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Archive for Sunday, August 27, 2000

Kansas City suffering from low self-esteem

August 27, 2000

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Parade an inferiority complex before the world and before long the world will become convinced that you are, in fact, inferior.

That seems to have happened to Kansas City. Low self-esteem has become part of its identity. Kansas City can't stop worrying about whether or not it's major league. It breathes down your neck, asking, "How am I doing? Do you like me or do you hate my guts?"

My feelings toward Kansas City are like Cordelia's toward King Lear. I love it according to my bond, no more, no less. I grew up in K.C. It's my hometown, the setting of my childhood memories. Not a great town, but good enough. Who wants to live in a great town? Great towns like New York and Paris can be suffocating. They inflict their stamp on you.

Most of Kansas City's virtues are negative not too many people, not too expensive. It's transparent, a perfect backdrop for living your life. You can be almost whatever you want to be in K.C. except famous.

Civic leaders in Kansas City recently initiated a program to stimulate progress and build community pride. It's called "10 Giant Steps," a designation that transports me back to childhood. Some little girl in a sun dress is telling me, "You may take 10 giant steps" and I'm remembering to say, "Mother, may I?" Question: why do promoters think that to inspire adults they must treat them like children? Alas, in a culture that thinks "Wassup?" is an example of high wit, they're probably right.

Among Kansas City's 10 Giant Steps are the idea of putting up welcome signs at key entry points, painting the bridges in rainbow colors and installing the World's Largest River Fountain on the Missouri River. It's hard to imagine lives so starved for diversion that they'd be excited by peewee steps like these. The World's Largest River Fountain sounds only slightly more gigantic than the World's Largest Ball of Twine or the World's Largest Hand Dug Well.

Of course, there's always a touch of narcissism in an inferiority complex. A recent attack on the fountain at Meyer Circle wasn't taken as just an act of vandalism. It was an attack on Kansas City pride, because Kansas City is the City of Fountains, boasting more fountains than Rome. When some restaurants started referring to a certain cut of beef as a "New York Strip" rather than a "Kansas City Strip" steak, you could hear the wailing all the way to Peculiar.

The local media assumes that Kansas Citians can't be interested in anything that doesn't have a "Kansas City angle." The preview of a concert which was to include a piece by Dvorak began, "The closest Dvorak ever got to Kansas City was Omaha."

Kansas Citians console themselves with the notion that K.C. is friendlier than other towns. A talk show host recently asked a newcomer for impressions of K.C. She gamely replied that Kansas City seemed like the kind of place where citizens like to roll up their sleeves and work together. The host heartily concurred. In St. Louis, the first thing people ask you is, "Where did you go to school?" or "Whom do you know?" he said. In Kansas City they say, "Howdy. How can I help you?"

The next day, one of these friendly Kansas Citians shot and killed the passenger of a car that had accidentally rear-ended his. Welcome, drop dead.

Writers such as Richard Rhodes, Evan Connell and Edward Dahlberg left Kansas City for greener pastures. Connell made the city synonymous with superficiality and hypocrisy in his "Bridge" novels. Dahlberg vilified it for stupidity and provinciality. Rhodes debunked it as "cupcake land," a bland cultural wasteland. But K.C. still proudly claims these writers as native sons.

The 100th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway's birthday was an occasion to celebrate the writer's six-and-a-half-month sojourn in Kansas City and to speculate about a packet of stories that was stolen in a Paris train station early in his career. Surely there must have been some "Kansas City stories" among them. Who knows, Hemingway may even have plugged K.C.: "It's a great place to raise your kids."

The recent hand wringing over whether or not to bring fiberglass cow art to Kansas City is a perfect example of what Calvin Trillin, another Kansas City ex-patriate, called "Rube-a-phobia," the morbid dread of appearing to be provincial which is the hallmark of provinciality. Kansas City is forever trying to shed the one image that gave it some character cowtown. The citizens still writhe at the stinging mockery in "Everything's up-to-date in Kansas City."

Kansas City's most serious problem isn't the lack of a symbol like St. Louis' arch. It's the ordeal of traveling by air to and from Kansas City and the embarrassment of its international airport, which is sleepier, ruder and more lacking in amenities than some third world airports I've visited.

Kansas City's obsession with being "major league" condemns it to a perpetual state of misery and an agenda that will only make it just like other big towns. But it's ok to be minor league. Think of all the towns in America whose greatest claim to fame is something like "State Girls Class B Basketball Champs 1967." Somehow their citizens face existence without despair.

Kansas City could obtain happiness if it just learned to accept itself. But then couldn't we all?

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