Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ephemeral city: Transit map

The map was hanging in a local antique mall, framed and priced appropriately for an 80-year-old artifact of this town's golden age of mass transportation. It shows no date, but there are clues among its "Points of Interest."

Municipal Auditorium exists (opened late 1935) as does the old city hall at Fourth and Main. The county courthouse is at 12th and Oak, across from "site, new city hall" (dedicated 1937). And the ballpark at 22nd and Brooklyn is Muehlebach Field (its name until 1937). So the map would appear to document the system of 1936-37, complete with its golden-age statistics:

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I had to have it, of course. It provides a nice contrast to a map I already own that shows the five remaining streetcar lines of 1951, six years before busses began a reign of nearly sixty years. Tracks then vanished. Most were ripped up, but not all.

Every so often, usually during the freeze-and-thaw of pothole season, the old system arises here and there. Recently a remnant of rusty rail found sunlight at the corner of 43rd and Warwick, near the Kansas City Art Institute. 

My new 1930s map places this on the Independence Avenue–Rockhill–Swope Park line. Back then this route covered more than 13 miles, from the corner of Independence and Hardesty west into downtown, south along Walnut and Main to 43rd street, then east and south to Swope Park.

It's worth contemplating the "points of interest" along this route in today's Kansas City: the zoo and Starlight Theater, UMKC, the Nelson-Atkins Museum and KCAI, Liberty Memorial and Crown Center and Union Station, the Crossroads and P&L District, a variety of world-food restaurants along Independence Avenue, and an amazing array of residential neighborhoods overall.

Meanwhile, workers have spread a fresh patch of asphalt at 43rd and Warwick, putting that rusty old rail back to sleep for now. Even as streetcars have found new life in Kansas City.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Fascinating Rhythm

The old Convention Hall, on 13th between Central and Wyandotte, the site of today's Barney Allis Plaza.
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The Journal-Post listed the jazzy Saturday night possibilities: live music and floor shows at a constellation of nightclubs now serving legal liquor after thirteen years of Prohibition. The Hey-Hay Club, Bar le Duc, the New Reel, the Ritz, Silver Slipper, Hi-Hat, Mardi Gras, Dante's Inferno, Alamo Supper Club. Drink-Drink-Drink. You don't need your flask at the Harlem! Dine and Dance with Bennie Moten and George E. Lee and their combined 15-piece recording orchestra. 

A small announcement was tucked in the bottom corner of the page, just above a notice for the Arrow Messenger Service:

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It was the halfway point of a 28-day, 28-city tour playing to overflow crowds, the first such road trip for a man who by January 1934 was known as "America's favorite composer and pianist." The tour marked the 10th anniversary of his classical "Rhapsody in Blue," then being called "the foundation stone of his reputation." He had composed a new orchestral piece for the occasion, variations based on one of his songs, "I Got Rhythm."

Still, Gershwin's reputation was not high-brow enough for some classical music critics. The J-P reporter made reference to that the next day in his review:

It may not be great music to the ears of the critical hierarchy in musical circles, but it is typically American and it is safe to say that the average American gets more genuine pleasure from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Strike Up the Band,” and “I Got Rhythm” than from the less comprehensible works of the masters. Certainly the audience in Convention Hall expressed as much pleasure in its applause as any gathering of music lovers here has shown toward symphony or classical concerts.
 It would be his only performance in Kansas City. Three and a half years later a brain tumor would take his life.
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It's amazing now to imagine George Gershwin playing here in January 1934 just as what would become KC's golden age of jazz was blossoming. His "set list" that afternoon included "Concerto in F," "Rhapsody in Blue," the variations, and a medley of his popular show tunes, including "Lady Be Good," "Fascinating Rhythm," and "The Man I Love." 

It's possible the Moten-Lee combined orchestra at the Harlem Club might have riffed on one or more of those. But there would have been no "Summertime" or "It Ain't Necessarily So" because Gershwin was just then composing Porgy and Bess, the opera that would contain those tunes. Nor were there other Gershwin standards today heard in jazz clubs worldwide – "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" for instance, or "They Can't Take That Away From Me" or "Nice Work If You Can Get It" – which were written later for 1930s Hollywood movies.

During his American road tour Gershwin was quoted as saying "highbrows have no right to turn up their noses at jazz."

"After all," he said, " "jazz is the only really American music. "It couldn't have been written anywhere else."

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

A season of sacrifice

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Seventy-five years ago, just before the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, an early December storm dumped almost a foot of snow on Kansas City. So much snow had not fallen so early in ten years.

Allied bombers were pummeling Japanese targets in Burma. The Russians had Nazis retreating in the Soviet Union. Americans were joining the fight in North Africa. Here in the States the coalition of government, business, and labor had speed-shifted the American war machine into high gear. Every region of the country was contributing.

Kansas City had its own government bomber plant, for which the city ran a downtown training center where civilians learned to fabricate aircraft sheet metal and other parts. Kansas City industries produced goods and materials for the military, which were distributed to bases in several Plains states through the Quartermaster Depot, a former coat factory at Independence avenue and Hardesty. Everyone was being asked to make sacrifices for the war effort.

The former Quartermaster Depot, Independence avenue at Hardesty.

A citywide blackout – civil defense testing – was mandated one December night: no lights anywhere, no smoking or lighted matches, no telephoning, no vehicles or people on the streets. Gasoline was being rationed to conserve rubber normally used for auto tires. Streetcars and busses overflowed with new riders who gave up driving. The government even ordered ice cream production cut through the winter to conserve butterfat.

At the defense training center, African-American women were told they must begin using an unpainted, poorly lit, separate bathroom from one they had been sharing with white women. The center’s supervisor did not explain what was being conserved there.

It was Christmastime, and some sacrifices were season-specific. The festive Santa Claus streetcar, for instance. It was canceled and refitted for normal service because of increased ridership. And mail. As military mail mixed with holiday mail, volume was 50 percent higher than normal. Mailbags and parcels piled high along railroad platforms. “Santa Claus is just going to have to be a little bit late this year for some people,” said the postmaster. “But he’ll get there.”

A Christmas card from 1942.
Mail was delaying train service. Packed trains carried double the normal number of mail cars. Passengers were standing between cars, or sitting on suitcases in aisles. Rail companies were asking that non-essential traffic be curtailed. The telephone company’s ads discouraged people from tying up lines with long-distance calls: “If your call will not aid somehow to pass the ammunition, please consider whether you can give it up.”

And Christmas trees. The weekend after Thanksgiving fire had ravaged a crowded night club in Boston, killing 492 patrons. For some reason Kansas City’s fire chief waited until mid-December to issue a ban on yuletide trees in public spaces. He cited the Boston fire. “We aren’t going to take any chances of having a Christmas tragedy in Kansas City,” he said.

Public trees that had been decorated came down. Fresh trees ready to be sold were packed up and shipped to other cities. The tree supplier explained: “We could not afford to unload 40,000 trees at Kansas City and gamble on a market depressed by the fire department edict when the demand in Chicago and St. Louis was so great.” Prices of now-scarce Christmas trees rose, and some sellers offered single evergreen branches at tree prices. 

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It was the year Holiday Inn was released, a movie that included a new song written by Irving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby. By December the song had reached number 1 on the Hit Parade and was being heard at Christmas programs and parties everywhere.

The Quartermaster Depot at Independence and Hardesty had a party for the children of employees. There were songs and games, a ventriloquist and magician, and Santa Claus. Ice cream, soon to be precious, was served. And because the depot was not under city jurisdiction, and had its own fire brigade standing by with water buckets, there was a big beautiful Christmas tree. 

Actually there were two separate parties – one on the 23rd for black children and one on Christmas Eve for white children. Perhaps another unexplained sacrifice. Outside it was near 50 degrees. Almost all the snow was gone. 

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