Monday, March 23, 2015

Lost to the age of traffic

Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Mo.
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If you lived along Summit Street in the Valentine neighborhood as winter turned to spring 1950 you were about to witness the end of the relatively peaceful world as you knew it. Sixty-five years ago today your immediate future included the violent beginnings of a six-lane makeover.

On Thursday, March 23, 1950, Kansas City was a town awaiting baseball. The Blues were close to the end of spring training in Florida, where a young shortstop named Mickey Mantle was trying to make the team. The weekend promised the 1950 Auto Show at Municipal Auditorium, Burl Ives ("America's Mightiest Balladier") performing twice daily. The headliner at the Hotel Bellerive's nightclub, El Casbah, was a "Witty, Dazzling Pianist"  named Liberace. Bagdad, starring Maureen O'Hara and Vincent Price, was reopening the Highway 40 Drive-in for the season, though it would be chilly yet for outdoor movies.

Today, though, brought temperatures in the 60s, perfect for starting the job the J. Shaw Coal and Material Company had been hired to do: widen Summit from four lanes to six, in the process ripping out mature trees and decades-old streetcar tracks. Up until four days ago cars of the 57 Roanoke line had rumbled over these tracks on their circuit from Ninth and Wyandotte to 45th and State Line.

The overarching project was the long anticipated Southwest Trafficway, the first of the region's broad concrete ribbons that eased (and encouraged) an ever increasing flow of private autos. It would link downtown to the affluent southwestern residential neighborhoods, from 14th street to Ward Parkway. After crossing a new viaduct it would run primarily along Summit but with connections to Belleview and Madison. It would require clear-cutting several homes in less privileged neighborhoods on the West Side and near Westport Road.

As I noted in Kansas City 1940, the Southwest Trafficway opened in November 1950. The Star called it "a monumental thing, a structure of the new traffic age." At the ribbon cutting the first two motorists received government bonds as prizes. Hard to say whether anyone caught the irony when they turned out to be from Lee's Summit and Shawnee, both far-flung suburbanites.

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In memory of the pre-trafficway era, here is that witty and dazzling piano player:

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

How we became Plains Parisians

Even if you've just stumbled across this blog for the first time,  chances are good – if you know something about Kansas City – you recognize the name.  It's also the name of a cocktail festival and a song by a local band and an online cultural retrospective and a little saloon inside one of the antiques emporia down in the West Bottoms, and a gorgeous time-lapse video. It's an old nickname that seems appropriate for the city's recent urban revival.

You might also have heard that the name is rooted in the quote above, the opening sentence in a news feature written by reporter Edward Morrow – not to be confused with famed CBS broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow – and published February 27, 1938, by Morrow's employer, the Omaha World-Herald. It was headlined this way:

To get the story, Morrow and his photographer visited Kansas City and toured its red-light district, night clubs and gambling houses. Morrow's opening line is pithy and quotable, but it wasn't original. He might even have "borrowed" the tour idea and the Parisian image from another journalist. Six days before the World-Herald's article appeared, newspapers around the country published the second in a series of syndicated columns datelined Boss Tom Pendergast's town, written by the conservative scold Westbrook Pegler.

In his second paragraph, after trashing the state of Kansas, Pegler made his French connection:

Apparently in the 1930s debauchery was the image most closely associated with Paris, not ex-pat artistes. (Perhaps, in Hollywood terms, more Moulin Rouge than Midnight in Paris.)

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After Pendergast served a year in prison for income-tax evasion, after the reformers took over City Hall and set about cleaning up Tom's town, Pegler came back and wrote about what had transpired in the five years since his 1938 visit. This is how his March 15, 1943, column began:

Fast forward to the late 1950s. John Cameron Swayze had been a reporter here in the 1930s with the old Journal-Post, as well as a radio broadcaster. Later he became an NBC television news anchor and eventually a pitchman for Studebaker cars and Timex watches. In 1958 he wrote the liner notes for this Capitol Records jazz album:

Album cover detail, courtesy of Richard E. Logan.

In them Swayze recalled his time in Boss Tom's wide-open town, and tweaked Pegler's descriptive label:

And so let's give Westbrook Pegler most of the credit for his colorful metaphor for a sinful town, a nickname we now attach with love to various creative endeavors. Pegler, with an editorial assist from this man:

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Past life on the Boulevard

In the summer of 1940 windows at 2860 Southwest Boulevard showed the place was empty and "For Rent."

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Eighty-seven years ago today, in the early hours after midnight,  a small group of regulars were minding their own business at the bar of a "soft drink" place at 2860 Southwest Boulevard when the door burst open and five men wearing dark overcoats, caps and handkerchiefs over their faces crashed in and raised sawed-off shotguns at the startled imbibers. One of the intruders actually shouted Stick 'em up! before forcing the owner, Eddie Nettle, to open a safe; the bartender, Frank Addy, to open the cash register; and the eight customers to empty their pockets. Then they piled into a black Buick and laid rubber with about $900 and change.

That was 1928, deep in the dark heart of Prohibition, when pouring corn whisky in a so-called soft-drink place was, of course, against the law. So Nettle and Addy had to tidy up the joint before reporting the robbery to police. It was sort of routine for Nettle, then 30 years old. His place had been robbed before, and it would be robbed again in years ahead.

Then came repeal, and many of the dives and joints that had operated as soft-drink parlors or drug stores or cigar stands or other types of speakeasies transformed themselves into legitimate night clubs. Or legitimate clubs that operated illegally, in violation of gambling and liquor laws the state passed when Prohibition ended. Eddie Nettle's place became the Sportsman's Club, known as a gambler's haven.

In February 1934 Nettle's former business partner and the croupier of his crap game were found dead on the floor of the Sportsman's Club, both shot in the head. "They were going to kill me," Nettle reportedly told the cops. "But a man has to defend himself, doesn't he?" He was charged with second-degree murder, but the case was dismissed when the only witnesses asserted it was self-defense.

At the end of the Thirties, after Nettle ran afoul of tax laws, the place became the Perkins Club:

Alas, the state finally got tough on clubs in 1939, closing down several of the worst offenders. The Perkins Club, after being fined for gambling and for selling liquor after legal hours, had its liquor license renewal refused.

For several years, until he dropped dead of a heart attack at age 53, Eddie Nettle ran another business out of his building on the Boulevard, the Music Service Company, which leased and serviced juke boxes and pinball machines and other barroom paraphernalia. Later it was home of something called the Industrial Abrasive Company, and the old memories began to fade.

Today, however, a little imagination and tequila will provide access to the dark past of 2860 Southwest Boulevard. The place still exists – since the 1970s it's been part of Ponak's Mexican Kitchen – and you can go there and pull up a bar stool, order a margarita and conjure this town's wide-open days of bootleg liquor and armed robberies, dice and violent death.

For the last 40 years it's been the home of Ponak's.
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