Kansas City, MO – After a little more than a year, the new Power & Light District is drawing tens of thousands of people downtown in a weekend, according to the developers. But with that huge influx has come some controversy. The venues' dress codes and a recently botched concert by a hip hop DJ have led to charges of discrimination. The city has responded by passing laws that limit the use of dress codes. KCUR's Sylvia Maria Gross stopped by last weekend to see how these restrictions are playing out at the velvet rope.
It's almost midnight on a steamy Saturday night and the center of the Kansas City Live block is teeming with people.
"Kansas City - let me hear ya! Yaaay!"
About a dozen bars, restaurants and clubs are clustered around this one block - which has a central, open-air plaza. Janice Arenson has come with a bunch of friends after a Royals game. She says she never used to hang out downtown.
ARENSON: We've a couple of friends from out of town and it's actually something you can be proud of. You can be like, 'Oh, you should go downtown', whereas three years ago, you could be like, oh this is the Northland, don't go South."
Many of the women here are dressed for clubbing - short satiny dresses and stilettos. But Arenson's wearing . . .
ARENSON: Jean shorts, a tank top, and flip flops, and I was in!
Not everyone's so lucky.
VASQUEZ: I don't look like everybody else here- plaid shirt, Abercrombie and Fitch, they probably think I'm some Mexican from LA, so . . .
Mark Vasquez is wearing a black t-shirt, dark jeans and sneakers. He's here from Houston with his brother, who was wearing the same outfit, but got in.
VASQUEZ: First it's like nothing on my shirt, you can't come in with a blank shirt . . . and then when a lot of people are showing that they let em in with blank shirts, they say my shirt is too long. So I don't know what is it, when I see people there with open-toed sandals.
Vasquez probably should have been admitted. The dress code posted at the entrance bans sleeveless shirts on men, excessively baggy or sagging clothing, work boots, and sports attire, except on game days. That's all just for the Kansas City Live block, and only during hours when liquor is being served, and ID's are being checked at the gate. Some of the separate bars have their own restrictions.
WINTER: I didn't think dress codes were an issue until the Power and Light District.
That's Dan Winter, of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. He's been steadily fielding complaints since the downtown district opened last year.
WINTER: You can't put a major attraction like that, right next to the center of the African American community and expect them to feel comfortable restricting what they wear, and only what they wear, really.
The Power and Light District received substantial tax incentives when it was redeveloped by the Baltimore-based Cordish Company. Vice President Zed Smith says they adopted these rules on the advice of police.
SMITH: We had two specific goals in mind - public safety and decorum. It has absolutely nothing to do with race.
Smith says dress codes are standard at nightclubs. Brian Bass agrees. He's a contributing editor to Nightclub and Bar Magazine. Bass says these rules help bouncers keep troublemakers out.
BASS: Cause without a dress code, then it certainly becomes a lot more . . . sticky. You know when people are dressing up, there's some thought there that people will behave better than they do on a normal day as well.
Marcus McMiller says it's not about dressing up, but dressing white. The original dress code at Power & Light banned necklaces on men, long shorts, and white T-Shirts. McMiller went there in September, but was told he couldn't enter wearing a chain with a cross on it.
MCMILLER: I agreed, and so, I got ready to take it and put it in the car. But before I could walk off from him another gentleman stepped up to us, he said, well, your pants are too long. I'm not one of these kids - I don't walk around with my pants pulled down. So I pulled up my pants to show him they were already pulled up.
McMiller says he's never gone back.
MCMILLER: We have different styles in the way we dress, we have different styles in the way we wear our hair. You know, so again it just comes back to, who are you trying to cater to with this dress code?
White people have also been turned away for the Power and Light District's dress code. But complaints over the past year led the city council to restrict dress codes at businesses in publicly financed developments. And the city says, so far, the complaints have died down. Cordish Vice President Zed Smith says the entire downtown development is attracting a more diverse crowd than other parts of town.
SMITH: To say that we are . . . we've reached perfection, we have not. Our goal is to not be able to turn anyone away.
Some people are changing the way they dress. Back at the Power & Light district, Justin Gore is wearing a black T-shirt with a glittery pattern on it.
GORE: You got the tight shirt and the Chuck Taylors, and my man's got the Stacey Adams on and the tight shirt you know. I mean we're comfortable now because we're kind of adjusted to it. But like, it's almost out of your comfort zone. Of course you don't want the thugs in here, the quote unquote thugs, but you can't judge people by how they dress.
Meanwhile, Kansas City hasn't seen this kind of nightlife downtown in decades, and it needs the business activity to help repay the cost of the development.