This Midwestern outpost blends influences old and new to create its own flavor.
To understand Kansas City, stand on the hill at Liberty Memorial and look north. Modern skyscrapers and the brightly lit Sprint Center rise behind old-fashioned Union Station, and the 19th-century brownstones of Quality Hill are hidden to the west, juxtaposing the city’s past and present. Fusion is common here: The metro area covers two states, blending Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, so well you might need to check the color of the street signs to know which side you’re on.
The city blends Midwestern common sense with Western adventure, creating a place for pioneers and explorers. This was the place that saw settlers of the 1840s bumping along on covered wagons, peering into the distance with a mixture of fatigue and excitement, wondering what the next turn in the trail would bring. Sixty years later, barbecue chefs took traditional methods and added sweet sauce to concoct the city’s own flavor. A few decades after that, jazz musicians playing in late-night clubs here blended rhythms to create a rapid, rhythmic sound.
Today, visitors and residents prize Kansas City as a place that acknowledges its pioneer roots while embracing a cosmopolitan vibe.
Beginning in the 1820s, grimy covered-wagon trains left the settlements of Independence and Westport, east and south of modern-day Kansas City, for the Oregon and Santa Fe trails.
Westport is a popular neighborhood today, its cobblestone streets lined with bars, restaurants, and historic brick buildings dating to the mid-19th century. The oldest building in town, Kelly’s Westport Inn, used to be a stagecoach stop.
As an entry point into the west, Kansas City was “a real jumping-off point,” says Rick Hughes, president of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association. Pioneers had to choose: Stay at the edge of the settled country or go farther. “They either stayed on the river or decided to travel on the prairie for 400 miles,” Hughes says.
Those who stayed realized they hadn’t left the politics of the East behind. In 1864, 20,000 Union and 12,000 Confederate soldiers squared off during the South’s attempt to sever Missouri from the Union. The battlefield on which 3,000 soldiers died is now Loose Park, dotted with oak trees, a shimmering pond, and a fragrant rose garden.
Close on the heels of the Civil War, railroads came to Kansas City, and with them one of the city’s earliest industries: cattle. In 1870, the Kansas City stockyard was founded, and the city became one of the world’s major cattle markets.
With cattle came the transportation and meatpacking industries, and then the growing animal health industry, which includes manufacturers, suppliers, and researchers.
More than 120 companies in the region serve the animal health and nutrition industries. The University of Kansas plans to offer a master’s degree in business administration for animal health students, and the Kansas City Life Sciences Institute gives $50,000 grants to universities undertaking animal health research.
The accessible cattleyards made the city famous for high-quality steak. But another dish would steal the spotlight: Barbecue came to Kansas City from other parts of the country and morphed into a tradition all its own.
A riverboat cook named Henry Perry came to Kansas City in 1907 and opened up a barbecue stand. Perry eventually owned three restaurants serving barbecue to an eager public, one of them managed by a Texan named Charlie Bryant. When Charlie died, his brother Arthur took over the restaurant, which today bears his name.
Kansas City’s barbecue signature is in its sauce: thick, sweet, and tomato-based. “Each region of the south has its own barbecue tradition,” says Doug Worgul, an editor with Rise Up magazine and author of The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue (Kansas City Star Books). “It’s spicier in Texas; a dry rub is used in Memphis; and in Carolina they use a vinegar-based sauce. So our sauce carves out a unique identity.”
Full of civic pride, Worgul says, “We didn’t invent barbecue but we did perfect it.”
Barbecue represents taking what you’re given, inferior cuts of meat, and making the best of it. As such, “barbecue is actually a good metaphor for Kansas City,” says Worgul. “It’s crusty on the outside, tender and sweet in the middle.”
Competitive barbecue is culturally ingrained here, with major contests being The American Royal (the largest barbecue competition in the country), The Great American Barbecue, and The Lenexa Barbecue.
“Good barbecue is time-consuming, so it’s a communal event,” says Worgul. “If you rush it, you’ll ruin it. So you sit and talk and drink, and when the barbecue is done you celebrate. Slow and low works for us here. This is not a high-intensity lifestyle. ”
The meals might have been low-key, but the music—rapid-fire jazz, often improvised —was not. The city’s jazz heritage began in the 1920s and ’30s, when musicians flocked to the city to play in its clubs and dance halls. Kansas City was a lively, 24-hour town with as many as 20 music venues in one block. Some 750 miles of streetcar lines in the city took you anywhere for a nickel. Musicians responded to the opportunity; they flocked to the city, ready to perform until the wee hours and improvise in an after-hours club until dawn.
As with barbecue, the city’s jazz musicians added their own twist to old standards. “Jazz was born in Chicago, moved to New York City, then came of age in Kansas City,” says Chuck Haddix, co-author of Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop—A History (Oxford University Press). “Blues is indigenous to Missouri, as it is in most agricultural regions, so many of the early blues singers formed the foundation of Kansas City jazz.”
Haddix, who hosts the music program “The Fish Fry” on KCUR-FM radio, cites Count Basie’s trademark jumping beat and saxophonist Charlie Parker’s innovative style as hallmarks of the Kansas City jazz tradition. Parker went on to develop bebop, a form of jazz with fast tempos and complex, harmonic improvisation.
Pianist and bandleader Jay McShann, whose band Parker played with in the 1940s, is another of Haddix’s favorites. McShann, who continued playing into the 1990s, was considered one of the last jazz greats when he died in December 2006. “His music is a very sophisticated expression of the blues,” Haddix says.
The American Jazz Museum in the 18th and Vine historic district pays tribute to Basie, Parker, McShann, and other legends. But the city’s musicians aren’t depending on their predecessors to keep jazz alive. “The music keeps evolving,” says Haddix. “Jam bands of today are basically improvising what the jazz greats did, breaking down the boundaries of music.”
There’s live jazz playing somewhere every night of the week, an incredible blues scene at places like BB’s Lawnside BBQ and Knuckleheads, jazz education programs, and the annual Rhythm & Ribs Festival in the 18th and Vine district. “If you look at the club calendar, this place is jumping,” said Haddix. “Kansas City still swings.”
Some say the city is hitting some of its highest notes. After years of tolerating a neglected downtown, voters spoke. In 2004 they approved a financing proposal for a new downtown entertainment arena. At about the same time, the city and state approved a redevelopment plan that relied on substantial tax incentives. Life pumped back into downtown. The Crossroads Arts District, a cluster of art galleries, unique shops, and restaurants, began attracting a regional audience with First Fridays, a sort of street fair on the first Friday of every month. Lofts began popping up on downtown corners. Word of mouth spread.
“There’s never been a more exciting time in Kansas City,” says Bob Marcusse, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council. “We are completing a $5 billion construction boom.”
The growth promises to bring more visitors to experience the area’s charms. The Power & Light District, opening in the spring of 2008, is an $850 million entertainment district covering nine square blocks packed with upscale and casual restaurants, clubs, and shopping. Across the street, the new 18,500-seat Sprint Center hosts major concerts and sporting events. Attached is the College Basketball Experience, featuring the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame with an interactive fan area. Under construction now and set to open in late 2009: the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a breathtaking structure designed by internationally recognized architect Moshe Safdie.
Kansas City is once again imbued with the pioneer spirit that settled it nearly 200 years ago. The original settlers sought adventure and promise they couldn’t find in the East; today’s developers have crafted their own kind of frontier as downtown takes on a new character. It’s another example of that special Kansas City brand of fusion: blending old and new influences to reveal a fresh new creation.
The question most frequently asked by Kansas City visitors: “So which state are you in? Kansas or Missouri?” The answer: Both. Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, were settled separately, “KCMO” in 1838 and “KCK” in 1868. Today they form the heart of a metro area of more than 2 million.
Kansas City, Missouri, is enjoying the fruits of a downtown redevelopment that’s brought dining, entertainment, and shopping venues, many in the Power and Light District. Art galleries dominate the Crossroads Arts District, and the 18th and Vine Historic District is the place to go for jazz. Crown Center hosts concerts and community events; to the south, Country Club Plaza draws visitors for its Spanish-style architecture.
Across the state line, Kansas City, Kansas, holds the Kansas Speedway and Community America ballpark, where the minor-league T-Bones play.
In the suburbs, Overland Park, Kansas, hosts the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College. Independence, Missouri, is the home of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum and Truman Sports Complex, where the Chiefs and Royals play. Kearney, Missouri, preserves outlaw Jesse James’ family farm; in Liberty, Missouri, a bank he robbed serves as a museum.
LIVE / WORK / PLAY
Paris of the Plains. City of Fountains. The Heart of America. Kansas City earned these nicknames for its lively jazz scene, its many fountains (which rival Rome’s in number), and its location in the center of the country. Nicknames are nice on a postcard or a T-shirt, giving you a thumbnail description of a place; but they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t describe, for example, Kansas City’s corps of stunning, distinctive museums or the lush Powell Gardens, which bursts into bloom this month. Nicknames won’t tell you about the area’s strength in animal science, which evolved from 19th-century stockyards, or its growing sports-architecture sector. Most of all, nicknames don’t introduce you to the people who make their homes in Kansas City, the ones who give it life. More than 2 million people live in this bi-state metropolitan area. On the following pages, meet three who’ve made their mark. Carol Fabian heads breast cancer research and runs centers for breast cancer prevention and survivorship at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Homer Erekson nurtures entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch business school. Dan Regan serves on the team behind Kansas City Irish Fest, which fills Crown Center each Labor Day weekend. Turn the page and discover their Kansas City.
I got interested in breast cancer early in my career. To me, oncology embodied everything I loved about medicine. You have to know a little bit about every part of the body, from the heart to psychology.
There were few women in oncology, so many of the breast cancer patients were referred to me. The picture for breast cancer was improving, but it was difficult to diagnose it early. We needed to figure out who was going to get breast cancer and how to stop the disease before it had a chance to start.
In the late 1980s we developed a test called random periareolar fine needle aspiration, used for women who are worried they’re at high risk for breast cancer. It removes a series of cells from the breast; if the cells look atypical, we know a woman has a higher risk of breast cancer. We can monitor her breast health to catch the disease sooner if she does develop it, or we can offer preventative drugs.
The Breast Cancer Survivorship Center, which launched in August at the University of Kansas Medical Center, is aimed at getting survivors back where they were spiritually and physically before they developed breast cancer. We target all stages of survivorship, from women who were just diagnosed and want to preserve their fertility to women who’ve completed treatment and are worried about heart damage.
This is a great medical community; people collaborate well, particularly if you’re doing something that will benefit their patients. Kansas City is a great environment, period; people are friendly and open-minded.
Healthy Appetite for Life
Kansas City’s hospitals can keep your body healthy. But a healthy mind is important, too, and that requires a place to relax and revive. Here, some of the city’s best ways to kick back: shopping the wares of local merchants, sipping the local brew, and enjoying the city’s iconic fountains.
On the east side of the market, check out the Arabia Steamboat Museum. The main exhibit, a collection of items recovered from a riverboat that wrecked on the nearby Missouri River, offers a veritable time-capsule look at 1850s life.
Brew and a View
Since its launch in 1989, Boulevard’s growth has made it the seventh largest craft brewer in the United States. A $20 million expansion, completed in 2006, created a state-of-the-art brewhouse and kegging/bottling facility which increases the brewery’s production capacity to 700,000 barrels a year. The third floor includes hospitality space with a terrace overlooking downtown Kansas City.
The earliest fountains, dating back to the late 19th century, originally served as watering holes for animals and passersby. Later installations were more flamboyant and decorative. One of these: Country Club Plaza’s massive J. C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, built in 1960, which features four sculpted horses leaping from a large central jet of water.
The Henry Wollman Bloch Memorial Fountain stands in front of Union Station, its 500-gallon spray illuminated by 232 lights. The 2001 fountain and the 1914 station building create a pleasing tableau of the city’s past and present. Nearby, the Crown Center Square Fountain, opened in 1972 and renovated in 2006, offers an extra twist: In periodic water shows, the sprays coordinate with the beat of music recorded by the Kansas City Symphony.
There is a clear belief at UMKC that great cities need great universities. The Henry W. Bloch School of Business and Public Administration plays a critical role in helping UMKC be that great university. Three of our leading programs are the executive MBA, undergraduate and graduate programs in entrepreneurship and innovation, and the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership.
One of the exciting new programs is the Lewis White Center for Real Estate. Kansas City has a wonderful history of interesting commercial real estate developments; there could be no better learning laboratory for students interested in real estate than real estate development and urban design in the Kansas City region. We have enjoyed many significant accomplishments since I arrived at UMKC in 2002. But as I like to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
I have found Kansas City to be a place with vision and with soul. Entrepreneurs like Henry Bloch of H&R Block or Ewing Marion Kauffman (owner of Marion Laboratories and the Kansas City Royals) have done much more than just start great businesses or foundations. They have invested themselves in education, in the arts, in health care.
Kansas City is a marvelous place to live. Where else can you find world-class music and arts, professional sports, a wide variety of outstanding restaurants, and yet really no traffic. Don’t miss the Italian food in Osteria Il Centro or the friendly coffee bar at Aixois in Brookside. I also like the bike paths and hiking trails in Shawnee Mission Park.
Class is in Session
Animal health businesses have partnered with the veterinary schools at Kansas State University in Manhattan and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Even the University of Kansas-Edwards has joined the action, creating an MBA program specific to animal health.
The Playing Field Starts Here
“Kansas City is like the mecca of sports architecture firms,” says Robert Wade, a project designer at Ellerbe Becket, which designed Madison Square Garden.
Another heavyweight, HOK Sport, is overseeing a refurbishment of Kauffman Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium, venues for the Royals and the Chiefs. This year Kauffman will feature a new high-tech scoreboard; by 2009 it will include 360-degree seating.
Ellerbe Becket, HOK, 360 Architecture, and Rafael Architects worked together to design the new sports- and entertainment-focused Sprint Center.
Small Business, Big Ally
Mindham, whose company sells street signs, signposts, and traffic cones and barricades to city and state transportation departments, has gone to SourceLink for help on matters large and small. She’s gotten recommendations on office equipment, such as multi-line phone systems and accounting software. A financial mentoring program paired her with a CPA and a banker, who helped her navigate financial paperwork. “You don’t just know how to look at a balance sheet and be able to read exactly the information you need,” she says.
I grew up in the Westport district of midtown Kansas City. The Regan/McCunniff clan has been on that corner uninterrupted since 1922. You’d think at this point they’d just rename it Regan Street and get it over with.
We have a large and enthusiastic Irish population here. The Irish began coming here with the railroads and they’re still coming today. Kansas City Irish Fest is the product of two neighborhood festivals, the Brookside Irish Fest and the Westport Irish Festival. I worked on both from the early days. When the two merged in 2002, I was one of the original members of the board of directors.
Irish Fest drew more than 85,000 people from all over the world in 2007. This year (Aug. 29-31) we’re expanding our grounds significantly. We’re really excited about the living history exhibits on the Irish in the American Civil War. We’ll present more than two dozen acts on five stages over three days. We’ll entertain 14,000 kids, pour 500 kegs of hometown Boulevard beer, fill 1,800 hotel rooms, recycle 30,000 plastic bottles, hand out 5,000 balloons, walk endless miles, and love every minute of it. Okay, maybe not all the walking.
I say this to anybody who’ll listen: I think this is the best town in America. We don’t take ourselves too seriously around here. It’s a great place to raise kids, speaking as a former kid and current dad. It’s a beautiful, affordable city, it’s close to everything, we’ve got all four seasons and a couple million really great people. Plus, we’ve got the best Irish Fest in the world. What more could you ask for?
Mark Your Calendar
Free Time is Good Time
For its 50th anniversary, the Kansas City Ballet will perform Romeo and Juliet with live music from the Kansas City Symphony; catch it April 25-May 3 at the Music Hall. The ballet company will move to its new performance venue, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, in 2010. The Lyric Opera, also a future Kauffman tenant, presents a new work, John Brown, May 3-11 at its current home, the Lyric Theatre.
The city also boasts a variety of theaters, from the kid-friendly Coterie Theatre at Crown Center to the intimate music revues of the Quality Hill Playhouse. The Starlight Theatre hosts Broadway musicals on summer nights; and the American Heartland Theatre brings classics and off-Broadway shows to Crown Center.
When it comes to visual arts, the Crossroads Arts District showcases local talent in a variety of smaller galleries. From 7 to 9 p.m. on the first Friday of each month, make a free visit to this cluster of galleries concentrated between Baltimore Avenue and Wyandotte Street. For a more formal look at art, try the venerated Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, known for its extensive collection of Asian art, and the newly constructed Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park.
Know the Pros
Next door at Arrowhead Stadium, Chiefs games consistently sell out. Since 2007, players’ uniforms have sported a patch bearing the initials L.H., in honor of team founder Lamar Hunt, who died in 2006.
If the minor leagues are more your speed, check out the Kansas City T-Bones, who play at CommunityAmerica Ballpark, near the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas. Also on tap for April games: the Wizards soccer team, which will play Colorado, New England, and Houston at CommunityAmerica.
Just 14 years old, the Kemper Museum of American Art sports an impressive permanent collection, including works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. Through June, the narrative exhibition “You Are One Step Closer to Learning the Truth” takes visitors through a Kansas City mystery. kemperart.org
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th & Vine district celebrates the system in which Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Stachel Paige first played pro ball—Robinson with the Kansas City Mondarchs. Films and exhibits highlight standout managers and players, beginning with Moses Fleetwood Walker in the 1880s. nlbm.com
”I really started out as a dancer,” says singer Myra Taylor (above). “Wherever I worked I’d always sing (too). ... The owners got slick and they figured, ‘Let’s keep her—two acts in one.’” At 91, Taylor is still performing; catch her with the Wild Women of Kansas City at Jardine’s, jardines4jazz.com; or purchase her album, My Night to Dream, through APO Records, aporecords.com.
Kansas City native Alaadeen has been playing the saxophone since sixth grade; his teacher, Leo Davis, was said to have taught legend Charlie Parker. “The way (Davis) taught improvisation was to sing the melody in my ear when I soloed so I’d always keep the melody in mind,” Alaadeen says. That emphasis on melodies has stayed with him; on his latest release, And the Beauty of It All, “I tried to pick out all of the beautiful notes that I could muster up. ... I emphasize the melodies.” This and other recordings are available through his ASR Records. See him live at the Blue Room at the American Jazz Museum.
With more than 100 barbecue joints in Kansas City, reaching a decision on which is the best could take a while. In the home of The American Royal barbecue championship, folks are used to thinking carefully about barbecue.
No matter which place you try first, stock up on napkins: Kansas City liberally applies its signature thick, sticky-sweet tomato-based sauce. Clean-hands fans need not dig in.
Then there’s the meat. Chefs here welcome all comers: beef, chicken, turkey or pork. But it’s got to be slow-cooked. Henry Perry’s 1907 original recipe called for the meat to be cooked in a pit, but a smoker would do today.
A KC delicacy: burnt ends, the trimmed ends of a beef brisket that are returned to the smoker for further cooking, then served up smothered in sauce. Extra helping of napkins, please.
When in doubt, get the steak. That’s good advice in a city with such a rich cattle heritage. But dig a little deeper. Adventurous, award-winning chefs use ingredients of all kinds—seafood, poultry, vegetables, and even the humble steak—to create memorable meals. French, Italian, and classic American influences combine with clever presentation to make Kansas City’s culinary scene Grade A prime.
The American Restaurant
The Capital Grille
Classic Cup Cafe
Grand Street Cafe
JP Wine Bar
Le Fou Frog
Osteria Il Centro
Some hotels give you a bed and a bath. Others give you an experience. Whether you crave luxury, rustic charm, or a dash of history, the right atmosphere can turn an out-of-town stay into a trip to remember. Sleep where a movie star once stayed, or enjoy a relaxing afternoon in a backyard hammock. We’ve selected five to accent your Kansas City visit.
Bed and Breakfast
Chateau Avalon Hotel
The Raphael Hotel
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