In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople. You may not believe this. No one believes this; but it is true.
—Ernest Hemingway, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”
One wall of the office lobby of the J. C. Nichols Company, the Kansas City real estate firm, is decorated with an enormous cartoon map of the famous Country Club District, the company’s greatest accomplishment and the nation’s first fully restricted, fully-planned automobile suburb. The map, dated 1930, is a singularly strange one. Not only is its geography quaintly distorted, but it seeks to situate the Country Club District in time as well, with “A Pageant of Kansas City” that would put any Whig historian to shame. The map enumerates the region’s successive inhabitants: dinosaurs, bison, Spanish, French, and settlers from the South and East. Although men in mohawks are depicted hunting the buffalo and the map is dotted with an occasional wigwam or hatchet-wielding brave, the thousands of years of American Indian civilization go unmentioned in the text: they constituted little more than decoration, it seems, the source for the quaint street-names and subdivision monikers of which Nichols was so fond. This oddly telescoped vision of the past gets even stranger once Western civilization appears on the bluffs over the Missouri. In one panel the railroad is depicted arriving here; in the next the Nichols company gives a nod to the city’s treasured status as a (minor) Civil War battlefield; in the very next one suburbia is being constructed. The years from 1864 to 1907, which saw the city’s riotous heyday, its overnight transformation from river town into metropolis, the rise of its famous political machine, and a series of savage battles between its responsible businessmen and various species of midwestern radicals, are simply not part of the story. By 1930, this placid suburbanized history implies, the city’s past was safely complete, bounded in a little ring of “curved streets, golf courses,” and “safeguarded by the most scientific protective restrictions known.” Through the wonders of this elaborate system of planning, the high plateau of true culture had been reached, and the Country Club District was duly “recognized as the world’s finest and most beautiful home development,” the object of admiration of “the foremost city planning authorities in the world.”
Dinosaurs, settlers, Civil War, and then with suburbia history is done. The J. C. Nichols Company, postmodernists before their time, may have come closer in 1930 than any of our contemporary cultural theorists to approximating our present-day civic myopia.
The canonical story of the city is an elementary drama of order over chaos, of human imagination triumphing over unruly nature. It pits Greeks against Barbarians, finds walled European towns resisting the ravages of the Huns, and celebrates the taming of drunken cowboys or range-mad badmen by sturdy Western sheriffs. Our contemporary dream of civic order, though, finds the forces of civilization set against a different foe: the vast, ungovernable tides of human memory itself.
Our culture of forgetting has brought with it an elaborate new blueprint of urban organization.
It is a commonplace of urban literature to describe American cities as being at war with their own pasts. They have proceeded through the years in a frenzy of building, razing, and reconstruction, continually wrecking and then reconstituting themselves elsewhere, expanding over the surrounding countryside like an ever-spreading infection. But this new battle against memory involves more than mere physical growth. It derives from the character and design of the new metropolis as well as the razing of the old; from the civic values that guide the rebuilding as well as the indiscriminate destruction of obsolete buildings and neighborhoods. Our culture of forgetting has brought with it an elaborate new blueprint of urban organization, of metropolitan culture, and of social order; a blueprint that, though first sketched out a century ago, has only been fully implemented in the last forty years.
The workings of this new metropolis, engaged in its battle with memory, are visible everywhere, but in few places are its effects more remarkable than in Kansas City, Missouri, the town where the battle began. Kansas City, a sprawling metropolis of some million-and-a-half souls that stands at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, is one of those Midwestern towns where the local media is fond of terms like “average” and “heartland.” It has fallen in succession for every single one of the urban-salvation myths of the last twenty years—convention center, riverboat gambling, cyber-revolution—and it is a microcosm of America in a hundred other ways as well, many of which the local Chamber of Commerce will be glad to tell you about.
More importantly, Kansas City has long served as a testing-ground for several of the forms of urban planning now in use across the country. Like other cities it has experienced the trauma of the conventional variety of civic forgetting: its old downtown is a study in vacant lots; the riverbanks from which it initially sprang are now inaccessible to civilians; the showplace neighborhoods of the turn of the century are decaying or have simply vanished. But Kansas City is also the proud birthplace of the new polis. It is the site of the both the nation’s first fully-realized modern suburban development, the Country Club District, and its first architecturally-unified shopping center, the Country Club Plaza, built to serve the new suburbanites in 1925. Nowhere has the gospel of beautification and city planning been more enthusiastically embraced, or the cultural and political effects of such planning more completely realized.
Were you to write the city’s bureau of tourism, read about Kansas City in a glossy magazine, or sit through a yuppie-romance movie set there, the hyper-planned Kansas City is the one you would see: a land of mansions and fountains, a town that is invariably spoken of as being good for families, a place that regularly wins plaudits in the various urban surveys conducted by business magazines. Richard Rhodes, whose 1987 Harper’s magazine essay on Kansas City remains the best account of its aggressively nice civic culture, calls it “Cupcake Land” where all is “pleasantness, well-scrubbed and bland.” The critical feature of Cupcake culture, Rhodes suggests, is its haste to disconnect itself from its past. “Kansas City renounced its heritage when it pledged allegiance to Cupcake Land,” he observes. “To obscure its bawdy history,” the towns elite “lays claim to an ersatz nobility.” The Kansas City-based Hallmark corporation, Rhodes points out, shares a crown as its logo with the baseball Royals; the city’s annual horse show, an otherwise strong link to its agrarian past, is called the American Royal.
Kansas City’s pleasant image is an ironic one. In earlier days the town was notorious for its sprawling, rapacious breed of capitalism, its political corruption and friendliness to vice of all kinds, its mysterious colonies of millennial reformers and psycho-Christians, and, above all, its intense and vibrant cultural life. Composer Virgil Thomson recalled the characteristics for which Kansas City was once notorious in a 1966 essay:
One block on State Line Avenue showed on our side nothing but saloons. And just as Memphis and St. Louis had their Blues, we had our surely older Twelfth Street Rag proclaiming a joyous low-life. Indeed, as recently as the 1920s H. L. Mencken boasted for us that within the half-mile around Twelfth and Main there were 2,000 second-story hotels. We were no less proud of these than of our grand houses, stone churches, and slums, our expensive street railways and parks, and a political machine whose corruption was for nearly half a century an example to the nation.
Kansas City’s culture was popular and distinctly regional: Count Basie and Thomas Hart Benton rather than the formal attainments—art galleries, symphonies, ballets, zoos—which give contemporary civic elites such satisfaction and fill the pages of attractive, full-color city guides.
Its past was anything but moderate. In the 1930s Kansas City gave the country Harry S. Truman and the Ford Motor Company its first sit-down strike, events which are still vaguely recalled here in occasional sepia-tint spreads in the Kansas City Star. A little more difficult to remember are the years of full-throttle corruption of the 1920s and thirties, the reign of Boss Tom Pendergast and the unparalleled flowering of jazz which launched figures like Jay McShann, Lester Young, Hot Lips Page, and Charlie Parker. Absolutely dropped off the horizon of civic memory are the outbreaks of wild Midwestern radicalism that preceded: the IWW free-speech fights of 1914, the frenzied enthusiasm for the reforms that William Jennings Bryan seemed to promise, the climb to prominence of the socialist weekly Appeal to Reason, the caterwauling of the Populists, and before that the utterly unthinkable—civil war between bloodthirsty Missouri slaveholders and equally determined Kansas abolitionists like John Brown.
That Kansas City always existed alongside the more familiar place: the city of the booster, the speculator, the developer, the responsible businessman; people concerned with no reforms except for those that would put them solidly in charge of city government; no “culture’”but that which would increase property values. From its earliest days the town’s newspapers and planning departments were dominated by figures enamored of the City Beautiful ideal, men who dreamed of a rigidly planned metropolis and who built for KC an elaborate system of parks and boulevards that, in the pre-zoning era, were the best they could do to contain the riotous ways of the other Kansas City.
The significance of Kansas City, then, is not any particular aspect of its culture, but the mind-boggling mechanism by which it has made culture irrelevant.
Most American cities have experienced similar battles between wildly conflicting visions of the good polis. And it’s no surprise that the civic elite won out here—they did everywhere. What amazes about Kansas City is the overwhelming degree to which one of these incommensurable visions triumphed over the other, rooting it out wherever it continued to appear, and declaring war on the human faculties that permitted it to survive. In the years since the Depression the city’s Best Men have reigned triumphant politically, socially, and also in a diligent campaign to efface the town’s insubordinate past. The city’s history can be almost entirely summarized in terms of this elementary cultural struggle and its totally lopsided outcome: in no other American metropolis is the local elite so openly boastful about their power and so proprietary about their domain; in no other large metropolis does boosterism and civic optimism still retain such a totalitarian grip over local expression; nowhere else is such vicious class conflict papered over by such simple strategies of denial and segregation.
The significance of Kansas City, then, is not any particular aspect of its culture, but the mind-boggling mechanism by which it has made culture irrelevant. Today it is a center not of jazz, but of greeting cards: the home base of the Hallmark company, crafters of platitudes and emotional fakers to the millions. It is a hotbed not of the radicalism personified by the IWW, the Populists, John Brown, or even the tamer rendition offered by Bryan and Truman, but “Cupcake Land,” with its immaculate lawns and elaborate Christmas-lights displays. Kansas City’s transformation, though, was not an act of economic nature, part of the “normal” development of the American city. It derives from the unrelenting application by civic leaders of a very specific—and very peculiar—conception of the good city: its geography, its business, its architecture, and most of all, its understanding of the past.
Far out on the Kansas Prairie, in the small town of Lucas, stands an artifact of the now unimaginable political convictions once held by people in this desolate region of the continent. A Civil War veteran, one J. P. Dinsmoor, was moved to construct on his property an elaborate illustration of the condition of mankind, building over the years a tableau of concrete statuary he called “The Garden of Eden.” Biblical stories are intermixed with standard Populist iconography: here is Cain, just having slain Abel; there is “Labor Crucified” and surrounded by his tormenters—doctor, lawyer, preacher, and capitalist. But toil as he might to provide for the generations of Kansans to come a graphic illustration of man’s inhumanity to man, Dinsmoor’s creation is now understood not as a monument to the holy cause of Reform but as a prescient nod to the wisdom of Bob Dole. Marvelling at the glorious oddness of finding such images thousands of miles from the centers of American power and hundreds of miles from the nearest liberal, I inquire about the meaning of a sculpture depicting a monster grasping at a map of the Americas, with one tentacle reaching menacingly across Panama. Although for Dinsmoor the figure doubtless summoned Populist dread of American imperialism, the caretaker explains that he had in fact anticipated the treasons of the still-hated Jimmy Carter, who gave away the canal. Populace? Never heard of them. And so the wind shrieks across the empty fields, the town becomes a few blocks of houses, some satellite dishes, and a gas station, and the howling millennial assertions of one strange old man decay mercifully into a jumble of re-bars and some oddly-shaped shards of painted concrete.
Back in Kansas City, a well-maintained statue of a satyr and a pair of antique marble urns depicting a bacchanalia decorate a nicely-landscaped traffic island in the Country Club District. No doubt the developer who acquired them in some far-off land and installed them here was familiar with Keats’ famous ode, but their placement makes it virtually impossible for others to marvel at the urns’ bacchantes, much less duplicate their revellings: not a soul can be seen on the immaculate lawns of the surrounding mansions, there are no liquor stores for miles, and the nearly complete absence of sidewalks in the surrounding neighborhood makes pedestrian access to the island precarious. Good Kansas Citians do not wonder What Attic Shape; the satyr and urns are clearly supposed to be little more than a flash of ancientness glimpsed from the window of a car speeding by, another reassurance that their still-new town has a classy and super-elegant past, and that it’s by no means what you think it is.
The great turning point in Kansas City history came in 1939, when a coalition of respectable businessmen and suburbanites finally threw off the yoke of the Pendergast Machine. And when the reformers cleaned up Kansas City politics, they cleaned up its culture, too, eventually transforming it from an agriculturally-grounded sin city into an urban amusement park of a different kind—a fantasy land for the aspirations of the middle class.
Jazz was the most noticeable casualty of their efforts. Downbeat’s 1995 survey of the best places for jazz performances includes features on Seattle and Minneapolis but conspicuously—and appropriately—omits Kansas City. Living, organic jazz simply is not practiced here any longer. But that doesn’t mean the city has no use for the corpse of its long-dead legacy: on the contrary, “jazz” is endlessly trotted out here by the heirs of the men who destroyed the KC jazz scene whenever an emblem of the city’s pretensions to cultural sophistication is required. Today two of the city’s most successful shopping centers (one owned by the Hallmark Company, the other by J. C. Nichols) and a suburban office complex sponsor popular “jazz” concert series, always featuring sanitized hipsters like Kenny G and Chic Corea, brought in for the occasion from wherever it is that produces such entertainers. An announcement for this summer’s jazz program that ran recently in a local newspaper is an almost unbearably telling document of Kansas City’s tranformation:
As if the office buildings glittering like mirrored monuments in the woods weren’t enough, there’s art and jazz in those woods. Corporate Woods, that is. And it’s Johnson County’s classiest business address.
Even more stunningly ironic is the municipal government’s attitude towards its now-vanished cultural inheritance. Even as one of the city fathers’ predictably catastrophic urban-renewal schemes was destroying the town’s last original jazz club—still tainted by those unforgivable memories of the Pendergast years—City Hall was engaged in creating a “Historic District” from the utterly devastated area around 18th and Vine, complete with plans to erect a jazz museum (!) and dump untold millions of city dollars. Jazz as a living thing is out of the question in Kansas City. But “jazz” as a lifestyle accouterment, a disconnected signifier of upper-middle-class cool, is worth vast sums here. The city’s Economic Development Corporation, a glorified Chamber of Commerce charged with convincing out-of-town corporations that KC enjoys “all the amenities of big city living” has even taken as its logo the silhouette of a cat standing with his sax.
Students of the “Soft City,” the urban accretion that exists without attachment to place, often assume that what they are describing is a natural phenomenon, an outgrowth of ever-so-normal market conditions. In Kansas City the opposite is manifestly the case: the survivors of the old saw the coercive powers of civic authority arrayed decidedly against them; meanwhile new and improved venues—whether fakejazz, replica barbecue stands, or lifestyle deviance palaces—are showered with civic favors of all kinds. So remarkable is city hall’s record in this regard that it often seems they must have on file somewhere a secret oath to which every Mayor and City Manager has sworn himself: “I will seek out the authentic and destroy it; I will discover whatever it is that has given this city life and I will kill it; whatever it is that people in these parts do well, I will package, contain, commodity, and render boring.”
Milton Morris’s nightclub was the final outpost of Kansas City jazz, a tiny glorious box at 32nd and Main that stared down the surrounding blocks of urban desolation with live performances, night after night. I began attending Milton’s as a student in high school, undertaking a rite of passage from the Country Club District into an unmentionable Kansas City. The place looked forbidding at first, with its battered exterior and 1940s neon sign. Every other building on the block was abandoned and securely boarded-up; store fronts nearby carried faded advertisements for long-forgotten joints like the “Kon Tiki” and the “Boom Boom Room.” But Milton’s persisted among the rubble, driven by an esoteric spark: a strange kinship between its clientele; its one, beautifully sympathetic waitress; its bartender, constantly digging around in the finest jazz record collection I have ever seen for exactly the right side; and the fatally self-absorbed combos that played there nearly every night. Milton’s was intensely dark, a place where you could easily get lost despite the fact that it was only one small room. It was fixed unapologetically in time, with its ancient recordings, deep battered leather couches that had been fashionable in the Depression, and walls covered with backlit wooden cut-outs depicting jazz musicians in the strange stylized manner of the thirties. Milton’s was a cultural relic, a gorgeous, creaking, human relic that defied the city’s pasteurizing determination to establish itself in some never-never land untouched by urban baseness.
When it was finally torn down in 1991 to make way for an (as yet unbuilt) urban strip mall, Milton’s disappeared with little mourning from a city media busy chronicling the goings-on at official cultural events like Impressionist exhibitions and the visit of R.E.M. The club’s end was hastened, perhaps, by the fact that Milton Morris was also an outspoken naysayer towards the city’s dreams of proper improvement. He appears in a documentary film about Kansas City jazz, “The Last of the Blue Devils,” complaining that something has gone terribly wrong with the new Kansas City, that with the dethroning of Pendergast some drastic mistake had been made. Milton even ran for governor a few times himself, aiming to right the situation with strange pro-vice schemes and anti-family-values legislation. “If you’re a metropolitan city in a metropolitan state, you ought to act like one,” he told one (out-of-town) reporter. “At one time, we were known as a swinging town. Now they fly right over us like we weren’t even here.” Needless to say, Milton’s opinions and “expressed aesthetic preferences grated against the sensibilities of the new Kansas City: to Cupcakes, for whom “jazz” is something you listen to at a shining suburban complex of some kind, Milton’s stood out like a nasty boil on an otherwise pleasantly-smiling nordic face, a troublesome memory of some drunken indiscretion long ago.
Kansas City’s peculiar brand of civic amnesia can ultimately be traced to the promethean efforts of a single individual in the early twentieth century, a developer and urban visionary named J. C. Nichols. All through the declining years of the last century the town’s leaders embraced the total-planned vision of the City Beautiful Movement as a means of instant tranformation from frontier squalor into solid, investment-worthy metropolis. By the 1880s, only ten years after the railroads chose Kansas City as the place to bridge the Missouri, the dream of large parks, wide boulevards, and rigid delineation of affluent neighborhoods had become a sort of civic mantra, a recurrent political issue and the mono theme of editorials in the local papers. But here, as everywhere else that the City Beautiful held sway, the authorities’ ability to rewrite their town’s geography was limited. J. C. Nichols’s contribution was the discovery of what is now the obvious solution to such an impasse: restart the town elsewhere, with all-new neighborhoods, rigid restrictions, and no poor people. Imagining himself more a “city-builder” than a mere realtor, Nichols constructed fully one-tenth of Kansas City and in the process gave the world its first fully-realized modern suburb as well as its first shopping mall. He remains the single most significant figure in the city’s history, a heroic warrior in the eternal battle to reign in the barbaric impulses and chaotic ways of the human imagination.
The man who initiated the suburbanization of Kansas City was obsessed, ironically, with exerting human control over the very phenomenon which suburbia is often accused of accelerating. J. C. Nichols craved Permanence, an end to the incessant wrecking and building that characterizes American metropolises, the moving about and fluctuation in real estate prices that always deprives house-buyers of their investment. Eternal stability—of land values, of tastes, of the neighborhoods inhabited by the various social classes is the high goal to which Nichols dedicated such careful and rigid planning: as early as 1913 a pamphlet for the Country Club District declared his intention “to so maintain this property that it will permanently remain Kansas City’s best residential district … assuring buyers of home-sites that the high standards established will be forever jealousy guarded and protected against all undesirable conditions or any civic neglect.”
The Country Club District is an astoundingly effective machine for forgetting, for the making of solid, investment-worthy citizens.
But Nichols’s effort to press the ordering capacity of human intelligence onto the riotous whirl of urban life had curious cultural consequences: Permanence was not a state hospitable, say, to the jazz subculture, to the tastes of the working class, or even to the city’s traditional economic base. It was, rather, a scheme for reinforcing conventional hierarchical order when all the verities of bourgeois civilization were melting rapidly away, a vision that expressed itself with constant references to the distant European never-never lands of social regimentation. Permanence was a far-reaching scheme for the stabilization of society, a device for explaining the ways of Power to Man.
The Country Club District, a ten-square-mile area to the south and west of downtown that Nichols planned, constructed, and sold from 1908 until the 1940s was the realtor’s lasting accomplishment and remains the definitive American statement of the suburban ideal: winding, tree-shaded streets, enormous lots with understated, solid-looking mansions, curious bits of old-world statuary dotting its immaculately-landscaped public areas, and vast open spaces (private golf courses, not parks) separating it from the surrounding metropolis on all sides.
The Country Club District is an astoundingly effective machine for forgetting, for the making of solid, investment-worthy citizens. Nichols himself recognized this explicitly. He was not merely a builder, but an ideologue of suburbia. While others might plan and build subdivisions, Nichols saw himself as a maker of cities in a larger sense, an architekton of values and folkways as well as of houses. The “Realtor,” he told the 1925 convention of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, should be in the business of city planning on the grandest scale. “In every study of the city’s transportation or traffic system; in every housing, sanitation, or building code commission; in every industrial survey, population density study, or investigation of freight rates affecting the city; yes, in every educational, cultural, and recreational activity,” Nichols asserted, “the Realtor should lead.” For the Realtor was a civic father, not merely a crafter of neighborhoods. “Are you creating the proper standards for developing the best child life in your community—for the future citizens of your city?” he asked his fellow developers. “Are you teaching them to be observant of the beauties and joys of life, appreciative not only of home, but of the … right order of things in neighborhood and civic development?” (emphasis added) Nichols had great plans for Kansas City itself. As his “authorized” biographers note approvingly, he aimed to “transform Kansas City from a cowtown into a midwestern hub of culture, education, business, and transportation.”
Fortunately, Nichols had a brand-new identity ready to go as the old one was left discreetly behind in the smelly old neighborhoods above the stockyards. You notice it as soon as you enter the Country Club District: antique columns, Renaissance well-heads, gigantic bird-baths, sun-dials, and other bits of generic baroquerie are everywhere, flanking street entrances, perched in the middle of busy intersections, mounted incongruously in somebody’s front yard, giving the entire district an overpowering europhilic reek. “Anywhere but here!” screams its architecture. Its houses, set on streets designed after those of rural England, replicate (with but two striking exceptions) every architectural style but the local: Tudor, French provincial, and Spanish—here are even three copies of Mount Vernon. The nearby Country Club Plaza, the first shopping center to be built in conjunction with the surrounding suburb (and to provide parking lots), is designed entirely in a peculiar red-tile roof Spanish style, complete with a half-size replica of a tower in Seville. And if you still have doubts, Nichols company publications quote a number of outsiders (most notably André Maurois) as testimony to the beauty of the Country Club District.
In constructing his new, idealized Kansas City Nichols was extraordinarily thorough. A detailed examination of his developments can be positively hair-raising: there is literally nothing here that is not pretense or false front. No buildings not cluttered with unconvincing ornamental references to something that we imagine exists in a more sophisticated land far away; no natural-looking landscape that has actually been left unaltered, no roadside ancientness used for its original purpose. Nothing here rings true. Here stand some carefully-preserved fake ruins from the time when fake ruins were stylish in Italy; there rises a dummy bell-tower. Even the street names, which invariably refer to Spain, Italy, or fake-Indian whimsy, are in many cases not shared with the surrounding metropolis. “You should avoid using the name of a street which is extended through your property if the character of the property on that street further downtown, or elsewhere is of poor quality,” Nichols informed his fellow realtors in 1939. “A street name should have a ring of dignity and a certain exclusiveness….”
As he appears in a recent adulatory “authorized” biography, Nichols himself seems to have been congenitally incapable of authenticity, endowed with a mysterious sixth sense for the various fakeries he so sedulously sought out. Two of the largest civic ornaments with which Nichols decorated Kansas City illustrate his curious melding of fakery, elitism, and amnesia that he offered to the world. The Liberty Memorial is the nation’s largest First World War monument, a gigantic civic project completed in 1921 under the leadership of Nichols and some other local businessmen. The structure itself is ludicrously oversized and almost comically phallic, a full 217 feet of column flanked by two squat museums filled with memorabilia from that brief, ugly, and jingoistic war. Nichols’s biographers insist first that he argued, “It should not be a monument to the dead but rather to Liberty,” which would have made him just about the only person left in the nation who still believed in Mr. Wilson’s hollow crusade. But, as they soon admit, the monument was designed strictly for show, like his other projects. The important fact was not an empty abstraction like “Liberty,” but that the memorial would occupy the hill opposite the city’s new and grandiose train station, and that Nichols had believed “that the first impression that visitors received when arriving by train was important to Kansas City’s image and what was good for Kansas City was good for the J. C. Nichols Company, and vice versa.” Ordinarily monuments are instruments of civic memory: this one is more a testament to the past-effacing europhilia of the city’s businessmen than to the fallen of World War I. A vast painting of the structure’s dedication that adorns one wall of the flanking museum depicts the Kansas City powerful clustered around elaborately-decorated military representatives from glorious Europe, graciously bestowing the blessings of the Old World on this raw place. The faces of the Kansas Citians who were there that day are painstakingly rendered, and an accompanying diagram points out exactly who each one is—a sort of visual Social Register for establishing the bona fides of the local elite.
Concerned for the souls of his clients, at about the same time Nichols built a Country Club Christian Church to go with his Country Club District. It’s hard to imagine a more gratuitous mixing of pretension and fakery than the one described, with astounding ingenuousness, by Nichols’s biographers:
In 1920, J. C. Nichols himself, reared a Presbyterian but not a regular churchgoer, joined with eleven other millionaires to found the Country Club Christian Church. Members first met in the community hall of the Brookside Shopping Center, while planning and then erecting a cathedral-like stone church building with a Sunday school on a large Ward Parkway site at Huntington Road. Dr. George Hamilton Combs accepted the call to be its first minister. Highly literate and intelligent, a compelling speaker and leader, Dr. Combs served for more than thirty years a large congregation that probably included more influential and socially prominent individuals than any other church in the city.
J. C.’s son, Miller Nichols, who has steered the company since the elder Nichols’s death in 1950, assumed his father’s strangely unerring eye for fakery as a matter of course. His biographers intersperse admiring accounts of his anti-union political activity with appreciations of his taste for whimsical statues of penguins, his construction of public monuments to friends and family members—always featuring Italian or Spanish do-dads, and his brand-new house, which boasts an equestrian cemetery for someone else’s horses, a cupola salvaged from the house that used to stand on the site, and a wrought-iron fence taken from St. Joseph, a dying town to the north of Kansas City that has had to face the end of the century without elite shopping centers, penguins, Country Club Christians, or even new mansions. And when Nichols fils decided the Plaza needed a statue of a farm animal (there are numerous heroic renderings of cows in Kansas City), he acquired one of a boar—in Italy.
Towards its conclusion the Nichols family’s “authorized biography” dwells ever more obsessively on the cultural accomplishments of the Nichols clan. Gawk at the Plaza’s cowboy statue or its rendering of Ben Franklin, its quaint stucco bridge lined with “lovely seasonal flowers,” or the cute penguins incongruously “decked out” for the wedding of the Prince of Wales in London. One photograph of the book’s protagonists depicts them in the company of some of the various third-rate celebrities who occasionally pass through Kansas City, stars in the tired productions that make up the fare at the various Nichols-sponsored cultural institutions. This, then, was the bargain undertaken by Kansas City in the frantic race to make itself palatable to the outside world, the fruit of fifty years of Cupcake and Country Club: we traded Charlie Parker so that the “Power Elite” could hobnob with Carol Channing.
Every “world class” metropolis worth relocating to must have its own glossy magazine as a matter of course, a lifestyle guide for the transient upper-middle class. Ingram’s, the journal “for successful Kansas Citians,” offers something extra: a cravenness and obsequiousness towards wealth that is unrivalled in the region. The publication openly and proudly takes for its duty the identification, delineation, and deification of the area’s haute bourgeoisie, publishing every year a special issue entitled “The Power Elite,” complete with a detailed listing of “the hundred most influential people in Kansas City.” Such a crass celebration of social standing is bound to raise some objections, but, since nine-tenths of the joy of elitism derives from being publicly revered as an elite, these came mainly from people who expected to be included but weren’t. In 1991 the editor gleefully recounted the unease the article’s omissions had caused in certain rarefied quarters, but made no mention of its more glaring offensiveness to democratic sensibilities. Ingram’s has now repeated the feature five times, as yet with no apparent recognition that there’s any thing even remotely amiss about such sycophancy, or that the very title they have chosen, “Power Elite,” also graces C. Wright Mills’s damning study of the American ruling class.
In Kansas City, no such considerations are necessary—hell, the thought never even crossed our mind! As the annual “Power Elite” listings strive so reverently to imply, Kansas City’s betters run the town like a feudal domain. A coterie of leading businessmen who called themselves the “Monday Morning Group” even chose and backed a sufficiently pliable mayoral candidate well in advance of a recent municipal election. To the lickspittles at Ingram’s the doings of the the Monday Morning Group carried but one relieving message: “Power” had at last been liberated and finally “came out of the closet.”
Criticism of any aspect of Kansas City (except for the immoral ways of its poor, of course) is treated as something akin to civic treason.
For all this unabashed arrogance, the “Power Elite” are staying in power, and for a simple reason: there are no major media outlets in Kansas City that will permit any sort of questioning, even the most indirect variety, of the omniscience of business and business leaders. As the town’s purpose has changed from producing and trading things to convincing large corporations to move here or, at least, to send their employees here for conventions, boosterism has begun to exert an almost totalitarian influence over the city’s public expression. Other cities and regions boast to prospective transplants about how docile local workers are, how they have passed strict anti-union or open-shop laws; in Kansas City these are joined by an astoundingly docile media, willing to do anything to foster that irreplaceable “pro-business climate,” as a Chamber of Commerce document calls it. Boosterism has a long record here, as elsewhere in the region: over a century ago the then-regnant “Power Elite” hired themselves a newspaper editor for the sole purpose of luring the railroad through town. Today, though, the cultural climate of boosterism is more pervasive and suffocating. Almost every aspect of the city’s public life is conducted under the omnipresent goal of living up to the world’s scrutiny, convincing Cupcakes from elsewhere that KC can provide them with all the amenities to which they are accustomed. The Star bursts with stories of regional accomplishments, lists of the ways in which we stand high among the nation’s cities (lists in which the escapades of the baseball Royals and football Chiefs always figure prominently), reassurances that KC is one of the best places for any corporation to relocate. Even crime can be transformed into an adjunct of civic pride, with the attention of Los Angeles gangs testifying, like the attention of a French Nobel laureate or a multi-national company, to the town’s significance.
By contrast, criticism of any aspect of Kansas City (except for the immoral ways of its poor, of course) is treated as something akin to civic treason. The Star recently carried a column bemoaning the decline of downtown; the writer was promptly and publicly scolded by the paper’s business editor for letting down the mask. Even stranger, the booster attitude has now permeated society from top to bottom, with loyal Kansas Citians dutifully shushing one another when they stray towards less-than-upstanding thoughts. In writing this article I was constantly warned by friends not to badmouth my home town, that loose lips might sink the gold-bearing ships of conventions and relocation.
Such intense boosterism assumes, perhaps correctly, that the life of cities is a fragile, delicate thing, a matter of expensive sculpture gardens and art fairs, an ornamental plant that must be carefully cultivated and coddled if it is to survive. The earlier Kansas City aesthetic, of course, assumed exactly the opposite: that cities were hardy creatures, the outgrowth of vast movements of industry and agriculture, the product of titanic struggles between capital and labor, farmers and nature.
A recent piece of architectural journalism in the Kansas City Star begins with a classic invocation of the urban spirit: the author is lounging at a café watching “the human comedy blowing by,” and wondering “whether city living gets any better than this.” The midwestern Champs Elysées where he is able to strike such a posture, though, is in fact not “city” at all but the Country Club Plaza. Something about the article seems nauseatingly tragic as I reread it a few weeks later in the South Side of Chicago: such perfunctory boosterism from a once militantly-independent paper; the insistence that the pleasures of the “city,” the very things that old Milton Morris used to accuse the town of abandoning, are in fact readily available in J. C. Nichols’s fantasy land; the guileless mistaking of mall for city, of shopping for civic activity, of the gaudy lifestyle display of the city’s upper crust for diversity—all of it described by the writer as though these were the most natural things in the world, as though the substitution of Nichols’s reactionary civic dream for the metropolis of the past was now, seventy years after the Plaza’s founding, as normal and unremarkable as air.
As the Star writer attests, the anti-historical dream of J. C. Nichols continues to lie at the center of our strange civic culture. Nichols’s Permanence now appears to have been accomplished: his Country Club District has become history in its own right, with the parvenu fantasies of the 1920s having been legitimized through passage of time. Today the Plaza is the city’s foremost symbol and tourist attraction. Its annual Christmas-lighting ritual, a simple publicity stunt which takes place on Thanksgiving night, has become the city’s most important civic event, with as many as 150,000 people from across town gathering to gawk at the palaces of consumption whose success over the next month will determine the future of their Cupcake way of life.
The aftermath of the Second World War provided Nichols an unprecedented opportunity to become a “city builder” on an even larger scale. With help from the Veterans Administration and a massive infusion of populist sensibilities, Nichols was able to open the pretense and instant forgetting of suburbia to everyone. In the vast building boom of the postwar years, the Kansas City suburbs went sprawling to the south and west, across the Kansas state line, over farmland fifteen miles from the old downtown, from where it has proceeded at a rapid clip ever since. And though the new construction is now far beyond the reach of the city’s puny bus system, the suburban race continues, a new neighborhood for each generation, with the Nichols company joined by a host of others, each of them dutifully professing the Nichols faith of Values and Permanence, enforcing the Nichols litany of strict zoning, lease covenants, tyrannical homes associations, winding streets, and segregation by class.
But perhaps the most significant fact determining Kansas City’s ongoing battle against memory is the one noted in a recent Nichols company pamphlet: in some years a full 30 percent of “homebuyers” in Kansas City come from out-of-town, transferred here by their corporate employers. The appeal of Nichols’s fiercely deracinated, fiercely europhilic vision of the good polis to this new tribe of wandering ‘professionals’ is immediately obvious: to become a member of the “Power Elite” here requires nothing—especially no familiarity with the city’s past—except a massive outlay of cash. Pretense runs correspondingly high, and in the real estate literature promoting the new subdevelopments one finds references not to mere houses but “estates,” “farms,” “manors,” or even an occasional “grand chateau elegant.” Announcements for new subdevelopments invariably trumpet the “elegance” and the “luxury” of the “exclusive” or “prestigious homesites” up for sale, and one of the most hotly desired suburban developments in Kansas City today is actually named “Patrician Woods.”
In no case are these developments to be thought of as part of the city: geographical evasion—even more pronounced than that of the Country Club District—is as crucial a selling point as historical pretense. Suburban promoters invariably boast about the isolation of their pre-planned homesites from the surrounding civic elements, using cul-de-sacs and deliberately winding roads to deter through traffic. Leawood, Kansas, the show-place burb of the 1980s, has taken this strategy of detachment to a brilliant but inevitable conclusion: although it stretches for seventy-two blocks along the Missouri border, only twelve streets penetrate through the suburb from this direction. The model for civic organization favored in Kansas City is not the city but the exclusive country club, and the more pretentious, the better. Advertisements for Hallbrook Farms, the greeting-card family’s own entry in the suburban competition, boast of its “rare commodity—old-fashioned neighborhood spirit,” but it is intentionally organized around a golf course, a far more appropriate locus for the social interaction of the “Power Elite” than a mere shopping center or—shudder—downtown.
We test the cultural waters by uttering one of Nichols’s favorite meaninglessnesses: “Are the homes exclusive?”
Under Nichols’s mastery Kansas City was able to transform itself into a city cut loose from place and time less than seventy-five years after it was founded; to tear itself away from Pendergast’s river bottoms and then to forsake its downtown for the placid parking lots of the Plaza. Today a sprawling Edge City at 119th Street promises to repeat the cycle. Not only do its residents no longer commute downtown; many of them have never been there. For these newest arrivals, accustomed as they are to a suburban life even more massified and detached from the particularities of place and time, the old Nichols developments of the Country Club District and Plaza constitute what is unique, what is lasting about Kansas City. Attend a happy hour at their favored mall-bars, Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s, and you quickly discover that many of them apparently believe that the Plaza, the country’s first suburban shopping center, is downtown, that the Country Club District is an “old” (or “olde,” as real estate ad sheets like to put it) neighborhood now menaced by the urban hordes. The dream of Permanence at 147th Street has made the dream of Permanence at 47th Street a little less tenable.
We drive past raw, treeless settlements called Wynnefield, Sylvan Lake At the Village, Charlemagne Manor, Nottingham Forest, a brand new street mysteriously named Town Centre Road, and get ourselves horribly lost amongst the cul-de-sacs at Treesmille before we find the one for us: Timber Bluff, “Another Sam Ferris Community.” “Did you just transfer here?” the salesman inquires as we enjoy a cup of complimentary coffee in the model unit. He regales us with tales of the great Sam, maker of cities, preserver of values, both family- and property-. “Sam’s been a developer since he was twenty-one,” the sales man confides. “He’s the deep pockets behind the community.” We test the cultural waters by uttering one of Nichols’s favorite meaninglessnesses: “Are the homes exclusive?” “Some of them are,” he acknowledges. Then he shows us the layout for the three models from which we can choose, each of them wildly oversized and flimsily constructed from simple board-and-bat. With each one we get to select one of four landscaping plots, mixing and matching rose bushes, lilacs, and hyacinths. “Sam’s a class act,” the salesman explains. “What if some guy wanted to move in next door and have grass all the way up to the building?” Such behavior would be strictly prohibited in a Sam Ferris community, he assures us, as would the building of fences other than the five approved models.
The road on which the home sits ends about fifty yards down, pavement gradually giving way to mud and a pair of tracks across an empty field, where sit two idle bulldozers, fresh from their duties at the Milton’s site. The sun beats down mercilessly, since the Sam-approved trees have yet to hit five feet and all the ones that grew here before were, naturally, destroyed to make way for Sam’s bucolic vision. Today is lawn-unrolling day at Timber Bluff, we notice.
From here we can also see the ill-fated mansions of the KeebleBerry development, last year’s community of middle-class choice turned to this year’s TV tabloid horror story when the units’ particleboard exteriors and landfill foundations met a typically extreme week-long Kansas City downpour. Two of them are visible from here, their backs broken, their walls jutting at uncomfortable angles through terra-cotta skin, their roofs settled alarmingly low over their just-installed windows, their contents burst out over the still-muddy hillside behind. The homes’ unhappy owners, last night’s news program noted, had recently been transferred here. They didn’t yet know anybody in Kansas City, and were forced to abandon their brand-new, rigorously-exclusive, golfcourse-accessed, fully-landscaped, $500,000 manor houses for the respite of the climate-controlled Marriott Corporetum at the Edge City just a short highway drive away. Neither the builder nor the owners of KeebleBerry (it wasn’t Sam or J. C.) could be held liable for the damage, since it was foundational. But the realtor did pay for their lodgings, the newscaster noted happily, and each homeowner was graciously granted a free upgrade to concierge class.