Kansas City Journal

by Jay Nordlinger

On my way to Kansas City, I can’t get a song out of my head: “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City . . .” This song (from Oklahoma!) is what I think of, when I think of this city. Next comes George Brett, I guess, followed by Boss Pendergast and ribs.

I’m not the only one. Before I left, I told David Pryce-Jones where I was going. There is none more erudite than this particular Etonian and Oxonian. And that erudition extends beyond Homer, Shakespeare, and the boys.

P-J paused for a second and quoted, “I went to Kansas City on a Friday.” I supplied the next line: “By Saturday I learned a thing or two.”

Man, that song has gotten around.

Kansas City surprises me a little. Lately — meaning, for the last several decades — Midwestern cities have tended to be down at the heels. The big city closest to where I grew up, Detroit, was long ago wrecked, by that awful wrecking ball, race.

Race is an all-consuming fire. Nations and peoples should guard against it, at all costs.

Anyway, Kansas City is beautiful — and prosperous-seeming. It is clean and handsome. Downtown is spiffed up. People live in lofts, in addition to the suburbs. There are great movie palaces of the past.

It’s amazing how much care and attention went into the design and building of these palaces. Going to the movies must have been a treat, back when. An occasion.

Kansas City is, to a large degree, planned, I understand. Sometimes planning can be advantageous, in the right hands. There are fountains everywhere. A beautiful fountain graces a city, and it is especially appreciated in the hot months (like now).

There is a new performing-arts center, the Kauffman Center. You could almost say that everything is, indeed, up to date.

A friend tells me that Kansas City has just earned a distinction: It is the second “most redneck” city in America. This, according to a real-estate website. Atlanta was No. 1. After K.C., there was Oklahoma City, Nashville, Tulsa, Fort Worth, etc.

What were the criteria? As a newspaper article explained, “such things as high school completion, per capita number of gun stores, cowboy boot stores, taxidermists, country radio stations, Wal-Marts, riding lawn mower shops and the number of NASCAR racetracks nearby.”

The Kansas City Public Library is a glory. From what I can tell, it is everything a library should be — certainly in the center of an important city. It is big, majestic, beautiful. It could inspire awe, where learning is concerned. The building used to be the First National Bank. (I have a friend whose father worked in the bank.) It became the library in 2004.

They hold a wonderful and diverse series of events — author talks and so on. They even welcome conservatives, which is practically a miracle.

For a long time, I’ve thought of libraries as places where reeking homeless go to look at porn. The library in Kansas City is tremendously encouraging. It is a throwback — “throwback” being just about the highest term of praise in my vocabulary.

I meet a man who served in Vietnam. He very, very strongly dislikes LBJ. He tells me this story:

A man says, “I went to visit Johnson’s grave.” His friend says, “Did you spit on it?” “No,” says the first man, “the line was too long.”

A friend of mine in K.C. — her father (or stepfather, I can’t remember which) played poker with Harry Truman. He very much liked Truman. But there was one problem: Truman wouldn’t pay his gambling debts, which was annoying.

Another friend tells me that Pendergast gambled heavily: thousands and thousands of dollars a day, in the Depression. That’s one reason his corruption had to be so aggressive. (I should have put “had” in quotation marks.)

Pendergast owned a concrete company (along with other things, including the city itself, in a way). In the mid-’30s, he paved Brush Creek — which was lucrative. I guess the water flows over concrete.

Today, according to a friend, “they call it ‘Flush Creek.’ You don’t want to know why.”

Back to my friend Tom (and I’m not talking about Pendergast, whose name was also Tom). His family was very Republican, and they hated the machine. They were also not too crazy about FDR. In 1936, when Tom was six, the paper delivered the news that Roosevelt had defeated Landon. Tom, a hot-tempered Republican, stomped up and down on the newspaper.

Speaking of newspapers: Tom says that the newsboys would come through the neighborhood shouting “Extra! Extra!” He remembers two occasions, in particular: in 1939, when Pendergast was indicted for income-tax evasion; and in 1945, when FDR died (and Truman, a local, became president).

It occurs to me, “Today’s ‘Extra! Extra!’ is the siren on Drudge.”

Pendergast died on January 26, 1945. Truman had just been sworn in as vice president. Truman attended the funeral — which was shocking to some. Scandalous. But Truman explained that Pendergast was his friend, so . . .

I suppose I admire Truman for attending the funeral. But for the association to begin with . . .

I’ll have to think about this some more.

Tom and some of my other friends went to Southwest High School, one of the best schools in all the land — all of America. A judge or judges wrecked it, via social engineering. They may have meant well; but they caused pain, for black and white, for the city at large. The school is now closed.

We drive by it. “Home of the Indians,” it says. The name “Indians,” for sports teams, is defunct too.

A menu offers every kind of rib, burnt ends — the whole bitsy. It is almost a parody of a Kansas City menu. An idealized menu, a Walt Disney menu. An extreme Kansas City menu.

And the food is just what you want it to be. Evidently, the legend of K.C. BBQ is true.

Kansas City boasts — no, that is not the word. Kansas City has one of the grandest and most moving World War I memorials in America, known as “Liberty Memorial.” People will be reflecting on this war next year, the centennial of its beginning. (A lot of nonsense will be spouted about that war too — for sure.)

Near the memorial is Union Station, a beauty. Just recently, I was writing about rail stations. I praised a couple of stations in Paris, and also one in New York: Grand Central. But New York’s Penn Station? In the running for Ugliest Train Station in All the World.

That was not true of the old Penn Station. I quoted Vincent Scully, the architectural historian (not to be confused with Vin Scully, the golf and baseball announcer): “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Anyway, Union Station in Kansas City — a timeless winner.

Back to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts for a moment: It has touches of the Sydney Opera House. The SOH is 40 years old now. But it still looks up to date, and not dated.

George Brett? I don’t forget him. We drive by his house. A hitter like that — he deserves a house so fine.

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