The Unplanned Glory of Wornall Road


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© Jack Cashill
Published in Ingramsonline.com - April 2012

Quaint it ain't, but the hum of commercial activity in Waldo should prove instructive for city planners and their good intentions.

A car heading south on Wornall Road drives through the always charming Brookside shopping area, rolls past another mile of amiable neighborhoods, and then, at 72nd Street, crosses abruptly into an urban planner’s vision of hell.

The neighborhood goes by the unlovely name of Waldo. For about a quarter of a block or so, a visitor from the north might think that the magic J.C. Nichols’s touch blessed this neighborhood as well as it did the Plaza and Brookside. On the left, after all, is a large, tasteful “Waldo” sign. On the right is an aesthetically harmonious row of shops—the Yoga Patch, Romanelli Dentist, Romanelli Optics.

That visitor would be mistaken. Those shops are something of a Potemkin front for what may well be the least-planned, least subsidized, least attractive, and most underappreciated stretch of commerce in greater Kansas City.

The Waldo Area Business Association does not deceive itself about the strip’s virtues. Nowhere on its Web site are words like “quaint” or “charming” or even “pleasant.” The area is none of those things. Having begun its commercial life as the holding pen for Alexander Majors’ oxen, the strip has more than managed to honor its aesthetic legacy.

What the Waldo Web site does promise is a “beehive of activity,” all of it “bustling,” “thriving,” and, yes, especially “eclectic.” If, say, on 135th Street in Overland Park, you might have to drive miles to find a single establishment that was not duplicated on a thousand cloned 135th streets across America, on Wornall Road every other joint is sui generis and utterly unscalable.

As far as I can tell there is only one Bobby Baker’s Lounge in the whole world, one Dogs Fun Playce, one Point Loco Cantina, one Young’s KC Mower Center, one Swagger Fine Spirits & Food, one Explorer’s Percussion, one Waldo Grain Company, one Larry’s Wholesale Tire Warehouse, and, for now, only one Stack BBQ—“a proud Kansas City tradition since 2012.”

A classic Wornall business, like Bobby Baker’s Lounge, doesn’t even have a Web site. The heir apparent, Becky Baker, disputes a recent categorization of Bobby Baker’s as a “dive.” She sees it as more of a “neighborhood bar.” Sure, whatever. Observes one 35-year-old female patron, “We come on Wednesday nights and talk to 60-year-olds. You meet super cool people and hear stories and have a great time.” Try doing that on 135th Street.

When the Waldo Grain Company opened in 1916—selling cattle feed and live chickens, among other necessities—it functioned as the city’s first park and ride. Hitch your horse and take the trolley Downtown. The horse hitch remains. If there has been any remodeling in the past century at Waldo Grain, it is not obvious.

As a uniquely Waldo entity, Explorers Percussion need not share its glory with other Explorers Percussions in other distant quarters. Thus, the proprietors have proudly elevated their enterprise to the status of “The Drum and Percussion Destination of the Mid West [sic].” Who is to say otherwise?

Larry’s Wholesale Tire Ware-house—one of about 30 automotive establishments in a two-mile stretch—sits right next to Comfort Dental, an unlikely pairing, but it works. You can drop the car off to get a new set of tires for your car or boat trailer or skid-steer loader or whatever. While waiting, you can walk the kids next door to get their braces adjusted, only $119 a month per kid for braces.

As Comfort’s price points suggest, there is nothing subtle about Wornall commerce. It is raw, unrefined, and in your face. On a good day, you can spot guys dressed as Uncle Sams and Statues of Liberty out waving signs or maybe even a huge, inflatable King Kong. Bring the kids!

If you need money to pay for any of this, you can stop by Cash America Pawn or, better yet, the King of Kash, where loans start at $100 and go all the way up to $3,000. You can’t miss the K of K. A large billboard looms across the street with an arrow pointing to the establishment. Wornall Road is rich with billboards.

There are none on the exquisitely tasteful 135th Street, unless you count the “Space Available” signs. Indeed, the absence of billboards may help explain why there are so many more “Space Available” signs on 135th than on Wornall.

Unlike 135th Street, there are sidewalks on Wornall Road, although, truth be told, no has used them for an actual “walk” since about 1916. Mostly, they are used by people slipping over, say, to Comfort Dental, while they wait for their new tires at Larry’s.

Although the following is something of an oxymoron, Wornall Road represents the automotive fulfillment of the Jane Jacobs vision. I say “oxymoronic” because, like all urban planners, Jacobs hated cars. “Not TV or illegal drugs,” she once wrote, “but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.”

That much said, in the Death and Life of Great American Cities, likely the most influential book written on city spaces, Jacobs railed at the artificial attempt to “plan” New York City. Jacobs argued instead for free markets in land and against zoning laws. Her goal was to encourage dense, mixed-use neighborhoods, like Greenwich Village or—dare I say it?—Waldo.

Until freed of her biases, Jacobs would have surely loathed Wornall Road. Let us say, though, that Jacobs arranged a time-share: her fourth-story Bleeker Street walk-up for a split-level on Jefferson and 78th Street. To dress up her new digs, she wants to buy a Persian carpet for the study and a lamp for the dining room.

She and her husband head to South-side Carpet at 7330 Wornall Road, then on to Dave Smith the Lamp Maker, at 7432 Wornall. Jacobs actually meets the eponymous lampmaker himself, Dave Smith, and his wife Bette.

Jacobs holds the new lamp on her lap, while the old man sticks the carpet out the passenger-side window. “It beats a shopping cart,” concedes Jane. On the way home, they pick up some lunch at Max’s Burgers & Gyros, perhaps the only restaurant in the world featuring that specific food combo. The pair has developed a weakness for Max’s, the old man preferring the gyro, Jane the Big Max Burger.

An hour after leaving home, the lamp is glowing, the carpet is laid, and the Jacobses are happily watching high school basketball on Metro Sports and munching on gyros and burgers. “I don’t miss those stairs,” says the old man.

After a few experiences like this, my guess is that Jane Jacobs would want to add drive-throughs to Greenwich Village shops and some desperately needed local color to 135th Street.

But if Jacobs thought Robert Moses was tough, wait until she meets the Overland Park Planning Commission.

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