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The Last Resort

Notorious for drugs and prostitution, the midwest hotel faces forfeiture to the state. So we checked in.


Wake-up time at the Midwest Hotel is announced not by a buzzing alarm clock -- rooms at the hotel, long considered one of the biggest dumps in downtown Kansas City, do not have alarm clocks -- but by the sounds of the two-woman cleaning crew, whose shouting voices bounce off the concrete walls every morning between 8 and 9.

A solid three hours before checkout time, the women begin loudly turning over rooms, raising their voices to keep in touch with each other as though they were shouting from opposite ends of a sewer, their loud conversations seemingly conducted for no other reason than to converse loudly. If you'd prefer to snooze beyond 9 a.m. at the Midwest, you'd better be a heavy sleeper, comatose or dead.

I wake up to this phenomenon the second day of my stay, then again every day after. Not a morning passes that I don't half-expect one of my neighbors to leap into the hallway and explode with sleep-deprived, crazy-eyed rage at the ruckus in the hallway. It never happens. Instead, the occasional guest wanders out of his or her room with the meekest of requests, such as the middle-aged woman down the hall who asks one morning to borrow the hotel's Hoover on account of her boyfriend's demand that she be the one to clean their room. "I don't care," she explains, "but he wants me to vacuum."

The same woman returns to the hallway a few minutes later to ask the cleaning duo where she might purchase some underwear. Apparently, someone has suggested Dollar General, but she's hoping for something closer to a Kmart. The women direct her to catch the bus to Bannister Mall. She seems satisfied by this, and for the next half-hour, the cleaning women go back to screaming back and forth as television sets snap to life room by room. On all five floors, meanwhile, guests light up cigarettes, contributing to an odor more than eighty years in the making, a musty smoke with hints of human fluid. It registers especially pungent in the stairwell, which, it so happens, provides the Midwest's best view: A southward framing of the Main Street viaduct crossing over to Crown Center and Union Station through one window, and a southeastern glimpse of the Western Auto building and the Hyatt Regency from another.

The view from the outside looking in isn't so attractive. For years, police and prosecutors have considered the Midwest a drain on their resources, one of the more notorious drug and prostitution spots in Kansas City and a blight to downtown. Citizens routinely call the police to report drug deals both inside and outside the Midwest. Cops have conducted dozens of undercover investigations, many of them yielding easy purchases and even easier arrests. In the past six years, nineteen people (six of them hotel employees) have been arrested for selling drugs -- mostly crack -- inside the Midwest.

Prosecutors say they reached a breaking point earlier this year. When the Midwest once again resurfaced as one of the hottest spots of illicit activity in the city, they began compiling police reports, anything that had to do with narcotics in particular at the hotel at 19th Street and Main over the past decade. They discovered 26 instances in which citizens called to complain about drugs at the hotel. More to the point, they learned of 21 undercover operations leading police to successfully apprehend drug dealers at the hotel, only to see those dealers replaced by new ones.

"You have to understand, we're pulling police reports from many different agencies, from drug enforcement, street narcotics, Jackson County Drug Task Force," says Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor Kathryn Jermann. "So once all those reports came together and we looked at the scope of it and the number of employees involved, that's when we said, 'This is ridiculous.'"

Now the State of Missouri plans to hold the hotel's owner responsible. In the first case of its kind in Jackson County, prosecutors have slapped the Midwest with a "public nuisance" charge in order to seize the hotel from its proprietor of the past 35 years -- without compensation -- and then resell the property on the steps of the county courthouse.

After more than eighty years in business, one of the oldest hotels in Kansas City suddenly faces the prospect of closure, its reputation as one of the most notorious spots in Kansas City threatened by a legal wrecking ball.

So I checked in.

In the hallway, one of the cleaning women screams an unintelligible question to her counterpart.

"What?!" the counterpart screams.

"Are we going to get A-LONG today?!"

The second woman responds with a cackle, and her laughing is answered by laughter from the first. Their mutual guffaws merge at the center of the hall and ride back and forth until everyone on the third floor knows that it's the time to rise.

In room 305, I slowly creep out of bed, aware of every barefoot step I take, and yank the chain that turns on my bathroom light. For the record, I am a spindly white guy with wide-set blue eyes and thick, curly hair that grows from my skull like foliage on a maple tree. When I speak, I tend to mumble and trail out; people don't always hear me, so I'm often forced to ... I'm often forced to repeat myself. In other words, I don't intimidate anyone. My checking into the Midwest isn't an attempt to seem bad-ass. I am not bad-ass.

And, truth be told, the Midwest Hotel is less threatening than it is depressing, a place filled with folks who seem withered and drawn, as if the drugs and alcohol that have so plainly sapped the vitality from them had also pulled them lengthwise like so much human taffy. In the Midwest, they seem to have found a refuge they might not find anywhere else.

A few days into my stay, I go from my room down to the lobby. For a few minutes, I absently watch Dawson's Creek with a haggard old man who drifts to sleep just inside the hotel's front window. At one point, he awakens, coughing like a maniac, then falls back asleep until he's stirred again by a frail woman demanding a cigarette. He hands her one, and by the time she returns to the elevator, he's asleep again.

The lobby at the Midwest contains numerous plants, antique ashtrays, worn-out chairs, stacks of color-coded Mennonite literature, vending machines, a mural of blue skies and mountains, and various appliances devoted to air conditioning, including one called the Smoketeer that has either been defeated by the hotel's aroma or else died in the course of battle.

Things pick up that evening. Three men sit around the lobby, laughing, singing and taking mock swings at each other in imitation of Muhammad Ali. It's all good-natured fun until two of the men disperse and the third becomes distracted, his mind clearly on a matter not settled. Suddenly, he jumps from his chair and takes off down Main Street. He returns several minutes later, bringing with him a tired-looking blonde in an oversized red polo and carrying a 32-ounce fountain drink. He leads her to the elevator, then turns back to the desk clerk before boarding. "If you hear any noise," he says, "it's just me and my boys having fun." Then he laughs uncontrollably, and the elevator door closes.

If I've just witnessed the prelude to an extralegal screwing, it's surely not the hotel's first. Prosecutor Jermann says police documents suggest a prodigious amount of sex-for-pay at the venerable old boarding house, but there was a reason that she focused on drug sales to make her argument in a 36-page indictment that the Midwest should be shuttered. In case after case, she says, it was the employees of the Midwest themselves who were caught trafficking.

Back in December 2001, a female employee stood behind the desk in the Midwest's lobby when two men walked into the hotel wanting a room and, along with it, an eight ball, slang for one-eighth ounce of crack. The desk clerk sent them to room 205 and, prosecutors say, delivered their order several minutes later. She told the men that she worked until 10 p.m. and to call if they needed anything else.

A few months later, one of the men took her up on that offer. This time, the desk clerk led him into the elevator, emptied a baggie of crack, collected $260 and gave the man her address, phone number and work schedule.

"I do this at my house, too," she reportedly said, adding that, because she had two pending drug charges against her, he should always come alone.

According to police reports, the same man returned two more times before KCPD officers arrested the desk clerk for selling drugs to an undercover cop.

Seven months later, police arrested another Midwest employee and two guests for helping another undercover officer score crack.

Then, earlier this summer, an undercover cop reportedly bought crack from yet another desk clerk on two occasions, both times inside the hotel. After her arrest, police say, she incriminated three more Midwest employees as well as a resident occupying multiple rooms at the hotel.

Along with several guests, narcotics officers have arrested five Midwest employees in the past six years. When it came time for prosecutors to decide how to proceed with the Midwest, that statistic is what separated the hotel from drug dens elsewhere in the city.

"That's what makes this hotel so unique," Jermann says. "We don't have any other business in the city that we're aware of that has so much activity on behalf of the employees. It's one thing if you have guests moving in and selling crack, but it was just so systematic. You had tenants who were dealing, you had employees who were dealing, you had people who were selling out front in order to undercut the sales inside the hotel. The entire thing was this bizarre capitalist drug market."

By the time I checked in, the Midwest's management had made a few noticeable changes in response to the state's complaints. The hotel staff would no longer rent rooms between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and desk clerks required identification from guests. At least, that's what a sign on the front door said. And though I saw nothing to suggest that either of those rules was regularly violated, there were other signs in the Midwest, such as the faded "No Smoking" sticker on the elevator, which deterred no one, including the daytime elevator operator who kept a personal ashtray on a ledge in the lift itself.

The Midwest Hotel offers two types of rooms: The so-called "plain room" ($25.50 a night or $119.50 a week) and its upscale alternative ($33 a night or $154 a week). The latter has its own toilet. It also has its own claw-foot bathtub; showerheads are scarce and generally found only in the community showers at the end of the floor, just across the hall from the community toilet for those staying in plain rooms.

All five floors are pretty much the same, with the exception of wall art and carpet patterns, all of which seem complicated and orange-based. Outside every room door is a saloon-style gate that locks using the same sliding mechanism as public-toilet stalls. When in their rooms, many occupants keep their doors open and their gates closed, allowing sound from their television sets to travel freely, echoing off the concrete walls.

For a place without showerheads, the Midwest provides a lavish cable-TV setup, including ESPN, BET and two separate HBO channels. The frills end there, though. A twin-sized bed with white sheets and a floral comforter takes up most of my room, leaving space for a bedside table and lamp, a sheet-metal desk and the table on which my TV sits, just below a window-unit air conditioner. The walls, of course, are concrete and only slightly harder than the floor, which is covered by something barely resembling an actual carpet. Exposed bulbs hang over both the bathroom and the bedroom, where a two-bladed fan appears ready to maim.

Nearly everything in the room is stained -- sheets, towels, carpet, curtains, mirrors, television, desk, sink and bathtub. There are stains in this room, I realize with some concern, that are older than I am.

Even the yellowed emergency-exit notice on the inside of my door, so old it refers to a 1949 statute, is soiled. It's as though someone threw an egg at the sticker and the resulting explosion left a baseball-sized splat that trickled down the door in thin streaks. This stain, though, is red, or was red at one time and has since settled into the kind of post-red that looks like an exit wound, which is poetic considering the sign's purpose.

At night, TVs roar throughout the Midwest, and it becomes a kind of game to determine which program is the most popular at a given time, whether more people are interested in the movie on HBO or the NFL game on ESPN. Occasionally, somebody will walk to the bathroom at the end of the hall, and the ensuing flush will dilute the clarity of warring television sets. It is all very monotonous until one night, between midnight and 2 a.m., when a room down the hall seems to attract a nonstop flow of traffic.

The first few people come and go innocently enough, but then visitors keep arriving and departing in similar shifts. The stairwell door swings open, someone walks down the hall, knocks on the door and enters. A few minutes later, that person leaves the room and walks back down the stairwell. Later, another person does the same. And another. A little before 2 a.m., I hear the phone ring in the room down the hall, and shortly thereafter, another person emerges from the stairwell, knocks on the door, enters and leaves a few minutes later. Later, the phone rings again, and another person pays a visit.

Someone appears to be doing land-office business in the middle of the night.

But personally, as nuisances go, it isn't all that bothersome, other than making it nearly impossible to follow the action on the TV blaring across the hall.

The Midwest Hotel first appeared in the Kansas City Directory in 1916, two years after Union Station replaced the West Bottoms' Union Depot as the area's jumping-off point. A classified advertisement at the time introduced the Midwest's proprietor as a man named J.E. Fluke and noted that the hotel at 1925 Main was "absolutely fire proof" and conveniently located "just two blocks north of Union Station." Nothing more needed to be said.

Farther north, ritzier hotels, such as the newly built Muehlebach, were providing guests with trendy amenities. Closer to Union Station, the fare was more meager. Within a few years of the new depot's opening, Main Street between 17th and 20th streets filled with hotels and saloons that catered to budget-minded travelers, salesmen in particular, looking for a break and finding cheap rooms at places such as the Midwest Hotel, the All Nations Hotel, the Lennox Hotel, the Evans Hotel, the Viaduct Hotel, the Grand Hotel and the Palace Hotel, almost all of which changed names at least once, the Midwest being a notable exception.

When rail transportation declined, most of the hotels closed. Some of them still stand today, though they've been redeveloped to accommodate businesses rather than transients. Only the Midwest still functions as it originally did more than eighty years ago. Back then, the Midwest was not some fancy downtown joint. It wasn't the Savoy or the Phillips or the President or the Pickwick or the Muehlebach, with their in-room telephones and lavish hotel parties. It was, like other lodgings in the immediate neighborhood, a "traveler's" hotel.

A few years ago, urban redeveloper Adam Jones took notice of the Midwest while working on two buildings across the street, the Monroe and the Rieger, both former hotels. In the Monroe, Jones was renovating a longtime eyesore, a vacant mess that remains an irritation to its neighbors. He had heard a rumor that the owner of the Midwest Hotel had once tried to purchase the Monroe in a deal that fell through.

To Jones, the Midwest isn't a fleabag hotel with a nagging reputation as a crack shop. Instead, it looks like hot property.

"Right now in Kansas City, if you're an urban redeveloper like me, you love it that there has been an owner of the Midwest Hotel," he says. "Because it is a functioning building. It's got a roof, it's got a gutter, it's got air conditioning, he's sandblasted it, he's tuck-pointed all of the structural framework of it, his terra-cotta is not falling off, he's got a lobby, he's got a sign. If he had been allowed to buy the Monroe, it would be open right now just like the Midwest. Now, that says a lot if you ask me."

Jones isn't the only person fond of the Midwest. Six years ago, Chris Seferyn, co-owner of the Velvet Dog, Empire Room and Trocadero along 31st Street, expressed interest in buying the Midwest and reinventing it as a hip hotel targeted at "creative people" visiting or passing through Kansas City.

Next door to the Midwest, Hereford House owner Rod Anderson also looked into buying the old hotel. With a good portion of the restaurant sitting on the hotel's property, Anderson already faced monthly lease payments to the Midwest's owners. With the right price, he figured he could convert the hotel into a bed and breakfast. As it turned out, the price wasn't right, and Anderson passed as well. But now more than ever, he sees the potential for a bed and breakfast or lofts moving into the property next door. "It's a great location," he says.

He's right. In recent years, the Crossroads Art District has turned the neighborhood surrounding 19th Street into one of the hottest areas in Kansas City -- so hot, in fact, that soaring property assessments threaten to drive away the very artists and gallery owners who made it such a desirable spot in the first place. On First Fridays when the weather is good, hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens pass the Midwest Hotel on their way to galleries and restaurants.

There has never been any secret about the Midwest's status. It opened as a working man's hotel. Almost ninety years later, it remains a refuge for transients. And though it may be a dump -- a stinky, stained, sordid dump -- if a state court determines that it should be taken away from its owner, it will likely become one of downtown's most sought-after properties, one with guaranteed income thanks to the Hereford House next door. Anderson, for one, would buy it. "If I could, I would. If I had the money."

None of the neighbors I spoke to branded the hotel an extreme nuisance to the area. Those familiar with the owners described them as good, responsive neighbors. In fact, along Main Street, the boarded-up Monroe Hotel seems a greater concern.

In her own investigation of the hotel, Jermann says she's heard complaints from some neighbors as well as concern that the timing of the Midwest's legal troubles coincides with the real estate boom going on in the Crossroads. "That has absolutely nothing to do with our motivation," Jermann says. "I'm just looking at police reports. That's it."

The Midwest is not the only hotel under fire. Jermann confirms that Drug Abatement Response Team is investigating a handful of seamy inns throughout Jackson County for similar reasons. So far, however, only the Midwest faces the threat of forfeiture come December. And unlike its fleabag peers, only the historic Midwest stands to create a maelstrom of real estate activity should it fall on the courthouse steps.

"There will be all types of developer guys fighting to get it because they want to make a condo or lofts," Jones says. "Yeah, there will be a little bit of a fight. Some folks want to buy it for sure, man. For sure."

The owner of the Midwest Hotel is a tan, elderly man named James Remer. After more than three decades of ownership, Remer still takes an active role in the Midwest's on-site management. Depending on the day of the week, he can be found behind the front desk or reloading the vending machines.

Remer contends that he's addressed the state's issues with his hotel and that "the powers that be" are out to shut him down anyway. Beyond that, he won't comment on the pending prosecution.

Jackson County prosecutors say they've already given Remer a chance. The decision to seek forfeiture charges came only after repeated indications that Remer was turning a blind eye to the drug dealing inside his own hotel. On multiple occasions, prosecutors sent Remer letters advising him to be more judicious when selecting employees and admitting tenants. After each letter, they say, drug activity at the hotel would briefly quiet down and police would focus on other priorities. Before long, though, dealing would start again, and the Midwest's infamy would live on.

New complainants would call the police about drugs at the hotel, and not just passersby. According to a June 2002 complaint, one room-serving dealer, a front desk attendant, dealt crack under the name "Mr. Remedy."

Earlier this summer, prosecutors threw up their hands.

"Even if they do clean it up, given their history I'm not sure whether we would be willing to drop the nuisance charges," Jermann says. "Part of the reason is, we've had communication with this owner since 1995, and over the years we've gotten a song and dance."

Remer bought the hotel in 1968. A year later, Richard Milford started working at the hotel, initially putting himself through college on the money he made and eventually becoming Remer's business partner. Milford shrugs when asked about the state's charges, as if he's both unimpressed and insulted by allegations that his workplace of 34 years is a nuisance. "We give chances to poor people you aren't supposed to give chances to," he says. Years ago, the hotel served cash-strapped salesmen traveling by train. Today, it's day laborers, people who step into the Midwest's lobby and ask for "something cheap with air conditioning."

"Those are my people," Milford says.

If the hotel closes, Milford estimates that 60 to 100 people will be out on the street and 10 employees will lose their jobs. He adds that he and Remer will probably go bankrupt -- though it seems likely that they will sell the place before the state can take it away from them.

Next-door neighbor John Parks, who owns DB Warehouse, a gay nightclub, is rumored to be interested in buying the hotel. Parks denies that he has spoken to Remer about it, but he defends Remer's attempts to limit the illicit goings-on at the hotel. Parks says Remer's changes have reduced the amount of street activity in front of the Midwest. "I think the man should have the opportunity to clean up his business," the nightclub owner says.

My last day at the Midwest comes surprisingly early. In the morning, I leave to get coffee, and when I return, I notice the cleaning women standing outside my room, watching me as I step out of the elevator. When I pass them, I notice that my door is open and all of my things are stacked on a chair. It's still a solid hour before checkout time, and I'm confused because I think I'm scheduled to stay another day.

Downstairs, I'm told I'm mistaken, so I hand over my key, which I'm used to doing. The Midwest doesn't let guests leave the building with their keys, so I've given up my key a number of times. But now it's for good, and though I feel no sorrow about going home to my clean, HBO-less apartment, there's something disturbing about the idea of this place being seized by the state, something harsh about the place being declared a nuisance. I figure it's always been something of a nuisance, at least to people who don't need a cheap place to stay.

Seeking out other opinions, I talk to my fellow guests. One man appears shocked to hear that the Midwest might close but proclaims that he can't walk down the hall without being offered drugs or bothered for sex, or bothered for drugs and offered sex. Another man says, yes, of course the hotel should absolutely be closed down, but not for drugs. He believes the Midwest has structural issues no one's talking about, but offers nothing to back that up, just an oblique expression followed by a plea for bus fare.

For years, the owners of the Midwest Hotel have put off potential buyers, but the state may force their hand. In a year, the lobby of the Midwest will not look the same as it does on my last visit, when I talk to Milford, who is distracted by his various midmorning duties. He's putting drinks in the vending machine. He's answering the phone. He's checking out one guest, then listening to a cleaning woman groan about a man not ready to check out, though the man still has an hour to do so.

The elevator door opens, and into the lobby creeps an old man depending on a walker to stay vertical. As he sits down to read a newspaper, looking almost as though he's about to eat it, a large man enters the hotel, walks all the way to the vending machines against the far wall and sets down his bag, staying several feet away from the front desk. When Milford asks if he needs a room, the man gazes at his watchless wrist and indicates no, it is not time for that, then buys a bag of potato chips and leaves. Milford just raises his eyebrows as if to ask, "See what I mean?" though it's unclear what he means.

Then again, maybe he means this: Right now, downtown, you can get a room for $25 a night. And though you may shudder to think what that $25 buys, you're probably not the intended patron. Neither am I. Instead, we're the ones who will hunger after the lofts this place might become without a thought for the folks who made the Midwest a living part of the city's history for so many years. When that happens, I'll remember the Midwest's bored nighttime security guard who, a few nights earlier, had dismissed my news that the state might be shutting the place down.

"Who?" he had asked.

The state.

"For what?"

Things that have gone on in the past. Drug stuff.

"No," he'd said, shaking his head with blind-eyed confidence. A new hire, he was there to make sure those wild days were over. "That's why we're here."

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