Kansas City, Part I
Reading Time: About 15 minutes
I was doing about 80 through America’s Heartland when I first saw the skyscrapers over the top of the hill. Towards the end of the 11-hour road trip, I was growing giddy and wanted more than anything to check into my hostel and crash.
The blue facade of the 624-foot One Kansas City Place was a welcome sight.
I had made this long voyage to scout out Kansas City for a possible relocation. Growing discouraged by the rising rent prices in Austin, and just wanting to go somewhere new, I had thoroughly researched potential new homes. I reconnected with a friend of mine I knew from elementary school who had moved to KC years before. She assured me that housing was super cheap, there was plenty to do, and that I would find a job within two weeks, easy.
There did seem like quite a bit to do. At the top of my list was the National World War I Memorial and Museum, because I’m a nerd and I love history. I also needed to try some of the famous Kansas City-style barbecue, and see how it stacked up against the barbecue back home. I wanted to ride the new streetcar, because I’m also a nerd about public transportation. I wanted to tour the Steamboat Arabia Museum. Finally, if I met anyone interesting at the hostel, I was up for grabbing a drink in Westport, one of their nightlife districts. With four days off from work, I felt like I had a solid itinerary, plus plenty of time to wander around at my own pace.
On the other hand, my research had also made me aware of other aspects of the “Heart of America,” namely high levels of violent crime (sixth-highest in the country as of 2018) and profound racial segregation.
These were very similar problems that afflict St. Louis on the other side of the state (especially following the outrage at the acquittal of the cop who murdered Michael Brown). However, it seemed that KC, as it’s called by locals, had gone out of its way to combat this stigma.
I wanted to give KC a fair shot to prove that it was bettering itself for the sake of its residents.
The rolling hills and trees of Kansas gave way to industrial development as I drove into Missouri on I-70. At this point, there is little to distinguish the “KCK” portion from the “KCMO” portion. Heading towards Downtown, I passed through the West Bottoms industrial area, which at one point was second only to the Chicago Stockyards in producing beef.
It’s often a source of amusement that there are two Kansas Cities, one of which is not in Kansas. The interesting thing about this is that the city of Kansas City, Missouri actually predates the state of Kansas. Founded as the Town of Kansas in 1850, the Kansas Territory was formed shortly after, to distinguish it from the settlement.
Just know that when someone says “Kansas City” they are more than likely referring to Kansas City, Missouri, which is by far the larger of the two. .
Driving along these highways, I noticed that it even though it must have been rush hour on a weekday, there weren’t many cars on the highways. Back in Austin, I would have been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. For a city approaching half a million people, with a metro area exceeding two million, this was pretty good. Driving past the Downtown skyline, I turned the big SUV south and headed down to 33rd & The Paseo (also called Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in some places) There I would be checking in to KC’s only hostel, the Honeycomb Hostel.
I had been slightly apprehensive to stay at the Honeycomb, being as it was several blocks east of the notorious dividing line, Troost Avenue. I had called ahead just to confirm what the area was like and the owner, a woman with a strong South African accent, assured me that it was perfectly fine. She added, laughing, that “they could send an armed escort” if I wanted.
I’ve traveled enough to be blunt: the area was not the best. There were many vacant lots and at least one large, completely boarded-up structure, covered in graffiti. Driving slowly down the residential streets, looking for the right address among the neglected-looking homes, I was struck with the notion that this entire neighborhood’s diversity was probably contained within the walls of the Honeycomb.
Having said that, the area was also by no means a no-go. If someone had enough confidence to place a hostel in this neighborhood, then it could not have been all bad.
I finally found the three-story white and blue house with the orange door, and parked the rented Equinox in the gravel parking lot out back. I was greeted at the door by Elsa, an enthusiastic woman in her early-40s, and Max, her fluffy pooch. The interior of the house was beautiful, done up in an inviting and fun manner. Elsa was very attentive and friendly, and had a perennial sense of humor. She had established the Honeycomb only the year before, and was enjoying good business. She offered a lounge area with many books and bay windows, a kitchen, and both dorm and private rooms. In addition to hosting travelers both foreign and domestic, she also ran a dress shop out of her house.
She showed me to my dorm, which was occupied by just one other person.
I don’t remember what his real name was, only that he preferred to go by “Scout.” Scout was in his early-30s, but looked younger than I did. He hailed from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and sounded exactly like you’d imagine someone from Chattanooga, Tennessee to sound like.
He had been in St. Louis on business, and decided to take the Red River Runner Amtrak train over for a few days. He was a very straightforward type, and had kind of a bro-ish vibe about him. Not my usual crowd, but he seemed like someone I could explore the city with and shoot the shit with.
“I’m going to Westport to drink,” he said. “You coming?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I could use a drink. I got a car, too, unless it’s close enough to walk.”
“Oh yeah, we can walk. I walked there last night. It ain’t far. You ready? Let’s go.”
While I’m usually that person in the group who thinks everything is walking distance, Scout’s assessment of “not far” turned out to be over two miles. We were walking for a good 40 minutes.
While a lot of tourism sites will tout the Power & Light District all day long, the true nightlife heart of Kansas City is Westport.
Westport was the site of a decisive Union victory over the Confederates during the Civil War. The battle fought here in 1864 effectively halted the Confederate advance into Kansas.
We found a nice corner pub with outdoor seating, McCoy’s Public House, and sat down to gain back all the calories we had just burned. Being as we were in the birthplace of Boulevard Brewing, I had to order one of their brews.
“There are some good-looking girls here,” Scout said matter-of-factly.
I was already regretting teaming up with Scout. On the walk over he had talked at length about getting womens’ numbers in bars. He also made the remark of meeting a woman last night who was “tall enough to pick me up like a little baby.” That made me cringe, for some reason.
“You ain’t gonna go talk with any of these girls?” he asked after the waitress put down the platter of chicken and waffles in front of me.
As an introvert, this one took me aback. “Wasn’t planning on it,” I said. “Why, are you?”
“I might,” he said.
I let it go and changed the subject, trying to enjoy my food and my Boulevard.
After a lull in conversation, Scout volunteered the following: “See, I just like success.”
“Yeah, success. You know, success can take many forms. You can have success in business, or success at some goal, or success with women.”
He was saying the word with a weird kind of emphasis. He put a slight pause at the beginning, as though he was giving a TED Talk and introducing the audience to some new concept.
“I look at like this. Whenever you go up to a woman, you have two options: you can have success, or you can not have success. But the thing is, every time you do have success, then that can lead to three other opportunities in which you can have success. Because then you’re so confident from having had success.”
My fork had frozen between the plate and my mouth.
He went on: “And when I say “success,” you know, Alek, that can mean a lot of things. Success can be getting a girl’s number, or it can be getting a dance, or it can be something else. It’s all success. It’s a numbers game.”
I put my knife and fork down and took a sip of beer.
“So you’re a pick-up artist.”
Scout seemed to weight that in his mind. “Well, I don’t really like that term…”
“But you are.”
“I guess. I just…figured you looked like someone who might also be interested in that.”
I wasn’t sure what to think about that.
After enjoying the food and drink but not the company, we continued to wander throughout the district. The KC Roots Music Festival was going on, which seemed to attract the guys in rompers and straw hats crowd. Scout found two girls to try and talk to, who immediately switched the subject they were on and began discussing the buildings around them. It took him an inordinately long time to get the hint.
I asked Scout why he was so adamant about getting females’ attention, when they clearly did not want to talk to him.
“Well Alek, you have to have something to show women, to prove to them that you’re worth talking to, so you can get the opportunity for success.”
“But they clearly don’t want any success!”
“Let me tell you something. I was coming over on the train from St. Louis yesterday. And I was reading a book called The Secret Garden. Alek, you could not imagine the kind of stuff that was in that book. That book was ready!”
“It was so ready I put some cardboard around the cover so the girl next to me couldn’t see.”
“You’re shitting me right now.”
“No sir. So the girl next to me asked me why I had cardboard on my book. See, that’s my in to try and shoot for some success. So I show her a passage from the book. A real juicy one.”
“For the love of god. What did she say?”
Well she kinda nodded and went back to what she was doing on her phone. But I guarantee you I put an idea in her head. I tell you, that book was ready!”
Part of me wanted to wish Scout good luck and get an Uber back to the hostel, but part of me also wanted to check out the rest of Westport. I suggested we stop in to Gambals Social Club for some pool and beers. By now it was getting dark and there were crowds of people walking the streets. The entire district was clearly very popular, and the music festival was ramping things up even more.
While taking shots at the pool table, Scout fell into conversation with two guys at the table next to us. They were Scott, a KC native, and Ahmed, from Djibouti. They had served in the same unit in the army.
Scout, annoyingly, took several minutes out of his turn to explain to them his “one success equals three success” theory. When he was finished, Scott looked him dead in the eye for several seconds and said, “Your math is wrong.”
Scott and Ahmed recommended the four of us go over to a Kansas City institution, Kelly’s Westport Inn. Kelly’s has been a good time since 1947, although the building it occupies is literally as old as the city itself. The first floor had a DJ and dance floor and bar, while the second floor had a patio. Smoking was permitted, and you could purchase packs from the bartender. Everyone and their dog was smoking on that patio. Although I had technically quit about two years prior and had my vape pen with me (yes, I was one of those guys), I decided to do as the Romans did and buy a pack of American Spirits for the group.
The smoking was bad enough, but on top of that, everyone seemed to have a blatant disregard for keeping the place clean. Perhaps it was just my Austin sensibilities, but I had never been to an establishment where people routinely threw their spent cigarette butts on the floor. Outside on the ground, for sure, but never on the floor. In some ways I could see how this was somewhat liberating, that you were free to do as you pleased, including throw cigarette butts on the ground. Kansas City, after all, had a bit of a reputation for being laissez-faire about a lot of things.
I went downstairs to grab a cider. I asked the bartender if there was a minimum.
“Minimums are illegal,” he said.
“Illegal? A lot of places charge minimums.”
Finding it impossible to argue this point, I went back upstairs and got to talking with Scott. Ahmed had invited a girl over and Scout was hitting on his 14th woman of the night. Aware that I was probably sounding pretty straight-laced for a bar that was growing wilder by the minute, but too inebriated to catch myself, I started asking him about safety in the entertainment districts.
“I heard there were some shootings in Westport in just the past year,” I said, leaning over the railing and looking out into the crowds filling the blocked-off streets below.
“One guy shot into a crowd at like 3 a.m. last year,” Scott said. “Didn’t kill anybody, but wounded two. And that’s just one time, there have been other shootings. They’re talking about privatizing Westport.”
“Privatizing? How so?”
“Basically they’re going to create police checkpoints at all the pedestrian entrances. Metal detectors and shit like at a club. They’re set to vote on it soon.”
Since my visit, the local government of Kansas City did indeed vote to privatize the Westport entertainment district, citing concern for the brazen gun violence in such a highly-trafficked area. Many groups, including the local chapter of the NAACP, have vociferously fought against this decision.
Scott eventually joined Ahmed and some others in highly animated conversation. Being nowhere near as extroverted as everyone else in the circle, I drank my beer and smoked my cigarettes and glanced around the patio. Talking about violence had reminded me of the city’s other problems. In particular, segregation.
With the exception of Ahmed and the woman he was talking to, every single other person in that bar, on both floors, was white. Was this the result of the so-called “Troost Wall?” I don’t know. I only knew that I was genuinely surprised to see so few minority faces in a group of people that large.
Getting a little sick of the smoke and not having anyone to talk to, I decided to bail. I called up an Uber and went back to the hostel. It had been a good day and a good night, I could cut my losses.
I got some leftovers from the road trip out of the fridge and sat up on the third story porch to have a late-night snack. The next street over, some people were sitting on their car, talking and laughing peacefully. A few blocks beyond them, lights blinked on the 1,042-foot KCTV antenna.
Tonight had been interesting, to say the least, but I had more substantial exploring to do tomorrow. My head already beginning to ache from the alcohol, I crept into my dorm and went to sleep.