The Central Avenue Bridge, erected a century ago, is only 22 feet wide. The level that remains open to traffic sits in the shadow of the deck above, another 22 feet away. Driving across it, from Missouri into Kansas or Kansas into Missouri, feels like an act of loud levitation.
Walking on it — something you see various betrothed persons and young families doing when you ask Google to show you pictures of the bridge, now a popular setting for photo shoots — is less than ideal for the phobic. Through the iron grating underfoot, the running river is always visible. The metal slats are wide enough to make you tuck your keys deeper into your pocket. The railings are low.
Carmen Moreno loves this bridge. It recalls parties when she was at the Kansas City Art Institute a decade ago, memories of illicit bonfires and of reading the endless graffiti scrawls and of watching the sister cities blink in the night.
From here you can see Strawberry Hill, and Kansas City, Kansas. You can see downtown Kansas City, Missouri’s skyline. Nearby, around a bend, is Kaw Point, the convergence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers. Off the bridge in one direction is a rail yard dead end. The other way lies the West Bottoms, the floodplain at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers where thriving livestock and industrial businesses required grand brick warehouses and made this Central Avenue span essential.
Today, the bridge is emblematic of a project that Moreno has spent more than a year working on: West Bottoms Reborn.
From April 26 through May 12, the bridge and its surroundings factor into an ambitious set of public programs marking Reborn’s culmination. (A book will follow in the late summer.) Tours and talks and boat excursions and lessons delivered via phone app put the area’s history into relief while suggesting designs for its future.
In 2015, the Historic West Bottoms Association began conferring with the Kansas City Design Center and Kansas City, Missouri’s Office of Culture and Creative Services to find ways to improve the district’s infrastructure and connectivity.
Recognizing that artists had already begun to colonize the West Bottoms, as had happened in the Crossroads a generation ago, leaders of those groups sought a National Endowment of the Arts Our Town Grant, designed to spark revitalization and, as the West Bottoms Reborn website puts it, place the arts “at the table with land-use, transportation, economic development, education, housing, infrastructure, and public-safety strategies.”
In 2016 the money came through: $100,000. Moreno joined the team as its design consultant, recruiting her fellow artists and designers to devise the ideas and events set for the coming days.
“For me, it’s about how we interpret place and envision the future,” Moreno says. “There’s a 10-year convergence plan in the West Bottoms, and as we think about economic development while preserving art and art culture, it’s about protecting or creating viewsheds” — sights that are historically or artistically unique.
On the bridge, Moreno gestures toward the colorful tags that cover nearly every surface.
“We may not be initially attracted to graffiti art, for instance — I wasn’t, at first — but then we begin to decode and understand it, and it’s another way to see the city as a living gallery, a living system, and how that can be integrated into development.”
When the Kansas City Design Center did a survey to ask people why they visit the West Bottoms, she says, “something like 73 percent of the people said graffiti art. It’s the No. 1 reason.”
“People come to get photographed near it, against it,” adds Sean O’Dell, a copywriter at an advertising firm who is leading a graffiti tour in the Bottoms this weekend.
He points at brick walls and dumpsters and street signs that have become graffiti hosts.
“There’s a kind of poetry in it, along with encrypted messages. People still ride the rails, and they leave monikers and messages. I get excited finding new pieces of graffiti.”
Recent Krylon hits are often as new as the Bottoms gets. The Ship, an iconoclastic bar, hosts live music and serves food, and the Blip coffeehouse hums every day, but the vibe around here is determinedly vagabond. Secondhand shops that have sprung open here over the past few years draw a teeming customer base but ensure demand by keeping irregular hours.
One sleepy Saturday afternoon, a quartet of promgoers scouts the best spot to snap photos, perpendicular to a similarly outfitted wedding party. A twin-engine plane turns overhead while a freight train ambles close and a tractor-trailer truck waits for a cyclist to pass before advancing through an intersection. It wouldn’t be too surprising to see a cattleman tie up his horse.
Here and there, gravel and dirt give way to ruts that, despite the day’s dryness, stay muddy. Across from Blip is something closer to a small crater lake.
“As far as we can tell, this is the bottom of the West Bottoms, the lowest point of the (city’s) lowest point,” Moreno says, indicating a depression in which a Coke can bobs in brown water. “We’re in a flood plain, and this the old watershed finding its way back. There’s a drain over there that doesn’t work.”
She points up. Each building nearby shows where floodwaters once peaked, two or three stories up. This is the West Bottoms of old, where weather fought commerce to a draw before the highway system piled on to ensure defeat.
Among the Reborn project’s contributors is Timothy Amundson, founder of the Turkey Creek Institute for Phenomenal Awareness. His tours lend some perspective: To be in the West Bottoms is to see something of the Pleistocene. Before the cattle came the geology; the latter is still on view.
Amundson’s lessons are among the more obviously sanctioned events. A couple of the offerings, Moreno acknowledges, exist in something of a legal gray area. She’s thinking of the blindfolded tour of West Bottoms sounds, whose guide is billed under a pseudonym. With NEA money footing the bill and various buttoned-down municipal agencies in two cities watching, how has Moreno mapped these parts of the program?
“It doesn’t necessarily work well,” she says, and laughs. “It’s been very hard to find a space to give agency to this kind of DIY study, this layer of grassroots knowledge. That’s been my work, integrating that realm into the arena.”
At city hall, Megan Crigger, director of creative services with Kansas City’s Office of Culture and Creative Services, seems to have Moreno’s back.
“One of the unexpected outcomes of the West Bottoms Reborn project has been the discovery of new ways of seeing and experiencing the beauty of West Bottoms through the eyes of artists, designers and planners,” Crigger says. “The creative placekeeping aspect of this project, which involves continually seeing and appreciating the West Bottoms’ past and present as it continues to grow and evolve, will be the success of the West Bottoms as a future cultural destination.”
So graffiti will be respected, and architectural decay will resist being coded as ruin porn for photo tourists.
And you don’t need a blindfold to appreciate the sounds. Away from the whooshing interstates, back on the bridge, the structure makes itself heard. Every footstep is a percussive clank, and the spinning of tires becomes a single tenor note held as a vehicle travels from one end to the other. Even the wind sounds fine-tuned, a song neither old nor new.
West Bottoms Reborn, April 26 through May 12. A schedule of events is are detailed programming notes are at westbottomsreborn.com.
Scott Wilson is a writer and editor in Kansas City. Contact him at email@example.com.