Although I grew up in London, I spent summers in Missouri, where my dad lived. It’s quite a liberal town, Kansas City. You’d be surprised…
I’m getting to about four years of living here in Kansas City. This will be my second year living in Midtown, at the Park Central apartments off of Armour and Broadway. Four years sounds like a lot of time to me in Kansas City, especially considering I lived in the Northwest and California most of my life, and nearly moved from Kansas City twice in this time span.
I chose to live in Park Central primarily due to its location. After graduating from Rockhurst in 2015 in May, I had decided to stay in Kansas City rather than move back for a teaching job in Pine Ridge, South Dakota (on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at an old school I used to work). However, I was living up in the Northland, Gladstone to be specific, with an older divorced co-worker, and I didn’t necessarily enjoy living in a Suburban area as a single guy. After all, at the time I was in my late 20’s, finished with school, and looking to have more of a social and urban experience after living on the outskirts in my first couple of years (first in Kansas City, Kansas and then in the Northland).
My two options were Park Central and the Bellerive off of Armour Blvd. They were both former major hotels in the Kansas City area that had been revitalized into apartments thanks to the gentrification going on in the Midtown area of Kansas City over the past decade. Though the Bellerive had nice amenities, I chose to live in Park Central, as it was nearly 100 dollars cheaper and literally the same distance from my job (about a 10 minute walk from the school I taught at).
I no longer work at the same school, but I still live in Park Central (even though my new school is in Kansas City, Kansas). Over the past couple of years, living in Park Central has helped me swoon for and grow more and more fascinated with Kansas City, from the people to the bars to the neighborhoods to the history that has deeper peaks and valleys than I ever thought possible when I moved here from southwestern South Dakota nearly four years ago.
For me, Kansas City and Park Central go hand-in-hand, spiritually connected at the hip.
Park Central is located right outside of Hyde and Gillham Park. The Hyde Park area is something of an old-money neighborhood, classic in the old sense, with houses designed in a way that resemble ones straight out of a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Hyde Park, originally one of the first golf courses of Kansas City, is a product of the Tom Pendergast era: its beautifully maintained houses consist of generational residents who lean primarily on the liberal and democratic side, hailing from old European-American ancestry, with their children avoiding the public school system (a reason for the beautiful old Westport High and Middle Schools buildings being currently closed today) for nearby private institutions like Notre Dame de Sion, Pembroke Hill, St. Theresa Academy and Rockhurst (high school, not university).
Mixed in with these old homeowners are newer renting residents: hipster families who have bought cheap housing close to Troost, and recently out-of-college or still-in-school young adults who rent out of the many different apartments mostly owned by Mac Properties, and other smaller property management firms. Park Central is located in this area, and thus, I fall into one of these categories, though only marginally (I am recently out of graduate school, not undergraduate like most).
Park Central is an eclectic mix of residents. Yes, there are young grad students and young professionals, as expected. That being said, the eight floors of the apartment complex also consist of older retirees, most likely widows, who are living out their remaining years in the heart of the city, in much smaller accommodations. Being a pet-free environment, nearly everyone has a dog, and it’s common to see people go in and out of the elevator with their dogs in leashes, ready to take morning and evening walks with their pets before and after work, respectively. There are a surprising amount of young couples who live together in the apartments, some from the Kansas City area, some from abroad, including India and Palestine and China, just to name a few, as well as same-sex couples who are within close distance to many of the gay bars down Broadway and Main.
All in all, Park Central is the quintessential urban apartment, no different in many ways than an apartment you would perhaps find in Brooklyn, San Francisco or Boston (albeit much, much cheaper).
But there is more to Park Central than it just being the modern apartment. It’s more than the kind of complex that one would see on sitcoms such as Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, and Master of None. Park Central is also a microcosm of Kansas City, a capsule that has undergone an exterior, and perhaps spiritual, change to help newer potential residents to forget or be unaware of the history of the building as well as the area.
One of the most famous stories of Park Central is the fact that in 1934, mob boss Johnny Lazia was gunned down at the then hotel by rival gangster associates. The fact that a mob boss like Lazia stayed in the Park Central makes sense, as it is central to most establishments in Kansas City, and was in close proximity to Downtown and the Jazz District back then (and even to this day). For some, the history is neat tidbit that displays the history of Kansas City: as a free-wheeling Las Vegas of the Midwest in 1920’s-1940’s.
Kansas City used to be something one would likely see in a Martin Scorsese film or James Ellroy novel: jazz, gangster, gambling, call girls, murder, political corruption, you name it. During the prohibition, alcohol laws were not only ignored, but almost mocked, thanks to Pendergast and his Jackson Democratic Club political machine, as well as the Italian Mafia that ran things in the Northeast. Even up to the 1970’s, Kansas City was the midway point of criminal activity, connecting the East Coast to lucrative laundering deals going on in the West Coast in Las Vegas, as profiled in the movie Casino.
It made sense that Kansas City had this reputation because of it being a center of the railroad system across the country, which aren’t as active today, but it’s remnants still ever present. Kansas City never had the population or glitz of a New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, but you could argue that Kansas City was every bit as fascinating as those cities, and deserved as much, perhaps even more profiles than those other three bigger “noir” meccas. There was no Elliot Ness-Al Capone or William Parker-Mickey Cohen rivalry. The criminals pretty much ran the town (thanks to Pendergast), and that’s what made Kansas City a magnet for seediness that went uncovered for decades. Nobody wants to cover the bad guys if there are no good guys to defeat them, and unlike a Chicago or LA, Kansas City never got that “White Knight” that came in and cleaned up Kansas City for good.
The clean up just came with years of convictions of criminals in court and strong municipal policies.
In other words, boring. Kansas City deserved so much better.
So what does this have to do with me? How does this affect my own experience with Kansas City?
Well, I live in Midtown because it is close to everything. It is close to the characters. It is close to the nightlife. It is right on the border of that Troost wall where the injustice of rich and poor, and black and white segregation still exists today as it did decades ago. It is in a blue part of the Midwest that is normally as deep red as old, caked blood.
For somebody that has craved the city experience for so long, since my teenage years, I can’t imagine going anywhere else. Where I am is perfect. I am inspired by new stories every day, whether it’s from the past or present. Whether it’s the stories of elections being fixed by the Pendergast machine, near riots outside of the Donald Trump rally outside of the Midland Theater, or the sight of soaring-high vagrants punching air on the streets of Broadway past midnight right outside of Westport. As somebody who is trying to make his way as a writer, trying to find the right stories to journal, Park Central is the perfect holding spot personally, a DMZ of sorts of the Kansas City urban experience.
This living experience has come with its share of problems of course. Maintaining or finding relationships has been difficult. I have had countless dates that have constantly gone south due to my inability to part with my current home and the stories that flutter around it. I dated a girl for four months, and we struggled to go deeper in the relationship due to her desire to be more settled. She wanted to be out in Leawood or South Kansas City or somewhere perhaps more rural. I told her that I continued to want the city. I wanted to help people in the city. I wanted to help make the city better and deep down, though I never told her, I wanted to be able to write stories about the city that don’t get told or profiled in the KC Star or evening news. She wanted that “White Picket Fence Midwest” experience. I wanted the Jazz Era one. She couldn’t fathom that I was content with living in a studio apartment and sleeping on a futon.
And the same story has been true with various other dates. One girl couldn’t understand my democratic leanings. I struggled recently with another who had kids who wanted to live the rest of her life in Kansas City Kansas around her family and the friends she grew up with for decades. It seems like young adults in the Midwest generally want the same thing: marriage, kids, stability and all rather early in life. I have struggled with those concepts, because even though I want it or think I want that kind of life (my parents certainly want me to), I fall back into my Park Central apartment, sink into its presence, and realize that though I am 29 and single and without any romantic or prospects of long-term stability on the horizon, I am happy or at the very least content with it all. And I think I’m content because I still have the city. The stories. The people. The night. The parks. The runs through Gilham and Hyde Park where I think about what to write on next. The hookah lounges where I smoke and socialize and sometimes write. The coffee places where I can just stare out on the streets for hours. The bars where I can just people watch and eavesdrop and find amusement in some of the stories I hear and so on.
Some might think of all that as the product of a lonely life. And sometimes it feels that way. But I grew up a bit of a loner. I didn’t have many close friends growing up. It’s a reason why I have never had the desire to go back to Sacramento. I don’t need familiar. I don’t need “safe”. I don’t need “it’s time to settle down.” Writing and blogging keep me stable and sane. It’s cheap therapy, and writing about the city, much like therapy, helps give me the ideas and tools to not only help my own life and progress in it, but also help me understand how I can help my own community, this city, the surrounding area of Park Central also known as Midtown Kansas City.
Because cities are wonderful things. Nothing is more fascinating than the American city. They are decaying in ways because people have their biases. They don’t think their children should go into schools in the cities or they think the crime is too much. I don’t have to worry about those things (because I don’t have kids or nice shit), and thus, I can do what I need to help, and learn about the day to day, night to night of what goes in Kansas City, a city with its own history of sordidness that it battles with each and every day. Kansas City is really a perfect city for me. Small enough to get wrapped up in, but big enough to still find new places, circles and issues to discover.
And I am able to do that from the central of it all in my current apartment, which has its own sordid history which it’s trying to get rid of, like the city itself.
When I first moved to Kansas City, I thought I was on my way to settling into the Midwest experience. I had plans for marriage within a couple of years. I thought about living in a house, and having my own self-built smoker. I pictured barbeques and hanging out at the community pools with my neighbors over cans of Bud Light. I thought about sending my kids to Catholic School, much like my parents did for me.
I remember one night I spent with my ex at the time. We were in St. John’s park, looking out on the Kansas City skyline from Strawberry Hill, which is a beautiful damn thing at night. I knew we were going to break up, but I made one last pitch to her to convince her to stay together.
You know. When I was young, I pictured myself living in a big city. I pictured myself living paycheck to paycheck as a writer. I would be living in a small apartment and writing freelance or for a newspaper living pretty simply with the idea that I would make it big. I pictured myself living like a Charles Bukowski or John Fante and that’s what I wanted more than anything when I was growing up in middle and high school.”
“Well, now I don’t want that anymore. I realized that was just a stupid fantasy. I want to settle down. I want to have kids. I want to have a house and raise a family now.
We broke up a week later. And though it’s not exact, I’m closer to that former dream than the latter nearly three years later.
I wonder if I really wanted the latter or I was just saying it because I scared rejection or was scared of being in and taking on Kansas City alone.
I know what they mean now by certain events being blessings in disguise.
My blessing comes in an Eight-story former hotel called the Park Central.