When I told people at work that I was going to spend a week’s vacation in Kansas City, every person responded in exactly the same manner.
“What for?” they would ask, narrowing their eyes and sneering as if they had tasted milk long past the expiration date.
My answers varied, but generally included that Kansas City was one of the few major cities in the U. S. that I hadn’t seen; or that I really wanted to go to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Truman Library; and that I wanted to use the opportunity to take a quick side trips to Kansas and Oklahoma to cross them off my fifty-state list. None of my responses managed to wipe the looks of wondering disgust from their faces. Even after all of them admitted they’d never been to Kansas City either, the sour milk sneers remained in place.
I went anyway, and I had a great time. I had such a great time that I have to put Kansas City on my list of favorite U. S. cities along with New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Boston. I liked it so much that I’d go back again without a scintilla of hesitation.
Most people consider Kansas City a hick town. The cowtown image from the days when slaughterhouses ruled the city still sticks. Kansas City also has a tendency to attract disasters, such as the downpour that crushed the roof at Kemper Arena and the architectural tragedy of the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. It’s location at the heart of Tornado Alley isn’t a particularly helpful addition to its resume. Some remember the long school desegregation battle, the race riots after the King assassination and the dominance of corrupt political machines supported by gangsters. The Royals and the Chiefs have been also-rans for decades.
Well, I’m here to tell you that this hick town has some of the best museums (both historical and art) in the country, striking and often delightful architecture, great restaurants, fabulous and diverse theatre offerings and some drop-dead gorgeous neighborhoods. In terms of overall cultural opportunities, Kansas City ranks with the best in the U. S. A.
Kansas City has its problems. The city core still lacks buzz, decimated by a combination of white flight and the interstate highway system implementation. The neighborhoods all have signs of a weak core economy with too many “for lease” signs and abandoned buildings. The summer humidity is murderous and winters are bitter and bleak. The crime rate is too high. Worst of all, the lack of a public transportation system uniting the diverse neighborhoods means that you spend way too much time driving to your destination. Poor urban planning means that the spaces between those neighborhoods are often filled with low-level manufacturing operations instead of shops and strolls. The city lacks a major university, which dampens both economic potential and the level of attraction to companies desiring locations near highly-educated talent pools.
But the city still has more pluses than minuses, and the $6B investment to transform the downtown’s Power & Light District into an entertainment mecca should pay off in the not-so-distant future. The Westport neighborhood is a kick, echoing the energy and diversity of Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art are both exceptional, with the Nelson-Atkins experience heightened its opening to the Kansas City Sculpture Park, which features works by Rodin, Henry Moore and Calder. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and National World War I Museum both offer well-curated and intensely emotional experiences. Only a few miles out of town, The Truman Library models the search for truth, particularly in the section devoted to Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb, which is filled with quotations from those who violently disagreed with the decision. The theater scene is alive and well, with multiple theatre companies offering enough variety to keep audiences on their toes.
And the food is both fabulous and far more diverse than in many American cities. We did the ritual stop at the original Arthur Bryant’s for barbecue (excellent, despite the long lines), the Webster House (a very fine restaurant within an antique store), The Marrakech Cafe in Westport (super Moroccan food), The Dubliner (best Irish Bread Pudding on the planet) and a few other places and were very happy with the quality, service and selection everywhere.
Some cultural oddities of note: we saw lots of single-gender groups at restaurants (girls having lunch with the girls, guys hanging out with the guys). That’s much more rare in Seattle, where mixed groups are the norm. Except for the Broadway Cafe in Westport, we didn’t find a decent coffee place, and Coffee Mate is still the prominent creamer. We didn’t see a single dog for four days, which is definitely NOT the norm in Seattle or San Francisco. I was surprised that the music scene was comparatively weak, especially given the city’s historical contributions.
In the end, though, we were never bored, could not find the time to see everything we wanted to see and had some moving and memorable experiences with history, art and city life. I really hope Kansas City keeps working towards its potential, uniting the neighborhoods with good planning and transportation and never losing touch with its unique and extensive contributions to culture.