This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was first reported in March 2015.
On First Fridays, the Crossroads Arts District attracts a crowd to an area transformed into a mecca for artist studios, galleries, restaurants, and shops. Just about a mile away, it’s a little quieter. But the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District has cultural amenities of its own, such as the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Efforts are underway to link the two districts along 18th Street.
Bridging the "disconnect"
Just after 10 a.m. on a Friday, there’s a line at Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters in the East Crossroads. It's mostly 20-somethings, millennials — such as Michael Schmidt, a fifth-year senior in landscape architecture at Iowa State University, who grew up in Olathe, Kan.
"There’s not a big connection from Olathe to downtown, so I didn’t spend a lot of time here growing up," Schmidt says. "But I heard about the Crossroads and visited the Vine for field trips, something a suburbs kid would do."
Schmidt says he gained a new perspective on Kansas City through an internship. The experience living downtown also inspired a project, with classmate Andrew Smith, called 18th Street Reimagined.
"The idea came when I was going to a show in the Blue Room downtown with my family, and we were just driving from the Crossroads down to the Vine on 18th Street," Schmidt says. "And we just noticed a disconnect, or I did, as I was looking out the window."
The Crossroads Arts District grew organically over the last few decades through the influence, and influx, of artists. 18th and Vine is the city's historic center of African-American culture and commerce. But, says Schmidt, there are more parking lots than buildings in the blocks in between.
"As landscape architects, we want to encourage pedestrian use of the street and walking and public transit and biking," says Schmidt. "So those are a lot of the elements that we’re trying to bring to the site."
The students sought input from community leaders and city officials, such as Jeffrey Williams, Kansas City's new director of city planning and development. Williams says his team provided data and historical perspective.
"Their physical recommendations look at 18th Street ... from the perspective of a livable street, a complete street," Williams says. "Their work is building upon some of those past (city) plans, but moving it forward."
A long one-mile walk
"We do have a big island, or a vacuum between the two districts," says Jacob Wagner, associate professor of architecture, urban planning and design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "It's just like a blank wall, for four or five blocks."
On a recent cold and windy morning, Wagner ducked into a doorway just across from the historic Lincoln Building, three stories of businesses in the 18th and Vine jazz district.
"I think there could be a few more key blocks that need to be done between 18th and Vine and the Crossroads that could really connect the two districts," he says.
"The Crossroads has been moving towards the east and there’s more activity, so you kind of have to have both districts reaching out towards each other. And I think there are younger people now who are the connectors."
But solidifying that connection takes time.
It was almost a decade ago that Wagner invited landscape architect Walter Hood to also explore 18th Street. In 2007, Hood worked with teams of students in a two-day charrette, generating dozens of ideas, reasons to stop along the corridor.
"When Walter Hood came here, he basically said, 'You know, it’s a really long one-mile walk,'" Wagner says.
Rekindling the "old connectivity"
David Ford has walked — or marched — this stretch every year, for more than 15 years, on Mardi Gras. An artist and owner of YJ's Snackbar in the Crossroads, Ford is also a central figure in the arts community’s Carnival season, its costume balls, parades, and camaraderie.
On Mardi Gras, krewes decked in feathers and beads stroll at dawn from the West Side to the Crossroads, and march in the evening from the Crossroads to 18th and Vine.
"And that night is just about – it’s a long way and are you ready?" says Ford. "It’s a long way. I mean it’s less than a mile from Broadway and Vine, and it’s a symbol of connectivity in our city … banker, real estate agent, or an artist, right?"
Ford says there’s a natural affinity between the two districts.
"These (musicians) are some of the great abstract expressionists that came out of 18th and Vine," says Ford. "If I go to a great jazz show, and I leave before the second set, it’s because I want to go home and paint, because they’ve just inspired me. This is an old connectivity."
The festivities continue on Mardi Gras in the streets of 18th and Vine and in the Blue Room.
"Symbolically, it’s a wonderful connector, it’s a great connector for communities of people, for communities of arts to come together and celebrate," says American Jazz Museum CEO Greg Carroll, who adds that this connection shouldn't just happen once a year.
"There’s some residuals that are coming out of here. One is that some folks are talking, it’s good, they’re talking. Now, there’s been a lot of talk."
That talk is being turned into ideas. Student Michael Schmidt says they’re in the thick of things now, in the design phase of the 18th Street project. They’re drafting possible anchors, like a green space in the middle where art and music can come together — a welcoming place between the Crossroads and 18th and Vine.
This story 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. Become a source for KCUR as we investigate Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.