Friday, June 4, 2010

speed dating - and dumping - Kansas City, MO

Philosophically, I don’t think it’s fair to judge a city without visiting it first. So, when Kansas City, Missouri was announced as the location for an annual professional conference I attempted to focus on the “well, that’s interesting, I’d have no other reason to visit Kansas City, MO so should be interesting” instead of the “Kansas City, MO, really?” It is hard when the first night at dinner I was reminded of the childhood state song that asks “How did Flora-die?” “She died of Miss-ouri (misery if you didn’t catch it).” And when the announcements leading up to the conference touted the city’s BBQ, Jazz and Fountains, I sensed it could be trouble. 1 of 3 isn’t bad, but neither is it great. It was akin to a campus visit I took to a beautiful school in the mountains of NC. Charming in many ways until they announced that the top interests were skiing and NASCAR – and the library was closed on weekends. That was three strikes and you’re out.

Baseball continues to be a common theme running through city visits and experiences, and in that sense KCMO did not disappoint. The Negro League Baseball Museum was very well done and told the stories of Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Effa Manley. The displays, timelines, information, paraphernalia and general flow of the exhibits placed you temporarily in the time and offered a balanced and thoughtful presentation of the excitement of the game and the struggle of the players during the time. Walking across the building, a visitor can then see the Jazz Museum and hear the stories of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and others who contributed to the evolution of the music. As we were reminded, “Jazz was born in New Orleans, but it grew up in Kansas City.”

Sad to say then that the beautiful museums were stuck on a desolate slab of street. It was nearly vacant when we left the event at 9:00 PM, though one blues bar did seem to suggest that the area was not totally empty all the time. Perhaps it was just an off night.

Then again, that’s been a creeping suspicion since arriving. I suspected on Monday it was due to the holiday and didn’t think too much of it, but on subsequent bus trips to the convention center at 8 AM and 9 AM on various weekdays it was hard not to notice the conspicuous lack of traffic and wide-open parking spaces. Who lives here? Who works here? The long stretches of unoccupied buildings are not so worn down as to mimic a “rust belt” city, nor are there indications of being a “bad neighborhood”, though every city has those as well; no, it is not that people don’t go there because they shouldn’t, it seems people don’t go there because why would they?

There are places to go, of course. The city does have patches of architectural gems mixed with semi-modern additions. And there are trendy restaurants and shops here and there. But all the buildings are very nearly the same color, and I wondered if it were not for our conference bringing in 7100 guests if anyone else would have been in the restaurants at lunch.

I go back to the museums as a recommended point-of-interest. Despite the frighteningly large arachnid at the front of the entrance to the contemporary museum, apparently moving to join a baby spider at the front door, the Contemporary art museum hosted several wonderful exhibits. A black chandelier to the right of the entrance looked like a series of ladies hats in progressively larger sizes from top to bottom that had been decorated with a tangled assortment of black ribbon and material and then frozen. It was more industrial than that, but that was the image that immediately came to my mind. The other exhibits in the receiving area are likewise large, bold and assertive though strikingly different in tone. But the true gem of the museum was an exhibit that captured the faces and places of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The brush strokes seemed hard on the surface but were applied to suggest a more malleable spirit. The eyes in all the paintings were the most evocative. Lined up in an exhibit the sentiments expressed merely by moving the direction of the gaze, the placement of hands, and the setting of the jaw were obvious. The collection expressed a wide range of emotions primarily in dark browns and neutrals with an occasional well-placed splash of color.

Neither is it fair to expect a city to be all things to all people so I do not give the following overview as a final and comprehensive analysis of the city. It’s like dating a city - you can find things you like and dislike about most people – doesn’t mean you end up falling in love or even falling in like. In this case, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to visit, but it is doubtful I will be returning for pleasure anytime soon.

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