As private money pours into 18th and Vine, residents worry about a ‘plastic Disneyland'
Kansas City and private investors are finally starting big redevelopment efforts in the Historic 18th and Vine district, after years of fits and starts. But locals worry that these new projects may come at the cost of its current residents and historic legacy.
“You can't avoid the fact of its uniqueness,” declares Joey Thomas, sitting inside 18OV Barber Salon. “When it comes to 18th and Vine, it’s more than just entertainment.”
Thomas has run 18OV on Vine Street since 2013, leasing a space in the Lincoln Building with around 40 other businesses. On a recent Saturday afternoon, gentle soul music flows out of a speaker, blending with the hum of electric razors inside.
From his barber's chair, Thomas has witnessed how Kansas City has attempted, again and again, to build the Historic 18th and Vine district back to its former glory. East of Troost, business loans and funding have long been barricaded behind racism, redlining, and misperceptions about the area.
Thomas finally sees a shifting landscape, but it’s too early to say whether it will be a positive one.
“18th and Vine is changing,” Thomas acknowledges. “18th and Vine possibly will have a new face that some might not agree with.”
Kansas City officials hoped that the American Jazz Museum, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Gem Theater would serve as starting points for the district’s revitalization. But that transformation never arrived — after the late ‘90s, little progress has been made in wiping away decades of Black flight, crumbling storefronts and abandoned lots.
Only now is money really starting to flow into the district. But Thomas says it’s not necessarily available for anyone.
“A lot of stakeholders down here,” Thomas says. “They wanted to have the opportunity to invest, whether that be, buy buildings that's available, land that's available. But it was so unclear as to what was available.”
In 2019, Thomas ran for the District 3 seat in City Council hoping to have a larger role in the neighborhood’s development. He remains skeptical of what this outside investment will bring.
“The leadership of 18th and Vine is so unclear,” he says. “The long term plan for 18th and Vine is so unclear. What is the goal of 18th and Vine?”
‘They don’t wanna see this done wrong’
Within a quarter mile of Thomas’ barbershop, private developers are investing in the renovation of the Boone Theater, Attucks School, Wheatley-Provident Hospital and the former Public Works building. Ground is set to break on an 80-unit apartment complex just south of the barbershop.
And earlier this month, the Kansas City Council signed off on a $23 million plan to develop the 1800 block of Vine into a mixed commercial and residential space.
“We're farther than anybody has gotten in the last two-plus decades,” says Kelvin Simmons, who’s a co-developer behind two projects slated in the district.
Simmons says that, for the first time in decades, something is finally going up in the Jazz District instead of coming down.
For residents, though, this raises red flags — concerns about gentrification and displacement, and rising costs that could push out the people who’ve lived here for years.
Simmons says he and his business partners hear those worries and appreciate them.
“That's what makes it so difficult,” Simmons says. “When you're hearing the neighbors and you're hearing the community talk about their fears, they don't wanna see this done wrong.”
Simmons says he recognizes that they can’t return this historic community to its former self — but what they can do, he hopes, is to make the Jazz District both a destination and a livable community.
“This is jazz. This is baseball,” Simmons says. “This is African American culture and it's big, but when you get there, it’s small. And so you're trying to, you know, craft something that the world needs to see.”
Mario Vasquez is the project manager for Kansas City’s Public Works Department. To make the area viable for more development, Vasquez says the city needs to make upgrades — lighting, sidewalks, water mains, street surfaces and sewers — which has the potential to disrupt people’s daily lives.
“It's not like if you go out to the suburbs, for example, you build a nice commercial district,” he says. “Easy to do, because you don't have to worry about anybody else, but that's not the case here.”
Instead, Vasquez has to balance the different needs of investors, city staff and lawmakers, local business owners and residents, who all have a stake in the district’s past, present and future.
“The intent is always to try to find consensus where everybody can be in agreement that what is being proposed is the benefit of all involved,” he says.
Revitalization for whom?
KCUR has been holding community forums in the Jazz District with residents and business owners, to hear their feelings about these recent changes. Many of them told us that they crave a sustainable neighborhood with a variety of shops and services.
“A grocery store, a pharmacy, maybe even a medical office or two,” says Marvin Goode. “Those types of things because a lot of people that live in this building don’t have transportation.”
Goode has lived in Vine Street Manor — a senior retirement community south of the intersection of 18th and Vine — for four years.
He’s also personally experienced the long arc of this neighborhood: He attended school at Lincoln Senior High School (now Lincoln Preparatory Academy), and used to play basketball at a nearby gym that’s since gone out of business. As a young man, he was a frequent visitor to the many juke joints that used to dot the Jazz District.
“I think the area is in need, and has been, of an uplift or a revitalization,” Goode says, “but I hope it’s not at the cost of the individuals who still live in this area.”
Some of that uplift may be coming soon. At 2000 Vine Street, up the road from Goode’s retirement community, crews are scrambling around the former public works building, remodeling it into office spaces and the city’s first Black-owned brewery.
The 71-year-old says he’s aware of some of the planned projects because of a meeting years ago at his church, Centennial United Methodist. But other than that, he and others in his complex feel they’ve been left in the dark about the redevelopment happening in their neighborhood — and how that might impact them personally.
“This building could be renovated, torn down, and rebuilt for something else or someone else,” Goode says. “I don’t really know that.”
Sheila Johnson lives a quarter mile north in Basie Court Apartments. She works as a social services director for a property management company that houses senior citizens, many in the Jazz District.
She echoes Thomas’ sentiment that the residents in the neighborhood have little say in the businesses that occupy the area.
“There's also a disconnect between the business owners that are there now and the community,” she says. “They feel like we shouldn't have anything to say about what goes on in our own community because we don't own the properties that we live in.”
Johnson says the private investments are a welcome addition. But her clients remain concerned about crime and violence they see escalating in the void of more diverse businesses.
“Liquor is all around us,” Johnson says. “So we don't need the corner market to necessarily sell liquor.”
And residents fear that developers might change the neighborhood’s historic legacy.
“I've taught my kids, and I teach my grandkids, that our ancestors walked on that ground,” Johnson says. “So that area is sacred ground to us, you know?”
Exactly how to move the district forward, while honoring that sacred ground, is still being hashed out.
“I don't want it to look like some plastic Disneyland creation, or I don't want it to look like someplace in the burbs,” says Leonard Graham, whose firm, Taliaferro & Browne, is partnering with Simmons and St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar Inc. in a redevelopment deal with the city.
Graham says he’s been studying the gentrification issues connected to urban renewal, and he’s committed to hearing the voices of local stakeholders.
“It's gotta look and feel like 18th and Vine,” he says.
That’s one thing that investors, residents and lawmakers all seem to agree on: The Jazz District should be a neighborhood first, and an entertainment center second.
“It seems to me that there's a fine line between trying to revitalize an area and not wipe away its cultural identity,” Graham says. “And that's gonna be a narrow line to walk.”