The More Things Change
KC expat reflects on the city's past, looks ahead to its future.
An uncle of mine, some years after I left Kansas City to go to college, told me that when I left, he knew I was never coming back.
Well, I’m back. Figuratively speaking.
I now live in Philadelphia, some 1,300 miles to the east, a city with a rich history, great food, interesting neighborhoods, colorful politics and a huge municipal inferiority complex that is gradually going away as New Yorkers move here looking for a place where they can afford to live.
Sort of like my forever hometown.
Something I’ve learned in my many years on the East Coast is that no matter where they live, Kansas Citians take a piece of the place with them. Put two KC expats together in the same place, and it’s as if they’ve magically transported themselves back home, to the neighborhoods, streets, haunts and barbecue joints of those past times. Total strangers hug each other once they discover they’re both from Kansas City.
I’ve taken these virtual trips back home on numerous occasions and everywhere from Boston to Washington. But it was the actual trip back home in 2014 that made me fall in love with my hometown all over again.
The city I returned to was in many ways the same place I left in 1976, but it was different somehow, and not just because of the Power & Light District downtown. It seemed to me more confident about itself. Livelier. More at peace with its colorful past. And more sophisticated, which is not to say that it wasn’t sophisticated back then.
And the trees had grown back beautifully on Benton Boulevard.
Not all of the changes were for the better, however. Many of the homes beneath those majestic trees, where so many of my friends lived, had fallen into disrepair. The families who had kept them in good shape had fled north of the River, or far to the south, or to points unspecified. Entire swaths of my side of the city had become depopulated. And I could still speak of “my side of the city,” for the lines that divided it back then persist today: east of Troost and west of Troost remain worlds apart, even for those who, like me, crossed that street every day.
But I knew that, if the occasion arose, I could move back here and be very happy after that visit.
The reason I haven’t? Well, you see, they have this thing here called a subway, and it’s fast, and it takes me 56 blocks in 15 minutes from my home in the northwest part of the city to my full-time job at Philadelphia magazine downtown. That new streetcar looks great, and I see that everyone’s quite taken by it, and I certainly look forward to riding it when next I’m in town. But it’s not the same thing, even if it is just right for Kansas City, which simply doesn’t have the traffic — or the traffic jams — to warrant a full-blown subway.
Besides, Philadelphia has become my home. I’m comfortable here. But I try to keep up with goings-on in my hometown. Some of you may even have run across stories I’ve written elsewhere about developments here. Now I’ll be offering my take on them in these pages.
KC has so much going for it: friendly people, a roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-it-done attitude, incredible natural beauty, a high quality of life, race relations that are as cordial as any I’ve seen anywhere in these contentious times. I hope to dig deep into our hometown’s past to uncover the roots of all these things and share them with you.
I also hope to shine some light on the things that still trouble this place and need fixing, like the pointless border war over jobs and economic development or the restoration of the east side. Even with relatively harmonious relations, race remains a subject of concern, and that’s nowhere more clear than when taking stock of my old stomping grounds. I also hope I can carry on a conversation with you who still live here about why those of us who no longer do still love the place the way we do.
When the Royals took the crown last year, they did it in classic Kansas City fashion: They worked for it, played hard and gave it their all. I promise to do no less here.
And I promise not to become another Clay Chastain.
Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine and a contributor to Next City. A native Kansas Citian, Smith graduated from The Pembroke Hill School in 1976 and Harvard University in 1982 before moving to Philadelphia, where he has lived for the past 34 years.