When Kansas Citians talk about the Crossroads Arts District, they're talking about a bustling place full of innovative restaurants, vibrant art galleries, a world-class performing arts center and specialty boutiques, not to mention high-rent condos.
During prime-time, it's got all the parking congestion of a big-city destination.
But when people talked about the Crossroads in the 1980s, well ... they just didn't. Nobody even knew it had a name.
"The neighborhood had been kind of lost," recalls John O'Brien on KCUR's Central Standard. He opened one of the first galleries in the area. "It wasn't really considered downtown for many many years."
O'Brien discovered that the district was called the Crossroads at a businessmen's luncheon he attended at Hereford House in the early 1990s. He'd just moved his framing shop and gallery, known as The Dolphin, to a deserted stretch of Baltimore. The businessmen at the luncheon consisted of a handful of old-timers running the few businesses that remained in a mostly abandoned neighborhood. The minutes from a previous session were labeled The Crossroads Businessmen's Neighborhood Association. Which is how O'Brien learned the name of the gritty little district he'd moved into.
It was ceramicist and Kansas City Art Institute professor Jim Leedy who single-handedly started the neighborhood's transformation from ghost town to artsy destination. He came to Kansas City to teach in the 1960s and was troubled to learn that there was no place in town for artists to live and show their work, and therefore no reason for his students to stay in town after graduation.
So in the 1980s, he went looking for a neighborhood where he might be able to change that. He considered Westport, but the rent got too high. One day, while out driving, he stumbled upon the Crossroads.
"It was blighted. All the old buildings were warehoused or closed down," he recalls.
He started by purchasing one run-down building, dirt cheap.
"I didn't have money to hire people, so I renovated it myself," Leedy explains.
He opened a gallery on the ground level and put studios in the building, figuring rent from the studios would pay his mortgage and electricity.
"It worked," he says now, sounding almost surprised by his own good luck. "I finished one studio and someone would move in. Then I started another one, and someone else would move in."
Encouraged by evidence of demand, he kept going. He also started buying up other buildings and selling them to fellow artists without jacking up the price. He didn't make any money off of the deals; the whole point was to get something started.
John O'Brien was one of the first people to join Leedy in fulfilling his dream.
He'd been curating salon-style art shows in restaurants. He also ran an oddities shop on 39th Street. It was time to expand. The city was developing an arts district in the City Market, and offered O'Brien free rent and relocation assistance to move there. But the second he stepped into Jim Leedy's studio and heard about his vision, he fell in love.
"I walked in and felt like I was in a shrine or temple," he recalls.
"I had to sign a lease, build my own space out, put my own air in and move myself, but it was the right thing. It felt freer."
For a while, it was a scene filled with rugged individuals who liked being on the edges. Town Topic was the only place nearby for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. The freighthouse building, now home to Lidia's and Grunauer, stood empty; O'Brien recalls the fire marshall saying he didn't care if it burned down.
The handful of galleries that sprung up on the block between 19th and 20th on Baltimore each did their own thing. They threw parties and hosted art shows, often on the first Friday of a month, but not every month. The schedule was irregular. Revelers-in-the-know drank beer in gravel alleys and on loading docks.
O'Brien remembers people calling him up and asking if he was going to have an art opening that month. It bugged him. He didn't like expectations or formalities. Artists did things on their own terms.
It took the 9/11 terrorist attacks to shake him out of that, and help him see the opportunity those phone calls represented.
"It was a really scary time for those of us who had businesses," he says. "I remember looking out the window and thinking 'I need to hang on, I can't be the first to be knocked down.' I thought, 'We're all individuals, we like doing our own thing and not being told what to do,' but I had this idea that we should all band together."
So he hosted a meeting, made a pot of coffee and set out some donuts. And he told his fellow gallery owners that they could die alone, or they could try to get organized. The first official First Friday was the following March. Each subsequent event was bigger than the last.
Nobody involved had any idea just how big the event would become, or how many people it would introduce to the neighborhood.
In the early years of First Fridays, when the neighborhood was still deserted most of the time, then jam-packed one night a month, there were some tensions and some growing pains.
"I always had young artists work at the Dolphin, and when First Fridays started, they remembered the days before and they were like, 'This is garbage, this is commercial.' It took a little bit of time and then those younger artists, it became their history, so they claimed it and owned it."
And with the higher profile of the neighborhood came concerns about artists getting priced out of the district they'd created.
"Artists want space to work and the ability to connect with an audience," says architect David Dowell, of el dorado, inc., a firm that set up shop in the Crossroads back in the 1990s. "Because of the natural evolution of the neighborhood and the pace, which was relatively slow, a lot of artists were able to get a foothold."
Both O'Brien and Dowell credit Kansas City's PIEA, or Public Industrial Expansion Authority, with helping artists to maintain a significant presence in the district. The program has given developers an incentive to fill their renovated buildings with artists and other creative professionals.
The neighborhood's pioneers welcome the increased scale and complexity of more recent projects, like the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, because they represent ambition.
"The Crossroads is, in my opinion, the most active, dynamic and complex organism in Kansas City that is working toward defining this idea of potential, a place we all want," says Dowell.
But O'Brien cautions against believing the job of establishing this neighborhood is complete.
"We need to be really smart and really careful as we move forward to try to maintain what we have and continue building on what we have because it can be very fragile and it can disappear," he says. "If you make a mistake, you can't get it back."
KCUR freelance contributor Andrea Tudhope interviewed Jim Leedy for this story.