Apple Market closes, columnist gets a suntan

Yesterday I was excited to see an article in the Kansas City Star about the closing of Westwood’s legendary Apple Market grocery store, which I’ve been going to since it was called United Super back in the early ’80s. City officials have informed us that the store will be closing soon to make way for a new Walmart Neighborhood Market, but no one I’ve talked to seems to know the exact details.

The column, written by Ink photo director Jennifer Hack, had some nice descriptions of the grocery store’s atmosphere, with its wobbly shopping carts and depressed cashiers. The high notes in Mariah Carey’s “Dream Lover” were barely audible over the loud hum of the prehistoric fluorescent lights is just a great line.

But in true Ink style, the article contained absolutely zero reporting, quotes or facts about the store’s closing, instead detouring into an eight-paragraph (!) soliloquy about the courage it takes to wear a bikini in public. That’s unfortunate, because there are a lot of interesting human interest stories at play in the closing of this notably outmoded grocery store.

If Hack had taken the time to ask the cashiers why they look so depressed, she might have learned that some of them are single mothers who have recently learned they won’t be able to transfer to the business taking its place. She might have also mentioned that the new store will be a Walmart, which was reported by the Business Journal back in early May but strangely absent from this piece. What will these cashiers do next?

She could have talked to the store’s long-time owners, who were known for giving discounts to shoppers buying food for their church and school functions. Walmart will undoubtedly be a cleaner and more modern facility, but it’s hard to imagine it having the same handmade signs, off-brands and personal quirks that made Apple Market what it was. Will having a corporate owned store instead of a locally owned business affect the community at all, or will anyone even notice? Would be interesting to hear what Apple Market owner Alan Wiest has to say after running the place for 30 years.

The author could have looked into the history of the place and discovered that in 2003, Apple Market was the site of Westwood’s only murder, when store clerk Ray Ninemire was gunned down one Friday morning by a man reportedly dressed as Abraham Lincoln. Ninemire, who spent hours drawing signs with folksy slogans like “Park it, Margaret, let’s Apple Market!,” was shot after coming to the aid of a female clerk. A large case file sits on the shelves of the Westwood police department, but the killer was never found. Are they still looking for him, or is the case officially closed?

In my opinion, this kind of stuff would have been much more interesting than Ms. Hack’s lengthy confession that she’s traded in her two-piece for a tankini. But this is the Kansas City Star in the age of Ink, when columns read more like Facebook posts than news stories, and any real reporting is apparently discouraged.

Ms. Hack seems like a nice, thoughtful person, and I wish her the best with her new column even if it seems like she’s just trying to be the new Jenee so far. She might like shopping at Apple Market because nobody there knew her name. But to get a real story, there’s still no substitute for actually talking to people.

11 impressions of an EF-5 tornado

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”
“F5? FU!”

* * *

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.

Deconstructing Woodside Village

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.

F*** the Wetlands, we need a freeway

The title of this post is taken from a punk song written by my friend Jacob back in 2001. Though he meant it sarcastically (you might even say “sarcaustically”), the message has been party line for folks who have been trying for decades to build the South Lawrence Trafficway.

I was just reading today how the State of Kansas elected to to commit  $550 million to “fix” major traffic bottlenecks, including the aforemenioned route in Douglas County. As the above graphic illustrates, the South Lawrence Trafficway will cut right through the Haskell-Baker Wetlands, an extensive nature conservation area and ancestral burial ground of many of the region’s displaced Native Americans in the early 20th century. Even though the KC Star article eventually addressed the controversy, the headline in the second page read: “News elates Lawrence.”

Seriously? Lawrence is elated that the state is finally giving them the green light to bulldoze through the Wetlands? I guess it all depends on who you talk to.

Personally, I’m thrilled that Governor Sam Brownback was able to trim $689,000 from the budget by abolishing the Kansas Arts Commission right after he took office. I thought it was ridiculous how we supported artists, projects and festivals — many of which were in rural Kansas. I didn’t find it at all disturbing.

Ok, so I’m being sarcaustic again. And I have to acknowledge that part of job creation, maintaining the infrastructure, reducing debt, etc. involves making difficult choices. But it’s frustrating to watch us invest in half a billion dollar traffic projects instead of public transit. And it’s hard to watch my own state kill off its cultural assets for the sake of money.

But today, the victory belongs to the Mid-America Regional Council and the future of automobile transportation in the great state of Kansas. Hoorah! Without the impractical distractions of art and nature, the people of Kansas are elated.

But for how long?

(If you’d like a more friendly and artistic account of the Wetlands and its history, you can read this post from a couple years ago.)

Letter from the (former) editor: 15 steps for avoiding Web media failure

Although I resigned my post as editor and co-founder of back in May 2010, I never took any real opportunity to explain why. But being away for a while has given me some perspective on the experience, so I thought I’d take the time to talk about what happened at KCFP and what I learned from the whole thing.

For those of you who didn’t visit the site during its short tenure, KCFP was an online publication launched by Jeff Henry, the owner of BigShot marketing and a former Pitch sales guy who always wanted to create something similar on his own terms. I was introduced to Jeff through a colleague at Universal Press and quickly went about outlining the site and recruiting different people to take part, including executive editor Jay Senter (who now publishes and Emily Farris, a talented freelance writer for several national sites.

With the help of about two dozen freelancers, we launched a site that focused on a wide range of local news and events, publishing about 20 stories a week along with photo galleries, video features, polls and an extensive events calendar. Though the initial efforts were met with enthusiasm, solid readership and a genuine belief that we were doing something new, financial issues and lack of resources caught up with us rather quickly. After the last of the initial crew quit last summer, the site stayed up under Jeff’s leadership until someone finally flipped the switch in October 2010.

Though KCFP was unsuccessful on many levels, the experience was highly educational, and it’s with that spirit that I’d like to offer these 15 hard-earned guidelines for anyone wishing to enter the wild world of local online publishing.

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