Midwestern Mojo: Why the Hometown Pride of Kansas City Won’t Die
One night last October, President Obama stood before a crowd in the Blue Room of the White House and declared, “Something is going on in Kansas City.” Most of the people who erupted into cheers were members of Sporting KC, the Major League Soccer champions of 2013. The night before this gathering, the Kansas City Chiefs had walloped the New England Patriots 41–14. And a few hours after this gathering, the Kansas City Royals would rally in the 12th inning of the wild card game against the Oakland A’s, clinching a spot in the playoffs for the first time in twenty-nine years — a ride that would take the underdog team all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
So, yes, the President was largely referring to sports, but the sentiment captures what Kansas Citians have felt for years and echoes what travel experts have been saying recently. In 2012, Frommer’s, the elite travel guide publisher, named Kansas City as the only American destination on their annual list of top ten cities to visit. In 2013, Travel + Leisure named it one of their favorite cities. And last September, the Huffington Post named Kansas City the coolest in America. Kansas City has also raked in mentions on all kinds “best of” lists: #1 place to start a business in the Midwest (11th nationally); #5 city creating most high-paying jobs; #7 place to live for young job seekers, and #2 happiest city in the country. The lists and guidebooks cite the city’s affordability, legendary barbecue, buzzing arts scene, and nice drivers.
But what’s the undercurrent of the atmosphere in Kansas City? Something about this city, smack dab in the middle of the nation, has fostered success in a multitude of businesses, organizations, and creative endeavors. And while St. Louis has reached its lowest population since the late 19th century, Kansas City and its residents continue to grow and thrive.
It’s easy to compare Kansas City and St. Louis — both huge metropolitan areas straddling state lines. They’re an easy four-hour drive apart, straight across I-70. Both are home to ardent sports fans and notable colleges. Kansas City had Ernest Hemingway; St. Louis had Mark Twain. But in almost every statistic, St. Louis is foundering. Kansas City has a higher median income, a lower crime rate, and more people getting college degrees. It’s been praised for levels of racial segregation plummeting, while St. Louis remains one of the most segregated — and some argue one of the most racist — cities in the country.
That’s not to say everything in Kansas City is perfect. Its employment rate lags behind the national average, as does the number of STEM jobs. Hallmark, one of the major employers in the area, has been steadily downsizing for a few years. Kansas City Public Schools have had decades of tumult, losing their state accreditation altogether in 2012.
But city pride runs deep in the locals — even if they’re not natives. Keith Spisak, 35, grew up in St. Louis, attended William Jewell College outside of Kansas City, and then sailed around the globe as a bartender on a cruise ship. “My experiences on the ship made me realize that KC is pretty great,” he remembers. After his stint on the cruise ship, Spisak went to Kansas City to visit friends and wound up meeting his wife. “I always knew that I’d be back to raise a family here,” he says. While a common trope in stories is a kid fleeing the stifling Midwest for adventures in the big city, Spisak doesn’t think that really applies to KC. “[People here] like to visit other places, maybe even live somewhere else for an amount of time. But they always want to come back here.”
Julie Anderson also attended college in Kansas City and after graduation spent time in New York City and Washington, DC. Anderson, 36, is now an attorney in Kansas City and is married to a man who lived in New York City for decades. “Our life here is so easy,” Anderson says over the phone. “In New York or DC, everything is a fight. Ten thousand people want the same experience or resource that you want. But here, it’s so much easier to be nicer because there’s so much more space.” She recounts times strangers have changed a flat tire for her, how she and her husband can go to the symphony without planning months in advance, how ample parking and easy commutes leave them with more time to devote to community involvement. “In a major city,” she says, “you have to pay for comfort. And here, it’s free.”
People aren’t just moving themselves and their families to Kansas City. They’re starting acclaimed businesses, they’re building state-of-the-art performing arts centers, they’re buying sports teams and making them the talk of the White House.
So it should come as no surprise that Google, who can predict what you’re about to type before you even know, could intuit that Kansas City would be the ideal foundation for the first installation of Google Fiber — an affordable Internet service provider that’s a hundred times faster than the next company. In early 2011, Google announced that Kansas City’s metropolitan area had beat out more than 1,100 other cities that had applied to be the first Fiberhood. They cited an ideal size and an accessible infrastructure. Elise Ackerman of Forbes interpreted the announcement as a sign that Kansas City leaders know how to treat a new business — especially one that could positively alter the trajectory of all other Kansas City businesses. “The key thing was that city officials promised to get out of the media giant’s way,” she wrote in August 2012. “They didn’t dangle tax breaks, but they did deliver access to public rights of way, expedite the permitting process, offer space in city facilities and provide assistance with marketing and public relations.” Practical. Efficient. Welcoming. Some may say — inherently Midwestern. Only two years into the Google Fiber way of life, Kansas City is already experiencing a noticeable surge in tech start-ups.
One of the city’s most beloved start-ups has nothing to do with tech and everything to do with taps. John McDonald started Boulevard Brewing Co. in 1988, modeling it after local taverns in Europe, which he says feature “high quality, full-flavored beers that were probably never intended to be sold more than twenty miles from the brewery.” This initial focus on his local community gave the brewery a strong fan base that then spread the gospel of Boulevard to the rest of the Heartland and beyond. Now, Boulevard is the largest craft brewer in the Midwest, churning out 600,000 barrels of hoppy happiness each year. And those Europeans McDonald modeled his brewery after? They took notice. Duvel Moortgat, a Belgian beer company, acquired Boulevard in 2013, and while details of the deal were never disclosed, beer insiders estimate the sale was worth at least $100 million.
This level of success doesn’t surprise McDonald. He says it makes perfect sense when you consider Kansas City’s history. “As a frontier town, Kansas City was founded by people willing to take chances while facing the most dire of consequences for failure.” And, he suggests, maybe flyover territory has a distinct advantage: “Our central location has drawn people in from all walks of life who bring with them unique ideas and perspectives that make Kansas City a natural choice for innovative, creative types.”
Keith Spisak agrees. “Kansas City just has a great vibe to it,” he says. “It’s a very hands-on city. People make things with their hands. And they want everyone to experience it.” Whether this vibe yields popularity among museums and galleries in the city, or the museums and galleries have cultivated this vibe, is a chicken-or-egg question. One of the oldest players in the arts scene in Kansas City is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which opened in 1933 and has been free to the public ever since. The six-story building boasts iconic sculptures of shuttlecocks on the lawn, rotating exhibits that receive national attention, and permanent collections with artists you’ve definitely heard of: Monet, Rembrandt, Degas, Van Gogh.
And the artists you haven’t heard of yet? The Crossroads District hosts First Friday every month, when dozens of local galleries open their doors and pop-up shops line streets that have been closed to traffic. And every month, even in the winter, First Friday fanatics are shoulder-to-shoulder indoors and out, engrossed in the works handmade by their fellow Kansas Citians.
The newest temple to the arts in Kansas City stands as an art installation itself. Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts resembles two half-shells from the north, and from the south, “the world’s biggest terrarium,” wrote Hampton Stevens in The Atlantic in 2011. The south side is entirely glass, so that attendees to events in the two unique performance halls can gaze out onto the city — and the city can gaze right back. The performance halls are home to the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, the Kansas City Ballet, and the Kansas City Symphony — and they were designed to be one of the most acoustically perfect places in the world. Even during the recession, even when critics in ivory towers have lamented the state of live performing arts, in just three years since its opening, more than one million visitors have purchased tickets to an event at Kauffman Center.
It’s fitting that this striking building sits as the crown jewel in Kansas City’s skyline. What’s perhaps most remarkable about this renaissance — crafts and computers alike — is that it has taken place almost entirely in downtown. Keith Spisak remarks that his weekend routine revolves around taking his two-year-old daughter downtown, an upbringing different than his own. “I feel like people avoid downtown, or did, in St. Louis,” he remembers. “In KC people embrace it. They thrive in it.”
It’s true. This former frontier town hums with an enthusiasm for the homegrown. Every day you spot people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “KC” inside of a heart — not as tourist swag, but more as a team uniform. With each new development in the city comes a collective sense of ownership and modest delight: Look what we did! While perhaps the sports teams have taken the nation by surprise, Kansas Citians have known for decades that theirs is a town worth watching.