WHILE SAN FRANCISCO’S residents are quite literally heading for the hills in search of marginally less astronomical rents, and Portland is trying to figure out how to patch their crumbling roads with a tax base of mostly baristas/professional cuddlers/bagpipists, Kansas City is quickly becoming an intersection for tech, transportation, entertainment, and of course, food. But you won’t hear locals crowing about it — they’re too busy rolling up their sleeves to usher in a new Golden Age.
Don’t believe it? In classic “Show Me State” fashion, Kansas City is here to prove it.
It’s one of the best-connected cities in the world.
Kansas City’s new streetcar line opened this May (more on that later) and thousands of people were able to Snapchat, Tweet, and Insta their inaugural ride using the city’s new free wifi network. The network covers nearly three square miles downtown, with 300 access points spread over 50 city blocks. Barcelona is apparently the only city that comes close to this kind of free coverage — albeit with a “measly” 30 city blocks.
But what’s even cooler about this free wifi is the partnership that made it happen, and it’s a classic tale of Kansas City’s collaborative and neighborly spirit. In this case, it was homegrown mobile giant Sprint working with city leaders in a unique public-private partnership: Sprint grows its network. The city reaches key connectivity goals. And tens of thousands of residents and visitors get online for free. Because nothing says “good neighbor” like unlocked wifi.
Even outside of the downtown free zone, KC is innovating when it comes to internet. For the past four years, Google Fiber has been hooking up Kansas City homes with one-gigabit-per-second connections — which, if you don’t speak nerd, is kind of a big deal. It was actually the first city anywhere to receive the service; it’s since expanded to other, obviously-not-as-cool metro areas like Austin and Atlanta.
And just when locals were all getting used to supersonic wired connections, Google got everyone’s pocket protector a flutter with a new plan to take Google Fiber wireless. They’re testing a technology so advanced even your fancy-pants iPhone 6S can’t access it — it’d need new chips and an antenna. They’re even exploring beaming the internet like a laser to places that can’t easily be reached with wires.
The future is here, ya’ll. And it arrived first in Kansas City, Missouri.
Traveling around town may be the closest you can get to time travel.
Remember that new streetcar line? Well it’s actually a revival of a previous streetcar circuit that connected the city during its last Golden Age: the Jazz Era. At the time, Kansas City was a bustling cow-town, equally proud of its sprawling stockyards and its swanky “skyscraper” hotels. Nostalgia runs strong in KC, so no one will correct you if you get all warm and fuzzy as you step on board, imagining rubbing elbows with jazz legends and bootleggers. But locals know a ride on the streetcar is a lot more like a trip to the future. Even better, that ride will cost you exactly $0.
The whole system is smart. Almost too smart. Not only do the lights along the tracks switch on automatically at dusk — they can also tell when no one is waiting at a stop and dim accordingly to save power. The sensors somehow also magically detect and alert the city to things like debris blocking the tracks or icy roads in need of salting. Eventually the sensors could even be used to reveal available parking spots and better manage storm water runoff management during those epic Midwest storms.
Things could get even crazier now that KC is one of seven finalists for the USDOT “Smart City Challenge” — and the $40 million investment purse that comes with it. We’re talking self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and more smart sensors than you can shake a spare rib at. Come to Kansas City if you want to see where the future of transportation is headed.
The art scene makes it the Paris of the Plains.
Transportation and tech help make a city good — but the truly great cities of the world are cultural hotbeds, where art, entertainment, and nightlife abound. And that’s where Kansas City really shines.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was named the #1 best museum in the US by both USA Today and Yelp. It’s no wonder, because “the Nelson” is home to works by Monet, Van Gogh, and Pollock, in addition to housing an entire Chinese temple and a sprawling sculpture garden where you can try not to bonk your head inside a glass labyrinth. Time Magazine called the recent Bloch Building addition the “best new or upcoming architectural marvel in the world.” NBD. And the best part? Admission is free.
The Kansas City awards list runs longer. Yelp’s #5 best museum in the country went to the National WWI Museum & Memorial — which also happens to be the only WWI museum in the country. For a quirkier taste of history, the Arabia Steamboat Museum exhibits treasures unearthed from a 160-year-old shipwreck dubbed the “Titanic of the Missouri.”
For the museum-averse (aka, the ADHD crowd), the 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District is basically a living history museum for the city’s musical roots. Meandering piano solos, smooth vocals, and hand-crafted cocktails flow as readily now as they did during the 1920s, when a controversial political boss defied Prohibition and helped keep jazz’s Golden Age thumping into the ’30s.
Those looking to soak up more modern forms of art should head to one of the city’s many entertainment districts for some “performance art” and “interactive exhibits.” We’re talking about bars, baby. The sprawling Power & Light District engulfs nine city blocks and is one of the few places in the city where you can walk around with an open container a la Bourbon Street or continental Europe.
If you’re looking to party, Power & Light is where it’s at. Though if pop-philosophical debate over chili-infused craft ale is more your style (or if you love playing Hipster BINGO), stick to the Crossroads Arts District.
The barbecue is justifiably famous, but that’s not all that’s cooking.
It’s no wonder the city that brought up creative legends like Walt Disney, Charlie Parker, and Jason Sudeikis would also foster one of the most inventive food scenes in the country. It’s a city of artists, makers, and doers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty trying new things.
Food trucks have been popping up around town for years. When the first designated multi-truck hub, “Little Piggy,” opened this month, around a thousand people showed up to chow down. Among them was the Food Network’s Alton Brown, who couldn’t resist ordering the whole menu from the South American nose-to-tail barbecue truck Red Wattle. Lucky for Alton, Kansas Citians are too polite to judge.
Speaking of judgment, one of those food truck owners was a 2016 semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. Local restaurant revolutionist Patrick Ryan grew Port Fonda from an Airstream trailer to a stand-out sit-down joint with a line out the door and a serious creative edge on Mexican cantina cooking.
Across town, another kind of “food truck” is scooping the loop. Rollin’ Grocer, a homegrown “grocery store on wheels” concept, is a downright ingenious answer to urban food deserts. The goal is to make fresh fruits and veggies and other pantry staples — not to mention a neighborly shopping experience — accessible and affordable in every neighborhood.
Of course, despite all the delicious innovation around town, every Kansas Citian retains a soft spot for a favorite hole-in-the wall barbecue joint. Just ask. Everyone’s happy to give you directions. You can take the streetcar.