With a song in my heart

Until I moved to Kansas, the only use of the words “livestock” and “futures” in one and the same sentence I could think of was: How much livestock should I give my future wife’s family for her? A Lebanese friend told me: “If she hot, sky is limit. If she so so, goats okay.” I was also told that the more I offered for my future spouse, the better wife she, proud of being appraised high, would be; and my new mother-in-law would thank me much, too, for so graciously taking her daughter off of her hands. Later, I learned that in some cultures it worked the other way round and the woman’s family would pay the future bridegroom quite handsomely; but by then the deed was done and there was no turning back.

Only recently I came to the understanding that livestock is bought and sold just like any commodity and therefore not only during a physical process of handshakes and sweaty palm-to-palm exchange of hard cash, but in transactions which are in effect future contracts in a thriving trade dominated by electronics and rife with words such as aggregation, cross hedging, leverage, spot, circuit breaker, spike and drop, call and put, bear cycle, yield curve approach, derivative, volatility, pulpit, open outcry, boom and, not to forget, bust. A bull cycle has nothing to do with a bull on the hoof; a bull spread is not the same as a bull pen; ticks are not the ones that make you sick; and range is not the open range where the cattle roam or one would hope to build his home. Yet the cattle on feed report is as accurate as can be and, same as the steer-corn ratio, a most important decision tool for anyone who wants to survive in the livestock trading business.

Driving into Kansas City, Missouri from the Kansas side makes one aware of the town’s rich past as the only cattle trading place competing with Chicago. Coming from the west, one drives on roads from which one looks down onto the imposing confluence of the Kansas (“Kaw”) River and the mighty Missouri River, the Bottoms, and the silhouette of K.C.’s downtown behind it. It is like entering Paris, France from a high position overlooking the winding of the Seine River. The map of Paris makes a lot of sense; even with the Seine’s confusing bends its lay-out provides a clear picture of the city and an easy penetration whether on wheels or on foot. Kansas City, its initial plan designed by a Frenchman along the lines of Washington D.C. and Paris, becomes rather obscure once entered on street level even if there are a few well-designed “boulevards” and abundant fountain-adorned plazas and parks. Its problem is, of course, the tragic fact that so much of the old city and of the once thriving river areas was destroyed or left to rot and disappear after the boom became rather a bust. Not so much a real bust: in the blunt American tradition, Kansas City just let its beautiful old city center and the trading center at the river fade away, and built newer business and shopping areas and residential neighborhoods ever farther away from the old, then connected them haphazardly with wide freeways. It’s funny how this so optimistic approach to city planning leaves me with a feeling of pessimism, distress, even depression. “That is the problem with Americans, isn’t it?” wrote John le Carre long ago (in ‘A Small Town in Germany’). “All this emphasis on the future. So dangerous. Therefore they are so destructive to the present.” Le Carre could have been talking about American cities where so much “old” is discarded and anything new gets all the attention, and then the new becomes old, and so on and on. I believe it is much nicer to be able to also look back, instead of just forward.

Notwithstanding that some old, and also quite a few newer, suburbs are rather attractive, the emptiness left behind in the city center cannot be ignored. To me, too large an area looks like what I experienced as a kid in the Netherlands, where a Bezuidenhout section of The Hague and most of the city center of Rotterdam were blown away by bombardments, in The Hague mistakenly by the British, in Rotterdam by the Germans in the beginning of WWII. I remember I played amongst the rubble until 1955, and walked through flattened areas in Rotterdam until the mid-1960s. Most effects of the war, though, had been made to disappear some fifteen years after the war ended. In Kansas City the boom stopped in 1932 at the latest, the harbor area became lack-luster in 1935, the cattle stations and trading facilities of the Kansas City Stockyards became obsolete in 1950, and now, more than half a century later, these areas along the railroads, at the rivers, and in downtown still appear as if they were just bombed into oblivion. Enormous holes were created neither by enemy nor by friendly bombardment, but by bulldozers appointed by men who didn’t give much thought to wrecking numerous buildings. Often well-designed, well-built and once loved structures reminding of an elegant past disappeared to leave only large parking areas of broken concrete overgrown with weeds behind. All soul –and if I read the Kansas City history correctly, not to mention present-day tourist propaganda, it had a whole lot of soul– was taken away. The city’s heart was cut out not with a surgeon’s scalpel but with a very blunt knife. What a pity.

Of course, and luckily, in the past years a few initiatives led to wonderful improvements even if they were restricted to small portions of the city and merely created sophisticated islands in the middle of a sea of barren concrete. The Stockyards, for instance, and the Crossroads area. A couple of old buildings were bought by Bill Haw, a banker, real estate developer, big-time cattleman and art collector who smartly, in the world-wide proven developers’ way to success, first invited artists to occupy nice apartments and studios, created art spaces and galleries and restaurants, planted trees and took care of a pleasant street scene – and thus prepared these neighborhoods for an affluent public. It is an ongoing investment which hopefully will not be slowed down much by the present dire economic straits. In short, Kansas City has acquired quite a few pleasant quarters even if I do not count the suburbs, some of which especially on the south-west side are more than merely pleasant. The city, as said, is famous for the hundreds of fountains, “more than one can find in Rome,” and for its extensive city parks. And its wonderful museums. The Nelson Atkins is rightly famed, the Kemper Contemporary less so but a good one nevertheless, and in Johnson County across the river the Nerman Museum of Art is another contemporary favorite of mine. The Kansas City Symphony is an important orchestra; and there are many more cultural assets of good stature. Lots of cosmopolitan life in K.C.

Walking in Kansas City can be a true joy if one manages to avoid the open spaces between buildings and areas –if one concentrates on the sections that form neighborhoods–, which cannot be done if one is eager to visit one of the most famous of old and soulful Kansas City scenes. If one arrives at 18th and Broadway with full expectations based on scores of tales, movies, and jazz recordings, the area is a slap in the face. Nothing reminds in a glorious, proud way of the glamorous if tough K.C. jazz era. Barren lands surround the former jazz town and the few buildings that are still standing look forlorn and desperate. Fake walls are painted to simulate the former club entrances, but the painting was done so haphazardly and amateurishly that the sites do not deliver testimony of local pride in the quarter’s history at all. Only one or two of the previously notorious live jazz clubs and restaurants are still open, no more than one or two nights a week. Most days, the streets are deserted but for a few lost-looking tourists and a couple of black junkies and prostitutes.

Luckily, a few monuments were created that do have something to tell of historic importance. The Jazz Museum. The African-American Baseball Museum. These adjoining buildings may present interiors not to everyone’s taste –with lots of contemporary-styled and hi-tech displays that do not convey much of the atmosphere of the relevant periods in history–, the jazz museum opens the doors to so many interesting images and sounds that one can easily spend hours there; and the baseball museum proudly honors the players who were shut out from the game by a “gentlemen’s agreement” of the white boys until 1945. That year, Jackie Robinson was the first black player to be allowed to integrate (most players remained confined to their own black, segregated, league until 1955, a sad fact that had completely escaped my knowledge). In both museums one can find fascinating memorabilia by the thousands and is met by, I must say, a delightful and welcoming staff. They could do with more funds, though — here and there the paints are peeling, texts are fading, and spotlights or earphones need to be replaced. Go visit to give support.

Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in Kansas City while housesitting for friends who themselves were in Paris and London. I hadn’t given it much thought until I walked and drove around K.C., but it was more than seventeen years ago that I spent an extended period in “a real city.” Less than three days in Chicago and a half day in Denver, that’s all I can remember (I do not count my short visits to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, neither of these being a real city). I came to realize that, after having lived, worked and often vacationed in big cities in the first fifty years of my life, I had spent practically all of my days since age fifty out in the boondocks. Most of my journeys in the mid-1990s were already to isolated places in the American West and when the traveling days were over, late in 1997, I settled first in Abiquiu, New Mexico with a mere 1,500 “neighbors” living dispersed over the high desert, then in Matfield Green, Kansas with less than fifty names in the phone book and surrounded by endless prairies, with only cattle for company. After September 1997 a visit to a respectable store or restaurant demanded a good drive on a long stretch of country road, while earlier in my life I had often been able to just walk to restaurants or a movie theater, or to attend a ballet, a concert, and visit museums and art galleries.

Two weeks in Kansas City. What strange experience it was. To be able once again to grow familiar with a city’s structure and beat. To slowly get the feeling of belonging while being surrounded by close to two million others. The visit was a joy and made more enjoyable to me, now the country bumpkin, because K.C. away from old town is such a spacious and green place, with good distances between homes even in the less affluent areas and countless gracious mansions in a rolling hills landscape disappearing behind wide lawns and abundant foliage. I caught myself at foremost appreciating Kansas City because so many of its residential sections and even some recent suburbs have a rural, almost pastoral, appearance. I caught myself at no longer being the cosmopolitan guy I thought I had remained even after dwelling away from cities for so long. I had believed I would never stop being “streetwise” and at home in any city however big or old or new. Indeed, I felt a little at home in Kansas City, I was excited by the traffic, some architecture, the fashionable people and their pace of life, the great art in the museums, the grand stores, and the continuous movement in the corner of my eye. I was fascinated. And then … I discovered that a fortnight was a little long to be away from my precious quiet, even silent, prairie. I was ready to leave. And so I drove home to Matfield Green with a song in my heart.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, April 2012 

Union Station in Kansas City—testimony of the times when arrival from and departure for a rail journey was a grand experience.