Soul Of America





The historic Hey Hey Club near 18th & Vine Streets, Kansas City



    This famous district was a magnet for Black folks from Omaha to Oklahoma City point to the intersection of 18th & Vine, those two streets are but the epicenter of a larger district historically and approximately bounded by 12th Street, Troost Ave, 23rd Street and Prospect Ave. One could also make a good case for The Paseo & 18th. This district operated fairly autonomously for many years before integration. You had small businesses of all types, not just restaurants and nightlife. Make be clear about this, 18th & Vine has always been about the business of entertainment.

    Even though African Americans lived on the scene before hand, the place really exploded as a magnet for gangsters, musicians and their ecosystems in 1925. That year marked the beginning of Mayor Tom Pendergast's political machine, which only practiced lax enforcement of liquor, gambling, and prostitution laws. In these Prohibition years, gangsters appreciated that Kansas City was a Wide Open town.  European Americans received clean and efficiently managed residential areas. Gangsters who deftly avoided the newspaper and kept the bribes kept flowing, made a killing. Most African American residential areas, though poorer, were fairly well managed.

    Gangsters knew that great music was essential to reel guests in and to compliment the vices they offered. Nightclubs existed all over town, at 12th & Cherry, gangster-owned nightclubs catered to mostly to white patrons and had Black performers. But there were many other Black-owned and Black-friendly nightclubs and dance halls that catered to African Americans. Most of these were at 18th & Vine or on 12th Street east of The Paseo. These clubs had dances two and three times a week and everybody who could attend did. Some dance halls even had different social club dances in shifts around the clock.

    Even though 1938 marked the end of the Pendergast Machine and a subsidence in gangster-related activity, 18th & Vine still jumping.  Kansas City Monarch baseball players, and the legacy of jazz musicians and the Theater Owner's Booking Association (TOBA) made sure of that. The likes of Satchel Paige and Buck Leonard, when baseball provide the majority of our sports heroes, ensured that all the ladies and fellas came to 18th & Vine after the game. To get a more comprehensive perspective on what this meant, note that people dressed in the Sunday best before going to a game, even preachers would urge their congregations to attend the game after church. There were often parades to a Monarchs game, coming from the 18th & Vine district.

    Heydays don't last forever. As mentioned in the Historical Context, Black flight due to desegregation, suburban freeways, malls and the radio brought an end to the district's vitality of 18th & Vine in the late 1950s-early 1960s. Even New York contributed to its demise, as most jazz musicians migrated there for work. One by one the clubs closed like dominoes. By the 1970s, many were torn down. Their empty lots left open like unhealed wounds.

    Thankfully, Kansas Citians awakened to their cultural and historical treasure. No longer would this revered place past quietly in the night.  The heritage of 18th & Vine's was restored in 1997 after a $26 million redevelopment project. The area now features the American Jazz Museum, the Horace M. Peterson, III Visitor's Center, the renovated Gem Theater and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a couple of restaurants. Rounding out major cultural attractions in the district are the Black Archives of Mid-America and the Mutual Musicians Foundation. One also sees murals and signage of historical Black businesses. It is both inspiring to see homage paid to businesses in a traditional African American business community. Still the redevelopment district has an unfinished quality. But that says more about the Black community's integration into greater Kansas City than the quality of what's there and the plans for more. It seems that the area is only embraced by locals during festival, but credit a number of nightclub owners for keeping it real.

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