Allison Long/Kansas City Star
Some say strict dress codes in Kansas City's Power and Light District discriminate against young African-Americans and Latinos.
Some say strict dress codes in Kansas City's Power and Light District discriminate against young African-Americans and Latinos. Allison Long/Kansas City Star
It's standard practice for nightclubs to enforce dress codes, banning T-shirts, sneakers or hats. But in Kansas City, Mo., a new entertainment district has established some pretty strict rules that some say discriminate against young African-Americans and Latinos. And now the city is trying to encourage business development downtown, while ensuring patrons' civil rights.
It's almost midnight on a steamy Saturday evening, and Kansas City's new Power and Light District is teeming with people. About a dozen new bars, restaurants and clubs are clustered around one block — which has a central, open-air plaza. A lot of people are here for the first time.
But not everyone is having a good time.
"I don't look like everybody else here — plaid shirt, Abercrombie & Fitch; they probably think I'm some Mexican from L.A.," says Mark Vasquez, who was just turned away at the entrance. He's here from Houston with his brother — who was wearing the same outfit, but got in: a black T-shirt, dark jeans and sneakers.
"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 them in with blank shirts," he says. "They say my shirt is too long."
Vasquez probably should have been admitted. The dress code here bans sleeveless shirts on men, excessively baggy or sagging clothing, work boots and sports attire, when liquor is being served.
"I didn't think dress codes were an issue until the Power and Light District," says Dan Winter, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and western Missouri. He's been steadily fielding complaints since the downtown district opened last year. "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 Co., which has similar projects there and in Louisville, Ky., and Houston. Cordish Vice President Zed Smith says they adopted the dress codes on the advice of police.
"We had two specific goals in mind — public safety and decorum," Smith says. "It has absolutely nothing to do with race."
But complaints over the past year led the City Council to pass an unusual ordinance: prohibiting bans on headgear, jewelry, long shorts and white T-shirts. A couple of weeks ago, however, controversy flared up again when DJ Jazzy Jeff, of Fresh Prince fame, cut his set short in a show at Power and Light. Jazzy Jeff says they told him not to play hip-hop; officials say the music was too loud and it damaged the speakers.
Brian Bass is a contributing editor to Nightclub & Bar Magazine. He says dress codes are standard at nightclubs — they help bouncers keep troublemakers out.
"[Because] without a dress code, then it certainly becomes a lot more sticky," Bass says. "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 disagrees. In September, he was turned away from Power and Light for wearing a chain with a cross on it, and long shorts.
"We have different styles in the way we dress; we have different styles in the way we wear our hair," McMiller says. "You know, so again it just comes back to, who are you trying to cater to with this dress code?"
The Cordish Co. says more than 20,000 people visit the district each weekend and argues that it's a more diverse crowd than is seen in other parts of the city.
Sylvia Maria Gross reports for member station KCUR.