The Kansas City Star reported over the weekend that the City Council will soon decide whether to spend more on the 18th and Vine District. The amount was originally $7 million in December, then quickly grew to $18 million before reaching the current $27 million mark. The Star’s piece tells us that that this last investment would allow the city to “declare victory once and for all,” but doesn’t specify how victory will be achieved.
This is the latest effort to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on a problem that stubbornly refuses to be solved. The 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 the efforts since to return life to the so-called district haven’t been any more successful. 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 what we should expect when the government pushes something that the people do not want. Even former City Councilman Ed Ford 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 throwing good money after bad. 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 former Kansas City Mayor Emmanuel 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, 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 point to past mismanagement or insufficient funding for 18th and Vine, the point is that jazz is not as popular today in Kansas City as we want to believe. Kansas City was the top market for the Women’s World Cup in 2015, but it didn’t make it into the top 10 markets for the PBS documentary “Jazz” by Ken Burns. 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 to make that point.