As Kansas City's Crossroads District Emerges From The Pandemic, Art Returns As The Main Attraction
On a Friday evening in March, about a dozen people, all masked up, stood in pairs or spread out in the lobby of the Crossroads Hotel, the former site of a Pabst Blue Ribbon bottling and distribution center in the Crossroads Arts District.
They were about to take a hike through the neighborhood.
It was the First Friday of the month, and therefore the occasion for the event that started in the Crossroads Arts District nearly two decades ago — and quickly grew from a low-key event at a few galleries to a sprawling street party.
But, on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic, and a 2019 fatal shooting, it's a lot quieter than it used to be.
That's fine with Lisa Peña, owner and founder of Urban Hikes Kansas City. She's planned several hours of looking at art in galleries and boutique hotels — and streetcar rides.
Peña says she got the idea to lead walking tours listening to a podcast called Side Hustle Nation.
"I just fell in love with the idea," she said, "And I thought, 'Wow, I love the outdoors. I love hiking. I love my city. And why can't I do that here?'" Peña launched her business in March 2019, and what started as a side hustle is now a full-time gig.
"We’re going to be together for about three and a half hours," Peña explains, after brief introductions from the group, which is made up of Kansas City metro residents — including a new resident who lives across the street from the hotel — as well as out-of-town visitors.
Lisa and Tim Trudell from Omaha, Nebraska, run a travel blog called "The Walking Tourists." But Tim says they haven’t traveled much during the pandemic.
"Very little," he said. "We started doing some safe activities, outdoor activities where we would be a safe distance from other people. And we really avoided crowds."
A short walk from the hotel to the galleries winds through an alley dotted with murals, and Peña points out a few along the way, including a whimsical whale.
Travel writer Sage Scott lives in Shawnee, Kansas, and booked the hike with her daughter, Charlotte. She says she budgeted extra time to deal with crowds and parking, but she didn’t need it.
"We were driving down here, my daughter goes, 'Isn't it First Friday?'" she said. "I'm like, 'Is that a thing right now? Cause it's still kind of cold and there's a pandemic and, like, what is even going on on First Friday?'"
First Fridays used to draw tens of thousands of people in fair-weather months. But after a fatal shooting in August 2019 — when Erin Langhofer, of Overland Park, was struck and killed by a stray bullet while waiting in a food truck line — things changed.
Food trucks moved to the outskirts, galleries closed earlier, and a lot fewer people showed up.
"It’s the first time I’ve been to First Friday since the shooting," said Mark Haug, of Liberty. "Everything just kind of shut down from there."
The pandemic shut down what little traffic the area was seeing.
First Fridays got its start in 2001 at a cluster of galleries near 20th Street and Baltimore Avenue, considered the heart of the Crossroads.
Peña's tour visited on the final weekend of artist Jason Pollen's retrospective at Leedy-Voulkos called Witness. Pollen is a former chair of the fiber department at the Kansas City Art Institute. His works in the exhibition ranged from an early framed piece created at the age of 7 to more recent paintings and fiber works.
"We've all been witnessing this very stressful time. People can't go out," he said about the title of the show. "We're all kind of dealing with a lot of things, witnessing a lot of big, you know, dramatic events in our world politically, and in every way."
The Belger Arts Center at 2100 Walnut St. was another stop on the hike.
Gallery associate Mo Dickens said the gallery shut down last March and reopened in June with new protocols: Limited visitors. Required masks. And no freshly popped popcorn near the entrance, a nearly two-decade tradition on First Fridays.
"We had a big popper downstairs," Dickens said, "and it smells so good and it was noisy, you know, how popcorn machines are. And we're just not gonna do that anytime soon, a lot of people reaching into a bin, a communal bin and putting popcorn in bags."
He adds, "So I do miss that, you know, but it's the little things that you miss sometimes."
But Dickens says he’s optimistic.
"You know, after a very cold winter and a crazy year," he said, "it does feel like the Crossroads are starting to bloom again."
Dickens says some changes have been good — especially for those who want to spend more time looking at the art.
"The old days of First Friday, there was a lot of hit-and-run stuff. People popping off the elevator, running through the gallery, and getting right back on," he said. "It just doesn't happen anymore. If you come out to see some art in this day and time, you want to see the art. And so that's been really rewarding."
He added, "I've had some really meaningful talks and walks through the gallery with folks."
Lisa Peña says the Crossroads used to be the final destination on her Urban Hikes Kansas City tour, because of the crowds. But, these days, it's the starting point. There’s just more room to walk around and explore.
"It’s different than it was before," Peña said, "but, I mean, we’re still seeing art, and that’s what First Fridays is all about."
To see which galleries are open for First Fridays, as well as other days during the week (some are open by appointment), check the Crossroads Community Association website.
Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3