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A home revived in the heart of ‘flyover country’

April 20, 2018

Courtesy of Emily Cohen
ROYALTY, LOYALTY: Some parts of Kansas City have experienced redevelopment in recent years, but old institutions remain meaningful. Some, like the Royals, the major league baseball team, represents both sides. Kansas City natives Camille Serrano '18 and Maggie Burke '21 have always like their hometown, but have noticed a lot more national attention.

Camille Serrano ’18 is from Olathe (oh-LAY-thuh) Kansas, about 20 miles southwest of Kansas City. When asked if there are any places in Olathe that she thinks about when she thinks of home, this is what Camille said:

“Oh my goodness. In Olathe? Probably not. Olathe’s not that special.”

Camille always thought of her hometown as a place you return to when you’re done being young, when you’re ready settle down and have a family. Some people do stay nearby for college, but most leave and come back.

“Everyone in my town has been there for, like, 50-plus years, [and] everyone is going back. All my friends, they go home like every three weeks. They’re at schools that are close enough that they can drive three hours back home, and they’re still looking at jobs back home. They don’t even consider anything outside of Kansas. So me and my friends, we clash there,” she said. “I think that’s really interesting that they’ve always stayed in the same place. It’s a Midwest thing, I think.”

Camille sees this phenomenon from a slightly removed perspective, because her family is originally from Texas. Her parents encouraged her to go out of state for college, since that’s what they did when they moved to Olathe.

It’s not like Olathe is a super tiny town; at 125,000 people it’s the fourth-biggest city in Kansas. Not many people outside the Midwest would know that, though, so she usually says that she’s from Kansas or Kansas City. She’s not really wrong, either, because ‘Kansas City’ is big. The metropolitan area straddles two rivers, the Kansas-Missouri state line and 15 counties. You can drive 30 minutes in any direction and still basically be in Kansas City. It’s sprawling; roads, intersections and spaces in general get wider the further you get from downtown. Go even further, and the signs of the city disappear altogether. “It’s a Midwest thing,” she said.

All the open spaces lead out-of-staters to forget about the stuff in between, including Kansas City. It’s a symptom of a prejudice toward the coasts, which developed as the nation’s economy moved away from agriculture and railroad transport. “People don’t really think about Kansas ever,” Camille said with a shrug.

But openness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It means there are a lot more people who call Kansas City home than what city limits dictate. They’re proud to be from Kansas City, explained Maggie Burke ’21, who’s from Kansas City, proper, on the Missouri side. They hope to distinguish their hometown from its ‘flyover country’ status.

“Kansas City is just full of people who will defend Kansas City.” Maggie said. “Like, ‘Actually guys, we’re real. It’s a real city, I promise.’”

But for a long time, it seemed like the only people who knew Kansas City’s worth were the people who already lived there and whose families had been there for years. They had a stake in maintaining institutions that have existed for generations in Kansas City. For certain Kansas Citians, these are debutante balls and country clubs, but for others, they’re farms and family-owned businesses.

Maggie’s family, like Camille’s, isn’t originally from the area. Though neither of them have deep Kansas City roots, they’ve forged their own and appropriated the city’s institutions. When asked of places that reminded them of home, both Maggie and Camille mentioned Winstead’s, a drive-thru-slash-diner that, since 1940, has served ‘steakburgers’ and massive shareable milkshakes called Skyscrapers to high-school students after football games and theater performances. Winstead’s is a Kansas City landmark, yes, but it’s also a personal one.

Camille recognized this trend in Kansas City—the same people stayed there, backed by generations and tradition, and few seemed to come without that backing, her family being an exception. That’s how she saw it, until she went to a networking event at home last winter, where she met a Bowdoin alum who moved to Kansas City immediately after graduating. He wasn’t from the area originally, yet he said that Kansas City was better for young, single people. He thought it was a good place to start, rather than a final destination. She caught a glimpse of the “outsider” opinion. It didn’t seem like Kansas City was being bypassed anymore.

Though Camille isn’t looking for jobs back home (her parents won’t let her), Maggie hasn’t ruled it out. She views her hometown differently now, too.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago where I was going after college, would [I] want to come back to Kansas City and live here, I’d be like, absolutely not. But now I’m like, absolutely—maybe,” she said.

Over the last decade or so, deliberate rebranding of parts of Kansas City and a population influx of young people have mutually fueled one another. Downtown has become particularly inundated with bars, restaurants and a bustling arts district, where dozens of galleries have opened up since the 1980s. In the 2000s former warehouses were converted into residential spaces. There’s a new streetcar that runs through the entire downtown area and has plans to expand. A former Nabisco factory is home to a popular distillery. Even in Maggie’s neighborhood, some 10 miles south of downtown, she can walk to a hot yoga studio from her house, on a road where the biggest attractions used to be a bike shop and a gas station.

“Kansas City is not a new town, but it has all of these new areas popping up,” Maggie explained. In a way, those parts are “reborn,” but she recognizes that parts of Kansas City haven’t seen the same prosperity. A history of race-based covenants in real estate means the city is extremely segregated, and development has been slower to reach those areas where predominantly African-American and Hispanic populations were forced to live, if it has reached them at all.

But for every converted factory in the trendy arts district, there is an abandoned factory down by the river that’s still abandoned; while parks in Midtown are lush and green, a park just over State Line in Kansas City, Kansas, isn’t used so much anymore. It can be easy to overlook those parts when there’s so much that’s new and getting better. In some ways, those places are still being flown over.

•••

In many ways, Kansas City’s development is reflected in the story of the city’s baseball team, the Royals. Just like Kansas City’s livestock and agriculture businesses, which thrived in the mid-19th century, the team was strong in the early seasons following the franchise’s founding in 1969. The Royals went to the playoffs seven times in ten years and even won a World Series in 1985. The team is named for the American Royal, an annual livestock and horse show. The Royal recalls Kansas City’s history as a meatpacking town and features the world’s largest barbeque contest, which Kansas Citians take very seriously. (A quick Google search will show that Kansas City has the best barbecue in the country, and that’s a fact.)

Then came the slump. For the city, it was the migration of economic powerhouses to the coasts. For the Royals, it was 28 years of never advancing into the postseason. The team, and its home city, became easy to forget.

But in 2014 came revival. The Royals received their first wild card bid for the playoffs in franchise history. Metaphors of finally “retaking the crown” were apt. With an underdog narrative and a youthful aggression and ambition that captured the nation’s interest, the Royals soared through the American League Division and Championship Series undefeated and into the World Series for only the third time ever. The team played an excruciating seven-game series against the San Francisco Giants. The Royals crushed Game Six, scoring 10 runs to zero, so expectations were high when the Boys in Blue returned home for Game Seven. It was right around this time that the arts scene in Kansas City took off, and local companies began producing shirts, socks, and posters that spelled Kansas City pride loud and clear.

But the Royals lost Game Seven and the World Series, two runs to the Giants’ three. At first, fans were shocked, devastated. They were so close to regaining the crown that rightfully belonged to them. They were snubbed.

But the 2014 World Series clearly put the Royals and Kansas City back on the map. If anything, the Royals’ wild season and loss gave the team more fans than it had at the beginning of the season. At the very least, more people were wearing shirts with ‘KC’ emblazoned on them, and they were wearing them proudly.

The Royals rode that momentum into 2015, entering postseason with the best record in the league, and then into the World Series again for just the fourth time ever. The Royals beat the New York Mets handily, four games to one, in a decidedly boring series compared to the previous year’s. But after 30 years of waiting, forgetting and disappointment, Royals fans deserved a break. The Royals had taken the crown, and they never took it for granted.

“I mean, I always liked where I grew up,” said Maggie, who was a junior in high school at the time. But on that day in particular, “It was just really exciting to be from Kansas City.”

The next day, nearly half-a-million Kansas Citians—somehow bigger than the population of the city itself—surged downtown for a victory parade and rally to welcome home the Royals. Schools were closed; phone networks crashed. From above, flying over, all that was visible was a sea of blue.

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