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39th Street Corridor Enjoys Benefits Of KU Med Growth

Laura Ziegler

Right before James “Jimmy” Bowers died in 1995, his local dive, Jimmy's Jigger, was bought by a local restaurateur who converted it to a New Orleans-style food and drink joint called Jazz. The company preserved the booze-soaked wooden floor and bar and brought in live music seven nights a week.

Like "The Jigger," as it was called, Jazz remains a hangout for staff and students from KU Medical Center across State Line.

Jazz manager Marty Elton says the relationship with the hospital always has been — and continues to be — essential.

“Here in about 45 minutes I got a group of about 20 teachers and students coming over,” Elton says. “I treat ‘em to a pitcher of beer and some food so they can relax after a hard month of trying to figure out how to fix people.”

A gregarious bear of a man, Elton says he never knows who’s eating or drinking at The Jigger, so he goes out of his way to be a friend to everyone.

“Six months ago a man came in with a baby sticker on his jacket,” he says. He got to talking with the man and learned his baby was born prematurely – weighing a pound and a half. 

“The man came in every day after that. That baby eventually got healthy and went home, but everyone’s story doesn’t turn out so well,” Elton says.

Down the street, Lisa McKenzie has managed the Blue Koi Chinese restaurant almost since it opened on 39th Street in 2002. She can’t say what percentage of her patrons are Med Center staff, students, or visitors, but she knows it’s high.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR
Lisa McKenzie, manger at Blue Koi, is grateful the Medical Center brings business in all day long.

On a recent afternoon, the restaurant is pretty quiet. There are, however, diners at a few tables. McKenzie says she attributes most middle-of-the-afternoon business to the proximity to the Med Center.

“At a time like this when others might be struggling to get customers in,” McKenzie says, “we don’t’ have to worry. For us it’s a steady stream.”

Patrons from the Med Center — as well as the many who come from around the metro — have a wide range of choices on 39th Street. It's known as an enclave of excellent ethnic cuisine. There’s sushi, barbeque, Indian, and Mediterranean. Of course, there’s also good old-fashioned American.

But the corridor is known as more than a restaurant row. 

Former Kansas City Star reporter Jeffrey Spivak in a 1993 piece called the area a “purveyor of new-age hippiedom.”

Indeed, you can find places to buy crystals and other Holistic health necessities, practice Bikrim Yoga, get used books or used clothes or a tattoo.

Mr. Z’s In and Out corner store sells cigarettes and alcohol along with your basic food staples. It's been there for three decades, and like practicly all the shops, it's local.

Amanda McGee, executive director of the West 39th Street Community Improvement District, says of the 91 businesses along the corridor, the only non-local ones are Starbucks and Chipotle.

“We have a great relationship with KU," McGee says. "We just want to make it better. We both have things to do.” Among them  she lists street improvements, street signs and landscaping.  

"Anything that would make it seem less like 'us and them,'” she says

The hospital administration says it's on board, and has been working with the neighborhood to resolve differences.

“The 39th Street Corridor (provides) wonderful amenities to those working on the main campus and adds an ambiance that is an aid to recruiting,” says hospital spokesman Dennis McCulloch.

This look at Missouri and Kansas is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders  and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences on the state line with KCUR.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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