KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) – Viewers might have seen “The Irishman” streaming on Netflix and in theaters this weekend. The film is a gangster movie, part of an American film tradition since the days of prohibition.
Of course, Kansas City has its own mob history, one filled with jazz and booze in the roaring 20s. A century later, some local historians believe it's time to celebrate that past.
In many ways, Kansas City as most people know it was born at 18th and Vine. It's one of Erik Stafford's favorite places to bring groups seeing the city through his Kansas City Tour Company.
“This is where Charlie Parker and Harland Leonard played,” Stafford said. “It was a very open and permissive atmosphere.”
Kansas city virtually ignored prohibition, which brought a boom of bootleggers and bebop.
“It was all interconnected,” Stafford explained. “The gangsters, the politicians, the jazz.”
The Jazz District's top boss was Felix Payne, who owned three clubs and a newspaper and is described by Stafford as “Kansas City's epitome of a mover and a shaker.”
In Columbus Park, Sicilian immigrants brought mafia influence to the metro. Former police officer Gary Jenkins hosts a podcast called "The Gangland Wire," and he said KC’s gangland connection quickly spread from speakeasies to city hall.
“Prohibition came along and they organized, got involved in politics,” Jenkins noted.
Jenkins said some homes in the neighborhood had hidden cellars for making wine, and residents even transported the barrels through underground tunnels that are now boarded up for safety.
“They basically ran the entire city,” he said.
Of course, every gangster answered to one man - Tom Pendergast. David Epstein owns Tom's Town Distillery, whose liquors pay tribute to the spirit of that era, and he said that “Boss” Pendergast was bigger than the figures seen in the movies.
“He's not the godfather. The godfather would have reported to Pendergast,” Epstein said. “It's finally happened that Kansas City has rediscovered who we are, what's in our DNA.
In fact, the mob in Kansas City was relatively peaceful, except for election days.
“They'd ride around and make sure you voted the right way, and if you didn't, you'd have to answer to someone,” Stafford explained.
Not a particularly violent syndicate, but a powerful political machine.
“There's always criminal organizations out there, and when they get that big money, you’ve got to watch that political influence,” Jenkins added.
While these stories are not always pretty, Stafford notes that they are “the cultural identity of Kansas City.” And for better or for worse, it helped shape the history of the Paris of the Plains.