RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Kansas City, the new entertainment district opened with the idea of reviving a downtown area and it's causing a stir with its strict dress code. Now it's not uncommon for nightclubs to ban T-shirts or sneakers, but critics claim these rules discriminate against young African-Americans and Latinos.
Sylvia Maria Gross of members station KCUR reports.
SYLVIA MARIA GROSS: It's almost midnight on a steamy Saturday night and Kansas City's new Power & Light District is teeming with people.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
MARIA GROSS: 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 like these girls wearing short wearing short, satiny dresses and stilettos.
MARIA GROSS: But not everyone is having a good time.
Mr. MARK VASQUEZ(ph): I don't look like everybody else here, plaid shirt, Abercrombie & Fitch, he probably thought I was a Mexican from LA, so…
MARIA GROSS: Mark Vasquez is just turned away at the entrance. He's here from Houston with his brother who's wearing the same outfit but got in. A black T-shirt, dark jeans and sneakers.
Mr. VASQUEZ: There's nothing on my shirt. You can't come in with a black(ph) shirt. Then, when a lot of people show up there, let them in with black shirts. They say my shirt is too long.
MARIA GROSS: 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. That's all when liquor is being served.
Mr. DAN WINTER (ACLU, Kansas): I don't think dress codes were an issue until the Power & Light District.
MARIA GROSS: That's Dan Winter of the ACLU of Kansas in Western Missouri. He has been steadily fielding complaints since the downtown district opened last year.
Mr. 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 what only they wear, really.
MARIA GROSS: The Power & Light district received substantial tax incentives when it was redeveloped by the Baltimore-based Cordish Company, which has a similar project there and in Louisville and Houston. Cordish Vice President Zed Smith says they adopted the dress codes on the advice of police.
Mr. ZED SMITH (Vice President, Cordish Company): We had two specific goals in mind - public safety and decorum. Has absolutely nothing to do with the race.
MARIA GROSS: 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. But then a couple of weeks ago, controversy flared up again, when DJ Jazzy Jeff of "Fresh Prince" fame cut his act short in the show at the Power & Light. Jazzy Jeff says they told him not to play hip-hop. Officials say the music was too loud and it damaged the speakers. Bryan Bass is a contributing editor to Nightclub & Bar Magazine. He says dress codes are standard at nightclubs. They help bouncers keep troublemakers out.
Mr. BRYAN BASS (Contributing Editor, Nightclub & Bar Magazine): Go without a dress code then it certainly becomes a lot more sticky. You know people who are dressing up, there's some thought there that people will behave better than they do on a normal day as well.
MARIA GROSS: Marques McMiller(ph) disagrees. In September, he was turned away from Power & Light for wearing a chain with a cross on it and long shorts.
Mr. MARQUES 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.
MARIA GROSS: The Cordish Company says more than 20,000 people visit the district in the weekend. And argues it's a more diverse crowd than is seen in other parts of town.
For NPR News, I'm Sylvia Maria Gross in Kansas City.
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