The New Face of the Crossroads

The New Face of the Crossroads
The rejuvenation of the neighborhood just south of downtown was started by artists pursuing their passions.
As the Crossroads has matured, the question emerges: Is it for artists anymore?

Kansas City Magazine

By Susan Lahey

Artists are other. They live, not by pedaling the economic machinery, but by peeling off pieces of themselves into various media. They’re in contact with their inner promptings, which prod them to paint the face brown and red and blue. And it becomes a face you love, because you can see all the feelings swirled up in the paint. There may be artists who read supermarket tabloids, count calories and spend all their loose cash on lottery tickets. But that’s not how we see them. Romantic. Esoteric. Passionate. Living in the moment. Perceiving things we can only see because they showed them to us.

They unveiled the innate beauty of the Crossroads, a chunk of downtown stretching from the West Side to 18th and Vine and from Union Station to Truman Road. Twenty years ago, it was the place where many light manufacturing companies, pieces of Kansas City’s history, met their demise, leaving blocks and blocks of empty buildings and gray, naked streets that most people traveled through to get somewhere else.

Now it is home to about 40 art galleries in buildings of various vintages and shapes, filled with paintings and pottery, sculpture, films and performance art. There’s an Arts Incubator and – thanks to David Hughes of the Charlotte Street Foundation and some other businesspeople with a love of art – an Urban Culture Project that places art in erstwhile empty storefronts. On the first Friday evening of every month, thousands of people of every description swarm the area while the galleries swing wide their doors.

It is something like artist Jim Leedy imagined when he wandered – pale and bearded – into the landscape of mostly abandoned, cavernous, light-filled buildings in the mid-1980s. Something like, but not exactly. Leedy envisioned galleries and studios where artists would live side by side, creative energy passing among them like static electricity on a shag rug.

He loved the water stains, weathered floors, cracked plaster, the giant drafty windows, the rough street scene, the funny old signs for Opie Brush Company or Western Auto. The artists who’ve adopted the Crossroads feel a link to the men and women who used to work at Bay Leather Corp. or Manley Popcorn or any of the other blue-collar businesses-turned-galleries. These people weren’t suits. They worked with their hands. Gritty, straightforward.

Here artists could buy a building and show their work on one floor while paying the mortgage by renting out space to other artists. The Crossroads gave budding artists a reason to stay, rather than flee to New York or Los Angeles. And retaining them was a crusade for Leedy, who teaches at the Art Institute. Of course there was a lot of work to do. Bankers to convince. Mountains of trash to haul out, plumbing and electricity to repair or replace, walls to remove or add or paint. Not having the money to hire out the work, they would have to do it themselves. But in the end, they would have a place where art and artists could thrive. They could throw open their doors and windows in summer, letting passers-by watch them work.

At the Crossroads, artists could meet in coffeehouses and on the stoops to trade ideas. The artistic energy that pulsed in pockets all over the city could converge here in an explosion of creativity. The city could only benefit.

Leedy pegged John O’Brien, curator of the Dolphin Gallery, as one of his first recruits. O’Brien started out in the Opie Brush building next to Leedy-Voulkos Gallery. “Jim Leedy gave me his vision for the neighborhood, and I fell in love with it. After that, we started hustling other people.”

There was STRETCH, the sculptor, who moved back to Kansas City from New York. He bought an old garage in the Crossroads in 1997. He rented another space behind Manny’s Restaurant, where he could build his huge steel sculptures. For that lease he traded a piece of art.

STRETCH lived, at first, without heat or running water. Artists, he says, don’t need much. He threw barbecues for crowds that spilled into the empty streets. He ran his noisy grinder at 3 a.m. if the muse struck. Nobody cared.

Painter and performance artist David Ford was “looking for a place to make pictures.” He leased the long brick building that houses YJ’s Snack Bar at 18th and Wyandotte. The snack bar had been there for an age when Ford bought the business, peddling hot dogs, chips and sodas to the neighbors. Ford nailed old doors on the counter front, brewed some high-octane coffee in a coffee maker borrowed from a friend and changed the menu to nouveau cuisine, sort of. He moved in upstairs and converted a rubbly piece of the parking lot behind his building into a vegetable garden. He was hoping that YJ’s, a shabby, brightly colored neighborhood hangout would support his art. It has turned out the other way around. He has taken in several tenants, including a skateboard shop, an underpants store and a grocery store called Local Harvest. All have storefronts on 18th Street, a narrow road shared by the Arts Incubator. Glass artist Bill Drummond came from Phoenix after learning that Kansas City had hidden advantages for artists. Drummond, a former researcher at the Phoenix Sun, was good at collecting obscure information. The fact that Kansas City was a sleeper in the art world was among them.

“The artists here are much more cooperative than competitive,” Drummond says. “Even back in the late 1980s there was an awareness of culture as a community rather than as a bunch of individuals. There’s Hallmark Cards, the Arts Council. The Artists Coalition, founded in the late 1970s, is the largest arts organization of any in the U.S. There are no barriers here except your own inertia.”

And in the early days of the Crossroads, there were even fewer barriers. Artists could buy commercial buildings for about $100,000 and live in them however they pleased: they could paint the walls like Jackson Pollock, smoke pot on the front stoop and park in the same spot for days.

Police ignored the area, which meant there was a lot of crime, and “regular” people were a little afraid to be there. On the other hand, STRETCH could study the art of pyrotechnics on a snowy night in the middle of the street with nary a raised eyebrow. “We were doing art, making performances, running around treating the city like a little toy city,” he says.

O’Brien says it was difficult to convince people to come to the Crossroads at first. It was such a ghost town. But as a ghost town, it was a lot like an empty canvas. A canvas on which they mentally painted a lively place.

Early settlers wanted the Crossroads district to be “a place that would have music and more of a big, high-energy thing with lots of people cranked into the space,” O’Brien says. “People my age peter out about nine, and we wanted young people who would still be going until one in the morning.”

Leedy not only invited other artists, he sold the idea of the Crossroads to longtime friend Suzie Aron, a real estate developer with Cohen-Esrey and board member of the Society of Contemporary Photography. Aron bought two buildings and rented them out to companies like HoneyMom’s restaurant, Kansas City Magazine and Smith and Burstert Oriental Rugs. Aron, herself an art collector, reserved a space above Smith and Burstert. Her office is an exercise in functional simplicity. Its sitting area floats in the 5,000-square-foot loft. There’s a long table and a carpenter’s cabinet with a couple of dozen drawers, which her grandchildren love to explore. Aron keeps other oddments in enormous, shallow pottery bowls. She uses the space for community meetings, lets artists use it for shows and donates it for fund-raisers. Aron turned her son-in-law, architect David Dowell, on to the Crossroads.

“It was so interesting, so compelling, we could engage in creating a neighborhood as vital as any neighborhood anywhere,” says Dowell, a partner in el dorado architects. El dorado has set itself apart by designing not only spaces but furniture, trash cans, anything that seems good to bend its talents toward. Says Dowell, “Crossroads had a tangible feel of something happening.”

El dorado was somewhere between artists and “suits.” And like other businesses that took up residence, it wove itself into the fabric of the neighborhood, bringing out the grill and beer on temperate evenings and sharing pleasantries over the back fence, as it were. “If I walk to a meeting three blocks away it can take up to an hour to get there,” says Dowell, who has to frequently stop to catch up with neighbors he passes on the street. One of his best-known neighbors is developer Brad Nicholson, who has been lauded by the city for his contribution to the urban core, but who maintains such a low profile that reporters ask if he’s in the witness protection program.

Nicholson arrived in the late 1980s, having made a decision to invest some of the gain he had made in suburban developments into the urban core. “I had complained for so long that Kansas City wasn’t going anywhere, I got tired of listening to myself,” Nicholson says. “I decided to either do something about it or get out of town.” He started buying buildings. At first, he was vaguely aware of Jim Leedy as “part of the fabric of the area.”

Once Nicholson became acquainted with Leedy’s vision, he began making contributions – monetary and otherwise. He paid $5,000 for a sign that now hangs at the top of one of his buildings, advertising the Crossroads Arts District. When the artists began their First Friday gallery tours, he paid for trolleys to cart Kansas Citians from one gallery to the next. He has donated space for showings and commissioned artworks for buildings he owns. His name is on lists of contributors for the fund that supports Review, the monthly newspaper of the arts.

As the neighborhood took shape, residents assembled to discuss issues: trash, tenants, landscaping, crime. In 2001, the discussions congealed into a legal entity: the Crossroads Community Association. Aron leads the group. Leedy and STRETCH serve on it as do Nicholson and Dowell. O’Brien dropped out. He’s not good with groups, he says, though they still meet at The Dolphin sometimes. The association is meant to “provide a forum for the diverse interests of this rapidly evolving, mixed-use community comprising artists, entrepreneurs and residents,” as its Web site says.

It is a taller order than it sounds. There are at least two essential visions for the Crossroads. The Leedy vision was a neighborhood like the West Side, only in place of Hispanics, put artists. They would live there, work there, shop there, display their art there and generate the creative energy that many artists refer to as their source and sustenance. There would, of course, be businesses and residents who were not artists. But just as the West Side is defined by bright colors and the smell of tortillas, the Crossroads would be the artists’ neighborhood, befitting an artist’s budget and wearing an artist’s aesthetic.

Then there’s the other vision, the one that focuses on the city having a cool, hip, chic arts district that will put Kansas City on the map. This vision glories in the galleries, the eateries, the new lofts with custom cabinetry and designer plumbing fixtures selling for $150,000 to $1 million – more than most artists could ever hope to afford.

Says STRETCH, “When you have fancy pants people come down it makes a statement. It changes the face of what goes on there. There are no artists in SoHo because the neighbors bitch and whine about the smells and the noise. Artists aren’t going to be there. It corrupts the vision. Artists don’t have normal lives and work hours and everything else.”

Of course, not all Crossroads artists live in the Crossroads. Leedy and O’Brien both live in the suburbs, for example. But many younger artists do live there … for now. Perhaps low- income housing could be built for the artists, proposes Dowell. But if the artists can’t afford to live here, he and some others agree, that’s okay. They helped create the Crossroads and they will build some new arty neighborhood like the ones they’re making east of Grand or in Columbus Park. And that, too, will be great for the city. Although it may not be not so great for the artists who have to once again combat crime and blight in their new, affordable digs.

As Dowell says, “Artists are always going to gravitate to places where rents are cheap. To me, the primary objective is not to keep artists living in the Crossroads but to keep the artistic perspective engaged in the ongoing design of the Crossroads.” But that ongoing design, with so many new people, is a daily challenge. It’s like painting a canvas by committee. And artists don’t like committees, as a rule.

The city paid little attention to the area when it was filled with empty buildings whose mortgages were in arrears. But once “outsiders” started noticing the Crossroads, the powers that be wanted to tidy it up a bit. The city didn’t like the patina of old paint on Leedy’s Crossroads Blues Gallery, which Leedy loves. The city suddenly found that the old tables and chairs that have sat in front of YJ’s for years are illegal – or, at least a likely source of revenue. Ford now has to pay a tax on each chair. His grill has been declared contraband. His trash can also gives offense. While it has served for years to collect trash, now a new trash can designed by el dorado has become the standard for the area. Ford says it will cost him $320 to buy the new one. And he prefers the old. “Do you know how many cappuccinos I have to sell to buy a matching trash can?” he asks.

As time goes on, the regulations pile up. Starting after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the galleries opened on the first Friday of every month and invited the public to come down. For blocks and blocks, people could wander in and out of galleries and partake of the free wine and cheese offered there. On First Friday evenings, an area that until recently was empty and dark now teemed with people, soaking up art along with their wine. Then someone from the city with ties to liquor control came to the event, and the entire area was busted. In order to serve wine, galleries would have had to get a license every month (the equivalent, O’Brien says, of getting a new driver’s license every month). They would also have to hire people to serve and card and guard the door to make sure no one wandered out with an open container. It was a lot of cost and bother for gallery owners whose wine was merely complimentary, a traditional gallery-opening treat.

The biggest blow was the taxes. In one year, some buildings’ taxes went up 400 or 500 percent. Leedy’s taxes in 2002 were about $13,000. The bill for 2003 was $40,000. “I expected the taxes to go up,” Leedy says, “but not 400 percent!”

Apparently, taxes have been going up steadily in recent years. Ark Automotive, which has been in the area since 1978, has been keeping up repairs and appearances to stay ahead of eminent domain and has been rewarded with steadily increasing taxes. This year its burden doubled.

According to Leedy and O’Brien, appeals to government officials that this tax business could wind up driving artists out of the Crossroads was met with a yawn. On more than one occasion they were told that it was “not my problem” and were advised to sell to a developer.

Leaning forward in his chair, Leedy says emphatically, “You can’t buy a dream.”
Such exchanges led to suspicions that the developers were in cahoots with officials who were trying to drive the artists out. Developers such as Nicholson feel the unspoken accusations from people who have been his neighbors and friends. “This tax issue has put such a damper on things,” Nicholson says. “This doesn’t have to do with developers wanting to kick the artists out. I wish they would sign a long-term agreement that they would never leave.”

Then, around the end of 2003, the powers that be stopped shaking their heads and clucking their tongues over the artists’ plight and started offering some concrete help. City Council has approved special permission for galleries to serve wine and even permit patrons to carry plastic cups from one gallery to another.

Jackson County offered the services of a county tax expert to help with tax relief measures for 2003. And the city, while admitting it has no current means to aid the artists, has offered the mayor’s neighborhood liaison, Donovan Mouton, and other experts to help the Crossroads Community Association come up with a plan. For the artists and the nonartists, negotiations are as delicate (if not as weighty) as designing a trade agreement between nations whose cultures and values are sometimes diametrically opposed. People accustomed to defining goals, working in committees and focusing on bottom lines are trying to make a neighborhood with those who live in the moment, work alone and (at least in principle) eschew materialism.

“Most of us [artists] are people who like figuring out stuff day to day; we like to live in the moment and create energy,” O’Brien says.

“Artists and entrepreneurs, neither want to spend time in meetings,” says David Dowell. “They don’t like to be organized. They like to move quickly and do things on their own. But we need organization, a unified voice. If we don’t put a voice to [the Crossroads] someone else will.”

Suzie Aron echoes Dowell’s belief that there’s a solution out there waiting to be found. “Every city has, at the cost of redevelopment, lost its artists. Artists are creative. They can find a way. Everybody thinks it’s fun to be down here. It’s a question of how do you support change without losing yourself?”

For John O’Brien, accepting change is a matter of self-preservation. He was very angry about the tax issue. But when you make a living peeling off pieces of yourself, your state of mind, emotion and energy is very important.

“I can’t be angry any more. I had a chip on my shoulder and it had gotten very big. Maybe this is just another bump in the road that will tell us what to do,” he says. “I don’t think many artists think about [the future]. You take chances and you deal with today. You’re trying to create for the pleasure of creating. You’re more in the moment” Just as we thought.

©2010 Susan Lahey, All Rights Reserved.



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