It’s hard to imagine a more colorful and revealing portrait of bygone Kansas City than that left by the writer Edward Dahlberg. In two books of memoir and thinly veiled fiction he recalls the life of his hard-working and entrepreneurial mother. In the early decades of the 20th century Lizzie Dahlberg operated the Star Lady Barbershop on east Eighth Street. It was situated on a raw and lively downtown block, filled with grifters, hucksters, preachers, prostitutes, merchants and others looking for the main chance in the shadows of a streetcar viaduct overhead. The Star Lady, whose barbers were always women, was the kind of place that cattlemen from Oklahoma or Nebraska would wander up to from the stockyards district in search of a shave and a thrill. More than one of them walked out with their one true love, or at least a short-term companion.
That physical block of Kansas City has long been scraped and replaced but its metaphorical echoes remain more than a century later. That is, Kansas City holds onto, or perhaps revels in, its image as a place of multiple identities, sometimes boisterous in spirit, sometimes quietly conservative, a bit buttoned-up in its behavior, a bit of leg showing through.
Kansas City, poised on the edge of what was once the western American frontier, has always been a place of opportunity and self-invention. And since its transformation from a riverfront outpost to an aspiring civic settlement in the middle of the 19th century, the city has always seemed like a place in search of equilibrium between its restrained civility and its wilder, hedonistic nature. With more hills and green space than most visitors ever expect, Kansas City can often feel like a genuine surprise.
Its recorded history begins with French explorers and fur traders (see Etienne de Bourgmont of the 16th century and the Chouteau family of the early 1800s). On their cross-continent mission of discovery, the expedition ordered by Thomas Jefferson and led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first camped at the confluence of the Kansas (Kaw) and Missouri rivers in 1804. Encounters with native peoples of the region included relatively peaceful trade and communication with Osage, Sauk and Fox, Iowa and other tribes, though that history would turn tragic soon enough.
Kansas City, along with Fort Osage and Independence to the east, became an important trailhead to Santa Fe, the southwest territories and the “great American desert,” the grassy expanse rising to the Rocky Mountains. America’s westward expansion, under the momentum of Manifest Destiny, was provisioned, outfitted and sent on its way over the muddy paths and hills of the growing town. (See Albert Boone’s General Store, now Kelly’s Westport Inn, built circa 1850.) Of the Santa Fe Trail it was once said to have particular and “peculiar attraction for the ambitious, the resolute, and the daring.” Again, a Kansas City theme develops.
In those days, an annual spring bonnet show in the Clay County town of Liberty brought East Coast finery to the women of the region. In the 21st century, Kansas City offers the cutting edge and artistic 18th Street Fashion Show.
Missouri had achieved statehood in 1820, under the political compromise that determined its status as a slave-holding state. Next-door Kansas was leaning toward the Union in 1854, after an influx of freemen and abolitionists, and Kansas City witnessed a long-running series of border wars and violent eruptions that culminated in the westernmost campaigns of the Civil War (see the Battle of Westport historical markers at Loose Park and elsewhere around town).
After the war, Kansas City’s commercial fortunes improved when the railroads found it to be a conveniently central point for transport and freight-hauling and the city won a crucial bridge to span the Missouri River. Livestock, grain, lumber and the rails all contributed to robust growth and cycles of spurt and bust in the postwar decades. Vestiges of a building boom in the 1880s can still be seen downtown.
The so-called closing of the western frontier in 1893 coincided with the emergence of an ambitious plan to reshape and civilize Kansas City’s image. Led by the city and the powerful voice of newspaper publisher William Rockhill Nelson (founder of The Kansas City Star), a new parks and boulevard system began to create winding, tree-lined roadways, recreational green spaces and other landscaped features connecting Kansas City’s neighborhoods. Nelson endeavored to transform "the muddiest city in the country" into a metropolis of beauty. First laid out by the parks planner George Kessler, Kansas City’s still-thriving system helped launch the so-called City Beautiful movement across the nation as a new century dawned.
The city’s heartland status as a place to be reckoned with in the 20th century stemmed not only from its central location but from a heady mix of political power, corruption, sensual temptations (booze, burlesque, jazz and blues music) along with industrial and agricultural grit. For Kansas City, that song from “Oklahoma!” – “everything’s up to date” – was not just a cliché, it was a reality for the streams of rural visitors, servicemen off to war, traveling salesmen, and others from beyond, who, like Lizzie Dahlberg, were in search of a new start in life.
Harry Truman, a World War I veteran, rose through the Democratic ranks to the U.S. Senate and the White House, at least partly thanks to the influence of power broker, political boss, liquor distributor and concrete supplier Thomas J. Pendergast. Kansas City managed to weather the Depression era with major civic building projects, including the City Hall, the downtown Jackson County Courthouse and the Municipal Auditorium, all of which speak today with the architectural sensuality of the Art Deco style. In the early 1930s there was even land and money, much of it from the family estate of William Rockhill Nelson, to build a gloriously monumental art museum, now the Nelson-Atkins, which opened in 1933.
Kansas City has long been known as a divided city. The state line and the two major rivers certainly represent boundary lines and obstacles that warrant complicated negotiations over enterprise and collaboration. But a deeper and more troubling divide has been between different races. For many, civic progress and gentrification has meant good things flowing to certain groups and displacing others.
The city, which had its share of civic unrest and racial anxieties in the 1960s, still lives with social divides even as it continues to strive for healing and to struggle for equitable progress.
Recent years have been marked by another period of strong growth in entrepreneurial spirit and a boom in creative talent nurtured by a vibrant arts economy and post-recession energy. An ultra-modern expansion of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. A shapely performing arts center on a prominent hilltop. An arena and entertainment complex in the heart of downtown. A sense of technological trend-setting sparking an influx of savvy urban dwellers. Artist-driven redevelopment. Culinary overdrive. All have helped stoke a feeling of aliveness.
Cranky writer Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977), long past his boyhood wonder, later dismissed Kansas City as a “smutty and religious town.” He’d hardly recognize the place today, though he undoubtedly would lament the loss of the city’s electric and dangerous character of his youth. Still, there is a live-wire electricity here, a bit of reckless striving, a bunch of concerted and creative future-making, and enough evidence of up-to-dateness to make it feel as if “ev’rythin’s like a dream in Kansas City.”
Steve Paul is a longtime Kansas City journalist. He’s author of a book on Kansas City architecture and of Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend.