Hola fellow web travelers. As a follow-up to my return to the online world I thought I’d connect with my prior post by filling in a gap in the City By City Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb with a snapshot of Kansas City, Missouri–with a few side notes regarding some areas PR people like to associate it with, and some it would rather forget exist too close for their comfortably red-lined zones. Please don’t take this missive as a criticism of City By City. Editors have to work with the material they’re given and I am certainly enjoying its varied dispatches from Detroit, Washington D.C. (a brothel, how deliciously appropriate), and Chicago’s Hyde Park. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Gessen and Squibb either received no dispatches from Kansas City or if they did they couldn’t figure out what to make of them. The latter would be very understandable as Kansas City, Missouri has multiple personalities. Which one you encounter depends entirely on where you are–literally–physically.
If you were to stand on the corner of midtown Kansas City at 39th and Main Street, ground zero for KKFI, a community radio station like none other, your view of Kansas City changes drastically depending on which direction you take from there. Go south and west for money, some of it old and resting very comfortably. North offers old ethnic neighborhoods like Little Italy, and the City Market area working at staying alive north of the infamous Independence Avenue line (former hunting grounds for serial killers). Go east towards the Troost line you’ll find neighborhoods locked in life and death struggles with poverty and crime while contending with everything from a tragically failed public school district to abandoned vacant houses, gangs, and violent crime.
Heading west on 39th Street will take you to what remains of the city’s midtown bohemian neighborhoods. The ghost of the New York style D’Bronx pizzeria haunts the south corner of 39th and Bell while Prospero’s Books holds down the fort directly opposite it on the northern corner. Behind the 39th Street mainly food business line-up is a crowd of densely packed homes of all makes and ages. It’s a cool crazy quilt of unpredictability. Continue westward and you’ll cross State Line and then you’re in the KU Med area–which is on the Kansas side of the street, not in Missouri. Though you might never guess it. PR people like to make the most of what’s good around them.
If you travel south down Main and 39th to Westport Road you’ll wind up in the increasingly yuppified Westport area which currently caters to people who enjoy imbibing copious amounts of the legal drug known as alcohol in their free time. Long gone is the classy independent bookstore, the unique clothing stores, the movie theater and many other business venues unconnected to providing watering holes for the young and senseless. To be fair, the heroic Broadway Cafe remains steadfast on Broadway. As far as I currently know it is the ONLY independent coffeehouse to drive out the invasive species known as Starbucks. Yep, that’s right. Corporate Starbucks came, saw and invaded–and departed without conquering the superior java product. Also, the incredible Tivoli Cinemas remains–after relocating to Pennsylvania Ave. There’s also a newer food gig in the area–a new version of The Corner Restaurant complete with goat cheese, kale and alligator. No bagels and lox there–no way. The area has completely lost the feel of a friendly and engaging one-stop contained neighborhood but it is still alive, though steadily losing the remains of its inviting personality. I still mourn the closing of its independent music store, Streetside Records, which was once a great place to explore an incredibly wide range of music. It’s where I purchased Joan Osborne’s Relish after listening and discovering it offered far more than “If God Was One of Us.” Unless you’re into the drunk and disorderly scene evade the area on the weekends after dark when the partying begins in earnest as there are multiple hardcore drinking establishments all within a minute’s walk of each other from the corner of Pennsylvania and Westport Road. If you’re into drunk and disorderly then by all means go wallow whole hog all night long.
If you continue further south on Broadway you will enter the alternate universe of The Plaza where the fountains flow and so does the money dough. It’s not called the Country Club Plaza for nothing. Years and years ago this was an upscale middle class yet still affordable area with all kinds of interesting independent shops and food venues. These days it caters to those with two hundred dollars to spend on jeans without batting an eye. Dinner can easily cost a hundred dollars a person at some eateries. Most of the affordable housing in this area has vanished, but there’s plenty to be had for the urban condo set. The Plaza offers Thanksgiving lights, fountains, a very uninspiring insipid Art Fair–art which will not offend, raise issues or stretch anyone’s mind–but it’ll work well with your color scheme. So ironic considering the fact that just a few blocks away rests the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art–well, maybe not so ironic other things considered. If you desire more engaging on the fringe art then go north from 39th and Main to the Crossroads area around Broadway and 18th Streets. But visit it fast because the high and mighty are digging in big time with developments with hopes to connect the dots to the Power and Light District (Remind me: urban revitalization for who? Yuppies? Again?) and the real people character is vanishing fast. You’ll know the former Crossroads has been entirely vanquished when YJ’s Snack Bar closes and the jamming ends. Yep, that will signal the end of an era.
Okay,so venturing southwest from The Plaza and you’ll find impressive homes on lots large enough for five or six of the houses east of Troost Ave. None of them will have their garbage or household discards left sitting at curb for weeks and weeks and weeks as happens in the neighborhoods east of Troost where, if you’re not squeamish, you can have your pick of couches, mattresses, and entertainment centers. Even the huge lovely Loose Park is very well maintained. There’s cool green space galore with huge old trees, a pond, picnic areas and rose garden. I wonder if anyone east of Troost ever enters the rose garden contest held at Loose Park? I’ve never seen roses blooming in the parks east of Troost. Seeing a bench to sit on is a find. This is part of the character of extreme contrasts that Kansas City offers. This can easily be missed by staying on the highways when driving in from Independence, Missouri–a former Meth Lab Capital of the World–though who knows what’s really going on in that American drug swamp. If you drive into Kansas City from Independence on any residential street like 23rd or 31st instead of I70 you’ll get a close up view of the multiple urban landscapes of Kansas City from the bottom of the economic ladder to the top from east to west/southwest. You might even be impressed by the bus-stop at the corner of 31st and Troost–it does look like something from this decade, sort of.
Heading south from The Plaza, or from 31st and Troost, you’ll find the University of Missouri which years ago ran into very deep shit with its very diverse residential neighbors when it embarked on a buy and destroy mission to enable expansion of the parking garage ilk–among other things. The good neighbors fought back hard, going so far as to threaten UMKC’s chancellor’s residence with a bulldozer. No joke, these people were pissed off and rightly so in my opinion. Along Rockhill Road were blocks of lawn signs screaming “UMKC Kills Homes.” So much for the Ivory Tower’s idealism when it comes to money matters. This is another area in which the small independent local business flavor has all but disappeared. Perhaps they just don’t make people the same anymore? Just a question. Rockhill Road leads to Brookside and Waldo areas where the older tree-lined streets are narrow and generally quiet and the grocery store offers delights you won’t find in Wild Woody’s store east of Troost on 31 Street. Lamb chops and Green Tea ice cream anyone? Hmm?
Troost Avenue is only one block east of Rockhill Road. Once you get past being impressed by Rockhurst University’s presence on the east side of the street it’s clear straight off that the residences are not on par with those to the west of UMKC. Things are a tad rougher and tougher looking on the east side of Troost for the hard-working poor and their attendant gangs. Just a tad. I don’t think I’ve ever been in another city with such an obvious social economic division designated by a single street running north/south where you can actually stand on the street’s yellow dividing line and see two contrasting worlds just by looking in opposite directions: urban blight versus urban de-light.
I haven’t said anything about barbecue. Yeah, there’s plenty of it in all directions.
Nor have I mentioned the Historic Jazz District at 18th and Vine which is one street featuring the wonderful Gem Theater, the Blue Room and the American Jazz Museum, The Call newspaper–and historic painted storefronts.
Then there’s the Northeast area of Kansas City with its incredible influx of immigrants whose language needs the Kansas City Public library tries to address with ESL courses.
I haven’t mentioned the former mayor who refused to discuss the state of education even when it was front page news.
I haven’t mentioned the ex-school superintendent who insisted that 36 students in a classroom was a good thing.
Nor have I said anything about the decline of a newspaper that first impressed me with its coverage of a suspected serial killer hunting prostitutes and other vulnerable women on Independence Ave.
I’ve only hinted at the vibrant art scene that serves as a huge street party every first Friday.
There are thousands of homeless people in Kansas City.
There’s extreme wealth in Kansas City–and that’s not counting Johnson County which is in KANSAS not Missouri–and there’s extreme poverty with every economic class in between. I wonder if the people working at the Channel 4 news station ever drove down the street right behind their building and saw the houses with plastic sheeting for windows? Yes, there were people living in those places.
I could write a great deal more. I’m trying to stop while I’m ahead. I suspect I might already be behind the eight ball here.
Perhaps the very best thing about Kansas City is the community radio station which is still going strong after more than twenty years of Jazz, Blues, World, Folk, Classical, Latino, Reggae, and Rock music. If anything is truly alive and well in Kansas City, Missouri, it is KKFI–the beating heart of a diverse population which can’t be red lined. If you want a taste of Kansas City then tune in–they’re streaming online world-wide from the corner of 39th and Main 365 days and nights a year.
City By City