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.

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So how do you find yourself in the Midwest?

I have a strange fascination with the Midwest… -Jason Reitman

Unlike many people who reminisce or get nostalgic about the Midwest, I am not from this part of the country. I was born and raised in California, and spent most of my life in a part of the country where snow was rare-to-non-existent, and a trip to the beach was a three-hour drive, not a three-hour flight.

But here I am…now a Midwest transplant for at least a little bit longer.  (Kansas City transplant to be specific; Missouri side for now, though I have lived in Kansas and may move back since I work in Kansas again.)

So, how did a West Coast guy get here?

To those who don’t know me (which probably is about 80-90 percent of people who come across this blog), for about a year and a half I was studying to be a Jesuit priest. I had just graduated from a small Catholic college in Washington state, and the August after my grduated I joined the California Province for the Society of Jesus and entered their novitiate (like a seminary, but less focus on “studying” and more focus on “living the life”) in Culver City, California, which is in the heart of Los Angeles. Typically how the process works, after a two year tenure in the novitiate, the next step in  the Jesuit formation to become a priest is to attend a university (of their choosing, though you have options) for philosophy studies and earn a master’s degree in philosophy in a 3-4 year timetable (again, I will probably talk more about the whole process of being a priest, and what separates a “Jesuit” priest from a “regular” priest in some subsequent posts). At about the one-year-point in my Jesuit novice tenure, I sat down with the person responsible for “study” assignments, which basically meant I told him what my educational and personal interests and goals were going to be during this important time in religious formation. (Did I just want to study philosophy or was I thinking about getting additional studies in another area? And how would this help me contribute to the Society and Catholic community and well…world? So yeah, no pressure, right? )

We basically had three choices: Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, Loyola University in Chicago, and Fordham University in the Bronx.

Fordham was my overwhelming favorite followed by Loyola Chicago. I didn’t even consider St. Louis, because to be perfectly honest, I didn’t see myself in a small city in the Midwest in my future. (And I know there are those saying right now “But Chicago is in the Midwest!” I get it. But let’s face it, Chicago is technically the mecca of the Midwest, and closer in spirit to an East Coast city; it just happens to geographically be in the Midwest and get a lot of Midwest transplants.)

Almost 30 years old, I have been in the Midwest for six years. I spent two years in South Dakota, living and working on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota near the South Dakota-Nebraska border (Pine Ridge for those that needed clarification), and have resided for about four years in Kansas City (two years on the Kansas side and coming on two years on the Missouri side).

In all honesty, that is six more years in the Midwest than I ever would have thought when I was fresh out of college or even still in novitiate. But now as I enter the third decade of my life, I am finding it harder and harder to think I will ever leave.

It’s amazing how a certain place, a geographical area, can change one’s perspective over time.

I had the chance to move back to California last year, in the Spring for the upcoming Fall. I had a teaching job offer in California, San Jose, to be specific. The idea of moving back to the South Bay was intriguing to me (I worked in San Jose for about a semester in the Spring after leaving the Jesuits). I would be paid handsomely salary-wise (though in retrospect, while the figure was high, I wonder if it would have been much more than my current circumstances here in the Midwest).I would have been closer to my parents, who are getting older in years, and moved into a cozy house in the Midtown area of Sacramento. I would have been around the sports teams I cheered for in my youth (the San Francisco Giants, 49ers, Golden State Warriors, San Jose Sharks, and California Golden Bears). I would have been out of snow, and around good public rail transportation. Years ago, San Jose was a bit of a dream destination, not the absolute dream like San Francisco (I have always had a profound fondness for that city), but a good, comfortable second I would have been satisfied with.

Though I initially made a commitment months before I had to report to my job, I ended up not going. I had to arrive  in August, and from the time I accepted the job in early April, my excitement in the job started to slowly fade. Over a month’s time, I realized that though job was a tremendous offer and opportunity, I couldn’t take it.

To be cut and dry about it, well…I was not ready to leave Kansas City and the Midwest.

It’s amazing to think to someone who hasn’t lived here or visited here much my reasons for wanting to stay in Middle America over the West Coast (or East Coast for that matter). I had college and high school friends ask me if I “was making the right decision?” I had family that questioned my desire to not be closer to home (though more extended family, not parents). Even Midwest natives wondered why I wouldn’t want to be back in California after spending so much time away, as the decision to leave the Midwest for sunny Northern California was a no-brainer to them. (This is not necessarily Native Americans, but people who grew up in the Midwest…though ironically, this personal circle also included some Native Americans).

And I get it. It bothers me at times as well, the idea that a place with a reputation for flat, endless farmland; hot, muggy, and story, summers; and cold and icy winters, would be a more enticing place to live.

And yet, there is something about the Midwest that keep me here. Something that prevents me from leaving, even when I think I would be better served personally and professionally back in an an area of the United States where I grew up, and possessed more familiar roots and connections.

If there is a reason to explain my stay in the Midwest despite opportunities elsewhere, I guess I would have to say the “lifestyle” of the Midwest is what attracts me the most here. And not just my personal lifestyle on it’s own, but how my own lifestyle meshes into the predominant lifestyle of the diversity of people here in Kansas City as well as in the Midwest. Because though people don’t like to think about it, there is a diversity here in the Midwest. Yes, some ethnic groups are under-represented in comparison to other areas of the country. And yes, this area of the country tends to be more Christian, Conservative and Republican, something I am not quite used to being from the West Coast.

However, to say that represents ALL the Midwest would be silly and misinforming. In my six years, I have discovered so much about the Kansas City and the Midwest:

  • The Latino and Chicano culture and communities in the Midwest who are growing and developing rapidly over the past couple of decades, and differ a bit in values and feel from the Latino cultures of major communities on the coasts.
  • The Middle-Eastern influence that is growing in many of the Midwestern cities thanks to foreign exchange students growing accustomed to the Midwest life as well as opportunistic businessmen who are trying to make a better living for their families here and abroad, as I have learned from my frequent visits to hookah lounges, something I never did until I came to the Midwest. (Yes, I lived in California and Washington and it wasn’t until I moved to Kansas City that I started using Hookah.)
  • The African-American communities, which despite years of injustice and discrimination in this part of the country, who continue to push forward for change in their communities and schools, while still maintaining their proud heritage and contributions in the Midwest, including their influence on the media (The weekly newspaper “The Call” is one of the oldest African-American-run newspapers in the United States), Jazz as a musical art form, as well as baseball, including the Negro Leagues (the Midwest was where it really shone; Kansas City being the mecca for it) and the many former NL players who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the late 40’s.
  • The BBQ culture known nationally that spans from the “mom and pop” shacks in rural areas of Kansas and Missouri to the urban center of Kansas City where African-American owned BBQ restaurants helped Kansas City become the BBQ capital of the USA in comparison to their brethren in the Carolina’s and Memphis.
  • The Catholic community who credit their roots in the Midwest from strong and proud immigrants from Croatia, Slovenia, Ireland, Italy, and Poland (just to name a few), and has a closer, more familial feel in comparison to their Coastal counterparts, as evidenced by their emphasis on putting on frequent church socials, high priority in sending their children to Catholic schools, and financial and spiritual contributions to their local parishes.

I could go on and on, and I know I will go into more depth onto these topics and more in the future. There is so much to write about on the Midwest, and not just Kansas City, either (though I know I will go on plenty about Kansas City considering that is my home and where a majority of my life in the Midwest has taken place). The people. The issues. The history. The traditions. The culture. The future.

Perhaps that’s why I stayed in Kansas City and the Midwest. This part of the area inspires me, almost serves as my muse, and I still feel like I have only scratched the surface, have yet to go deep into what really makes the Midwest Life what it is, not to mention different from life on the East or West Coast. I have invested a lot in my six years in the Midwest. I have invested in my job and my students, sure. But, I also have invested in my communities, whether it has been on the reservation, in Wyandotte County, or in Jackson County. And despite that investment, I still know I can do more, and more importantly, I want to do more.

And that’s why I have created this blog. To chronicle my experience as I continue to dig deeper and deeper into my experiences with “Wyandotte Confidential” Furthermore, I also intend to tell stories of and about the people here in Kansas City and the Midwest. (Though to be honest, my stories will probably be more predominant; sorry, I am not a professional journalist, just an amateur one at this point). Some stories will be short memoirs. Some stories might be fictional. Some stories might be simple reviews or reflections. And some stories might blur all those genres together in some weird, chaotic fashion that I can’t even begin to describe.

Just like I have learned from my own experiences, the Midwest is a surprising fusion of all kinds: transplants and homebodies; old and new; traditional and modern; conservative and liberal; backward and forward thinking; slow and… less-slow (well, I guess that is one thing I can say about the Midwest: life is a little bit slower here than on the Coasts; though I hear it is faster than in the Deep South).

I hope that’s what “Wyandotte Confidential” will try to portray: a glance into the life and culture and diversity and mystery that is in the middle of the country, i.e. the glorious Midwest.

What six years in this part of the country can do to a person.

Whiskey at The Belfry in Downtown/Crossroads

 

Not feeling the need to drive through late 4/early 5 o’clock traffic on Main Street in downtown Kansas City, I parked my car just outside Union Station and decided to take a ride on the KC Streetcar, which had opened in May. The KC Streetcar has stirred up all kinds of emotions with KC citizens and taxpayers: some think it’s the start of a major change in public transportation in KC that will ultimately make KC more of a major city in the Midwest; some think it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money to satisfy the ego of Mayor Sly James, a train enthusiast, who has made it his main agenda since taking office to get create a major transportation system in the KC Metro area. It’s kind of early to tell what is the right stance on this issue. Sure, it would be nice if the Streetcar would be able to go through red lights, or was on a separate line that wouldn’t interfere with traffic (similar to what I saw in San Jose with their light rail system, which is built in the middle of the street so it doesn’t need to adhere to traffic signals), but it’s a good start for the city in terms of getting people on board with public transportation (which isn’t easy to do in cities in the Midwest outside of Chicago); makes traveling around the downtown area of KC a lot easier (it’s nice that you can go from the River Market to the Crossroads without having to drive around or walk long distance); and the train itself has a sleek design that’s better than other transits I have seen from other major cities (SacTown, you need to get your act together).

Anyways, to bring things back, this isn’t a post about the KC Streetcar (though I probably will write one in due time). In addition to taking the Streetcar to avoid traffic headaches off of Main Street Downtown, I also decided to take it because their Kauffman Center stop took me to 16th street. No, I was not going to the Symphony or to see Los Tigres del Norte perform (or anything perform…it was Wednesday at 5 p.m.). Instead, I was going down the other direction down 16th street, in between Main and Grand, for Happy Hour at a small cocktail lounge called the Belfry.

To be honest, I had never really heard of the Belfry, mostly due to the fact that it sits in a weird “No Man’s Land” between Downtown KC and the Crossroads. I don’t feel anything is “truly downtown” south of Truman Road, but the location of Belfry is a bit north for Crossroads as it would be quite a hike for someone to go there on a First Friday’s. (But hey…Streetcar solves that! So maybe it’s not so bad, taxpaying haters!) And it’s location in between Main and Grand, makes it get ignored in the “what neighborhood does it belong to?” shuffle. To make matters worse in its favor, it doesn’t have that “prime” location off of Main Street that benefits other establishments in the “No Man’s Land” like Anton’s or Nara or Bazooka’s (if you have to ask what kind of place Bazooka’s is…well…it may not be for you and you probably can’t afford it). And yet, despite it’s “humble” location (and establishment, which I will go into more later), the Belfry surprises as an affordable whiskey/beer lounge that offers a down-to-earth atmosphere, as well as competitive fare in comparison to any other “Happy Hour Crowd”-catering bar in the Downtown/Crossroads area.

Don’t let the “Are you sure this isn’t an affordable Health Care clinic?” look from the outside fool you.

As you walk down 16th street, the Belfry barely sticks out. The street consists mostly of converted lofts, used for both residential as well as office use, and the Belfry’s exterior blends into those surroundings. If you just took a glance at it, and didn’t know what it was, you probably would confuse it for a Non-Profit office or some “new-age Christian church” that caters to Millennials. But then you take a step inside…

Well, not much else sticks out either (sorry for the dramatic pause). You walk up a small stairwell, and you are greeted with a fork which can take you to two main areas in the complex. Granted, it still has that initial appearance of an office building, but more like one of those “Hmm…this could be a civil engineering or architecture firm” office and less like a “I could probably get my TB test done here” center (which it could also pass for from the outside if you have been to some of those clinics downtown or in midtown). The owner of the Belfry owns the whole building, but the room to the right, spacious and decorated with multiple tables and a bar in the corner, is reserved for special events and parties, and isn’t used regularly, especially during the week and in the afternoon (when I was there).

So, being that the right side was as deserted and gravitating as the ballroom in the Stanley Hotel (and that’s from a non-Jack perspective; Jack would disagree and say that the dining room was the shit), I veered to the left, which was empty, but it at least had a bartender at the counter, cleaning glasses as I walked in. Considering it was just before 5, when most people (unlike myself in the months of June-August) were just getting off of work, the sparseness of the bar didn’t put me off or make me want to go somewhere else (not that I had a choice since I was meeting someone there). It had just opened. And when bars just open, they can be dead. Unfortunately, not every bar or establishment can be like Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.

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The look of the Belfry from the inside is one that is both cozy and modern; minimal meets classic. There are about five-to-six hardwood tall tables with an accompanying four tall stools at each table. In the back corner, to the right of the clock on the wall, a plush four-person couch is designed for people to engage in conversation as a group or get a little “cozy” without crossing the line. And at the bar, about 10-12 tall stools sit at the dark brown, hardwood counter, with flexible backs of the stools that make leaning back an occasional plus. The Belfry doesn’t really try to “wow” their patrons with their interior design, though it’s not off-putting by any means. Think of it as a modernized VFW that can allow anyone in, coupled with the kind of hipster flair one would see from a dining or coffee establishment on the Westside.

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In addition to glorifying Chelsea FC (woof…rough year last season), the Belfry also showcases all kinds of whiskey and beer (notice the 20 taps).

What makes the Belfry aesthetically pleasing is behind the bar, as the extensive beer and whiskey selection will make any millennial grow a chest hair in awe. As you can see in the picture above, this is a “whiskey” lounge in every sense of the word. They have probably dozens of selections of bourbons, Scotch whiskeys, Irish whiskeys, you name it. They have local whiskeys like the J. Rieger Kansas City Whiskey, made by the same people who own the Rieger Hotel in the Crossroads, but they also have a lot of nice varieties of the expensive small batch bourbons and Johnny Walker’s as well (I’m talking “Blue Label” shit here). They have a small Gin, Tequila and Vodka selection (as you can see in the bottom right of the photo), but truth be told, the Belfry is about showcasing the whiskey, and in its pure forms. Yes, they can make classic cocktails, but in terms of specialty drinks, they only feature about 8-10. If you do feel the need for something mixed into your whiskey, I would suggest that Grand Fashioned, the Belfry’s take on a classic old-fashioned using J. Rieger bourbon. It’s the kind of drink that will make you feel like Don Draper in “Mad Men” only without the 50’s racism and misogyny.

The Belfry has a quality cocktail selection (the trafficway was also a solid cocktail that utilized Rye), but to be honest, whiskey, especially expensive stuff, is meant to be consumed in its purest forms: single or double, neat. No fancy mixers. No vermouths or shit. Thankfully for whiskey purists, the Belfry adheres to that kind of minimalistic perfection with their expansive whiskey selection. So, to get the full Belfry whiskey experience, find a bourbon or scotch or Irish whiskey on the menu that entices you, order a single (or a double) neat, and just sink it in.

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Whiskey may be one of the feature characteristics of the Belfry, but Kansas City is not Tennessee or Kentucky. Kansas City is a beer town, and a growing craft beer city with the rise of Boulevard being served in drinking establishments now all over the country (I have a friend who drinks Boulevard in DC), and more and more smaller craft breweries opening up in the Metro every year. The Belfry also pays homage to KC’s craft beer scene with 20 beers on tap, showcasing everything from IPAs, to Gose’s, to Saisons to even Imperial Stouts. The beers rotate regularly, as evidenced by a clipboard/office paper menu that look similar to the check in sheet I used to have as a RA when freshmen reported to their dorms for orientation day. It’s not fancy, nor is it the kind of feature Jon Taffer would approve of, but I can appreciate such a “low cost” menu design to make sure everything remains accurate on a daily basis. They also have a massive chalkboard near the entrance that lists all 20 beer selections, for over-anxious types (i.e. me) who don’t trust everything on that piece of paper on the clipboard. For those looking for a suggestion, the Great Divide Yeti, an Imperial Stout from Colorado, is a beer enthusiasts’ pound of pure, with the dark coffee/chocolate appearance and taste one would expect from an Imperial Stout, but not as heavy as the typical IS. And, at 9.4% it also packs a punch, so enjoy 1 or 2 and you’ll be good (though as with any stout, you probably will be good after 1 or 2 anyways, considering they can be filling).

But, any kind of specialty cocktail/craft beer lounge such as the Belfry wouldn’t be good for Happy Hour without a decent food menu. Despite its simple appearance inside, the food is a dantiful surprise, as James Beard Award-winning chef, Celina Tio, who also owns Julian in Brookside, is in charge of the menu at the Belfry. The food is a fusion mix of sorts, ranging from homestyle favorites one would find at a good local cafe, to small-plate dishes (on special during happy hour), to more modern takes on pub food. Yes, you can get a classic burger with fresh cut fries, and the rigatoni entices with fresh ricotta cheese, a chunky tomato sauce, and spicy Italian sausage that tastes like it came from a local butcher shop. (Anton’s or Broadway Butcher perhaps?) However, what really made Tio and the Belfry’s menu stand out was their take on vegetables. Their special pan fried cauliflower has a sweet spicy texture it, with the cauliflower nice and tender, and the spiciness enhancing the flavor of the vegetables, not overpowering it.

And while that was good, it still paled in comparison to their tempura-fried broccoli rabe.

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Words cannot describe the balance of the crunchiness of the tempura batter with the honey Sriracha glaze. Yes, you read that right FUCKING HONEY SRIRACHA GLAZE. (I know what you’re thinking: “GTFO!”) An explosion of Asian-American flavors burst through in this dish, as the hot, sweet, salty, and crispy textures made it worth savoring for seconds before going onto the next bite. Tio is an Asian-American chef who holds multiple Asian heritages (with Chinese and Filipino being two of them), and her multi-Asian ethnicity is showcased proudly in this dish, with multiple references to different Asian flavors present. This dish may go under the radar with most patrons. After all, fried broccoli? “Fuck that. I didn’t come to this whiskey and craft beer bar to eat a dish my fucking mom made me eat before I got spumoni ice cream, homie.”

But trust me. The honey sriracha tempura fried broccoli rabe blows flavor gaskets to the 100th degree.

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The Belfry may not resonate with everyone. If you want a nicer, more traditional cocktail bar environment, Julep in Westport may be your cup of tea. If you want a cocktail bar with more flair, then Manifesto in the basement of the Rieger Hotel would be a better pick. If you want multitudes upon multitudes of beer selections, than the Ruins in the Crossroads and their self-pour station is your best bet.

But the Belfry is a nice balance. It’s simple. Both in menu and in environment. It’s a great to hang out with people after work or on a lazy afternoon or evening. It’s free of distractions. And despite it’s lack of amenities, the Belfry proves to be a special place where one can grab a bite to eat and a glass of whiskey or pint of craft beer during happy hour. It feels like your place, like your club, like your friend’s gallery or print press in the Crossroads  that chills the fuck out on First Friday’s and serves liquor and beer to whoever drops in.

That kind of special environment can not be duplicated with amenities or fancy decorating. It has to be truly genuine for that vibe to be replicated.

Luckily for KC bar and happy hour patrons, the Belfry has that authenticity, and more importantly…charm.

An Appreciation for Rosedale BBQ of KCK

 

“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!”