Ask a random Kansas Citian where to take an out-of-towner for a taste of the local culture, and the immediate response is usually something like, "Oh, I guess the Plaza is nice." As a native Kansas Citian, this unimaginative line makes me wince with embarrassment for my hometown. Don't get me wrong; I think the Plaza is great. I love spending time there, and I generally do end up taking visitors there for one reason or another. But the idea that the Plaza, which is essentially an upscale, outdoor shopping mall, could be considered the crowning achievement of my city of birth leaves me with a certain feeling of cultural bankruptcy.
I am happy to report that I am not the only one to struggle with this problem. Matt Miquelon, co-founder of the organization RevUpKC, has bravely taken up the crusade to revitalize the older, less-visited downtown areas of Kansas City in an attempt to reclaim some of its bygone civic glory. RevUpKC, described by Miquelon as a sister group to St. Louis's Metropolis St. Louis, is a fairly young organization; its main goals at this point are to raise awareness and expand membership and support. This is not to say that they haven't made some concrete progress in their overall goals. The group has thrown an impressive amount of support behind a number of pivotal projects. For instance, the city recently resolved to build an immense Performing Arts Center downtown. This center, along with the existing convention center, Bartle Hall, should draw a good amount of business to downtown shops and restaurants.
Miquelon explains that in order to create a thriving cultural community downtown, the city must nurture the growth of small, community-supporting shops and businesses. To this end, RevUpKC has fully supported the effort of Mayor Kay Barnes to successfully pass a $16 million municipal bond for neighborhood improvement. One of the projects that will be subsidized by this bond is the renovation and reopening of the historic President Hotel at 14th and Baltimore. The upper floors are to be converted to loft apartments, while the lobby will once again be host to the historic Drum Room Club. In days of yore, the Drum Room was best known as the venue for Patsy Cline's final public performance. After its reopening, the club will be both an exciting nightspot and a classy reminder of Kansas City's proud musical heritage.
Another foothold has been made in the area just north of downtown, the River Market. The Kansas City River Market is host to the area's largest open-air farmer's market every weekend, and the surrounding shops and restaurants could not be happier for the attention. River Market eateries range from the exotic Mediterranean flair of Habashi House to the local flavor of Succotash; quaint establishments like Corollo's Italian Market and Garrett's Corner Market fill in the middle ground quite deliciously. But the River Market is not just about food there are scads of gift shops and other interesting nooks to explore as well.
A much anticipated change has been the expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Yes, the largest, most respected art museum in the Midwest is getting even larger. How could such an endeavor have been a struggle to initiate, you ask? It turns out that Kansas Citians have traditionally been very protective of the Nelson and its grounds. A decade ago, when world-renowned sculptor Claes Oldenburg was commissioned to scatter four gargantuan shuttlecocks about the grounds of the museum, public outcry was loud and prolonged. To this day, my own mother cannot drive past them without comment. However, most Kansas Citians have grown to accept them, and very few think they have "ruined" the stately façade of the museum. The city still remembers the uproar, though, so it was with no small amount of trepidation that the museum's trustees announced plans to expand the structure and began searching for a suitable architect. In 1999, it was announced that Steven Holl would take on the project, and the plans do indeed sound impressive. Light, open areas with a less restrictive flow should make an interesting contrast to the stately, mansion-like demeanor of the main building. The new parking garage is already complete, and the expansion to the museum itself should be finished within the next year.
Westport, another area of Kansas City that has somewhat escaped the ravages of mass-market imperialism, lies just a few blocks north of the Plaza. Westport is about as close as you get to a bohemian atmosphere here in the heart of the Midwest. True, the evil empire of Starbuck's has made a tentative foray into the region, and true to form, they placed their nasty little java-pit right next to the locally owned Broadway Café, but guess what? On any given weekend, the Broadway Café is packed to overflowing, while the neighboring Starbuck's catches only a small portion of the spillover. Take that, soulless corporate swine! Other local favorites on the Westport scene include Murray's Ice Cream, the Jerusalem Café, and numerous trendy boutiques such as The Imagery. Oh, and we mustn't forget the Tivoli Theater at Manor Square, an independent movie theater and the only place in the city you can catch those morsels of intellectual stimulation known as indie films and art films.
Nightlife in Cowtown can be varied and thrilling, but you have to know where to look. Take for instance the Late Night Theatre. Ron Megee, perhaps KC's most celebrated comic genius, along with his equally hilarious cohorts, writes and produces at least four original stage productions every season. Last season's "Come Back to the 9 to 5, Dolly Parton, Dolly Parton" and "A Scary Carrie Christmas Carol" were sell-out hits, and the 2003 season opener, "Rickshaw Rosie and the Geisha Gashers," promises to be every bit as spectacular. This black-and-white, stage-noir production, set to Cole Porter music, is to be followed by the post-Victorian/70s sitcom-themed "The Importance of Being Three's Company." For slightly more serious but no less edgy fare, try the Unicorn Theatre, whose current season includes such productions as "Bee-Luther-Hatchee" and "The Memory of Water."
Of course, no tour of Kansas City's evening scene would be complete without mentioning the ever-popular jazz clubs that dot the city's landscape. It seems like you cannot go for three blocks in any direction without spotting some classy little hole-in-the-wall or smoky, bluesy dive. Many of these places have unbelievable food in addition to live jazz performances by true local legends such as Kansas City's own Ida MacBeth. To find out where the jazz action is on any given weekend, log on to Jazz Ambassabors Magazine.
I shall now entreat you, next time you are in Kansas City for a convention (for let us not kid ourselves: conventions are the city's biggest source of tourism dollars), please allocate only a portion of your free time to the glitz and gluttony of the Plaza. With a small amount of planning and a good map, you can easily find your way to some uniquely Kansas Citian adventures.