandwiches, ribs, and other tasty items. Don't let the massive line of waiting customers scare you off, the employees behind the glass move quickly to stack your sandwiches high with tender meats and sauce that literally drips over the sides of the bread. They certainly don't skimp on the meat and if you didn't get enough sauce the first time through, you can use the bottles provided at the table. The sauce is certainly unique and either you like it or you don't so most veterans of the restaurant suggest you tell them to hold the sauce and sample from the table bottles, in your choice of original or spicy. The sauce is also excellent for dipping your hot, greasy french fries.
The total bill for a combo sandwich, a short end plate of ribs, fries, and two drinks was just under $25.00. Bryants has been hailed as "The single best restaurant in the world!", by New York Times food critic Calvin Trillin.
Whether you are interested in sports, jazz history, fine foods, or just touring historical areas, the 18th & Vine district of Kansas City offers a little bit of everything.
In this review, I have only touched on a few of the main attractions to the area but there is so much more to see and do in this historical area.
You will learn about baseball greats, jazz giants, and African Americans that changed the face of Kansas City and made the 18th & Vine district a historical landmark.
Kansas City is my hometown and I was thrilled to share some of the lesser-known areas with readers.
Resources and Links of Interest
Swing City, 1997, Public Broadcasting System at http://www.pbs.org/
Black Archives at http://www.blackarchives.org/
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at http://www.nlbm.com/
Kansas City Jazz Age at http://www.kcjazzage.com/
This review is part of a Hometown Write Off hosted by Phineaskc (me). Please take a moment to visit the reviews of these other participants:
fallyn96 | mom2tyzick | imames | debbie26 | tazzyfoxy | jro26 |tchoate | disartain | marytara | kuuleimomi | mom2girlz | jo.com | ggrimes1221 | phineaskc | mshooterville | ainsleyjo | elzora | bmcnichol | whitty | fostrmom2mny