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Shootout in 18th and Vine Jazz District renews concerns about safety

Updated: 2013-12-10T16:29:27Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

Barbara Toombs was watching TV just after 4 a.m. Saturday when the first burst of gunfire outside her front window had her scrambling to the floor.

Unhurt, she crawled to a back room and called police as more shots rang out in Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz District.

“I told them, ‘We’re having a good old-fashioned Western shootout on 18th and Highland,’” the 77-year-old retired nurse recalled Monday as she sat on her front porch.

Besides wounding four people, two of them critically, the gunfire has city and jazz district officials rattled. If allowed to continue, street violence — or the perception of it — could undo the many years they have worked to rebuild the neighborhood and market it as a family-friendly place to live and be entertained.

“This is not good,” said Peter Yelorda, the treasurer of the Jazz District Redevelopment Corp. “All we need is another incident like this, and we’ll have another obstacle to overcome.”

In an area that is usually free of violent crime, the Saturday incident has traumatized residents. At least two men began shooting after a fight broke out by a food truck. Heavy rain over the weekend couldn’t wash away bloodstains still evident on sidewalks two days later.

One resident said he awoke Saturday to find splinters on his living room floor from a stray bullet that passed through his front wall and embedded in his couch.

Before the melee, it was like every other weekend night, Toombs said. After the bars close, large crowds gather around a food truck parked outside the Mutual Musicians Foundation, 1823 Highland Ave. The foundation hosts jazz jam sessions that go on until 6 a.m.

Like always, it was loud on Highland Avenue. People were rowdy. Toombs said she predicted months ago that it would lead to trouble one day.

“You can’t put that many drunk people in that small an area and expect something like that not to happen,” Toombs said.

Despite $80 million worth of investment, the district has struggled since a 1997 renovation to become more successful. There are no stores, and one of the three places to eat on 18th Street closed last week.

At Monday’s regular meeting of the Jazz District Redevelopment Corp., board members said steps must be taken immediately to keep anything similar to Saturday’s violence from occurring again, lest visitors steer clear from the district and residents are scared away.

“Something’s got to happen soon before someone says, ‘I gotta move,’” said Jermaine Reed, who represents the area on the Kansas City Council and is co-chairman of the JDRC board.

The 1800 block of Highland Avenue is of particular concern to city officials and the redevelopment corporation. Last spring saw completion of a long-delayed $5 million project to restore five historic houses on the west side of the street and the former Rochester Hotel on the east side. All 20 units are rented out, and the project has been one of the redevelopment corporation’s successes.

Hence the heightened concern among officials.

Ever since the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened in 1997, district boosters have had to fight what they claim are misperceptions about crime in the area.

In fact, the district has a lower crime rate than other parts of the city.

“Fifteen years later, people still think 18th and Vine has some security issues, and we just don’t,” John Hoffman, who sits on the board of the American Jazz Museum, said in a recent interview.

To make people feel safe, the Downtown Council supplies its yellow-jacketed “ambassadors” to patrol the area until 11 p.m., but some Jazz District board members say they would prefer a heightened police presence.

The board has asked the city for better lighting along side streets to make people feel safer. Denise Gilmore, the JDRC’s chief executive, said she would try to arrange a meeting with police.

However, board members and residents alike say the situation over the weekend might also necessitate restrictions on when and where food trucks can operate in the district.

At the request of the Mutual Musicians Foundation, Verletta Martin has parked her Lutfi’s Fried Fish truck in front of the historic jazz hall every weekend for the last few years. Some people come to get a bite to eat before going inside to hear the music. Others come solely for the food.

Never before had so much as a fight broken out, Martin said.

“This is something that happens all over our city,” Martin said of the shooting. “It’s happened in Power & Light and in Westport.”

All the same, from now on she will park her food truck somewhere else in the Jazz District, rather than outside the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

“I called them yesterday (Sunday) and told them they’ve got to stop,” said Anita Dixon, the foundation’s vice president. It’s a shame to see it go, Dixon said.

Rickie Ward won’t grieve, though. He lives across from the foundation in one of those restored houses, the one struck by the stray bullet.

Ward said there would not have been a shooting if people weren’t hanging around the food truck into the early morning hours.

That couch where the bullet ended up? His sister had planned on sleeping there that night, but she changed her mind and went home at midnight.

On Monday morning, Ward was still feeling jittery.

“I’ve lived in the Jazz District 15 years,” he said, “but I don’t know if I want to stay here anymore.”

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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