When I began my third year of law school in 2015 my father said to me “you have been working kinda hard, so how about I let you use some of my frequent flyer miles to go anywhere in the US?” At this point I was in the top 10% of my class, and my commute to school was 110 miles from my driveway in Bakersfield, California to my university in Los Angeles. Needless to say, I needed some vacation time. So where should I go? My father suggested Kansas City, as if he’d been planning I go there all along. He told me about the World War I museum and the monuments you could find there, and how the city was involved with the prohibition industry and much more. As a self-described history nerd, it piqued my interest considerably, so I thought…why not?
Almost half a million people live in Kansas City. Yet as I got off the plane the first thing I noticed was a tornado shelter. It was just this simple black-and-white sign with a little swirling picture of a tornado with a helpful black arrow pointing down some stairs. It was upon seeing this that I realized I was in some place new, some place different. Yes, it was still America, and I was an American, and everyone spoke the same language I spoke as well as read the same language I read. However, there was something new and exciting in a way. Like opening up a book and discovering an entire chapter you had never read before. This is how I viewed Kansas City after seeing something as simple as a sign warning me about a tornado.
The city was sprawling while simultaneously showing off a hint of urban decay. It’s a large place with endless roads that swirl about each other in confusing patterns that look elegant from the windows of an airplane, but are merely an exercise in banging one’s head against a steering wheel when actually driving them. My hotel was the same Motel 6 one can find in any city, but this one had an oddly well-landscaped garden in the back. “We used to be a lot more fancy” the clerk informed me. I did not mind either way.
So with two days before me I figured out the things I wanted to do the most. First would be the World War One Museum, with a drive out to the Negro Baseball Museum and of course a trip beyond Kansas City to see Harry S. Truman’s house and his presidential library. Did I mention I was a history nerd? Of course on my first night I wasn’t going to do any of that. Instead I went walking around and got something to eat so I could just relax, explore, and enjoy myself.
This was when I stepped into downtown for the first time, immediately noticing how empty the place seemed. Oh, there were people about. But I’m from Los Angeles, and Bakersfield, and I am used to a lot more people. A lot more cars. Mostly, I am used to noise. Much more noise.
This was different. It was quiet. Like something was wrong kind of quiet. Yet no, it was not. It appeared that Kansas City had experienced some flight from the downtown area in recent decades. While it was doing better and improving, there were still signs things had been left empty, abandoned. So after making these assertions, I started walking, feeling like I had the place to myself. I passed jazz clubs playing music that boasted of the Kansas City Sound and stopped to eat some ribs slathered with a delicious sauce from a place called Arthur Bryant’s.
I moved up past some more modern structures which seemed to encourage outdoor activities and then found myself in front of the Power and Light Building, which was a marvel to behold. Built in 1931, the Power and Light Building is thirty-four stories of art-deco mastery from the period when this style was new and innovative. There’s something about it that’s hard to describe. Smooth and clean lines set upon an imposing concrete structure, with an entrance that showcases ornate shapes and carvings. Even the vents were masterpieces of design, (which given it was built in the 1930s meant a lot of sweat had gone into making each one.) And now? It was being gutted and converted into apartments.
I decided to try my luck at simply waltzing inside Some people will tell you it’s hard to get into a building, but the truth is you can get away with just about anything as long as you look like you belong there, and more importantly, just keep going until someone tells you to stop. On the first floor I found a development office before moving to the back where I stumbled along a long hallway. This hallway was my ticket to the top floor.
A lone security guard was sitting behind a small desk. To his side were a bunch of mailboxes made of brass with ornate carvings on each of them. They depicted stylized men pulling levers and working with wrenches upon even larger cogs and wheels of industry. I looked around the alcove and then walked right over to the elevator and pressed the button. It was odd looking, with an old-fashioned pointer going from the first to the thirty-fourth floor. Along the doors were more carvings of ivy and flowers moving along in nonsense shapes that somehow formed a pattern of rings. Atop the brass was a stainless-steel metal plate with a plastic button yellowed with age. This was striking to me as it was just modern technology placed over the old. No sense of style or design but “good enough” seeming to be the focus.
I went up to the top floor and looked around. The fancy style of the lobby was not present here. No, this was plastic sheeting and dry wall. Overhead were spaces for lights. Walls had not been put up yet. All in all, it was just this big empty space. Nothing of importance was here. Yet before me, there was this view. A view of the city which seemed worthy of my little excursion up those thirty-four floors. Kansas City was laid out in front of my eyes and the idea that the city had been mostly abandoned left my mind. What I noticed from this vantage point in the sky was how old Kansas City must be. While nothing before me screamed out “hey we were founded in 1851!” there was this odd assortment of architecture and design that gave the city an air of important history I wanted to know more about.
Looking north I saw Kauffman Stadium (locals call it The K) built in 1973 in the Googie style. The stadium was a smooth, uncovered concrete facade. The stands wrap around the infield and end at the foul poles, with outfield plazas in the back. It was in those plazas that ball player Bo Jackson literally ran up the side of a wall rather then just stopping. Looking to the West was the Christopher S. Bond Bridge which was built in 2010. It was a large steel triangle with cables from either side of the bank linking up to the center. It was of a modern design and seemed out of place in Kansas City as I looked down and saw so many pre-war brownstones and post-war concrete structures. I’m not sure how long I was looking at the city from up there on the thirt- fourth floor. No one came to get me. No one seemed to care I was there.
Being from California where most urban areas feel relatively modern, it was interesting to see a city this old. I also noticed how Kansas City really didn’t appear to have been planned out. A two story BBQ joint sat next to a ten-story bank. A 1920s train station with six tracks was right across from a 1980s glass-and-steel domed concert hall. All of the city’s elements differed and were mismatched, but somehow it all just set itself together. Kansas City has a charm to it which I found very alluring. It is a city smack dab in the middle of the United States with an in-depth history of music, sports, crime, war, politics, cuisine, architecture, and more.
Yet even still in a place with so much storied history you could see those creeping signs of gentrification eager to overtake the city. Yet unlike in Los Angeles, it seemed Kansas City was fighting it in its own way. Oh yes, the buildings are turning into apartments, but they are making efforts to maintain the buildings’ looks and appearances. Of course why wouldn’t they? Kansas City, I later learned, houses many buildings from some of the best architects in the twentieth century. They range from Frank Lloyd Wright to McKim, Mead & White, and even Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
After this first trip to Kansas City, I’ve found myself returning multiple times. The downtown area always appears a little busier each time I arrive. The once silent streets have that familiar noise of civilization. Still, the city maintains its charms.
Wm. Garrett Cothran is an author from California who is active in the legal community. Outside of penning the occasional fictional story he is an avid fan of travel, history, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @lawdemigod.