Why Kansas City Trumps London and Places Like it


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© Jack Cashill
Published in Ingramsonline.com - July 2012

Visit almost any grand capital in the world and you’ll see how good we really have it.

Not many locals know that the University of Missouri has its own residential building in the tony London neighborhood hard by the Kensington High Street tube stop.

Last month, I stayed in UMKC’s two-bedroom flat in that same building, a flat that has a market value roughly six times higher than that of my Brookside home, which is roughly six times bigger. I know I am supposed to want to live in London, but Kansas City has corrupted me. Let me sum up Kansas City’s edge in one image.

Last spring, I was sitting outside at a medium-priced French restaurant called Aixois about a nine-iron from my house. An inauspicious car pulled up in the free angled parking about 50 feet from where I was sitting. An elderly gentleman was driving. He stepped out alone, limping a little, and walked over to the restaurant.

In London, you simply do not see many elderly in the restaurants. In the week I spent there, I got asked for directions five times because, I think, I looked more authoritative than the rash of young people who rule the streets.

The UMKC flat is on the fourth floor, no elevator. If you have limited mobility, you would not leave the flat any more than you had to, even to get your mail. If you travel around the city, you do so by bus or tube. In London, it costs more to keep a car than it does a mistress, and the city does everything it can to up the ante.

Most diabolical is the “London congestion charge,” which has the potential to be the worst British import since Mad Cow Disease. The fee is charged on most motor vehicles operating within London’s CCZ—the Congestion Charge Zone, one of the world’s largest. The standard charge is £10, roughly $16 for each vehicle, each day.

The charge is steep enough that even a Henry Bloch would think twice about going anywhere by car. I cite Bloch not only because the H&R Block founder has a higher net worth than roughly 12 European countries, but also because he was the older gentleman I saw at Aixois. The spectacular new addition at the Nelson-Atkins bears his name, as does UMKC’s graduate business school. Still, he thinks nothing of driving himself to a neighborhood restaurant.

Henry turns 90 this summer. People his age—and even those much younger—cannot negotiate the rigors of London’s public transportation, especially the tubes. It is hard to go from any one stop to another without walking the length of a few football fields and climbing the equivalent of the stadium stairs, often while being pushed along by a smelly mob. That is why you see very few old people in cities like London.

I got to know Henry and his excellent family while writing and co-producing the documentary, No Shortcuts: The Entrepreneurial Life of Henry Bloch, two years ago. If you did not know who these people were, you would have no sense that they have a whole lot more money than you do.

This is due in no small part because ours may be the most “small-d” democratic city of size on the planet. What helps foster the democratic spirit here, in addition to the area’s close-to-the-farm work ethic, is that many of the very wealthy live only marginally better than the middle class and the middle class live only marginally better than the working class.

In a city like Los Angeles, for instance, the affluent can afford not only bigger and better homes, but also boats, views, access to the water, ski lodges, and even better weather. The average August high in Malibu is 70 degrees. The average August high in Riverside, on the eastern edge of that same metropolis, is 95 degrees, a stunning 25-degree difference.

In Kansas City, the homes of the wealthy may be larger on average, but they are no warmer in the winter, no cooler in the summer. Their cars are no bigger. Their views are no better. Their weekends are no more fun. By all appearances, they eat considerably less, especially the women. And their weather is indistinguishable, the “hills” in Mission Hills providing only as much relief from the heat as you’d expect from an added 75 feet or so of landfill, which is to say, none.

Besides, living near a mountain or an ocean does not make anyone cool, save in the literal sense. Here in flyover country, we don’t presume to be any cooler, wiser or more important than our accomplishments make us.

We are, however, more even-tempered. This has a whole lot to do with the fact that Kansas City has more freeway miles per capita than any city not located on the Arabian peninsula. In Portland, locals would consider this excess an embarrassment. Here, we consider it a blessing and boast about it. I have gone years without being stuck in traffic.

In most cities, London certainly, less affluent workers are pushed to the outskirts of the metro. That is not so in Kansas City. The freeway-inspired fluidity of movement equalizes real estate values throughout the metro and, as a side benefit, keeps road rage to a minimum.

A city with a low cost of living and an egalitarian spirit breeds less resentment than in more stratified metros. People in Kansas City don’t hate the rich. We aspire to be them. We understand that envy is not a virtue, no matter how you dress it up. The disgruntled here can rarely muster enough kindred souls to occupy their own time, let alone our equivalent of Wall Street.

The 99 percent see the 1 percent for what they are: entrepreneurs and philanthropists who might be sitting next to them at Aixois. As testament to this ethos, when I first moved here, I went to a game at the K, and the fans stood and sang happy birthday to the owner’s wife, Muriel Kauffman, without a hint of self-consciousness. I was stunned.

I quickly absorbed the Kansas City spirit. A few years later, I attended a ball game with my daughter. I had good seats and two extra tickets. So I looked around to find a worthy young couple waiting to buy tickets for the cheap seats and gave them my extras. They barely thanked me.

After getting peanuts and what-not for my daughter, we headed to the seats and found the young couple already in place. “These seats are great,” said the fellow. “I am so sorry we weren’t more appreciative out there, but we thought it must be some sort of a scam. Where we come from no one would ever just give tickets away.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“New Jersey,” he said.

“So am I,” I laughed. “I’ve just been here longer.”

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