It’s hard to tell the story of Kansas City’s West Bottoms without lapsing into a folksy, fairytale-quiet voice: Once upon a time two rivers met in a place that was both Kansas and Missouri…
Yes, and long ago it was called the French Bottoms because that’s where the French and Native Americans traded.
Two hundred years later, “trade” is one of the newer components being reintroduced to the four square-mile tract that makes up the West Bottoms, about 30 percent of which is in Kansas. Dining is already well-established.
Bruce Holloway, a longtime board member of the Historic West Bottoms Association, says it’s really been in the past five years that the neighborhood has seen an uptick in retail shops. All locally owned.
Many Kansas Citians are aware of a renaissance in that particular area, but not many understand the deeper history. Holloway ticks off the misconceptions: “'It’s dangerous; you can’t find it; you get lost every time you come down here.' Those stigmas are part of what we’re trying to address,” he says, shaking his head.
Holloway (who lives in Brookside) explains that the West Bottoms Association has been around for about 30 years, but it was only four years ago that he and other members lighted on the idea of a West Bottoms Heritage Week.
After an architectural historian gave a presentation about the 12th Street Bridge at one of their meetings, Holloway and the others learned that the bridge would be 100 years old on March 18, 2015. They set about honoring the structure, both its architectural and practical significance, with a celebration.
The first annual event was three years ago, initially called the “12th Street Trafficway Viaduct Centennial.” It consisted of a presentation and a reception.
Building on last year’s “Heritage Week,” this year’s events are much more elaborate, starting with Friday’s music-heavy launch party with Victor and Penny and the Loose Change Orchestra on an outdoor stage at 11th and Hickory.
The festive atmosphere culminates as it did last year, with the Wettest Block Soiree on May 12, named in honor of a geographic bit of history unique to the West Bottoms: Kansas went dry ahead of Prohibition in 1881, but Missouri held out until 1920.
“From State Line east down 9th Street to Genessee, there were 24 saloons out of the 25 buildings. It was known nationally to be the wettest block in the world,” says Karla Deel, head of the Soiree’s planning committee. “There was an elevated street car line — the 9th Street line — and it would end right at 9th and State Line and would dump people out at the foot of this tavern-heavy area.”
Deel wants to capture that period at the Soiree both in the setting she’s chosen — the newly remodeled Mulberry Room at the Oliver building, which was built in 1893 — and by asking that party-goers dress in 1920s garb to the best of their ability.
“You come and transform into a different time,” Deel says. “Everything is going to be right on for that: The music, the lighting, the booze, the environment, is designed to really transport you to the 20s in the West Bottoms.”
Deel (a Crossroads resident) says she wants to “continually shed light” on what’s happening in the West Bottoms.
People who choose to live or work in the neighborhood, she says, enjoy a great deal of freedom to create the space that they desire for any kind of work — stock brokers and artists and other kinds of professionals all work under one roof in buildings such as the Stockyard Exchange on Genessee.
Which also sounds a bit like something from a fairy tale: a diverse group of people working shoulder to shoulder, maybe not toward the same ends but definitely in harmony with respect for each other’s work.
“It’s a bunch of mavericks,” Holloway says, “doing their own thing without much help.”
But the association wants to help where it can. Thus the rest of the Heritage Week activities, including talks by preservationists, architects, artists and entrepreneurs. Most of the events are free (except for the Jazz Ambassadors Fundraiser, a jazz jam session, at The Ship on May 7; a luncheon at Faultless Starch on May 11; and the Wettest Block Soiree).
That array of conversations reflects the once and future West Bottoms.
“It’s never going to be just one thing down here,” Deel says. “It’s never going to get super defined down here. It’ll always be a lot of forces working together."
Anne Kniggendorf’s writing appears regularly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. Follow her @annekniggendorf.