Residency at Park Central

Although I grew up in London, I spent summers in Missouri, where my dad lived. It’s quite a liberal town, Kansas City. You’d be surprised…

I’m getting to about four years of living here in Kansas City. This will be my second year living in Midtown, at the Park Central apartments off of Armour and Broadway. Four years sounds like a lot of time to me in Kansas City, especially considering I lived in the Northwest and California most of my life, and nearly moved from Kansas City twice in this time span.

I chose to live in Park Central primarily due to its location. After graduating from Rockhurst in 2015 in May, I had decided to stay in Kansas City rather than move back for a teaching job in Pine Ridge, South Dakota (on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at an old school I used to work). However, I was living up in the Northland, Gladstone to be specific, with an older divorced co-worker, and I didn’t necessarily enjoy living in a Suburban area as a single guy. After all, at the time I was in my late 20’s, finished with school, and looking to have more of a social and urban experience after living on the outskirts in my first couple of years (first in Kansas City, Kansas and then in the Northland).

My two options were Park Central and the Bellerive off of Armour Blvd. They were both former major hotels in the Kansas City area that had been revitalized into apartments thanks to the gentrification going on in the Midtown area of Kansas City over the past decade. Though the Bellerive had nice amenities, I chose to live in Park Central, as it was nearly 100 dollars cheaper and literally the same distance from my job (about a 10 minute walk from the school I taught at).

I no longer work at the same school, but I still live in Park Central (even though my new school is in Kansas City, Kansas). Over the past couple of years, living in Park Central has helped me swoon for and grow more and more fascinated with Kansas City, from the people to the bars to the neighborhoods to the history that has deeper peaks and valleys than I ever thought possible when I moved here from southwestern South Dakota nearly four years ago.

For me, Kansas City and Park Central go hand-in-hand, spiritually connected at the hip.


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Park Central is located right outside of Hyde and Gillham Park. The Hyde Park area is something of an old-money neighborhood, classic in the old sense, with houses designed in a way that resemble ones straight out of a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Hyde Park, originally one of the first golf courses of Kansas City, is a product of the Tom Pendergast era: its beautifully maintained houses consist of generational residents who lean primarily on the liberal and democratic side, hailing from old European-American ancestry, with their children avoiding the public school system (a reason for the beautiful old Westport High and Middle Schools buildings being currently closed today) for nearby private institutions like Notre Dame de Sion, Pembroke Hill, St. Theresa Academy and Rockhurst (high school, not university).

Mixed in with these old homeowners are newer renting residents: hipster families who have bought cheap housing close to Troost, and recently out-of-college or still-in-school young adults who rent out of the many different apartments mostly owned by Mac Properties, and other smaller property management firms. Park Central is located in this area, and thus, I fall into one of these categories, though only marginally (I am recently out of graduate school, not undergraduate like most).

Park Central is an eclectic mix of residents. Yes, there are young grad students and young professionals, as expected. That being said, the eight floors of the apartment complex also consist of older retirees, most likely widows, who are living out their remaining years in the heart of the city, in much smaller accommodations. Being a pet-free environment, nearly everyone has a dog, and it’s common to see people go in and out of the elevator with their dogs in leashes, ready to take morning and evening walks with their pets before and after work, respectively. There are a surprising amount of young couples who live together in the apartments, some from the Kansas City area, some from abroad, including India and Palestine and China, just to name a few, as well as same-sex couples who are within close distance to many of the gay bars down Broadway and Main.

All in all, Park Central is the quintessential urban apartment, no different in many ways than an apartment you would perhaps find in Brooklyn, San Francisco or Boston (albeit much, much cheaper).

But there is more to Park Central than it just being the modern apartment. It’s more than the kind of complex that one would see on sitcoms such as Seinfeld, The Big Bang Theory, and Master of None. Park Central is also a microcosm of Kansas City, a capsule that has undergone an exterior, and perhaps spiritual, change to help newer potential residents to forget or be unaware of the history of the building as well as the area.

One of the most famous stories of Park Central is the fact that in 1934, mob boss Johnny Lazia was gunned down at the then hotel by rival gangster associates. The fact that a mob boss like Lazia stayed in the Park Central makes sense, as it is central to most establishments in Kansas City, and was in close proximity to Downtown and the Jazz District back then (and even to this day). For some, the history is neat tidbit that displays the history of Kansas City: as a free-wheeling Las Vegas of the Midwest in 1920’s-1940’s.

Kansas City used to be something one would likely see in a Martin Scorsese film or James Ellroy novel: jazz, gangster, gambling, call girls, murder, political corruption, you name it. During the prohibition, alcohol laws were not only ignored, but almost mocked, thanks to Pendergast and his Jackson Democratic Club political machine, as well as the Italian Mafia that ran things in the Northeast. Even up to the 1970’s, Kansas City was the midway point of criminal activity, connecting the East Coast to lucrative laundering deals going on in the West Coast in Las Vegas, as profiled in the movie Casino.

It made sense that Kansas City had this reputation because of it being a center of the railroad system across the country, which aren’t as active today, but it’s remnants still ever present. Kansas City never had the population or glitz of a New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, but you could argue that Kansas City was every bit as fascinating as those cities, and deserved as much, perhaps even more profiles than those other three bigger “noir” meccas. There was no Elliot Ness-Al Capone or William Parker-Mickey Cohen rivalry. The criminals pretty much ran the town (thanks to Pendergast), and that’s what made Kansas City a magnet for seediness that went uncovered for decades. Nobody wants to cover the bad guys if there are no good guys to defeat them, and unlike a Chicago or LA, Kansas City never got that “White Knight” that came in and cleaned up Kansas City for good.

The clean up just came with years of convictions of criminals in court and strong municipal policies.

In other words, boring. Kansas City deserved so much better.


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So what does this have to do with me? How does this affect my own experience with Kansas City?

Well, I live in Midtown because it is close to everything. It is close to the characters. It is close to the nightlife. It is right on the border of that Troost wall where the injustice of rich and poor, and black and white segregation still exists today as it did decades ago. It is in a blue part of the Midwest that is normally as deep red as old, caked blood.

For somebody that has craved the city experience for so long, since my teenage years, I can’t imagine going anywhere else. Where I am is perfect. I am inspired by new stories every day, whether it’s from the past or present. Whether it’s the stories of elections being fixed by the Pendergast machine, near riots outside of the Donald Trump rally outside of the Midland Theater, or the sight of soaring-high vagrants punching air on the streets of Broadway past midnight right outside of Westport. As somebody who is trying to make his way as a writer, trying to find the right stories to journal, Park Central is the perfect holding spot personally, a DMZ of sorts of the Kansas City urban experience.

This living experience has come with its share of problems of course. Maintaining or finding relationships has been difficult. I have had countless dates that have constantly gone south due to my inability to part with my current home and the stories that flutter around it. I dated a girl for four months, and we struggled to go deeper in the relationship due to her desire to be more settled. She wanted to be out in Leawood or South Kansas City or somewhere perhaps more rural. I told her that I continued to want the city. I wanted to help people in the city. I wanted to help make the city better and deep down, though I never told her, I wanted to be able to write stories about the city that don’t get told or profiled in the KC Star or evening news. She wanted that “White Picket Fence Midwest” experience. I wanted the Jazz Era one. She couldn’t fathom that I was content with living in a studio apartment and sleeping on a futon.

And the same story has been true with various other dates. One girl couldn’t understand my democratic leanings. I struggled recently with another who had kids who wanted to live the rest of her life in Kansas City Kansas around her family and the friends she grew up with for decades. It seems like young adults in the Midwest generally want the same thing: marriage, kids, stability and all rather early in life. I have struggled with those concepts, because even though I want it or think I want that kind of life (my parents certainly want me to), I fall back into my Park Central apartment, sink into its presence, and realize that though I am 29 and single and without any romantic or prospects of long-term stability on the horizon, I am happy or at the very least content with it all. And I think I’m content because I still have the city. The stories. The people. The night. The parks. The runs through Gilham and Hyde Park where I think about what to write on next. The hookah lounges where I smoke and socialize and sometimes write. The coffee places where I can just stare out on the streets for hours. The bars where I can just people watch and eavesdrop and find amusement in some of the stories I hear and so on.

Some might think of all that as the product of a lonely life. And sometimes it feels that way. But I grew up a bit of a loner. I didn’t have many close friends growing up. It’s a reason why I have never had the desire to go back to Sacramento. I don’t need familiar. I don’t need “safe”. I don’t need “it’s time to settle down.” Writing and blogging keep me stable and sane. It’s cheap therapy, and writing about the city, much like therapy, helps give me the ideas and tools to not only help my own life and progress in it, but also help me understand how I can help my own community, this city, the surrounding area of Park Central also known as Midtown Kansas City.

Because cities are wonderful things. Nothing is more fascinating than the American city. They are decaying in ways because people have their biases. They don’t think their children should go into schools in the cities or they think the crime is too much. I don’t have to worry about those things (because I don’t have kids or nice shit), and thus, I can do what I need to help, and learn about the day to day, night to night of what goes in Kansas City, a city with its own history of sordidness that it battles with each and every day. Kansas City is really a perfect city for me. Small enough to get wrapped up in, but big enough to still find new places, circles and issues to discover.

And I am able to do that from the central of it all in my current apartment, which has its own sordid history which it’s trying to get rid of, like the city itself.

When I first moved to Kansas City, I thought I was on my way to settling into the Midwest experience. I had plans for marriage within a couple of years. I thought about living in a house, and having my own self-built smoker. I pictured barbeques and hanging out at the community pools with my neighbors over cans of Bud Light. I thought about sending my kids to Catholic School, much like my parents did for me.

I remember one night I spent with my ex at the time. We were in St. John’s park, looking out on the Kansas City skyline from Strawberry Hill, which is a beautiful damn thing at night. I knew we were going to break up, but I made one last pitch to her to convince her to stay together.

You know. When I was young, I pictured myself living in a big city. I pictured myself living paycheck to paycheck as a writer. I would be living in a small apartment and writing freelance or for a newspaper living pretty simply with the idea that I would make it big. I pictured myself living like a Charles Bukowski or John Fante and that’s what I wanted more than anything when I was growing up in middle and high school.”

“What happened?”

“Well, now I don’t want that anymore. I realized that was just a stupid fantasy. I want to settle down. I want to have kids. I want to have a house and raise a family now.

We broke up a week later. And though it’s not exact, I’m closer to that former dream than the latter nearly three years later.

I wonder if I really wanted the latter or I was just saying it because I scared rejection or was scared of being in and taking on Kansas City alone.

I know what they mean now by certain events being blessings in disguise.

My blessing comes in an Eight-story former hotel called the Park Central.

On Assignment at Chicago’s

“Networking is rubbish; have friends instead.” -Steve Winwood

Part 1 of a 3-part “Political Noir.”

Disclaimer: This story, though based on real people, places, and events is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual events is merely coincidental.

I should have gone home. I didn’t know why I felt the urge to go buy burritos at this hour, especially considering what I did tonight and what I uncovered.

Maybe my anxiety prompted me to drive here; my anxiety stunting common sensibility at the moment. Maybe it was the nostalgia of being back in my old neighborhood that prompted me to get burritos even though I wasn’t that hungry.

Perhaps it was the irrational thought that it would be better to confront the people following me from the bar in a public place rather than in my own neighborhood, where cop sirens and late-night wanderers were expected, not signs for alarm, from neighbors.

Then again though, in that regard, there wasn’t much difference between KCK and Midtown KCMO.

I should have known better. Maybe there was no comprehensible reason why I took a seat at the picnic table and not back in my car after I bought my food. Perhaps I was just resigning to the fact it would be wise to deal with these guys now rather than drag this out all night.

The journalist in me just had to take the picture on my phone. I couldn’t let that image just lay…

She had nothing to do with it.

Or at least that’s what I told myself.

The two guys standing on both sides of me at the table were big, white and tall, both dressed in black, heavy winter coats and jeans to combat the cool late fall weather that night. They had their hands in the pockets and stared me down in initial silence as I sat at one of the tables outside of the “Burritos to Go” stand, located in a gas station strip mall off of 7th street and Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. The strip mall also included a 24-hour convenience store and checking cashing outlet in addition to about 10 gas pumps underneath a well-lit canopy. There was no one else in the parking lot nor at the pumps, typical at nearly midnight on a Wednesday night.

The anxiety I felt when I stepped out of the 403 Club minutes earlier was heightened when I parked in front of the all-night burrito counter and saw the red Ford pickup truck roll in behind and park next to my car when I started ordering. I noticed that same red pickup truck following me immediately when I turned left onto 7th Street Trafficway from Reynolds Avenue. What sent me off the charts was the fact that they didn’t get out of their cars until the lady at the counter handed me my brown paper bag which contained two chicharron burritos, two green salsitas cups and a stack of napkins.

They were waiting for me to be alone.

And here I was. Sitting there, not looking at either of them initially, but instead my bag of burritos on the table, slowly getting cold thanks to the late October night. The two men looked more from Bonner Springs than Strawberry Hill, and tried to intimidate me with their size and silence.

“You know why we’re here, right?” the man on my right finally said after a long mute minute.

The man had light brown hair, much lighter than the other (the man with him had dark brown hair, closer to black). He also sported a goatee (the other was clean shaven) and appeared to be the slimmer of the two. However, saying he was slim was like saying a steer weighed less than a cow. He also happened to be a bit taller than his “partner” (if you could call them that; I didn’t know their backstory or occupation at the moment, and I didn’t care to either), so he may not have been slimmer, but just spread his weight out better over his frame.

Before the man initiated the conversation, I had an initial inclination about why they tailed me out of the 403 Club, why they parked next to me in the gas station, and why they surrounded me at the burrito stand picnic tables on the eastern edge of KCK this late at night, a weekday night of all nights.

The unknown man’s rhetorical question confirmed my suspicions.

“I imagine you’re not here for burritos. You should. 3 bucks and pretty good. Though they don’t serve grilled chicken here like they do at Chipotle.”

His partner snorted to my comment.

“A bit of a wise-ass we got here, huh Eddie?” He said.

“I would say so, Kam. Kind of a big mouth for a scrawny guy,” Eddie said.

I slowly lifted my gaze toward them. They had nefarious smirks on their face, like fishermen ready to put fresh, dependable bait on a hook. In fact, they looked like the kind of Kansas guys who went fishing on a regular, if not weekly basis. I didn’t cower, or at least I think I didn’t. My body and nerves were pulsating so wildly internally that I couldn’t tell for sure how I appeared physically or facially at the moment in front of these two men.

“You’re with Wayne Yantz, right? You work for him?”

Eddie spoke up again. He seemed to be the spokesman of the pair.

“We don’t work for him. We are simply concerned voters and volunteers. We’re staunch supporters of the progress Congressman Yantz is doing in our district, and we are here to make sure that nothing will get in the way of that fine work.”

I nodded my head. Eddie surprised me with a more eloquent answer than expected.

“Sounds noble. No wonder he got elected. With a ground game featuring guys like you, he should run for Senate in the next election cycle.”

“Funny. You know, not all Republicans are right-wing nutjobs. I know you bleeding heart liberals like to think so, but we’re just ordinary American tax payers, like you.”

I was tempted to throw his comment back in his face, but at this hour, and with no one else remotely in the area except for a middle-aged primarily Spanish-speaking lady at the burrito stand, I decided to not push my luck.

“Fair enough, I guess. So what do you want from me? An article about Yantz? Sorry, I don’t make those calls, but I can ask my editor in the morning.”

“Cut the shit. You know what we want,” Eddie continued. Kam had now grown mum and stuck to just appearing menacing and crossing his arms to stay warm. “Now listen here son. Are we going to have to do this the easy way or the hard way?”

A difficult decision to make on what I initially thought would be a trivial Wednesday night. When I took this assignment, I imagined covering a routine civic event and afterward watching a debate of a presidential election that pretty much was all but over a couple of weeks out.

I just had to bump into Juliana tonight.


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I had been working for the Kansas City Hispanic News for over a year now. My technical title at the paper was “staff writer”, but we were a small operation: just a couple of desk editors and one full-time writer other than myself (Juan, an elderly artist, who always got the art scene assignments as well as the press pass for the Chiefs game; I didn’t know how those two things went together, but he had been around since the KC Hispanic News started publishing in 1993). In fact, it was common for the editor-in-chief and founder of the Hispanic News, Joe Hernandez, to write an article or two himself a week. It wasn’t easy to run a bilingual paper in a Midwest city like Kansas City. Sure, it had a rising Hispanic population, but it was a far cry from major cities like Los Angeles or Chicago in terms of Hispanic population. Thus, to keep the paper afloat, everyone had to do their part in one way or the other.

In addition to being a writer, I was also in sales. It was common for me to do an interview and push to sell ad space with that person or organization after we were finished. It wasn’t exactly what I imagined when I decided to leave the teaching profession after three years and get back into journalism, but it was a start. Writing jobs were hard to come by, and the fact that I was able to get a full-time paid gig was a blessing considering my circumstances (i.e. I needed money as I had been pretty self-sufficient as a teacher and didn’t want to move back in with my parents in St. Louis).

It was funny that my first full-time gig in journalism happened to be at a bilingual newspaper. My Spanish wasn’t great, but I was half-Mexican, and Joe liked my writing and my ideas and the fact that I was single and able to go out wherever and whenever to do a story. He promised to walk with me through the translation process when he offered the position and he had remained true to his word. He handled most of that, though he encouraged me to do as much translation as possible for my own career-sake down the road. Joe knew this was a temporary gig for me, that I probably would leave for a bigger writing job once the opportunity opened up (whether here or outside of Kansas City), so I guess he figured that he might as well mentor me as long as I was churning out articles on a weekly basis and got a decent amount of ads sold.

Joe assigned me to cover a happy hour/debate watch party sponsored by the Kansas City Kansas Chamber of Commerce at Chicago’s off of 6th Street and Central around 5:30, right after most people got off of work. He didn’t expect the story to be anything extraordinary. In fact, he knew it would most likely be a puff-piece, where I would just get a quote or two from Danny Tapia, the head of the KCK Chamber of Commerce and from other Latino/a business owners who showed up for the event to network and get their business out there by word of mouth.

Danny was always good for a quote, especially since he had a good relationship with Joe that went way back before Joe founded the Hispanic News and actually was on staff at the KC Star. On the other hand though, Danny usually proved to be a stilted interview, as he was an aspiring politician, always talking like one or putting up the appearance that he was priming up his resume and networking skills to make a run for commissioner in an election cycle or two. Currently, he worked in the Community Housing Authority of KCK, and had made a name for himself in the community by contributing to some local economic development projects, specifically helping establish a coffee shop that would be a pathway to work for in-need KCK residents, as well as help stimulate the downtown local KCK economy in different ways from what traditionally was seen business-wise around the area: i.e. Taquerias, auto shops, thrift shops, and check cashing outlets, just to name a few. KCK was aiming to be the next “Westside” in terms of development and gentrification, and Danny was one of the many in the Chamber leading that charge.

I arrived to the happy hour and checked in at a table located in front of the Chicago’s building. Luckily, Joe RSVP’d for me ahead of time, so there were no problems on getting entry. They crossed my name off, I put my business card in a glass fish bowl for a raffle at the end of the night, and placed a name tag on the right side of my chest that had my name on it as well as “KC Hispanic News” underneath.

Chicago’s was not meant for large crowds. The front area featured a long 20-seat counter and about four or five tall tables and stools to the west wall of the building. On the eastern side, there was a small community area with an electric darts board near the south wall and about another four-to-five smaller tables with four chairs at each table. Nearly every table on both sides of the bar was taken, making it standing room only even though the event hadn’t even been a half-hour in yet. What made matters worse was the podium with the microphone near the front door by the popcorn machine. It took up more room than it needed, and I knew in another half-hour or so, when the “fashionably late” would arrive, it would make the small, dive bar even harder to move around in. I had thought about staying for the third presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The train wreck that was Trump and the Republican presidential campaign this summer and fall had amused me greatly, not to mention hooked my interest as a journalist for months. But with this crowd, and such tight quarters, I figured I’d be better off watching it at one of the many other bars within walking distance around Strawberry Hill.

Strawberry Hill had that going for it: it was prime real estate for someone of the Catholic faith. You could always find a place not only for mass on Sunday, but a place to drink for cheap any other day of the week. In addition to four Catholic churches being within walking distance, there also happened to be nearly five or six bars.

Hence, it was a perfect place for me to live and had been for a couple of years when I first moved to Kansas City from college in the Pacific Northwest, nearly a half-decade ago. But, my apartment complex had acquired some rough neighbors after my first year (i.e. they were running a prostitution ring I think; a story for another time) and my place had a developed a bit of a mice problem as well that the landlord refused to acknowledge. So, while it was tough to leave the charm of Strawberry Hill, I needed a safer living situation and more “sanitary” complex, and thus, I made my way to Midtown, my current living circumstances. My new place happened to be a bit more expensive (nearly 300 dollars more a month), but it still managed to be ideal for a late 20-something without a wife or significant other: five minutes to Westport, five minutes to the Crossroads, 8-10 minutes to the River Market and Downtown, and 10 minutes to Strawberry Hill, though clearly not as close as before.

After ordering a Rolling Rock on tap, which was on special for two bucks during happy hour, I bumped into Danny, who was wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit, lavender shirt and matching lavender-designed tie. He recognized me immediately and gave me shit for walking around with a Moleskine notebook and a pen.

“What are you Raul? A fucking archeologist or something?”

He told terrible jokes. He also looked a beer or two deep. I laughed to appease him and got a quick interview, quick being five minutes, which was actually decently long in the world of business networking events like this. At events like this, you were lucky to go beyond the two or three minute mark before they ended up migrating toward someone else to engage in the same kind of shallow, run-of-the-mill conversation.

He promoted the event in the fashion of a true municipal diplomat.

“It is nice to be doing a networking event like this at a local KCK establishment, and not somewhere across the river. We always like it when we can support local businesses as much as possible.”

“Nearly 175 people RSVP’d for the event, and we expect nearly half to be from the Latino community, demonstrating the progress Latinos have made in small business in the Kansas City metro. I think events like this and the past year really buck the biases we have seen during this year’s presidential campaign.”

Pretty routine stuff. At this point, I could have skipped my interview with Danny, guessed the quotes, and wouldn’t have been all that far off.

But the last bit he gave me caught me by surprise.

“Congressman Wayne Yantz will also be here as well to speak briefly. We are excited for him to bring positive energy and encouragement to our local business community.”

Wayne Yantz. Congressman of the 3rd District of Kansas.

Wayne Yantz. A Republican up for re-election.

Wayne Yantz. Speaking at a bar located in a county that in 2012 had the highest percentage of votes for Barack Obama in the state of Kansas.

“What the fuck is a Republican politician speaking at an event in Wyandotte County, Danny?”

Saying Wyandotte County was primarily Democrat was like saying Pabst Blue Ribbon was served in dive bars. Not only were both assumed, but came in massive quantities as well.

“Yantz is a good guy. He’s done some great things in this part of Kansas and in Wyandotte County since Dennis Moore stepped down in 2011.”

“Such as?”

“He’s done a lot to help the Community Housing Authority, especially with ‘A Cup on the Hill’. He was a big supporter of that economic initiative and pushed for some measures to help fund it. He’s also pushed for a lot of incentives to keep business owners in Wyandotte County in order to make KCK a better place to do business, not to mention live, in for residents . And we’re seeing the results. He and Mayor Holland have done a lot the past couple of years to help increase the population in Kansas City, Kansas.”

I shook my head and wrote down his quotes. It was bullshit, and I could tell from the way he grinned as he spit out those statements.

“Okay, we’re off the record now. I know that’s bullshit. You know that’s bullshit. Yantz caters to the suburbs in Johnson County and will continue to do so. Yantz is a Sam Brownback flunky, and a poor one at that, especially considering he panders to everyone south of the county line. Why is he here? Why didn’t you invite his Democratic opponent, Jay Brown?”

Sam Brownback. One of the shittiest governors in the history of the state of Kansas and I only lived in the state for two years. Brownback made me glad to be a Jackson County resident.

Danny maintained his smirk in response to my suggestion and shrugged, trying to be indifferent. His body language gave away that he had his mind spinning on something, a plan perhaps, probably in the area of networking with Yantz to his advantage for his future political aspirations.

“Honestly and off the record? Somebody on the Chamber is close friends with him. Nobody is friends with Brown. When you got that connection, you have to go for it.”

Basically, Brown was a double-digit underdog in this race, and in a red  “GOP-or-Death” state like Kansas (with the exception of Wyandotte and Douglas County, which has the University of Kansas), sometimes bringing the “likely” winner was a better choice for an event than bringing a guy who most likely was “dead man walking” election-wise. You couldn’t blame the Chamber for their thinking, even if more than half of the attendees would be grumbling underneath their breath when he hit the podium to speak.

“I highly doubt that nobody on the KCK Chamber knows Brown considering most of them will be voting for him in November. Who’s the person with the Yantz connection?”

“You know I can’t reveal that. Even off the record. They are a business owner in Wyandotte County, and they got to protect their interests.”

“Well let me know when he is due up to speak so I can go outside and have a smoke.”

Danny shook his head to my comment, and patted me on the shoulder.

“That’s why I like you Raul. You never compromise on anything. That’s why you’re a journalist. Teaching just didn’t suit you. Middle school kids and parents couldn’t appreciate your honesty.”

I pretended to laugh, shook his hand and went to find some more people to talk with and he did likewise, though in a faster manner than me. As far as I was concerned, he could have shoved that last sentence. No wonder nobody wanted to be a teacher these days. You had to deal with people making ass hole statements like that on a regular basis.

I was able to get a couple of quick interviews.

The first was with with Clarence Lewis, who had run a AAA insurance agency off of 10th and Central for over 20 years. He advocated for more Hispanic and African-American youth to be running more businesses in the next 10-15 years.

“We need solutions. Young African-Americans and Latinos need to be involved. If they aren’t, we are going to be keeping these young black and brown brothers in poverty.”

“What are some solutions, Mr. Lewis?”

“More business education. I am part of the KCKPS school board here, and there is a new and stronger emphasis on business and career education in our district. You aren’t seeing that on the other side of the river with KCPS.”

“Well that’s because KCPS is unaccredited, shrinking as a district, hemorrhaging funds,  and trying to catch up students to no avail thanks to ‘No Child Left Behind’. And to put the icing on the cake, they’re on their third superintendent in 5 years.”

“You’re absolutely right. But are they offering as many business educational opportunities in Missouri like there are here in Kansas? Yeah they got Manual Tech, but what else? And to be honest, we need more opportunities in our district. We need more business classes. We need more internships. And then, we will see our black and brown brothers and sisters thrive even more so in the business world.”

The other person I interviewed at the event was Sonya Gonzalez, an admissions director at Bishop Ward High School, located on 18th Street just off of Minnesota Avenue, who promoted their business academic program at the high school. Again, typical material. All positive. All filled with hope. Talking to them made me feel like I was at an Obama rally in 2008.

“At Bishop Ward High School, we’re all about making connections with our business and civic leaders. We know our kids are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, and developing the pathways to allow them to do that is why we as a school have a strong relationship with the KCK Chamber of Commerce.”

“How’s the school doing financially?”

“We just had our largest freshman enrollment in five years.”

“Last I read enrollment is still low at 320. You think that’s a good sign with other schools like St. James and Bishop Miege growing?”

“Believe me. We are on the upswing. We’re showing that Ward still is one of the leading high schools not just in Wyandotte County, but in Kansas City, Catholic schools included. We are the only high school in Kansas that participates in the National Academy of Business, a national organization. I’ll let that speak for itself in terms of how well the school is doing, Raul.”

After my interview with Sonya finished, the thought of leaving Chicago’s crossed my mind. I had my quotes and had an idea what the story would look like, and by the time the debate rolled around, the place would be beyond jammed. However, a tall table opened up a few minutes after I finished my interview, and I took my half-empty beer and Moleskine and sat down.

It was a nice place to camp, as it wasn’t too far from the podium, so I would be able to hear the speakers, which would add to my story with some good quotes, perhaps even from Yantz, whom I didn’t want to hear, but had to include simply because a speech from a congressman couldn’t be ignored. So, with a prime spot, I decided my plan was to spend another half-hour or so at Chicago’s, listen to the guest speakers (who were due in about 10 minutes or so according to the conversations I eavesdropped on) and then make my way to a more quiet place in Strawberry Hill (or less crowded at least) to watch the debate. Perhaps the 403 Club, a pinball bar known to be a haven for Millenial hipsters, would be a good spot, as it wasn’t exactly the kind of place that would attract hordes of politically-active adults like Chicago’s currently.

After taking a large sip of my beer, nearly killing it, I started to look over my notes. I heard somebody took the seat across from me, though my eyes were so buried in my notes that I didn’t initially see who.

“Raul! It’s been a long time.”

The voice made me nearly drop my notebook. I was in disbelief that I would bump into her at an event like this.

Juliana Merlino. Her blonde hair bright and straight. Her face slim and poignant, a sign that she had kept herself in good physical shape over the years. Her lips full, highlighted with a thick, dark shade of red lipstick. Her blue eyes sharp and dressed in medium mascara. She wore a white blouse with a black jacket. I couldn’t totally tell, but I imagined she had matching dark slacks to complement her coat.She hadn’t changed much from when I last saw her over two and a half years ago. Always professional and looking her best, especially at events.

“Hello Juliana. It has been. What are you doing here?”

The words came nearly stuttering out of my mouth thanks to the large pit of anxiety sitting in my stomach causing me to shake a bit in nervousness.

Her smile and gaze made me feel even weaker as our eyes locked. They summoned up old feelings and mixed nostalgia.

An ex-girlfriend you haven’t seen in almost three years will tend to have that kind of an effect.

“Funny you should ask. I am an associate campaign manager for Congressman Wayne Yantz.”

End of part one.

Thursday Night at Sinbad’s

“Melancholy were the sounds on a winter’s night.” -Virginia Woolf “Jacob’s Room.”

It was a mild Thursday night in October, probably around 50 degrees, a sign that Winter was on its way in the Midwest. There were about 10 people in Sinbad’s that night, a hookah lounge in Midtown right off of Broadway on the outskirts of Westport. It had been a long day for me. I needed a smoke, needed to relax, needed to end the day on a bit of a chill note after constantly moving, constantly thinking, constantly improvising and working with people. Well…teenage people. I was a high school teacher, and if there was one thing being a high school teacher did, it was drain me energy-wise by five o’clock.

I debated where to go for hookah as I drove toward Midtown, where my apartment was located. I had lived in Midtown for almost a couple of years now. I was at that age where I needed to be thinking about settling down, according to most people older than me. A few weeks ago, a middle-aged Filipina asked my why I was still single at 29 years old. I shrugged her off. I told her “I hadn’t met the right person yet.” She told me that I needed to find a relationship and possible wife soon, that I wasn’t getting any younger, and that I needed to settle down and have children. In that moment, I thought for a second I was talking to my Mexican mother back in California.

I usually rotated between two options for hookah: Sahara off of 39th street near Kansas University Medical Center, and Sinbad’s. Sahara had better hookah. Sinbad’s was closer to my place and located in a great spot in Midtown. Speeding cop cars down Broadway; drugged out bums walking down the sidewalk humming Drake and punching air; young 20-somethings drunkenly migrating in and out of Westport like San Diego college students crossing the border from the United States to Tijuana, Mexico and back. There was always something to see. Sahara was just couches, chairs, and older Arab men playing cards, drinking Turkish coffee and tea, talking loudly in Arabic.

I opted for Sinbad’s.

The cashier was new. He wore a blue hooded sweatshirt and had a receding hairline. He looked out of shape, skinnier probably in his younger years, but age and inactivity had recently gotten the best of him. He was a far cry from the last guy who mainly worked here, Dia. Dia was from Jordan. Muscular, clean cut, always wore clothes that were probably too tight. He looked like he could have passed for a professional wrestler. Maybe he was. I heard there was a small independent wrestling promotion that put on shows once a month at Turner Rec in the Turner neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas.

But Dia no longer worked here. He moved back to Jordan a week ago to be closer to his newborn baby. His wife and newly born girl still lived in Jordan and he wanted to spend a couple of months with her. After a couple of months, he planned to bring his family back to Kansas City and open up a restaurant. He said his family owned a couple of restaurants back in Jordan, and he wanted to get back in that business. He had grown tired working in hookah lounges the past couple of years.

I was going to miss Dia. He was a charming guy, and he knew how to make his customers feel at ease. It was going to be hard to replace him and this new guy wasn’t off to a good start.

Rap remixes boomed through the speakers as I looked at the menu. The new guy was high energy. He swayed from left to right unprovoked. He mumbled a bunch of questions to me and I couldn’t understand or comprehend what he was saying due to the combination of his ruffled voice and heavy bass in the background.

“Umm…I’m Raul?”

“No! ID bro. I’m new here. Haven’t seen you around but I got to ask.”

What the fuck? Fine. I showed him my ID. He probably looked at it for a second, if that and said it was cool. He asked me what I was feeling to smoke.

“Minty? Fruity? Cirtus-y?”

Only in hookah lounges was the word “citrus-y” used. I doubt I would be able to use it when I played on my Scrabble app.

I was just going to order a Watermelon Mint. I didn’t trust anybody creating mixes beyond Dia. The owner, Sammy, made crappy mixes. He usually took the bottom of the bucket stuff and mixed it together. It usually proved to be dry and harsh. Not worth the 15 bucks, which was a bit overpriced considering Sahara was a buck or two less, and was much better quality.

But he seemed insistent. I decided to just go with it. I was tired. The kids had gotten to me today. It was October. These were the dog days of teaching. Bickering, laziness, procrastination and panic as the quarter reached its end. I couldn’t wait to get to Thanksgiving break where I would have an extended period of time to chill the hell out.

“Okay, citrus-y I guess.”

He put up his finger to tell me to wait and in a flash, he brought back a silver opened bag and held it in front of me.

“Smell bro.”

This shit was getting tiresome. I smelled. It smelled like fresh-squeezed, not yet ripe lemon. God damn, it smelled like I was cutting up lemons before a crawfish boil. But whatever. I just wanted to smoke. I said that was cool, paid, and took a seat in the corner, on one of the couches.

The couches were prime real estate in Sinbad’s. Not only were they most comfortable seats in Sinbad’s, but they also had outlets, which was good because my phone was on 20 percent power. I had just put it on low power mode, to help it charge quickly. I plugged in my IPhone charger to the outlet underneath me and put in the jack to my phone. It made that charging noise as I put it on the table. I didn’t feel an incessant need to be on it right away. Let it charge organically and be off the grid for a bit.

About five minutes passed before the new worker came with my hookah. However, he forgot my plastic smoking tip and it took him another minute to fetch one before I could take a pull. I don’t think he mixed anything with it. It was pretty harsh. It tasted like steamed lemons, and not in the good way (though I don’t think steamed lemons would be good anyways beyond a seafood boil). Oh well. It was Thursday night. I was off tomorrow. Some holiday. I couldn’t remember. That was nice thing about teaching. Time off made up for the meager pay.

I laid back, put my feet on the chair in front of me and checked out the scene around me. A guy with thick, messy, curly hair and dark skin approached a college-aged blonde who seemed to be glued to her laptop. She could have been working on a paper, studying for a test…but most likely she probably was just on Facebook, catching up on her friends’ relationships or what her ex was doing. Not that I knew. I was just hypothesizing. I liked to do that. Guess what people were doing. Especially while I was smoking hookah in a hookah lounge.

The guy wore a baggy white t-shirt and jeans, as if he were a product of the 90’s rap world. He was high strung. His arms and body moved in all kinds of directions as he talked to her. She was polite. She gazed at him like she gave a fuck, but she probably didn’t. She probably came from a solid family background, probably went to a private Catholic high school or a nice public high school in the suburbs. She had that kind of look to her, that “I graduated from St. Theresa’s but I hated my girlfriends in high school and I hate the frat boys at UMKC so I’m going to meet people in hookah lounges instead” vibe.

I couldn’t tell what he was saying to her, but he was all over the place. Minutes passed. She began to look a bit more uncomfortable, but not enough so for him to notice. He either was lit or high, maybe a bit of both. In Northern California, we called that “hyphy”. I hadn’t heard the term migrate this way toward the Midwest.

He took out his phone. Really? She’s giving him her number? No, she’s not. He’s showing something to her. Maybe some artwork or the cover to his mixtape…or his friend’s mixtape. He looked like a “let me tell you about my mixtape, it’s fire” guy. He resembles the light brown skinned guy in “The Rookie” and “Coach Carter”. The guy who hates his coach or thinks he’s too good for the team but changes his way for the good of his colleagues. God, whoever that actor was, he played that role great. I haven’t seen him in a film though since “Coach Carter.”

This guy however is a more tweaked version of that character. She grabs his phone and nods politely. She must be Catholic. Who else would give this hyperactive dude this much time? A few people walk through the doorway. An older white couple and a dark-haired girl who probably is no older than 13 years old. There is a 21-and-over law for hookah lounges in Missouri. I get asked for my ID, and this girl strolls in. The new guy has to pick it up.

The couple look middle-aged and worn. The woman sports medium-length curly red hair and is overweight and wearing a black fleece and jeans. The guy is even more overweight, has a neck tattoo and is wearing a beater of a black t-shirt that hasn’t been washed in weeks from the look of it. They are odd for this time of night, this day of the week, and the crowd currently in Sinbad’s. The crowd is young: all Millenials and chill, except for the hyped up “savant” talking to the polite liberal Catholic college student. They looked like they could be from Raytown or Independence. Not quite country; not quite whiskey tango; not quite Johnson County suburban; and not quite Hyde Park denizens either.

They tapped the “Coach Carter” understudy on the shoulder and said a couple of things to him and pointed to the underage girl, probably giving some instructions to him. My guess was that he was their son and the girl was their daughter (though they didn’t look related judging by her paler complexion; step-siblings perhaps). He barely broke from his conversation (or should I say monologue) with the blonde. The couple then left. The pre-teen to teenage girl stayed next to him. The blonde switched glances from the girl to the guy. She probably was thinking what most of us were at that moment: what the fuck is this girl doing in here and why did her parents (allegedly; I couldn’t say for sure) leave her with you?

He wrapped up. He put out his hand and she shook it. The guy with the messy, bouncy black hair took a seat back on the couch underneath the flat wide screen television. The underage girl followed him and took a seat in a chair next to him. She looked uncomfortable. I bet she didn’t want to be there, but maybe they were brother and sister and he had to take her home.

For about 10 minutes they talked. He showed the girl stuff on his phone. He took pulls from his hookah in front of her but didn’t offer her any. She just sat there, sitting up straight, listening intently to every word he said. She had long black straight hair that was parted to the left side. The black t-shirt she wore appeared to have a punk band design to it. She wore a gray hooded sweater unzipped over the shirt. The two were polar opposite. She looked too scared to say a word and he looked too overly-confident to shut up. The new worker didn’t do anything. He just remained behind the cashier, talking to Jacob, one of the servers who also prepared hookah. Jacob would’ve done a much better job with my hookah, but he arrived 10 minutes after I ordered.

After his one-sided conversation ended, the high-strung guy took the plate of his hookah and returned it to the cashier. He then walked back to his seat and table and took apart his hookah, putting the coals on a deserted hookah next to his, and the bowl on the table in front of his seat. The girl stood up and put her hair in a pony tail and re-strapped her teal backpack over her shoulders. Judging from the size of the pack, I was guessing she had homework. I didn’t know if any of the public schools had the day off tomorrow. I worked at a Catholic school and our schedule often varied from the public school system.

He grabbed the water pipe bottom of the hookah and then told the underage girl to follow him. He shouted over and waved with his free hand to the blonde in a loud fashion, probably to not just grab her attention, but to let everyone know he was talking with her. He probably thought it was a major accomplishment to talk to a cute girl like that. Everyone talked to her. She was polite and young. She didn’t know any better. Wait until she reached her late 20’s. Her patience would be more thin.

They walked out. They both sprinted across Broadway toward the Broadway Mission Church. I was surprised he didn’t drop his hookah on the road considering it had started to mist a bit outside. Friday’s forecast called for rain. They disappeared into the Midtown night.

I took another pull. It now tasted like slightly burnt, steamed lemons.

This new guy sucked. I missed Dia.

An Introduction to Wyandotte Confidential

“Noir fiction (or roman noir) is a literary genre closely related to hardboiled genre with a distinction that the protagonist is not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Other common characteristics include the self-destructive qualities of the protagonist.”

Kansas City is a big small-town metropolis, if that makes any sense. It’s located in the middle of the country, in the heartland, “fly over territory.” When people think of Kansas City, they think barbecue, farmland, the Royals, the American Royal, Midwestern values, Evangelical conservatism, you name it. In the grand scheme of things, for most people, Kansas City is the Midwest, and it fits neatly into what people think of the Midwest who live outside of it, be it the West Coast, the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest, wherever.

However, Kansas City is a city at the core of it, no different than a Chicago, a New York, a Los Angeles. It’s smaller in size sure, but like any big metro, there are stories. There are stories of people who make it, but there are stories of people who don’t. Stories of people who may want or have tried to fit into that “white picket fence” image of the Midwest, but ultimately fell short. They found themselves and their futures in the grime, the gutters, lost amidst bad decisions and bad relationships that pulled them away from that “Midwestern American Dream.”

No genre of fiction describes these stories better than noir fiction. Noir fiction is a close cousin to hardboiled fiction, but it’s darker, more bleak and offers less room for hope. Redemption exists in noir fiction, but the opposite proves more true than not. Hardboiled fiction deals with the anti-heroes who buck the odds despite their jagged qualities. Noir fiction is about the losers who fall in line because of their flaws.

But more importantly, noir fiction is about people. The common man, the temptations we face, and how those temptations can submerge them even despite their best intentions. It doesn’t matter who you are: a wino, a city politician, a police officer, a drug dealer, a private detective, a stripper, etc. Noir encompasses that walk of life, the night, the dark, the stories that either stay in the back pages or avoid the newspapers completely.

And that is where “Wyandotte Confidential” comes in. It’s a fiction blog. Serial stories will be produced here, with each post a chapter in a series that culminates in an online short story/novella. Wyandotte County is probably the most “noir” of any county in the KC Metro area: it’s small town meets big city, a clash of old and new that sees its winners stopped higher than they should, and it’s losers more redeemable than they are given credit for. Whether it’s in downtown KCK, the Argentine or Strawberry Hill, there’s a noir story worth telling. Of course, not every story will take place in Wyandotte County. There will be some stories that touch into the Missouri side as well as Johnson County and the Northland, but a majority will, and it only feels right that this blog, this collection, should pay homage to an area of Kansas City that constantly serves as inspiration to me both professionally as well as artistically.

So stay tuned to Wyandotte Confidential…a place where stories on the “hush” are brought rightfully to light.

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?


2012_comm_dist_map

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.

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.