To the Makers of Kansas City
The last few days — since the morning after the Kansas City Royals lost Game Seven of the One-Hundred and Tenth World Series — have been like the massive, days-long hangover that follows any great party. Those of us that cared (most of us by the end) allowed baseball to push us together — a blue mass of people transported to a time and place they hadn’t quite imagined. We made room for each other on the sidewalk in ways we didn’t before, and we nodded in silent positivity in the hardware store. We dreamt together. And now, we wake together.
Not quite sure what was real, and what were the reckless fancies of our improbable dreams. High on one professional baseball team’s repeated ability to defy the odds, we subjected ourselves to the torturous horrors of that awful seventh game, only to see the celebration we had imagined cancelled by the reasonable fear of a Third Base Coach, rather than the awesome will of a hero. For many of us, Alex Gordon still stands panting at third — our hearts in a stasis of disbelief and dread for what can no longer be.
But in the days and nights since, as I’ve walked beneath the golden trees that line my Midtown neighborhood, I’ve recognized the potential for a more lasting victory. To understand what that victory could be, we must first analyze the scope of the game. To be sure, we’ll be momentarily leaving baseball behind for the broader notions of home, and what it means to live with pride.
In the early aughts, as an art student in Lawrence, I would visit Kansas City from time to time seeking cultural noise. I’m from Wichita, and though I’m proud of my hometown, Kansas City was always the place where bigger and better things happened. There were bigger theme parks, better restaurants, and of course, there was Major League Baseball. But by the time I reached college, my visits to the city were marked with a subtle air of mediocrity. The downtown I explored was hollow, and the people I knew from the area were sheepish about their origins. Perhaps I was wrong to think so, but from my unspoken vantage point it was a loser town. In what might have been an attempt to escape self-delusion, its own residents seemed often willing to pile on.
When my girlfriend (and eventual wife) and I moved to Kansas City, it was a deliberate choice to live somewhere we liked. However I wonder if that choice would have been so obvious if I hadn’t first spent time in St. Louis as a graduate student. St. Louis is a fine town, and I have fond memories of its many-sided character. But the contrasts between St. Louis and her western neighbor are stark. For one, Kansas City is not a she. It is a loosely-packed organism of opposing forces, with a faint dynamism that owes something to its wilder origins. It may no longer be a frontier town, but its ethos still speaks of the west. There are members of every class here — but by comparison to St. Louis, there does not appear to be a delicately organized society. Maybe my experiences are too narrow to draw such broad conclusions, but my gut feeling has been confirmed by more than a few. If it’s easier to seek forgiveness than to ask for permission, so too it is easier to get along in Kansas City.
In the time since we moved here, I have suffered bouts of frustration with the friends I initially made in Kansas City — almost all of whom have now moved on to San Francisco, Austin, or New York. These people were natives, and many of them seemed to view my interest in living here intentionally as a kind of silly denial of Kansas City’s damned fate. As an artist I find beauty here, but trips to the postcard worthy locales found in each direction often left me searching for inspiration. Kansas City does not have the boundless drama of an ocean or mountains. The evening shadows don’t cut miles-long geometries across shining mixtures of haze and fog. The architecture is not overwhelmingly quaint or interesting. And though there is probably a publication or two, there is not a cottage industry devoted to coffee-table books telling the visual story of a city that greets two muddy rivers on their way to the Mississippi.
Perhaps worst of all, Kansas City is on its way to everywhere. Aside from weather, it offers very little in the way of extremes. And because its continentality brings both cold winters and hot summers, it fails to proudly “own” any climate in the way that the cultures present in places like Minneapolis and Austin clearly do. In fact, the most consistent behavior of a Kansas Citian is this odd sort of disbelief at whatever the weather has done to them lately. An anxious complaint — can you believe this heat? Or a collective inability to drive in (or municipally plan for) inclement conditions.
This is all to say that in my time here, Kansas City’s identity has appeared strangely adolescent. Naive, self-loathing, and inconsistent, to be sure. But like any young thing it seems to be forming still. Its collective moments and miniature zeitgeists have been organic, electric, and curious, if self-conscious.
Before relegating our recovery from a World Series loss to talk of Billy Butler’s future — or worse, chiding ourselves for ever investing so much time, money, and feeling in something that, on the face of it, is nothing more than a business shrewdly owned by powers that are not unique to Kansas City — I invite you to notice what has changed in this city since your own story here began.
For me, the arts have led the way. Fueled by the benefactors that also gave a name to our once and again-beloved stadium, the divergent garden of creative culture and entrepreneurship now growing over every corner of the city has drawn the attention of onlookers from the furthest reaches. Likewise, before September of 2001, the Crossroads district was perhaps the easiest neighborhood to drive through without incident on a Friday evening. Now, it is delightfully impossible — especially on the first Friday of the month. Young artists now plan their first ten years out of school according to which awards and residencies they believe they can win, and in what order. And if they’re anything like me, residents of the city core now have a daily visual reminder — fixed in the landscape — that they should take their partner to the symphony or the ballet.
But for you, the hissing trail of quickening firecracker pops that lead to the genuine explosion that was the Kansas City Royals barreling their way through the playoffs like a first-draft Disney picture may be made of another combination of the city’s authentic successes. From the promise finally delivered in the Power and Light district to be a meeting place for tourists and residents alike to the magnetism of innovation and downright hustle that emanates from places like Boulevard Brewing Co., Cerner, VML, Hufft Projects, and Barkley. Once vacant urban dwellings are being gutted and re-built. Under-developed parks are gaining their own conservancies and excitable protectors. There is so much expansion in every field that now time-honored institutions like the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Arrowhead Stadium, and Gates Barbecue are hallowed halls to dwell within as we ponder at how far we’ve come.
It is for all of those reasons, and all the unnamed others, that we see a city with young people who want to make, wear, and buy merchandise that proudly states the obvious. Not that Kansas City is this or that Kansas City is that. But that Kansas City is. From the expertly appointed hats of Matt Baldwin and homegrown fashions of Bunker, Charlie Hustle, and Normal Human to the astonishingly pride-inducing emblem of a fitted blue Royals cap, it’s clear that somewhere along the way, people became proud to be here.
There is so much new pride to assign, in fact, that it would be impossible to do so here without the entire effort becoming an odd attempt at what BuzzFeed might look like if they were to ever venture into prose. The hit list is not the point. Instead, I seek only to counter a friend who two days ago asked me, what were we thinking, believing in something like that? To counter the local critics, too smart for their own good — too quick to call sports an empty cajoling of the dumb and hapless masses. To counter the long dead voice in my head that once called this place a loser town.
Makers of Kansas City
Sitting on the shelf behind my studio desk sit two clothbound green books my dad gave me for Christmas many years ago. They are old — printed in 1891 — but in good condition for their age. Makers of Venice and Makers of Florence were gifts to commemorate a class trip I took as a high school senior to France and Italy. My dad was a chaperone on the trip, and in the fifteen years since, I’ve come to realize just why he gave me those books.
From time to time, I’ll open them. Paging past the parchment illustration covers, haunted by the pages unread for decades at a time — simply to take in a short passage or image about the subjects, as clarified by the books subtitles: Doges, Conquerers, Painters, and Men of Letters. Not architects and engineers, but the men that willed it. Not the people who made the city, but the people who made it what it is. These titles are a beautiful, efficient use of language. And for years now, I have whispered them to myself with spirit.
Space does not come at a premium in Kansas City. And so, In the last few months, I’ve taken on the hard task that all midwesterners must by the time they are 30 or 40 years old. With the quiet mantras of less and lighter, I have made my way through dozens of boxes I had hidden from myself in the spaces I had acquired — storage units, back corners of the studio, and the basement. In that time, I have gone through the emotional gymnastics of finding ways to finally part with sentimental gifts and keepsakes that were given to me with more thought than I have ever given them since they were received. But these two books, Makers of Venice and Makers of Florence, though I’ve never spent more than a minute at a time with them, were never on the block. In fact, they’ve been given new prominence beneath my framed blueprints of what was, at one time, called the Jackson County Sports Complex.
I keep them because I’ve had the profound privilege of taking my place in the community of artists that live and work in Kansas City. And in doing so, I’ve had the good fortune of seeing my work exhibited, recognized, and reviewed. Be it by a journalist or a young artist, I have been asked more than once what it was that I found compelling about working in Kansas City. Each time, my answer has been a quiet homage to these old green books I’ve had for so long. And each time, my answer has been selfish. Because of the open doors that exist here; the unique ratios and combinations of space, population, possibility, and opportunity — I get to be one of this city’s makers. I can’t say those words without joy.
As people ask themselves whether they’re willing to invest in the Royals again come April, or whether — in the larger sense — this is a place worthy of their soul, I ask them to simply see what has already occurred and to ponder what is left to be manifested. For those that know nothing of its splendor, recent narratives paint it simply as home to a baseball team full of young, scrappy talent. Just a team. “I thought it was destiny, and it wasn’t,”, my wife said to me in the moments after the game’s conclusion, as we both wiped away tears, embarrassed and confused by what had enchanted us. It was only a game.
But it was a game that meant something to us that it simply could not mean elsewhere. The city made itself bluer than other cities could ever turn for a sports team. For a team to end a 29-year drought with such an emphatic deluge of confidence and might was also an opportunity for us to see ourselves not simply as fans, but citizens. Only by losing, could we realize that even so, we are not losers.
We live somewhere where much is still in motion. What else will we complete by our own brand of resolution? What extremes will we allow ourselves to inhabit in personality and culture, and how soon will the likes of Joe Buck and friends spout off aphorisms about our tendencies to expect victory or to be impossible to “put away”? If we should lose, in one sense or another, will we again embrace cynicism, even though it is already mastered elsewhere? How many years will pass before zealous citizens of the crumbling cities write wistfully of the unflooded city, capitol of the world’s sport. Who will compare their home to the strange mists that sometimes float between the hills and atop the rivers, preceding the alien springs, the resplendent falls, and the crystalline blue skies of Kansas City? We forget that history is still unfolding. What was once imagined is now proved. So what do we now imagine?
Perhaps that is a sugar dream, a self-delusion belonging to another time. But you could do far worse than to continue balancing the scales with pride and fervor for the momentum — that for so long — this city could get no purchase on. You could do far worse than to live here and believe.
Robert Bingaman is an artist in Kansas City, Missouri.