The Fifty States: Hawaii to Maryland

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Continuing my record of impressions of the fifty states, based on a lifelong journey that ended in early October in South Dakota.

Hawaii: My sister lived there for years, but I didn’t bother to go until 2000. I spent a week tooling around Honolulu and the North Shore. In a word: bo-ring. I’ve never been a lay-on-the-beach-sipping-Mai-Tais kind of guy. As someone who finds strolling through Grand Central Station at rush hour a relaxing experience, it’s only natural that I would find tropical locales wanting. The beaches and the mountains were pretty; the food weak; the arts scene non-existent. Not my kind of place. I will say that the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor was a very memorable experience.

Idaho: Three trips, two to Coeur D’Alene and one to Pocatello. The Idaho panhandle is quite beautiful. The white supremacists must have been hiding on my trips because I never saw any indication they existed. Not a lot of diversity in this state, however. Coeur D’Alene is a lovely town that needs to upgrade its restaurant and performing arts scenes. Pocatello has a rather dowdy downtown and stunningly blue skies. I hear Moscow is the place to go for music, so I’ll probably drive over in the next couple of years.

Illinois:ย Numerous trips to Chicago and environs, plus one drive through Southern Illinois. Chicago is a world unto itself, a vibrant and diverse metropolis with a great big city feel. My first walk through the city happened right after I got out of college and remains one of my favorite memories. I was walking up Michigan Avenue immersing myself in the sights and sounds and people when an old man with a Central European accent noticed my ga-ga expression, stopped and said, “It’s life!” and flung his arm out as if he were introducing me to the city. The Chicago Art Institute is a great museum, and yes, I did Wrigley but I liked Fenway better. Southern Illinois is farmland that has no connection to Chicago except they’re contained by lines on a map.

Indiana: As you may have divined from Ringing True, I spent a lot of time in Evansville—an entire winter, to be exact. I was doing a leadership training program for a company there and wound up living in a cabin on the CEO’s estate from January through March. At the time, my home was in San Francisco, so Evansville was a major culture shock. The one place downtown that served espresso was only open 10 to 2 weekdays. The restaurants were all American bland, even the Italian and Chinese places. What they called sourdough bread was white bread flavored with vinegar. In spite of that, I grew to love the place, a “place that time forgot.” The people were friendly without being excessively demonstrative and liked their uncomplicated lives and predictable schedules with Friday night pizza and beer. The Ohio River approached flood stage while I was there, a pretty impressive display of hydraulic power. Took some side trips to New Harmony and Newburgh; both are very pleasant little towns. The thing I remember most is going to the grocery stores at 7 pm and finding them almost totally deserted. Where were the Hoosiers? At the basketball court, of course! Towards the end of my visit I got tickets to a basketball game, a meaningless matchup between two college teams with losing records who had no chance of going to the Big Dance. That didn’t matter to the Hoosiers—once the referee tossed the ball over the opposing jumpers the place transformed into bedlam. A white-haired grandmother sitting next to me knitting before the game morphed into a screaming demon, shouting at the referees and jumping three feet into the air when her team scored. I am absolutely convinced she would not have hesitated to attack an opposing player with her knitting needles had she been sitting courtside. Basketball is religion to a Hoosier and high school basketball scores are usually the lead story on the late night news.

Iowa:ย Traversed the state in the 80’s, stopping in Davenport, Iowa City and Des Moines. My overwhelming impression is the color white: white buildings, white people surrounded by corn fields. The best thing that happened to me was meeting one woman who wound up as a pen pal for several years and another who followed me all the way to California to test my sexual prowess.

Kansas: Visited earlier this year, driving through Eastern Kansas. Omnipresent Christianity. Dropped in on Fort Scott and left wondering why they bothered to make it a historical site. Kansas didn’t leave much of an impression and I have no reason to go back at present.

Kentucky: Spent a week in Louisville attending a training course. All I remember is how frigging cold it was and that during my stay, manhole covers kept exploding and flying into the air for some reason.

Louisiana:ย We vacationed in New Orleans pre-Katrina. I gained five pounds during my stay. New Orleans and Las Vegas are really the only two places in America where people can still let go. The French Quarter is a kick and has excellent shopping. Sure, it’s a bit touristy in spots, but the tourists are having a good time like everyone else. The Garden District, with homes that have somehow survived years of humidity and the unrelenting pressure of tree roots, is a must-see. We cleared the dance floor one night in a Bourbon Street bar while dancing to a cover band doing Lynyrd Skynyrdย tunes . . . my love and I get pretty intense on the dance floor. Sort of like fucking with our clothes on, standing up.

Maine:ย Spent four days in bed & breakfasts on a New England fall trip. Portland is a pretty cool city, but I found the rest of the state wanting in terms of hospitality and warmth. Stayed in Bar Harbor, Ogunquit and another place whose name escapes me. Traveled over from Vermont and New Hampshire and found a town called Rumford that looked lovely from inside the car but once you left your hermetically sealed environment the horrid smell of a paper mill knocked you on your ass.

Maryland:ย Two visits to Baltimore. The first was part of a D. C. trip; I wanted to see the Orioles. On the second trip, I happened to arrive on a day when the city was the hottest place on the planet. It was extraordinarily frustrating to stand next to the water at Harborview and not feel one scintilla of relief. As such, I don’t have firm impression of either Baltimore or Maryland except I know I will never go there in the summer again.

Photo Credit:ย ยฉ N.l | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Kansas City: A Review

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Union Station with the KC Skyline in the Background

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.

KC Live, Part of the Power & Light District Investment