An appalling lack of sidewalks in this little city. Nowhere to walk but front yards or the middle of the street. The BBQ joint has a line out the door but isn’t open on Sunday. From the forested corners of the park, a chorus of cheers from the late evening pack of disc golfers. Someone has drilled a hole in one. I’m too faded to drive, which is why I’m on foot. The plywood firecracker shacks have been taken down and put into storage. Elsewhere kids lounge in the heavily vignetted decadence of fake Polaroid sunsets. Here, the workweek is just one long, boring flash mob. The construction crew lowers the cornerstone to the brand new CVS, a nice enough location they probably won’t have to lock the condoms up. A beautiful mural is painted on the wall of a parking lot that no one ever parks in. The word “ROSEDALE” and some animals and plants and people and the Memorial Arch opening up to a rainbow utopia. Beauty, as envisioned and painted by children. Next door the neighbors fight the nightly battle of the basses: rap vs. Latin. When one guy refuses to turn down his subs, the other one turns on his own car alarm and blocks his neighbor’s car in — handling the situation like an adult. On Tuesday night the lightning storm blew out the transformer. It sizzled for a minute until it exploded blue and prettier than anything I saw on Fourth of July. On Fisher there’s a little place for sale on a big lot, but it’s more like you’d be buying a really nice big tree that comes with a crappy house. Mid July and the Mimosa trees are in full bloom, pink silk feathers carpeting the little sloped lawns on Minnie. Vacation Bible School is over and the empty church bus is parked across from McDonalds. The man in a tank top and matted hair staggers by the Jiffy Lube shaking his head vigorously and talking to himself. He doesn’t look crazy as much as preoccupied. The lack of sidewalks doesn’t seem to bother him.
Once people find out you’re from Kansas, they always want to know if you’ve ever seen a tornado. Thankfully, I never have. But after the May 22 tornado that tore through Joplin, I’ve definitely seen the damage it can do.
After photographing the damage in the days following the tornado, Jennifer put together this slide show depicting the damage the storm did to her hometown. I typed up a few of my own first and second-hand impressions of the aftermath below.
In the six weeks since the tornado, the debris is getting cleared and the city is doing some rezoning before the rebuilding begins in earnest. There are already leaves growing on the twisted remains of the trees, which looks unusual but is nonetheless a small reminder that life goes on.
Thank you to everyone who has dedicated their time, labor and resources to helping the people in Joplin. I know they greatly appreciate it.
* * *
On 1-44, the giant brown sign to George Washington Carver is turned upside-down. Coming up the crest of the hill you see a giant American flag lowered to half-mast, a torn strand of its fabric blowing as if in slow motion.
* * *
Aaron and Pam were at a movie when the announcement sounded to leave the theater and take shelter. They were driving by the high school when the telephone polls and trees around them started falling, which I imagine looking like the approach of The Nothing from the “Neverending Story” or the Smoke Monster from “Lost.” As the storm began to devour the landscape in front of them, Doll threw the car into reverse, weaving around debris and crashed cars until they got out and ran for shelter.
* * *
It doesn’t matter how much you’ve seen on TV or in photos — nothing can prepare you for your first visit to the disaster area. After only a couple of blocks you feel like you’ve entered an impossibly vast and detailed disaster film set. The trees that are left are macabre sculptures, mattress linings and car parts impaled on their bark-stripped upper branches. Where you used to be able to see only a few blocks you can now see several miles. Dan and I drove through in his truck at dusk, just before curfew. Most everyone had gone home, wherever that might be now, but one man stood in the middle of his lot staring off to the south. Dan offered me a beer from the back seat and said why don’t you grab one for me, too. I don’t think anyone is going to mind.
* * *
At night a wall of police cars and armored vehicles blocks off entry to the disaster area. We began to refer to the once perfectly normal patch of neighborhoods as the “demilitarized zone,” or — in the fashion of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” just “The Zone.” To get downtown from the south, you have to drive all the way around the zone on either side. Not that you would want to go through the disaster area at night anyway. Too dark, too spooky, too tragic, too soon.
* * *
Aaron and Casey nailed a 40-foot American flag to the front of what remained of the house — a crafty way to discourage looting and be patriotic at the same time. A man walking by with his wife stopped and pulled out his phone. “What are you doing?” the woman asked her husband. “Just taking a picture of some real Americans,” he said.
* * *
The week before the storm I called Cool Guitars on 26th to see if they still had that Regal guitar in stock, a resonator guitar that used to belong to the owner. They said they had several Regals in stock, so I set aside a good chunk of my first paycheck toward purchasing one. After the storm we drove by and saw their sign but no trace of the store itself. I have no idea what happened to all those guitars.
* * *
A sampling of messages painted on houses:
“Down but not out”
“You loot, we shoot”
“It’s not a parade!”
“Stay classy, Joplin”
“Put down your camera, lend a hand”
* * *
Driving down Main Street wondering where Main Street went.
* * *
In a video I’ve seen reposted several times, a group of amateur storm chasers drive parallel to the storm’s path from miles away, marveling at the “monster tornado” moving over the city. I’ve got it all on film, one guy keeps repeating; the camera’s impartial recording a proxy for what he can’t believe he’s seeing with his own eyes. The fascination takes a dark turn when they drive back into town on South Main only to find everything around it destroyed. “This is ridiculous,” one of them says, sounding scared. One thing to watch a funnel dancing from a distance, another to look a tornado in the face.
* * *
Joplin High School is destroyed, but the sign on the corner of the lot has been turned into an inspirational shrine. An “H” and an “E” have been added to either side of the only remaining letters in the city’s name, the “OP.” The “HOPE high school” sign is presided over by life-sized wooden sculptures of eagles — a tribute to the school’s community and mascot.
* * *
Jenn’s family salvaged everything they could from her Grandma’s house by the end of the first week, but the grandkids decided to go out Saturday morning to try and find her wooden statue of the laughing Buddha. Don’t worry, Dan said, it’s one of the first things I grabbed. But even with Buddha saved and cleaned, we still craved a totem of recovery, of salvage-tion. After seeing the decapitated Papasan statue on a shelf, we dug through the debris to try and find his head. Miraculously, Jessica found it after only a few minutes. It’s in good shape except for the missing beard. But that can be glued back on again.
The other day I got an anonymous flier in our mailbox, addressed to “Westwood Resident.” Inside was an unsigned memo inviting us to a “town hall” meeting being held to inform people about a proposed mixed-use development called Woodside Village.
I’ve heard plenty about this from our neighbors, including my father, who is not a big fan of the idea. My dad and I don’t always agree on matters of public policy, but in this case we’re both highly skeptical about the proposed development. In fact, it was Jennifer and I who first brought up some of the questions to him that Westwood residents are now (or should be) asking themselves.
More about those questions in a moment. First, a bit of background. Woodside Village, according to the flier, is “a proposed multi-use development designed as a walkable and integrated open-air Village organized around the Woodside Health & Tennis Club, 330 luxury residences, a 35,000 square foot shopping center, and an energized public realm where citizens can gather and strengthen community bonds at events such as a weekly farmer’s market.”
For a community of 1,500 people, this is a pretty big deal. If all the units filled up, you’d be increasing the population by around one third. That in itself doesn’t bother me at all — a community needs to grow and develop or else risk getting old and outdated, like the Westwood Apple Market, which looks like a relic of the mid-eighties.
But are 330 luxury apartments and 35,000 feet of commercial space really what this market is calling for? We’ve already been through this in Kansas City, Missouri, where thousands of condominiums were renovated and made available to a buying public that never showed up. Many of these places are now on the market as apartments and still remain vacant. Nearer to Westwood, places like the recently developed luxury spaces at 47 Fisher can’t even manage to attract rental tenants for a handful of units.
As someone currently looking for a place to buy or rent, the word “luxury” is a big turn-off. What’s wrong with “attractive and well-constructed” or even “affordable”? If I were in the market for luxury digs there would already be hundreds of other places to look in areas more exciting than Westwood. Sure, Woodside draws a pretty good crowd to the pool on weekends, but I doubt it’s enough of a buzz to fill up hundreds of luxury apartments. Just my gut reaction there.
The man behind Woodside Village is Blair Tanner, a Los Angeles-based real estate developer who owns the health club. (To get an idea of the flavor and personality of the proposed community, you might visit this recent post by local blogger/personality, Craig Glazer, who gushes that the city is “poised to green light the project.” News to me.)
The mentions of farmer’s markets, heavily landscaped pathways, and LEED certified buildings sounds attractive, but let’s not mistake this for a public urban development — as the flier itself states, “Woodside Village is proposed to coincide with the expansion of Woodside Health & Tennis Club.”
My question is, do we really need Woodside Village to bring us farmer’s markets, community gatherings, green initiatives and “heavy” landscaping? Isn’t framing Woodside Village as a community initiative and not a commercial venture at least a little misleading? I grew up in Westwood and am living there again temporarily, and the neighborhoods seems pretty alive and well to me without needing to artificially create a whole new upscale sub-community owned by someone in L.A.
My biggest question is how much the city will be on the hook for Woodside Villiage when (sorry, if) the proposed luxury units fail to sell. As a taxpayer in KCMO for the past five years, I’m happy to be contributing to city services there and wish we had the kind of police protection and public works that Westwood, KS enjoys. But I’m not at all happy about the taxpayers footing a huge chunk of the bill for the money-sucking Power and Light district, a centerpiece of the heralded downtown renaissance that our civic leaders at the time convinced us would be a lucrative, energized public realm. I’d hate to see the same thing happen to Westwood just because we got lured in by mentions of upscale condos, green building techniques and farmer’s markets.
A more relevant comparison would be the perpetually stalled mixed-use “Gateway” project in nearby Mission, Kansas, currently a wasteland where the mall used to be. Financially, how would TIF-seeking Woodside Village be any different? What’s changed in the economic climate in the last few years that will make hundreds of buyers of luxury residences suddenly materialize in northeast Johnson County? What happens if the project gets stalled or the developer foresees losses and backs out?
By the time these details are discussed at Westwood town call meetings (whether citizen-led or developer-sponsored), I will most likely be living in Missouri again, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight aside from my parents living there (and being a past summer employee of the public works department and recipient of the Westwood Foundation Scholarship in 1999). I care about the community and hope that the residents and council members can see past the buzzwords, potential profits and promises of luxury living in order to give the proposed plan the scrutiny it requires.
Back in the day I used to go to an old warehouse in the West Bottoms to see shows. They didn’t cost much, the bands were good, and you could post up against the wall or on an old couch, set your six pack on the dusty hardwood floor and watch live music without the bright lights and antiseptic nonsmoking get-the-fuck-out-it’s-last-call atmosphere of a commercial bar.
I’m sure over the years I’ll remember those shows even more fondly, building them up in my head until the West Bottoms becomes my own personal Bowery or Manchester, but the moments in which I felt actual connectivity to the city or any kind of scene were relatively rare. Most of the time I just went with a friend or two or even by myself to drink whatever we brought with us and anonymously watch some of the best music you could find. One of those shows was the Sic Alps at the Pistol in January 2008. I found a video of that performance, which the shot above is taken from during a split-second camera flash.
As you can see, the space looks more like being backstage at an old theater than an actual venue. And as you can hear, it got fairly loud. (If you don’t like ambient noise than it’s probably best to skip to about 3:30 mark of the video for the song to kick in, one of my favorites by the group, as it turns out).
The last show I saw in the Bottoms was not at the Pistol or Foundation Room but some other place that didn’t have a name as far as I knew. Jana Hunter’s group “The Lower Dens” played one of the best rock sets I’d seen all year, unfortunately largely ignored by the flocks of kids smoking outside, the girl in a space costume writhing on the floor, and the drug-addled stragglers near the door.
That show, which had been hastily moved from its original location for reasons no one ever explained, felt like the end of something. Maybe the era of great shows every week at underground venues in the Bottoms. Or maybe just the end of my going to them.
Since then I’ve talked to some of the folks who helped put those together, and they seem happy to have moved on with their lives. Not sure where the current DIY or all-ages hotspots are in Kansas City right now, but I’m sure there are plenty of things still taking place downtown, along Troost, or elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, there’s always places like The Record Bar, where I saw Bill Callahan play a great set last week. And, for those of us stuck at work or no longer feeling up to venturing into the smoke-filled rusty nails on old floorboards pay-what-you-can type places, there’s always YouTube.