Sunday, April 3, 2011


--Bill Oppenheim

Dubai it’s not. In fact, Midwesterners may be entitled to have a little chip on our shoulders, because everybody makes fun of us; but hey, when you want somebody to read the news or host a chat show, you turn to us: Walter Cronkite (born in St. Joseph, Missouri, lived in Kansas City until he was ten, then Texas), Johnny Carson (born in Iowa, grew up in Nebraska), Dick Cavett (Nebraska – thank you, Wikipedia), for example. Me, I have a voice for radio – no pun intended.

I was born in Kansas City, but grew up in Wichita, Kansas, so I am a bona fide Midwesterner – meaning I come from west of the Mississippi River, not east. A lot of people from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, even Kentucky, refer to themselves as Midwesterners, but on my map they come from the Mideast. Of course, nobody is called a Mideasterner, so I guess we inherit them, like the old New Yorker cartoon that shows everything west of the Appalachians as ‘the hinterlands’. My mother was from Kansas City, so I spent a fair amount of time here off and on up until the time I went to university (but that was in 1966). But I had been an infrequent visitor in the ensuing 40 years until my parents, after 40 years themselves in Florida, moved back to Kansas City in 2006. Since then I’ve been a frequent visitor.

Flyover city? Not according to Bill...
The Kansas City metropolitan area, straddling both Missouri and Kansas, numbers about two million people, the biggest between Minneapolis-St. Paul (three million) to the north and Dallas-Fort Worth (six million, would you believe?) to the south; of course, Chicago (10 million), the third-biggest metropolitan area in population in the United States, is the Midwest’s biggest metropolitan area, but it is a good day’s drive to the northeast, on the eastern border of the Central Time Zone. So Kansas City is a big enough deal in its own right, big enough to support smaller-market major league sports teams. Like every place west of the Mississippi River, really, one of its greatest attributes is space. If you grew up west of the Mississippi, you’re unlucky if you don’t have almost an innate sense of space. It comes with the territory.

Urban planner J.C. Nichols
Kansas City metro stretches for 40 miles or so north to south and probably 10 to 15 east to west, the majority of that on the more developed south side actually in Kansas. But it really does straddle the two states. The downtown area is in Missouri, just south of the Missouri river. Back in the early years of the Twentieth century, the first moves out of downtown areas were to what came to be called ‘uptown’ areas; the suburbs came later, the next step out. Kansas City’s ‘uptown’ area, about four miles south of the city center, is called the Country Club Plaza, and a very unique uptown area it is. In 1907 the developer J.C. Nichols began buying land in the area and proposed a shopping area which would cater to the newest big thing, the automobile. They called it “Nichols’s Folly”. But after a trip to Seville, Spain, Nichols and his architect, Edward Buehler Delk, used Seville as the template for the Plaza, which opened in 1923 (Wikipedia again). It’s about a mile square, I suppose (did you know a mile squared equals a square mile, by the way?), and retains even today a great open, spacious, Spanish feel – fountains, statues, mosaics – lots of mosaics on buildings. Plus Nichols established beautiful residential communities – good-sized, two-story houses on big lots – south of the Plaza. One of the amazing things about the south side of Kansas City has been the expansion of these kinds of neighborhoods probably another ten miles to the south and southwest. It’s a city with a surprising number of really pretty residential neighborhoods. Lots of space, but – not something generally known about eastern Kansas and western Missouri – plenty of hills and trees, too; above all, though: space.

Another little-known fact is that the very area on which the Plaza was built was the scene of the Civil War battle of Westport (October 23, 1864), sometimes called “the Gettysburg of the West”, because the Confederate defeat there was the beginning of the end for the Confederate forces on the western front; after the Battle of Westport, Confederate forces were basically in constant retreat. Just south of the Plaza, in Loose Park, is a replica cannon from the battle and some plaques showing where the various actions during the battle took place. Sure enough, if you look north from the bluff at the top of the park, you can see for a long ways, across what is now the Plaza and Westport, to the Missouri River.

So Chicago it’s not (wow, has that become a happening city center, under the last Mayor Daley), Dubai it’s not, New York it’s not. But workable cities (well, metropolitan areas) of two million, with a good feel, plenty of space, and where the traffic usually does flow, like Kansas City – they have plenty to recommend them.

OK, enough touring – I’m headed back to work, in Kentucky, next week. Maybe see you there.

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