January 10, 2016 04:00 PM
In late December, The Kansas City Star reported that “boosters of Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz District are putting the finishing touches on a wish list of improvements for the City Council to consider in January.” That was for $7 million. Twelve days later the Star reported that number had increased to $18 million. As if to punctuate the absurdity of the proposal, the Star quoted U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver as saying, “18th and Vine is the third most recognized street in the U.S., after Broadway in New York and Hollywood Boulevard.” 

This marks just the latest effort to throw millions of taxpayer dollars for a product that so far no one wants. Cleaver’s original effort to build something at 18th and Vine corresponded to the release of Robert Altman’s 1996 movie, “Kansas City.” The movie was a flop, and subsequent efforts to return life to the so-called district have produced similarly dismal results. As KCUR pointed out in 2011, the effort to return the area to its Pendergastian heyday has lasted longer than the heyday itself.

This is a clear example of government pushing something that the people do not want. Even former City Councilman Ed Ford, who once infamously told us that Kansas City was going to get a new airport whether they liked it or not, recognized that no one supports the District. “The marketplace has not embraced 18th and Vine,” he told KCUR before saying that the city is committed to its success. “Committed to success” likely means that city leaders will continue pouring money into a complete and utter failure. The Council voted Thursday to direct the City Manager to find a way to give the District $18 million more.

In two pieces for CityLab, a publication of The Atlantic, Brandon Reynolds argues that government will never succeed at propping up jazz, and he points to the success of Memphis’ Beale Street as an example. The man who made Beale Street a success, John Elkington, argued that only private investment will work. A 1998 Los Angeles Times piece compared Elkington’s reliance on private investment to Cleaver’s desire for public dollars:

Some black leaders point to Kansas City’s revival of its jazz district as a preferable alternative to Elkington’s Beale project—a community renovation project overseen by a black mayor and tied to public funding that guarantees a role for black businesses and opportunity for neighborhood residents. In fact, Elkington and Kansas City Mayor Cleaver have toured each others’ projects—and both men argue that theirs is the only way to restore blighted black business sectors.

Twenty years later and we have a clear and irrefutable conclusion: Cleaver was wrong. Beale Street is a success and 18th and Vine is a failure. While some may want to point to past mismanagement or (incredibly) insufficient funding for 18th and Vine, the point is that jazz is not as big a thing today in Kansas City as we want to believe. Kansas City didn’t make it into the top 10 markets for the PBS documentary “Jazz” by Kens Burns (yet we were the top market for the women’s soccer World Cup). We’re just not that into it. Kansas City isn’t alone; jazz pianist and blogger Bill Anschell wrote that, “People who want to play jazz actually outnumber those who enjoy or even tolerate it, let alone pay to hear it.” The plan in Kansas City is to force people to pay for it.

The jazz heyday was a product of seedy bars, corrupt politics, segregation, and prohibition. Jazz musician and band leader David Basse said

“You can’t start a string of bars and have them owned by the city or corporations and make them fun. You can’t do that. You’ll open one little corner dirty place and you sweep the floor and you start selling booze.”

Despite the best intentions, it’s unlikely that the same city government that banned smoking in bars and restaurants, raised the age to buy tobacco products, and regularly closes down bars and restaurants for small violations is going to be able to fund a resurgence in speakeasy-era entertainment. We have 20 years of failure behind us to make that point.

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Twenty years later and we have a clear and irrefutable conclusion: Cleaver was wrong. Beale Street is a success and 18th and Vine is a failure.

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