As a young adult, I drifted throughout Southern California and worked in a variety of movie industry jobs in order to spearhead my film career. And later I enrolled in USC’s prestigious graduate film program in Los Angeles.
Long ago, Lewis and Clark explored the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and noted that the area by the convergence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers would make an excellent place to build a fort. And later, Kansas City was founded near that site.
I attended USC. The site of Kansas City grew into a metropolis. Both of us developed with grand aspirations and the hope for a better life.
One week ago I visited Kansas City for the first time for the America: Now and Here kickoff celebration. To me (as an uninformed outsider), Kansas City appeared a little sad in a bittersweet way. It had a lot of character and promise built into it, however in the last 60 or so years its inhabitants fled the downtown area for a sea of nondescript strip malls and suburbia surrounding the city. Driving around the city I was shocked to see how empty it was of life. Nobody was around.
But something about this city charmed me. Maybe it’s this particular moment in my life and the fact that I am finishing graduate school, but I personally connected to this bittersweet impression of former promise clashing with the current reality. I, much like Kansas City, was founded with great hope, but at the present moment am a little empty and unsure of what I’ll become.
During the early part of the 20th century, Kansas City went through a period of “Beautification”. Huge boulevards, parks and fountains were added throughout the city. The massive Union Station was built. In fact, Kansas City even earned the nickname, “The Paris of the Plains”. The city was also the second busiest depot for cattle shipping in the US. Train travelers and freight passed through the city on a massive scale on their way back and forth from the West.
Kansas City was ready for greatness on the world scale…
But then reality set in.
The country changed. Airplanes became the predominant method of travel. Kansas City was literally passed over. The city still grew in population but also expanded proportionally geographically. The result was an exodus into isolated sprawling suburbs. Although Kansas City still has some great industries and notable aspects, cumulatively they don’t appear to have a presence that equals the grand designs of the stately parks and boulevards. Even Walt Disney had his start here. But his animation studio, “Laugh-O-Gram” went bankrupt and he moved to Hollywood.
|Walt Disney's Studio|
I’m not here to talk negatively about Kansas City however. Conversely, I discovered the opposite. At first glance Kansas City wasn’t much. For an outsider it appeared like just another characterless suburban sprawl. But then I stumbled into wonderful places within the city and met some great people. Locals pointed me to the Farmers Market by the waterfront and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I also tried out the famous Kansas City barbecue. Unfortunately, the popular “Jack Stack Barbecue” turned out to be the “Cheesecake Factory” of barbecue: boring and whitewashed. Luckily I also discovered “Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue” and “Gates Barbecue”. I must warn, however, that in each of these places the service consisted of visible impatience by the cashiers and yelling as the primary method of taking orders. And the décor, although honest, was a little rough around the edges. BUT, most importantly, the food was amazing and completely unapologetic. You don’t tell barbecue that it’s fat and ugly and that it needs to make itself more presentable. You love it for what it is and dig in with delight. I highly recommend the ribs. Wow.
By chance I also found a print in the Nelson-Atkins museum of one of my favorite photos, a piece by Jim Goldberg (1981) from the series “Rich and Poor”. Read what the wife and husband wrote:
A local also directed me to “The Phoenix” jazz club on Central and 8th. I was privileged to hear Lonnie McFadden sing who was simply, well… amazing. At one point Lonnie’s braces-clad teenage daughter also got up and sang… And it turns out she inherited her father’s musical talents with a fury. In addition, Lonnie played the trumpet and even tap danced on the counter. And unlike a trendy packed jazz club in LA or a major city, The Phoenix was cool, down to earth, and populated by “normal” looking people. Plus it was cheap.
|Lonnie McFadden tap dancing on the counter|
While at the Phoenix I also met a really cool waitress who directed me to a venue in Kansas City’s 18th and Vine district where local musicians were celebrating an engagement of fellow singer. Unexpectedly to me, the Friday night swing band performance turned into a musical showcase where singer after singer stepped up and sang with the band. The night culminated in fireballs, couples swing dancing in the aisles, and the singer performing while marching across tabletops. Other memorable moments were when a guy emerged from the kitchen playing on a metal washboard-like instrument (in the shape of a metal vest) and the busboy doing splits next to my table. I had a feeling I was not in Kansas anymore. In fact, I was in Missouri.
And I was there for only three days.
On the plane ride home back to Los Angeles (and my impeding graduation into temporary unemployment) I thought about why I liked Kansas City so much. Is it a city of lost potential? I don’t know. Is it a potentially charming city with a bright future? Probably… As long as it doesn’t loose itself and the noble aspirations that its inhabitants believed in at the turn of the last century.
And that conclusion I found personally comforting on a self-reflective level.
I’ll admit that in the big picture, you might be able to find better barbecue somewhere else in the country. You’ll probably find better jazz in New Orleans, or Chicago, or better whatever in certain major cities around the country. And like anything in life, you could find a billion things wrong with Kansas City. But that’s not the point. The point is, is that Kansas City unexpectedly charmed me when it revealed itself. And I found it very endearing for what it is.
All you need is ONE good reason to like something. And I liked Kansas City for many.
Thank you Kansas City. You showed me a good time.