Wyandotte County: the “Small, Off-Beat Town” within Kansas City

“Really…you work in Wyandotte?”

It’s a comment I hear all the time, but somebody uttered this statement to me a weekend ago at a community event I worked at in Johnson County. I found the comment to be rude and surprising, especially considering the event I worked at mostly involved people who were not born in this part of the country, let alone this country in general. And yet, despite their outsider status, that doesn’t prevent them from holding that negative opinion of Wyandotte County that most people in Johnson County (or other counties in Missouri or Kansas) have of people or places from Wyandotte.

To me, Wyandotte County is synonymous with Kansas City. There is no Kansas City experience without Wyandotte County for me. In my four years of living in Kansas City, only 1 year involved me not working or living in Wyandotte County, specifically Kansas City, Kansas. To me, Wyandotte County has a special place in my heart, in my mind and in my goals down the road. Yes, I am currently a Jackson County resident now, living in the MidTown area of Kansas City. But I have a feeling I will be moving back to KCK soon in the near future, especially now that I’m working again in the county, and realizing how much the area and the citizens of the county fascinate me and make me want to be a part of it again.

But for those who are unfamiliar (whether unwillingly or not), what do I need to know about Wyandotte County?


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Wyandotte County is the most northeast county of the state of Kansas, as its main city, Kansas City, Kansas, is just a stone’s throw across the river from Kansas City, Missouri (the 70 and 670 highways connect the downtown area of KCMO to KCK). The county is separated into 8 districts, with a commissioner seats for each district, as well as two at-large commissioners for Districts 1 and 2. The mayor/ceo currently is Mark Holland, who has been the mayor since April 2, 2013. In addition to Kansas City, Kansas, the county also includes neighborhood communities such as Bonner Springs and Edwardsville to the southwest of the county, the Piper and Legends/Speedway area to the northwest; Argentine, Armourdale, and Turner in the south; Rosedale in the southeast, right near the border on Southwest Boulevard; the KU Med area to the West; Quindaro to the Northeast; and Welborn in the North.

Demographically, Wyandotte county also remains a diverse county, especially in comparison to neighboring Kansas counties. The projected population of Wyandotte County in 2015 is 163,369, which would be a 3.7 percent increase from their population total recorded in the 2010 census. From the 2015 projections according to the census, the population within the county is 42.1 percent non-Latino white, 24.3 percent African-American, 27.7 percent Hispanic/Latino, 4.1 percent Asian, and 1.3 Native American. All of those populations are an increase from the 2010 census, with the exception of African-Americans, whose population went down from 25.2 percent to 24.3 percent, and non-Latino white, which went from 43.3 to 42.1 percent.

Education-wise there are four districts that serve citizens in Wyandotte County: Tuner USD 202, Piper USD 203, Bonner Springs USD 204 and Kansas City USD 500. In addition, the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas has five K-8 elementary schools (Resurrection, Our Lady of Unity, Christ the King, St. Patrick’s and Holy Name) and one high school (Bishop Ward High School), which is one of the oldest high schools in the state of Kansas (it was established in 1908). In terms of post-secondary education, Kansas City Kansas Community College is the main junior college for secondary graduates in Wyandotte County, and the University of Kansas Medical Center (right on the border of Missouri and Kansas) also provides medical studies for students, in addition to medical services for people in the area.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wyandotte County is its economic and educational status, as well as where it stands politically in comparison to the state overall. In terms of economic and educational statistics,  65.9 percent of the population in Wyandotte County 16 and over is in the workforce, with the household median income low at $39, 326. The poverty population in Wyandotte County is at 24.4 percent, 18.9 percent of the population is without health care, and and the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is only 15.8 percent (to put things further into context, those with a high school diploma is 78.4 percent).

Compare this with statistics of those same categories in neighboring Johnson County: 72.9 percent of the population 16 and over is in the civilian workforce; the household median income $75,017; the poverty population is only 6.6 percent, and only 7.6 percent of the population is without health care; and 52.1 percent of the county population has a college degree (and 95.7 percent of the population has a high school diploma). When you look at the whole picture, not only is Johnson County a wealthier county, but they dwarf Wyandotte in so many categories. It’s crazy to think that just a few miles south, a person is three times more likely to have a college degree, and will make almost twice more than someone. And that’s where the bias and prejudice steps in: because of their higher incomes, more education and less people in poverty, Johnson County naturally has this bias over their Wyandotte County neighbors. The stats overall prove it in their mind, and those stats prove why people who get more money or education are more than apt to move south beyond the county lines.

The story of Wyandotte County’s economic and educational woes in comparison to the larger neighboring suburb of Johnson County is one thing, but what makes it even more interesting is how different both counties are politically: while Johnson county tends to be more of a red county, falling in line with what is typical voting wise throughout the state of Kansas (i.e. conservative republican), Wyandotte County tends to fall in the opposite category.

Of the elected state senators representing Wyandotte County, two of the four senators (as of 2015), David Haley (4th District) and Pat Pettey (6th District) are democrats. All seven state representatives representing the county are democrats. And all 16 judges as well as the district attorney, are democrats. And this political affiliation was even stronger represented in the last presidential election, as Wyandotte County was one of two counties in all of Kansas to vote for Barack Obama by a wide margin as he earned 67.3 percent of the vote in Wyandotte County (compare this to Johnson, which saw a 58-40 split in favor of Mitt Romney). Even Douglas County, which includes Lawrence and students from the University of Kansas (college towns tend to be more democrat leaning due to students being more liberal), didn’t have as high a percentage (60.3 percent) for Obama in the latest elections.

So, Wyandotte County is heavily democrat and lags in terms of education as well as economically to some of the neighboring counties. For most people in the Midwest, this may sound like a cruddy place to live.

On the other hand, I would argue otherwise, and I would credit it’s intimate population that are actually HELPING the county over the past five years, and make it even more prime for positive growth.


“The one thing about Wyandotte county is that it’s a small town…and everyone knows your business in one way or the other.”

My principal, who originally was from New York and moved here for school, told me this during my first year in Kansas City, Kansas. I didn’t know if she meant it in a bad or good way, but while there is some obvious negative aspects to this statement (like people can be big time gossip hounds), one could look at this statement in a positive way.

One of the main positives of living in Wyandotte County is that if you get involved in a group or network, that network can grow incredibly fast and be incredibly supportive. I have been in Kansas City for four years, and some of my closest connections stem from people I know who live or work in Wyandotte County. As a business teacher, I have already gotten multitudes of offers from local business people to help speak in classes or help students with connections. I taught in a school in Kansas City, Missouri, and though we had some help here and there, people were not as eager to help or provide the same kind of assistance. That’s not to say people on the Missouri side didn’t give a shit. But there are so many schools in KCMO. One charter school is just another in the whole grand mix of things. And with so many schools closing within 10 year periods in Missouri, people can be suspect of “newer” schools: will it even be around in 20 years and is my time to help worth it if the school won’t even be around?

In Kansas City, Kansas there is a stability here that KCMO doesn’t necessarily enjoy. Yes businesses change, but they take new identities rather than demolished or abandoned. There is a certain pride in the diversity of the population displayed through community celebrations, be it a parish ice cream social or a neighborhood fall parade, that seems organic and genuine and not put together solely for economic purposes. And the schools, though struggling in some ways, are still accredited, still producing an education that means something. Despite KCMO and other districts on the Missouri side’s struggles with keeping accreditation, KCKPS has continued to keep theirs and continued to keep high student populations despite wild changes in racial and economic backgrounds of students attending their schools from decades ago.

And I think that is what makes Wyandotte the “small town” worth admiring in the Kansas City metro area. They know their population isn’t as big as on the Missouri side or even south of them in Johnson County. They don’t have the economic advantages down south either, or the educational advantage. That being said, they make do, they get things done, and they rally behind people in their community that are trying to do good. The city government tries things to help build the economy and promote entrepreneurship. “A Cup on the Hill” is the latest example of such progressive thinking. Yes, it’s a coffee shop, but it’s a coffee shop that is run by the Community Housing Authority of Wyandotte County that looks to help with employment, while also promoting the positive of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County not just by selling coffee, but also by displaying art in their shop local artists. It’s similar to what “Homeboy Industries” is doing in Los Angeles: giving those in need in the community a chance to make steps in the right direction personally, while helping the local economy as well. (After all, how many coffee shops are there in KCK? Not a lot, and “A Cup on the Hill” will help bring in more independent coffee houses who may find it tough to compete in MidTown KC’s over-saturated market.)

And Wyandotte County’s population is growing, which just goes to show you how people are starting to recognize the positives in living in such a community with a genuine “small town” feel. The 3.7 percent jump is a major bright spot for a county that had suffered a decrease in population according to their last census in 2010. And the reasons to come to Wyandotte County are plenty: it’s still close to the city (especially if you live in Strawberry Hill), the downtown economy is growing, and the real estate is a lot cheaper than what most would find not just in Johnson County, but especially in comparison to MidTown and Downtown Kansas City. Young people are realizing that living in KCK, especially Strawberry Hill or Rosedale is a better deal, and you aren’t far off from it all either.

Of course, there has to be a bit of caution with such growth. We have seen how gentrification can have “inverse” effects on cities and communities. Even in Kansas City we have seen it. 15 years ago, living in the Westside and MidTown off of Armour was a bargain. Now, thanks to gentrification, people have been priced out of their respective neighborhoods. Yes, there are more restaurants and bars and shops and nicer houses and apartment complexes. However, the soul of the communities are dwindling, nearly gone. Just look at the Westside, as it struggles to fight for the spirit of their neighborhood against developers who are trying to mold it more for economic purposes rather than community ones. That is a risk KCK could experience, especially as a younger population starts to migrate toward that downtown area.

But I think what will make KCK push up against that “community blunting” from gentrification is their community spirit. The neighborhoods in KCMO are part of a huge whole, and really, one district is going to struggle to have a voice in the midst of so many other voices in the big city. The greater good (in the city’s mind) will trump the desires of the small, as is natural in any big city. In KCK, the population is still intimate, and those neighborhoods can have their voice. And we have seen it. There has been an embrace of the changing diversity of the KCK population. It has grown from a primarily Slavic population to mostly Latino one, but you know what? People are still active, and I think the Latino population in KCK is about as active as any in the KC Metro (though the Westside and Northeast certainly are also active). Even with this latest election coming up, we are seeing advocates against some of the new Kansas registration policies that could be deemed as “racist” and “prejudiced” in nature, in order to sway the election toward a party’s “candidate” (you know who I am referring to). These kind of actions demonstrate not only the change in Wyandotte County, but how the community continues to supports one another despite the difference in race and cultural. The old supporting the new is the prime characteristic of a strong community, no matter what the population size or part of the country.

I don’t live in Wyandotte County currently. I work there and if I continue to stay in Kansas City, I plan to move back soon. Wyandotte County is different. It’s a blue dot in a sea of red. The people are working class who offer a stark diversity to what is typical of most communities in the Kansas City metro. There is pride in the work being done within the county, even if most of the stories and reputation of the county tends to focus on the bad, the crime, the poverty and all the other negative noise. And lastly, there seems to be a sense of hope on the horizon. The population and the economic growth in parts of the county where “naysayers” thought it couldn’t be done showcases that rise.

The looks and questions still abound when I tell people I work and used to live in Wyandotte County. I don’t think I will ever shake them.

But they don’t know. They don’t know about the “small town” community of Wyandotte County. They don’t know about the support, the charm, or hidden opportunities this area of Kansas City provides.

I’m glad they’re missing out. Wyandotte County doesn’t need them anyways.

An Appreciation for Rosedale BBQ of KCK

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“I grew up on Rosedale beef sandwiches…”

It’s a quote one of my friends told me about Rosedale BBQ in Kansas City, Kansas near the State Line of Kansas and Missouri. The area surrounding Rosedale BBQ is interesting to say the least. It is on Southwest Boulevard in the Rosedale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, and is right off of where 7th Street Trafficway (the gritty part of Kansas City Kansas that also goes through Armourdale and Central) turns into Rainbow Boulevard (which is a bit more bourgeois thanks to KU Medical Hospital and West 39th). It is located near railroad tracks, which might be abandoned (I don’t know, I have never seen active trains on it), definitely abandoned grain silos, the Rosedale World War I Memorial Arch (the stepchild to the more well-known Liberty Memorial) and two popular Mexican Restaurants (Taqueria Mexico and Sabor y Sol).

When you think about it, Rosedale BBQ, which has been around since 1934 and is one of the oldest BBQ places in Kansas City not named Arthur Byrant’s or Gates, is a microcosm of modern day Kansas City Kansas: a dying railroad industry, old immigrants meet new, and a blue collar approach to life that can border on slow or “dwelling in the past” to most people who are not familiar with the citizens of the area.

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When I first moved to Kansas City, I settled off 6th and Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County through the suggestion of a friend of mine (though people always remarked it was crazy, since it wasn’t really near any major entertainment districts and it had a reputation as a rough area around the metro). It was as if I were transported to a world that was part working class Pennsylvania, part Chicano East Los Angeles. You had people who came from old immigrant families from Croatia, Slovenia and Poland, who came to Kansas to work for the railroad industry and had brought with them their traditions and cultures which manifested in bars, restaurants and Catholic Churches around the area. And then time passed, the railroad jobs became scarce, the housing became cheap, and in came Chicano and first-generation American families from Mexico and Central America, bringing their own cultures and traditions to the KCK area, shaping it into the current KCK and Wyandotte County that is seen today. In my mind, KCK was an embodiment of the American dream slowly developing and shaping to the modern day world, only this story wasn’t happening in Los Angeles or New York or Miami, but in the Midwest in the heart of America, but on the Kansas side rather than Missouri.

As I lived in KCK for over two years before I moved to Midtown KCMO, I slowly uncovered more unique places to eat and drink: numerous taquerias; burrito windows open 24 hours on the weekend; Go Chicken Go; Salvadoran restaurants that specialized in Papusas; Pollo Asado joints that only sold half and whole chickens with beans, rice and tortillas; Italian delis in nearly abandoned strip malls; and no dining room-area Chinese places serviced by really sarcastic cashiers, just to name a few.

But at the end of the day, my favorite place to dine in KCK was Rosedale BBQ. Granted, I liked it because it was BBQ, and as a Californian, I really never knew what “true” BBQ was until I came to Kansas City. To me, BBQ was baby back ribs and dry beef and sausage my family would get every once in a while from Back Forty BBQ in Roseville. I never experienced real brisket or burnt ends or spare ribs, which is the only ribs to eat according to people in the Midwest outside of Chicago. But in all honesty, Rosedale represented that melting pot of KCK, that Midwest blue collar, working class identity meshing with the ever-changing demographics of Kansas City Kansas as well as the Westside Kansas City Missouri community right off of Southwest Boulevard.

To be honest, the food at Rosedale is good, better than it gets credit for according to Yelp, but it struggles with consistency. The beef can be moist and tender one day, and chopped up and fatty the next. The hot BBQ sauce can be spicy and savory as well as the perfect complement to their crisp-fried crinkle cut fries. But on some days, the sauce is over-peppered, tasting as if somebody accidentally dumped way too much pepper in the jar by accident in the sauce, and was too apathetic or cheap to throw it out and simply make a new batch. The ribs probably are the antithesis of what any BBQ snob would prefer: they are untrimmed with a lot of fat and grizzle, fall too easily off the bone, and though they have a nice smoke ring, they may seem to dry to most rib purists’ taste.

But, Rosedale isn’t the place for BBQ artistry. Joe’s and Jack Stack and Woodyard are those places, establishments for backyard suburban BBQ aficionados who want to whet their appetite for real BBQ when the weekend cookout fare didn’t live up to expectations. Those places are for the tourists and the BBQ snobs of the surrounding Kansas City Metro Area who feel the need to justify their food choices and BBQ allegiances based on what was featured in the Michelin guide or what has 5 stars on Yelp. And no offense to those places. They are good, and I enjoy eating at those places on occasion.

However, they are not Rosedale’s.

For starters, they do not have Rosedale’s speed. Even when the place is busy, Rosedale churns out BBQ dinners and sandwiches in record speed. The cashiers don’t write any orders down and have a lingo that is unique to their establishment. (For example “beef deluxe combo, fries extra crispy”, a very popular order you will hear being yelled to the kitchen window consistently means beef sandwich on bun with fries that are put in the deep fryer a little bit longer than usual). Even during a lunch or dinner rush, you can get your order and eat in 20-30 minutes. For the working man on the clock, Rosedale is the perfect spot that will get you back to work with some time to spare, perhaps to get or make a pot of coffee to avoid that afternoon post-lunch coma.

And secondly, no other BBQ place can beat Rosedale’s prices. You can get a slab of spareribs for around 18 bucks and 14 on Monday’s. A beef sandwich, fries and a RC cola will usually ring you in just under 10 dollars. It is common to just get a few morsels of BBQ for around 15-20 dollars at more “popular” BBQ establishments, but at Rosedale one can guarantee to be full not just in the stomach, but also decently so in the wallet or bank account afterward.

You see…that is why Rosedale is quintessential KCK: it is geared toward the working man in terms of area, speed and prices. People can geek all out on the kitchy-ness of a BBQ restaurant in a gas station or a place where presidents dine when they visit KC. But Rosedale is authentic and in an unapologetic way that seems to buck what is expected from other BBQ joints that are sprouting up all over the city. They are not into competitions. They are not going to be featured on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. And yet they still serve food fast at a low cost and continue to bring in a diversity of customers. Whether it’s in the old wooden booths or at the old time counter, Rosedale attracts white working men still in their overalls from a long day of working in various kind of skilled industries, as well as Chicano families who are ordering a slab and a half to go along with a pound of fries (actual terms of the restaurant by the way). It is common to see businessman in button down shirts and slacks rub shoulders with 20-something hipsters in skinny jeans, cleverly designed T-shirts, and bottle-cap glasses. Rosedale attracts the kind of crowd you’d be hard-pressed to see from other BBQ places, and for the most part, they are Kansas City-people, either from KCK or the nearby Westside or Midtown. That kind of customer authenticity is not easily duplicated, and I believe it will be hard to duplicate from other places in the near as well as far-off future.

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When Rosedale BBQ opened in 1934 by Anthony and Alda Rieke and brother in law Tony Sieleman, it was known as the “Bucket Shop” and primarily sold buckets of cold beer and hot dogs. Their catchphrase was “Buy it by the bucket!”. As the story goes, after driving by and smelling the smoke from a BBQ joint in Shawnee, Kansas, they decided to smoke and sell ribs along with beer, and their ribs were so popular that they decided to go into selling BBQ full time as well as beer (hence, dropping the hot dogs from their menu). 82 years later, though the original owners have passed on (the grandchildren of the original owners still apparently have a stake in the place), Rosedale BBQ still sells BBQ and still offers beer by the bucket (though they do sell individual bottles as well), and remain standing in the Rosedale neighborhood and KCK as a pillar of stability despite major changes in the economic and cultural demographics of those respective communities.

And that is a good thing. We hear all this rhetoric about “Making America Great Again” from all kinds of “conservative” Americans, and places like Rosedale not only stand the changes of the times, but embrace and welcome it. These businesses prove how asinine those civic statements are. We don’t need to make our communities “great again” as if we need to recapture some lost magic from 30-40 years ago when America was supposedly “better”. America is already great, our communities are great, and we just need to adjust through minor setbacks and issues to continue to make it great. Take in the new, and mix it with the old and make something fresh, but timeless. Rosedale’s certainly accomplishes that in my opinion in the BBQ industry not just in the KCK area.

A couple of months ago, I volunteered at a nursing home right off the Plaza through work. I met with an African-American lady named Alice in her early 80’s and as she sat down, I took a knee next to her since there were no more seats available. As I asked her about where she was from and where she grew up in Kansas City, she told me she was born in Kansas City, Kansas and grew up in the Rosedale neighborhood and went to school all the way through high school there (when apparently there was a Rosedale High School). As we talked a bit more about the Rosedale neighborhood, I asked her if her and her family had ever gone to Rosedale BBQ.

She laughed and paused for a few seconds before she answered my question:

“Oh yes! BUY IT BY THE BUCKET!”