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Instrument Of Urban Revival: Jazz

K.C. Swings

When it comes to American cultural meccas, Kansas City is not usually the first city that comes to mind.

This sprawling metropolis in the heart of the Wheat Belt is known more for good ribs and a fecundity of public fountains - second most in the world - than for Verdi or Van Gogh.

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But there was a time, back in the heady days of the 1920s and '30s, when this Missouri River town reigned as a colossus of a unique American art form - jazz. At one point, more than 50 night clubs in the fabled 18th and Vine district pulsated with the improvisation of Charlie Parker and Count Basie. Now city officials are hoping to revive the area's unique cultural heritage - and lift the city's provincial profile in the process.

After eight years of planning and political wrangling, a restored 18th and Vine opens today. It will offer the biggest test yet of an emerging idea in urban renewal - building on America's black heritage.

With Memphis's Beale Street, Harlem's growing renaissance, and a new multimillion-dollar jazz club in Oakland, more cities are turning to black culture as a cornerstone for redevelopment. And since almost every major city in the US has a historic black community with an entertainment district, urban experts say Kansas City's 18th and Vine could set an example for others to learn from or duplicate.

"Eighteenth and Vine is clearly one of the pioneers," says John Leith-Tetrault at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. While similar projects are starting to take shape in various parts of the country, so far, Memphis's Beale Street is the only successful re-creation of a historic black entertainment district to precede 18th and Vine, he adds.

The project, founded on the Kansas City's rich African-American history, is centered on a museum complex that will house the Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Led by Mayor Emanual Cleaver, who was a councilman when the project was conceived, the city has spent $24 million to get 18th and Vine going. The idea was to revitalize the area - which, after 50 years of neglect, had become one the the city's roughest neighborhoods - by tapping into two of America's greatest contributions to world culture, jazz and baseball.

"The goal is to bring back the vibrancy of the area," says Pat Jordan, president of the Gem Theater, a reconstructed 1912 movie theater in the heart of the district. "There is a renewed interest in redeveloping the urban core, and this is one of the anchors ... for the redevelopment of the central city."

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How it used to be

In its heyday, Kansas City was a rip-roaring town under the control of political boss Tom Pendergast, and a jazz hotbed. Dozens of night clubs lined 12th and 18th streets, the main commercial avenues in the black part of town. A musician who lived and worked there later described the city as "one long 20-year jam session."

Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker were just a few of the jazz greats who played in the clubs here. But there was more to Kansas City than music.

If the signature blues-based swing was the melody for Kansas City of the 1920s and '30s, then the crack of a baseball bat provided the rhythm. The Negro National League, the first viable league of all-black teams, was founded here in 1920, and the Kansas City Monarchs - Jackie Robinson's club - were an integral part of the black community.

Indeed, church services started an hour earlier on those Sundays when the Monarchs were in town, just so the congregation would be able to get to the ballpark at 18th and Brooklyn.

Buck O'Neil, former player and manager in the Negro American League, remembers the thrill of moving to Kansas City in 1938 to play with the Monarchs. Like most of his unmarried teammates, Mr. O'Neil lived at the Street's Hotel.

"This was the place to stay if you were black, because you couldn't stay in one of the hotels downtown," he says. "It didn't matter how famous you were. I could come down for breakfast and find myself sitting at a table with Cab Calloway or Billy Holiday, Fats Waller or Joe Louis. I met them all. It was an exciting time!"

Roaring '90s

Today's 18th and Vine hopes to tap into that excitement.

While both the jazz and baseball museums will feature informational exhibits, the project planners wanted to make sure there are other things to see and do as well. The museum complex's Blue Room, for example, will showcase authentic Kansas City jazz, performed nightly by local musicians.

"It's the restoration of a 1930s African-American community," says Rowena Stewart, executive director of the 18th and Vine Authority, an entity established by the city to coordinate and oversee the redevelopment effort. "We brought in scholars from all over the world to work on it, We're trying to make education a priority, but we also want it to be fun.... We're looking for an international draw with this."

Some say that may be a bit ambitious. Amid the enthusiasm, the future success of the revitalized district faces some substantial challenges. Foremost among them, many say, is the project's location.

Most of Kansas City's main attractions are located along a lengthy north-south corridor on the west side of town. Many say the 18th and Vine district, several miles east, is too remote and isolated from other areas of interest.

"It can't survive solely on its own," says George Ehrlich, professor emeritus of art history at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, and a specialist in architectural history and urban development. "It has to be part of a citywide awareness that heritage, in the broadest sense, is a tourist attraction."

Overall, though, Mr. Ehrlich is optimistic about the area's prospects. He sees trolleys or other public transportation, with well-publicized, easy to follow routes, as the solution to the problem.

Challenges ahead

Professor McClure, however, is less sanguine on the district's prospects, saying that the effect the project will have on Kansas City's national reputation may be slight. The depressed state of the surrounding neighborhood, coupled with 18th and Vine's remoteness, means that people will have to make a concerted effort to go to the area, he adds.

"When you look at some of these big, major urban revitalization efforts, there has usually been a larger plan," he says, noting that 18th and Vine is off by itself. "It is not part and parcel of some larger plan."

He says one key to the area once again becoming a thriving neighborhood is creating jobs. And "right now, the prospects for bringing new income into the neighborhood are not especially high."

Still, there have been some encouraging developments. Sprint, the telecommunications company based in suburban Kansas City, announced that it would be opening a satellite call center in the district. And Sylvia's Restaurant and House of Soul, based in Harlem, announced that it will open up a restaurant on 18th near Vine.

And McClure is not entirely pessimistic about the district. He says the museums' relatively small size - meaning that they would not have to draw hundreds of thousands to succeed - and the uniqueness of the project are benefits.

"Nobody else can be the birthplace of Kansas City jazz," he says "If they can become the focal point of the jazz scene in Kansas City and if they can develop enough interest in the Negro leagues, then I think they will get the kind of traffic they need."

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