This simple painted letter demonstrates how easily things can turn a Westport bar from a good time to a scene of murderous violence. That’s exactly what happened Sunday night after last call. A fight outside the bar escalated to gunshots, leaving Neka Gleason, age 20, dead and her 23-year old brother, Kenyan, in the hospital.
According to Katie Quayle, a Westport bartender at Harry’s Bar and Tables, the bar and neighborhood aren’t at fault.
“It’s not a bad place at all,” Quayle said. “The owners are great, the neighbors are great, the whole place is great. But Sundays are sketchy.”
The Labor Day bloodshed at The Point took place less than a month after four people were injured in a shooting at 40th and Broadway Aug. 9. Five days prior, a fight broke out two blocks north at 37th and Broadway, in which a man tried to defend himself by throwing burning trash at his assailants.
According to last year’s Missouri College Health Behavior Survey, 67.5% of UMKC students polled reported drinking alcohol within the last month. Since UMKC is a dry campus, there is nowhere for students to drink or buy alcohol under the university’s supervision. This means that they have to drink in off-campus bars or residences. The Westport area, then, is the closest party-district for students. But how safe is it?
“There’s just too many people and not enough security,” Quayle said.
AreaVibes.com, a crime statistic site that focuses on specific neighborhoods, shows a one in 25 chance in being a victim of a crime in Westport. The site also estimates that violent crime there is more than double the national average.
Knowing that Westport is dangerous doesn’t stop UMKC student Amelia Ernstmann, 22, from going there to drink.
“I think I’m a pretty smart drinker,” Ernstmann said. “I don’t ever get over the top, falling on the floor, puking my guts out drunk. I usually have friends with me who can help keep me out of danger and questionable situations.”
Sarah Kane,23, mostly agreed with Amelia.
“I do find though, off-campus, you run into a whole slew of sketchy people, especially in Westport,” Kane said. “I always have my guard up. Even if I’m s—faced drunk, and my friends have met a guy and they’re hanging out, I watch them like a hawk.”
Drinking is part of the college experience. It’s natural for students, who are of drinking age, to want to go out and socialize. Going out to Westport, however, means taking extra precautions against dangerous situations. Quayle lists some helpful tips for staying safe:
- Always have your keys in your hand or have a weapon of some sort. Mace can be very effective in warding off a predator.
- Don’t be on your phone talking.
- Let people know where you are and where you are going.
- Travel in groups if you can.
- Park in well-lit areas.
- Take a cab or Uber home, and let your friends know the name of the driver and where you are going.
- Text your friends when you get home.
- Even if you’re not drunk or drinking, bad things can still happen. Make sure to be aware of your environment and the people around you.
Dan Goulet, bouncer for Westport’s Buzzard Beach, points out most of the violence that occurs in Westport happens in the periphery of the area. Bars that are in the center of Westport have more security and people are less likely to commit a crime in a larger group of people. The Point Bar is more isolated from the rest as it sits between Westport and the Plaza. The August shooting took place farther north on Broadway as the bars begin to thin out.
While not drinking may be the safest route to take, it may not be the most realistic. Dr. Eric Grospitch, UMKC Dean of Students, would like to see this issue discussed openly.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you should never drink,” Grospitch said. “Do I think it’s a good idea? No. But am I going to be the voice of abstinence only? Heck no. But I sure would love us to be having a better conversation about it.”
The university isn’t making any plans to lift the campus ban on alcohol, but Grospitch points out that they are working with Whole Foods to build a store at the corner of 51st. and Brookside, across from the Administration building. As a Missouri grocery store, it will have a full selection of alcohol. While the project may be a couple years away, some current alternatives to drinking in Westport may be safer for students. Pizza 51, located in the same block where Whole Foods will be built, serves a beer selection of imported, domestic and microbrews. Also, Mike’s Tavern, at 5424 Troost, is the closest bar to campus. It is also the only bar within the UMKC police patrol perimeter.
Both Kane and Ernstmann felt safer at Mike’s Tavern than in Westport.
“I think it’s safer because most of your crowd are regulars, so you know who you’re with,” Kane said. “The bouncers are pretty strict. So guys that get frisky or drunk or aggressive, they’re out the door. In Westport there are too many people. You just can’t keep an eye on everyone.”
Drinking responsibly means being as safe as you can be. There may not be a perfect way for students to go out and drink without the threat of crime and violence, but being aware of the dangers will hopefully help to limit those risks.