The Kansas City Shuffle
Ah, Kansas City. What a pearl you turned out to be.
Known for its world famous barbecue, the birthplace of bebop, its scenic river walks and fountains, and a city that has played home to men as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Walt Disney and President Harry Truman, Kansas City has perhaps justly earned its moniker as the Paris of the Plains. For all the wonders Paris may have to offer, I’ll take burnt ends and jazz trombone over escargot and accordions any day.
You can’t compare your city to Paris without having a grade-A art scene, and all it takes is a few hours spent wandering the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to see that Kansas City is world class. Free to the public, and instantly recognizable for the sculpture garden on the front lawn, the Nelson-Atkins Museum has long been known for its large collection of classical sculptures and one of the biggest collections of Asian art in North America. Not too long ago, the museum completed an expansion project that includes a wing of contemporary art and photography, a Native American exhibit that showcases 200 works from more than 68 tribes, and a growing collection of African art as well. If you’re an art lover or history buff, the Nelson-Atkins museum is one of the biggest treats in Kansas City.
Of course, if you’re a history buff, one of Kansas City’s biggest draws is that the city is home to the National WWI Museum and Memorial, a striking Egyptian revival monument dedicated to those who served and those who died in World War I. Originally limited to the iconic Liberty Memorial, over the years the memorial was expanded to include the museum, and after extensive renovations, was designated a national memorial by President Obama in 2014. You enter the museum over a glass bridge, beneath which there are 9,000 red poppies – each one representing 1,000 WWI combat deaths. The museum itself is marvelous, hosting everything from uniforms and interactive exhibits to actual artillery pieces and tanks. Having studied WWI for some time, especially with the ongoing centennial, walking through the museum it was a new reminder of how two gunshots in Sarajevo defined a century. One of the more fascinating things I learned there was why the memorial was located in Kansas City, the result of a wildly successful fund-raising effort in the 1920’s and support from Missouri native Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing.
Of course, something heavy like that deserves something a bit more relaxed to follow it up with, so I headed to Country Club Plaza, a Kansas City retail landmark. Designed to look like a marketplace in Seville, Spain, Country Club Plaza is bears the distinction of being the first shopping center designed to accommodate automobiles, so all shopping malls in the US can to some extend trace their roots here. It offers a mix of upscale retail outlets, some of the most gorgeous houses in Kansas City, a scenic river walk along Brush Creek, and much to my delight, and old school movie palace and a 4-story tall Barnes & Noble. It also offers some of the best people watching in Kansas City.
Of course, when it comes to Kansas City, I know the first thing many of you are probably thinking of is barbecue, and I will happily report that I have eaten plenty of great pork, brisket and ribs during my time in Kansas City. The best of the bunch though is Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que – formerly known as Oklahoma Joe’s, they’re deservedly world famous for their ribs and their barbecue brisket, but its the burnt ends that prove to be the best bits of beef I had in Kansas City. Burnt ends are a Kansas City barbecue specialty, brisket tips stewed a bit longer in their juices, and the end product are juicy, savory meaty morsels that are good to the last bite. I could eat them by the bushel, and they’re almost worth the trip by themselves.
Of course, as a baseball fan, no trip to Kansas City would be complete without paying homage to Satchel Paige and the greats of black baseball at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Located alongside the American Jazz Museum in the heart of the historic 18th and Vine District, it offers a showcase of artifacts of the Negro Leagues dating back from the earliest days of baseball all the way to when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, as well as chronicling the often overlooked history of black players and the Negro Leagues. It hosts a treasure trove for baseball fans, and I’d say it should be as much of a mandatory pilgrimage for lovers of America’s pastime as a trip to Cooperstown.
The American Jazz Museum located next door was a bit smaller and a bit quiet on the afternoon I visited, but as a longtime fan of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, I simply had to swing by and pay homage to the birthplace of bebop. Though small, I could have happily spent an hour or two jamming out to some of the music they had on showcase. The museum also has an operating jazz club, the Blue Room, and I wish I could have timed by trip better to catch a performance there.
Oh, and I even managed to pop in to Naka-Kon, a local convention for a bit. Because of course I end up at a convention, even while on vacation.
Despite having spent nearly a week in Kansas City, there was still so much I still wanted to do before I left that I never got around to doing. Pay a visit to the Kansas City Star and Ernest Hemingway’s house. Check out the nightlife at the Power & Light District. Eat some pan-fried chicken at Stroud’s. Hit up Independence and see where the pioneers headed west and where Harry Truman called home. Maybe hit up Walt Disney’s old haunts, or maybe just catch a Royals game. See some of the cities scores of fountains when they haven’t been tuned off for the winter. One thing’s for certain – Kansas City, you haven’t seen the last of me.