After Midnight at Vega Park in the Argentine

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Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.”    -Dashiell Hammett from “Red Harvest”

November 13th, 2014

Three Kansas City Kansas Police Department squad cars, an ambulance, and a couple of unmarked police vehicles barricaded the Vega Park, at the corner of 24th Street and Metropolitan in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. The park was located right across the street from the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, which just opened a couple of months ago. There was a big celebration on that Walmart’s grand opening, headlined by the JC Harmon band playing as well as Mayor Mark Holland and Third District Commissioner Angela Salazar speaking about the supermarket’s opening being a sign of the economic progress in the Argentine and Rosedale neighborhoods (both part of Salazar’s district). Balloons, street vendors selling fruit, duros and ice cream bars, and a DJ blaring Banda, Bachata and Reggaeton music further added to the festivity of the event, which felt just like yesterday for many of the residents not just in the Argentine neighborhood, but in the general KCK area as well.

Now, it was 1:30 a.m. on a Thursday night. There were no balloons. No vendors. Not much of anybody really other than police officers, the medical examiner and some assistants taking photos, EMT workers, and a social worker writing details as people tried to scramble for a positive identification on the body.

She was young. She had light brown skin and long straight black hair. She was naked laying face down in the grass underneath the tree adjacent to the playground. And she was dead. Bruised, likely beaten and strangled. No signs of any bullet or knife wounds.

Somebody had anonymously called the police over an hour ago. They were coming back home from the Missouri side, and they noticed somebody lying underneath the tree in Vega Park. They figured it was somebody drunk. Drunks tended to wander around this area, especially with a gas station that sold beer right across the street from the park.

From the sound of it, the callers had no idea that the woman was dead, perhaps for hours from the look of it.

Detective Mike Simonich parked his unmarked navy blue Crown Vic squad car right by the entrance of the Walmart. He wore a brown blazer with a tan heavy duty work shirt underneath, unbuttoned at the top with no tie. He complemented his attire with dark heavy denim jeans, unmatching with his get-up, but at this hour, it was likely he just threw the outfit together in a rush to the get to the crime scene. His short dark brown haircut, speckled with gray, was slightly combed, but still somewhat disheveled, demonstrating that he had just woken up from his slumber less than an hour earlier.

Simonich had been in the KCKPD for nearly 18 years now, with the last eight being in homicide. After six years in patrol, he worked in narcotics/vice for another four before being promoted to the homicide/violent crimes division.

Late nights. No notice. Throwing clothes together. Cluster fuck crime scenes where people were standing around, all holding their dicks, with no direction or plan on what to do next.

These kinds of nights had become all too familiar to him in his eight years on the homicide beat.

Simonich noticed a couple of officers standing near the hood at one of the cars that was barricading the scene. The officers were dressed similarly: dark blue winter jackets, light blue uniform shirts, and complementing dark blue slacks and black shoes. The officer on the right was familiar to Mike, and probably the head officer on the scene: Sgt. Santiago Moreno. Moreno had been in the force just as long as Simonich, but while Simonich went the detective route, Moreno stayed in patrol, became a Sergeant and now was mainly responsible for training officers-in-probation. The officer to the left of Moreno looked young, fresh out of college or junior college, and probably one of the many Moreno mentored for that year-long introductory period to the KCKPD.

“What’s it look like Sergeant Moreno?” Simonich said as he walked up to the two from behind.

Moreno, a Quiktrip coffee in his left hand, turned and shook Simonich’s hand with his right. He had a big grin on his face, and sported a confident, chest-out demeanor. Moreno was well-liked not only Simonich, but in the department: always cordial, always respectful, and always with a story or two when the time was right.

Murder scene in the Argentine late at night wasn’t the time for a story though, especially with someone like Simonich, who had grown less and less patient on the beat in these kinds of scenarios over the years.

“How’s it going Mike? Thanks for coming out. From the look of it, it’s a female victim, and she looks young. Maybe in high school or just recently graduated. We’ve been on the scene for maybe 20-30 minutes now. Nobody was around the body when we got here, and we were first on the scene. Just her body, in the same position as it is now. Sandra is over by the scene, so you can ask her more details.”

Sandra Dominguez. She was one of the two main medical examiners for Wyandotte County. Mike knew her pretty well, as she had been a medical examiner in Wyandotte County for nearly six years now.

“Sounds good,” Simonich said as he pulled his hand away. He put his hand out to the new guy next to him. “And you are?”

“Officer Adam Tomasic, detective,” he said as he shook Simonich’s hand.

“Officer Tomasic is in probation. He’s a Bishop Ward graduate.”

Simonich nodded his head as he pulled his away.

“What year?”

“2009.”

“Great. Last team to have a winning football season at Ward.”

Moreno and Simonich laughed softly, while Tomasic played along with a fake chuckle. They understood. This was probably the kid’s first murder scene. After so many years on the force, and so many scenes like this, Moreno and Simonich found levity whenever they could to help them keep things in perspective with the job. They had seen officers and fellow detectives let the work get to them, push them out of the profession altogether, or worse, into various addictions, be it alcoholism, drugs or adultery.

Fortunately, the job hadn’t gotten to Moreno and Simonich just yet. They partially credited it to the jokes.

“That’s right sir,” Tomasic responded as the laughs died down.

“Well, welcome to the force, kid. Class of 1992 myself. Great school. Appreciated the memories there. You related to Jim?”

Jim Tomasic graduated a couple of years before him. He was also a police detective but on the Missouri side in KCMO. He worked in the vice/narcotics task force, and they tended to cross paths on cases from time to time.

“Yeah he’s my uncle.”

“Well tell him hello for me the next time you see him. I’ll catch you guys later. I’m going to the scene. Only believe 90 percent of what Moreno tells you. The other 10 percent is just to fuck with you.”

Moreno laughed, shook Simonich’s hand one last time and patted him on the back as the detective made his way to the scene. The young Tomasic just nodded in agreement and stood with his hands in his pockets. Simonich figured he was overwhelmed. He probably didn’t expect to experience a murder scene and somebody who knew his uncle all on the same night.

Portable lights and rays from officers’ flashlights flooded the scene. A squad car also had its headlights on to give extra light at the scene. Vega Park didn’t have any lights, as the park closed at sunset, and much like many pockets of Kansas City, Kansas, the light from the streetlights on the adjacent streets were either spare in number and/or dimly lit. As Simonich approached the body, he noticed Sandra standing by the head area, writing down notes in her notebook.

She noticed him when he was about 15 feet away.

“How you doing Simonich? Why is it that you always seem to get the late night calls?” she said, still writing notes in her book.

“Just luck of the draw I guess, Dominguez. How’s the single life?”

Sandra had been divorced now for almost a year. They had a pretty close relationship, but more as friends than anything. He had met her ex-husband at a couple of law enforcement convocations in the past. He worked as a financial analyst for the main Security Bank off of 7th Street and Minnesota avenue, right across from the KCKPD Headquarters. From what Simonich recalled, they had been married for nearly 10 years. That probably was 10 years too long, considering the guy was an arrogant prick in Simonich’s opinion. Then again, he had gone through a divorce himself, so he tended to be pessimistic when it came to marriage.

“Working, raising my son, repeat. You know the drill.”

“You’re still relatively young. What? 33, am I right? You should get out there.”

“Kinda hard when you’re examining dead bodies for a living to find time for drinks or dinner with a man, especially when you live in Wyandotte County. And besides, I’m not ready for Tinder just yet.”

“Tinder?”

“You know, the dating app where you swipe right on profiles you like, swipe left on ones you don’t like. If somebody also swipes right on you, you match and then you can talk with one another. My girlfriends have told me about it. My friend Tina has been on a couple of dates with the app and she’s been using it for about a month now.”

Simonich wasn’t old by any means, only 40, and he found himself comfortable navigating a smart phone. However, the idea of that kind of “dating” technology (swiping one direction on random people) confounded him.

“Doesn’t sound like my scene.”

“I figured it wouldn’t be Simonich. That’s why I didn’t suggest it to you.”

Simonich smirked and took a squat next to the body. He examined the right side of her body and noticed her brown skin slightly bruised and scratched around the shoulders and back on both sides. From his jacket pocket, he put on some disposable gloves and put his fingers to the flesh of her back. Her body felt cold.

“How long you think she’s been dead, Dominguez?”

“Definitely hours. My guess is about three hours, but I won’t know officially until I get her back to the lab.”

Simonich examined the park around her. For the most part, nothing really stuck out around her except leaves, two trash cans, and playground equipment. He noticed nothing out of sorts around her. No picnic table turned over. No bark from the playground dragged onto the grass. No mud debits or obvious footprints.

It’s like she just fell from the air exactly onto this spot.

“Anybody find anything on the scene?” Simonich asked.

“Neither the officers on scene nor my assistants found anything. Trash cans just had a couple of Old English bottles and Go Chicken Go boxes. Nothing was found on the ground, though we still have officers scouring the park a second time, maybe hoping to find something after another go-around. Not easy considering the shitty lighting, though we may try again in a few hours in the morning.”

Simonich took out a black moleskine from his pocket and a black pen. He opened up to a clean page and began writing down notes. Simonich had developed a skill for writing while standing and sitting in different uncomfortable positions.

He started taking notes from his conversation with Sandra. He started writing notes about the body.

  • Woman, anywhere from 16-24 years old. Dark hair, tan skin.
  • Body is naked. Bruises and scratches around the shoulders and back. Heavy bruising around the neck.
  • Eyes brown and dilated.
  • Scratch marks on both buttocks. Could be from nail or external item.
  •  Hair is long and tangled and messy. Probably a sign of struggle before her death.
  • Further bruising on arm. Especially around elbow region. Could be a sign of drug use.
  • No clothes or personal items 

“Do we have an ID on the victim yet?”

Sandra squatted down next to him.

“We have nothing so far. No identification was found on the scene. No purse. No wallet. No clothes even.”

“So the murder took place elsewhere. She was killed somewhere else, and the body dumped here. Fantastic. Do it a park with a playground in the Argentine. I’m sure Commissioner Salazar will love this.”

“Well, that’s not something for you to worry about, Simonich. The Chief will hear that earful.”

“Or my Captain, who will let it out on me. Classic kick the dog chain of command shit. Was she raped?”

“I took a vaginal sample. I won’t know for sure until we get back to the lab. My guess is yes by the marks on her body and the bruising. Typical sign of sex, in this case, rough sex.”

“I noticed the bruises and scratches. I noticed the extreme bruising around the neck. Asphyxiation?”

“Yeah, that would be my guess as well. But her eyes are unusually dilated. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some kind of narcotics in her system when we do the test at the lab.”

Simonich stood up, finished writing the last bit of what Sandra said, and closed his moleskine, putting it in his pocket. He took a deep sigh and put his hands in his coat pocket, looking around him, the scene starting to tail off a bit. There was only one squad car and one unmarked car now, and the ambulance had been replaced by a white Wyandotte County coroner vehicle.

No use in having an ambulance when the victim was already dead. Might as well keep it available for people who would actually need it.

“How long do you think you will have results?” Simonich asked.

“A couple of hours. I’m wrapped up here. Just going to talk to my people, and then be on my way to the lab,” she replied, now standing with him.

“Give me a call on my cell when you have the test results. Immediately, please. I’ll be up.”

“You sure? I can have them ready in the morning to let you get back to bed.”

“No, I’ll be up, believe me.”

“Okay, you got it Simonich.”

Simonich walked away toward his car. He took his gloves off and tossed them in a garbage can near the entrance of the park. Moreno and Tomasic were gone now. It made sense. They probably had the night shift, and things were probably getting more interesting now. They needed to be available and on patrol.

As he reached his car, he took out his phone and scrolled through his contact list. He found “Big Matt’s” contact and called it.

He picked up on the second ring.

“What’s up Mike?”

“Hey Big Matt. You want meet for a drink. At the spot?”

“Sure. You bring the beer. No foreign or craft shit, okay?”

“I got it.”


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The view from Mejak Hall, the parish center to Holy Family Catholic Church, provided a beautiful image of the Kansas City, Missouri skyline. Frank met “Big Matt” at this spot when he was out late on a case and he needed a drink and someone to talk to. “Big Matt” lived around the corner, on Ohio and 5th Street, a long time resident of the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas with his wife Tammy.

“Big Matt” was Matt Dordevic, the former district attorney of Kansas City, Kansas and now a practicing defense attorney. Frank’s father used to be friends with him, and he had kept a close relationship with “Big Matt” even after Frank’s father passed away six years ago. Frank’s father worked for BNSF on the railroads, and was a blue collar type who didn’t say much. “Big Matt” had a career in law who helped Frank understand the system, both criminal and political, in Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri, to help him be more effective as a detective.

It wasn’t surprising to identify who Frank was closer to, especially in his adult years.

“Big Matt” about six-feet, four inches tall with light gray hair and a goatee that matched the color of his short-cropped haircut, wore a blue Kansas sweater and black sweats. They both leaned on the hood of Frank’s Crown Vic as they stared out on the Kansas City skyline at night. The tall buildings, the lights, the bridges in the distance.

The sight never got old.

“I wonder where this city is going ‘Big Matt’. Young. Latina, supposedly. Found dead and naked, probably raped, in Vega Park. Right next to a playground. It is just happening more and more.”

“Murder rate is going up in KCK. And KCMO. That’s the reality we live in.”

“It’s not going to help Jerry’s case anytime soon. He’s going to be up for re-election, and there are already rumors of people challenging him.”

Jerry Novak was the current District Attorney of Kansas City, Kansas. He replaced “Big Matt” nearly three terms ago.

“Jerry will be fine. It’s you I’m worried about. You blur the line between jadedness and anguish. I can’t tell if this fazes you, or you just internalize it so deeply that it is even more piercing than it ought to be. That’s not good, son.”

Frank took a pull of his bottle of Miller Lite. “Big Matt” preferred American lagers, and Miller Lite was his lager of choice. He didn’t like Budweiser, mainly because it came from St. Louis, and he disliked almost everything with that city.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, ‘Big Matt’. I’m fine.”

“We’re doing this more often. I enjoy having a beer with you on the Hill, don’t get me wrong. But I’m worried about you. I’m just ready for one of these nights for you to tell me you’re done with all this.”

Frank smirked and took another drink, killing the bottle. He put it back in an empty-sick pack slot, and grabbed a full replacement. “Big Matt” took a drink himself, though he drank a lot slower than his younger counterpart. He still had half a beer left.

“I’ll be fine. It’s just the job. I’ve been a detective for about twelve years total, eight in homicide. I’ve seen plenty of murders. Plenty of bodies. Plenty of people confess to all kinds of shit. I feel like I’ve seen it all and then some. The job doesn’t fire me up anymore like it used to, sure. But the job is all I got. I’m satisfied with that.”

“Being satisfied doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy, Frank. And a job is just that: a job. You got to find more.”

“Kinda hard to do that when you’re investigating murders for a living.”

“Bullshit. I was district attorney for nearly 16 years. And I had a wife and three kids. The job is never an excuse…unless you make it an excuse.”

“Well, maybe I’m making it an excuse, maybe I’m not. But right now, I really don’t want to worry about anything else but my job. Because as you know, I don’t have a whole lot of luck outside of the job.”

Once divorced. A wife who is now re-married with an Indian-American doctor. A son he rarely talks to and lives in Johnson County; Leawood to be specific. An on-again, off-again mistress who is over a decade younger and works as a cocktail waitress at Hollywood Casino by the Legends and Kansas Speedway.

The job, as depressing and grinding as it could be, really was the high point of his life. He wished he could make “Big Matt” realize that. He wished he could get “Big Matt” out of his old-school thinking that a wife and kids and stability automatically made everything better. Made a person better.

He tried. It didn’t happen.

He didn’t want to go through that shit again.

“You ever think about starting something serious with Mandy?”

Mandy. The 30-year-old cocktail waitress who worked at the casino. Another divorcee with two kids who lived off of 78th street in Western Wyandotte County.

“I don’t think either of us are ready for that. We like what we have.”

“Suit yourself. But you need something. That’s why Wyandotte County is going to shit. Nobody stays stable anymore. And in order for a community to thrive, you need stability. Goddamn shame. It’s why you’re right, Frank. It’s why Wyandotte County and KCK is going to hell and a handbasket. And it don’t matter who is mayor, who is on the board of commissioners, who is district attorney, whatever.”

“So you’re saying we need more married couples staying together to make Wyandotte County better, ‘Big Matt’?”

“Big Matt” laughed and took a long pull, finishing his beer. He replaced it quickly with a fresh one before responding.

“What I’m saying Frank is people in Wyandotte County need to get it together. Once people personally get it together, then our city collectively will get it together. Simple as that. Strong households make strong communities.”

Frank laughed, nearly spitting up some of his beer. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“Sounds like you should run for mayor.”

“Big Matt” shook his head and waved his hand in deference to the idea. He had his run as an elected official before. After 16 years, four terms, as district attorney, he had his fill of Wyandotte County civic community and life.

“I’m close to retirement, Frank. Three, four years tops. Even one term as mayor would screw that up. I’m not willing to dive back into the shit after finally crawling out of it.”

They both shared a jovial laugh for a moment and then both sighed, looking directly back into the Kansas City, night skyline. It was a clear, mild night for November. Not frigid, but not exactly warm. It felt more like September weather in Kansas City, not November.

Frank had no complaints about that. Some yearned for the cold winters, the snowfall a sign of the coming holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, considering how often the side streets in KCK were plowed in the winter, the longer snow first fell, the better, in Frank’s opinion.

The phone in his right coat pocket buzzed. He checked it and saw it was Sandra.

“What’s up Sandra?”

“Got the results. Official cause of death was asphyxiation by strangulation. However, she had  a considerable amounts of cocaine in her system as well at the time of death. We also found semen in her vaginal and anal regions, so there was some kind of sexual activity involved. Considering the combination of the semen and bruising and scratches on her body, I think it can be a safe diagnosis to say she was raped.”

“I think it would be safe to say that indeed. Then again though, we’re so far off from making a case at this point considering the lack of evidence at the scene. Do you get a name on her?”

“Yes, we did get an identification on the body. We ran her thumbprints and they matched someone who was charged for a minor in possession of alcohol and marijuana about two years back here in KCK.”

Frank put the bottle on the hood and frantically took out his Moleskine and pen from his coat pocket. He placed the phone on his right shoulder and tilted his head to hold and talk on the phone while keeping his hands free to write notes.

“What’s the victim’s information?”

“Her name’s Stefanie Barreto. 19 years old. Lives at 925 Scott Avenue, Kansas City, Kansas.”

He wrote the information shorthand on a clean page. Stefanie Barreto. From the Armourdale neighborhood. Not even of legal drinking age yet.

“Anything else?”

“That’s all we got for now. Apparently she lives with her mother. The legal guardian’s name is Marisol Ramirez. She is also registered at that same address.”

He wrote down the mother’s name and circled it. He knew that telling Ms. Ramirez that her daughter was found murdered in the Argentine wasn’t going to be an easy conversation.

But after eight years in homicide though, he had gotten used to those visits. He needed to make sure in the morning to bring a female officer along to soften the blow, perhaps one that was Spanish-speaking as well if the mother didn’t speak English.

“Thanks. Let me know if you find anything in connection to the semen sample or Stefanie. If I get any names of any potential suspects tomorrow from the mother, I’ll try to shoot you some names so you can do a DNA test on them.”

“That sounds good, Frank. I’ll let you know if we find out more from the tests. Have a good night.”

“Thanks, you too.”

Frank put away the pen and Moleskine, and hung up the phone and slid it back in the opposite coat pocket. He noticed “Big Matt” staring at him.

“What did she say?”

“Strangled to death and raped.”

“Shit. And her name?”

“Stefanie Barreto. 19 years old. From Armourdale. I’m going to talk to her mother in the morning. Her mother lives at the same address.”

“Shit. That’s…I don’t know. I don’t know…”

Frank and “Big Matt” paused for a moment, maybe thirty to forty-five seconds. Young girl. Strangled and raped. Those thoughts were hard to stomach and contemplate for them, no matter how long they worked in law or law enforcement.

19 years old. Just too damn early, in both their minds.

“Where was she found?”

“Vega Park. Off of 24th Street and Metropolitan. Across from the new Walmart supermarket.”

“Big Matt” nodded a couple of times and then paused, seeming to have a “light bulb” moment. Frank didn’t really notice. He got distracted by the muffled sounds of a police helicopter in the distance, probably going over the West Bottoms.

“That’s funny. This story is going to cause some noise tomorrow for sure,” “Big Matt” said.

Frank turned, his arms crossed, piqued by his statement.

“What do you mean? How so?”

“Well…that’s just a block away from Commissioner Angela Salazar’s house.”

Wyandotte County: the “Small, Off-Beat Town” within Kansas City

“Really…you work in Wyandotte?”

It’s a comment I hear all the time, but somebody uttered this statement to me a weekend ago at a community event I worked at in Johnson County. I found the comment to be rude and surprising, especially considering the event I worked at mostly involved people who were not born in this part of the country, let alone this country in general. And yet, despite their outsider status, that doesn’t prevent them from holding that negative opinion of Wyandotte County that most people in Johnson County (or other counties in Missouri or Kansas) have of people or places from Wyandotte.

To me, Wyandotte County is synonymous with Kansas City. There is no Kansas City experience without Wyandotte County for me. In my four years of living in Kansas City, only 1 year involved me not working or living in Wyandotte County, specifically Kansas City, Kansas. To me, Wyandotte County has a special place in my heart, in my mind and in my goals down the road. Yes, I am currently a Jackson County resident now, living in the MidTown area of Kansas City. But I have a feeling I will be moving back to KCK soon in the near future, especially now that I’m working again in the county, and realizing how much the area and the citizens of the county fascinate me and make me want to be a part of it again.

But for those who are unfamiliar (whether unwillingly or not), what do I need to know about Wyandotte County?


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Wyandotte County is the most northeast county of the state of Kansas, as its main city, Kansas City, Kansas, is just a stone’s throw across the river from Kansas City, Missouri (the 70 and 670 highways connect the downtown area of KCMO to KCK). The county is separated into 8 districts, with a commissioner seats for each district, as well as two at-large commissioners for Districts 1 and 2. The mayor/ceo currently is Mark Holland, who has been the mayor since April 2, 2013. In addition to Kansas City, Kansas, the county also includes neighborhood communities such as Bonner Springs and Edwardsville to the southwest of the county, the Piper and Legends/Speedway area to the northwest; Argentine, Armourdale, and Turner in the south; Rosedale in the southeast, right near the border on Southwest Boulevard; the KU Med area to the West; Quindaro to the Northeast; and Welborn in the North.

Demographically, Wyandotte county also remains a diverse county, especially in comparison to neighboring Kansas counties. The projected population of Wyandotte County in 2015 is 163,369, which would be a 3.7 percent increase from their population total recorded in the 2010 census. From the 2015 projections according to the census, the population within the county is 42.1 percent non-Latino white, 24.3 percent African-American, 27.7 percent Hispanic/Latino, 4.1 percent Asian, and 1.3 Native American. All of those populations are an increase from the 2010 census, with the exception of African-Americans, whose population went down from 25.2 percent to 24.3 percent, and non-Latino white, which went from 43.3 to 42.1 percent.

Education-wise there are four districts that serve citizens in Wyandotte County: Tuner USD 202, Piper USD 203, Bonner Springs USD 204 and Kansas City USD 500. In addition, the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas has five K-8 elementary schools (Resurrection, Our Lady of Unity, Christ the King, St. Patrick’s and Holy Name) and one high school (Bishop Ward High School), which is one of the oldest high schools in the state of Kansas (it was established in 1908). In terms of post-secondary education, Kansas City Kansas Community College is the main junior college for secondary graduates in Wyandotte County, and the University of Kansas Medical Center (right on the border of Missouri and Kansas) also provides medical studies for students, in addition to medical services for people in the area.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wyandotte County is its economic and educational status, as well as where it stands politically in comparison to the state overall. In terms of economic and educational statistics,  65.9 percent of the population in Wyandotte County 16 and over is in the workforce, with the household median income low at $39, 326. The poverty population in Wyandotte County is at 24.4 percent, 18.9 percent of the population is without health care, and and the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is only 15.8 percent (to put things further into context, those with a high school diploma is 78.4 percent).

Compare this with statistics of those same categories in neighboring Johnson County: 72.9 percent of the population 16 and over is in the civilian workforce; the household median income $75,017; the poverty population is only 6.6 percent, and only 7.6 percent of the population is without health care; and 52.1 percent of the county population has a college degree (and 95.7 percent of the population has a high school diploma). When you look at the whole picture, not only is Johnson County a wealthier county, but they dwarf Wyandotte in so many categories. It’s crazy to think that just a few miles south, a person is three times more likely to have a college degree, and will make almost twice more than someone. And that’s where the bias and prejudice steps in: because of their higher incomes, more education and less people in poverty, Johnson County naturally has this bias over their Wyandotte County neighbors. The stats overall prove it in their mind, and those stats prove why people who get more money or education are more than apt to move south beyond the county lines.

The story of Wyandotte County’s economic and educational woes in comparison to the larger neighboring suburb of Johnson County is one thing, but what makes it even more interesting is how different both counties are politically: while Johnson county tends to be more of a red county, falling in line with what is typical voting wise throughout the state of Kansas (i.e. conservative republican), Wyandotte County tends to fall in the opposite category.

Of the elected state senators representing Wyandotte County, two of the four senators (as of 2015), David Haley (4th District) and Pat Pettey (6th District) are democrats. All seven state representatives representing the county are democrats. And all 16 judges as well as the district attorney, are democrats. And this political affiliation was even stronger represented in the last presidential election, as Wyandotte County was one of two counties in all of Kansas to vote for Barack Obama by a wide margin as he earned 67.3 percent of the vote in Wyandotte County (compare this to Johnson, which saw a 58-40 split in favor of Mitt Romney). Even Douglas County, which includes Lawrence and students from the University of Kansas (college towns tend to be more democrat leaning due to students being more liberal), didn’t have as high a percentage (60.3 percent) for Obama in the latest elections.

So, Wyandotte County is heavily democrat and lags in terms of education as well as economically to some of the neighboring counties. For most people in the Midwest, this may sound like a cruddy place to live.

On the other hand, I would argue otherwise, and I would credit it’s intimate population that are actually HELPING the county over the past five years, and make it even more prime for positive growth.


“The one thing about Wyandotte county is that it’s a small town…and everyone knows your business in one way or the other.”

My principal, who originally was from New York and moved here for school, told me this during my first year in Kansas City, Kansas. I didn’t know if she meant it in a bad or good way, but while there is some obvious negative aspects to this statement (like people can be big time gossip hounds), one could look at this statement in a positive way.

One of the main positives of living in Wyandotte County is that if you get involved in a group or network, that network can grow incredibly fast and be incredibly supportive. I have been in Kansas City for four years, and some of my closest connections stem from people I know who live or work in Wyandotte County. As a business teacher, I have already gotten multitudes of offers from local business people to help speak in classes or help students with connections. I taught in a school in Kansas City, Missouri, and though we had some help here and there, people were not as eager to help or provide the same kind of assistance. That’s not to say people on the Missouri side didn’t give a shit. But there are so many schools in KCMO. One charter school is just another in the whole grand mix of things. And with so many schools closing within 10 year periods in Missouri, people can be suspect of “newer” schools: will it even be around in 20 years and is my time to help worth it if the school won’t even be around?

In Kansas City, Kansas there is a stability here that KCMO doesn’t necessarily enjoy. Yes businesses change, but they take new identities rather than demolished or abandoned. There is a certain pride in the diversity of the population displayed through community celebrations, be it a parish ice cream social or a neighborhood fall parade, that seems organic and genuine and not put together solely for economic purposes. And the schools, though struggling in some ways, are still accredited, still producing an education that means something. Despite KCMO and other districts on the Missouri side’s struggles with keeping accreditation, KCKPS has continued to keep theirs and continued to keep high student populations despite wild changes in racial and economic backgrounds of students attending their schools from decades ago.

And I think that is what makes Wyandotte the “small town” worth admiring in the Kansas City metro area. They know their population isn’t as big as on the Missouri side or even south of them in Johnson County. They don’t have the economic advantages down south either, or the educational advantage. That being said, they make do, they get things done, and they rally behind people in their community that are trying to do good. The city government tries things to help build the economy and promote entrepreneurship. “A Cup on the Hill” is the latest example of such progressive thinking. Yes, it’s a coffee shop, but it’s a coffee shop that is run by the Community Housing Authority of Wyandotte County that looks to help with employment, while also promoting the positive of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County not just by selling coffee, but also by displaying art in their shop local artists. It’s similar to what “Homeboy Industries” is doing in Los Angeles: giving those in need in the community a chance to make steps in the right direction personally, while helping the local economy as well. (After all, how many coffee shops are there in KCK? Not a lot, and “A Cup on the Hill” will help bring in more independent coffee houses who may find it tough to compete in MidTown KC’s over-saturated market.)

And Wyandotte County’s population is growing, which just goes to show you how people are starting to recognize the positives in living in such a community with a genuine “small town” feel. The 3.7 percent jump is a major bright spot for a county that had suffered a decrease in population according to their last census in 2010. And the reasons to come to Wyandotte County are plenty: it’s still close to the city (especially if you live in Strawberry Hill), the downtown economy is growing, and the real estate is a lot cheaper than what most would find not just in Johnson County, but especially in comparison to MidTown and Downtown Kansas City. Young people are realizing that living in KCK, especially Strawberry Hill or Rosedale is a better deal, and you aren’t far off from it all either.

Of course, there has to be a bit of caution with such growth. We have seen how gentrification can have “inverse” effects on cities and communities. Even in Kansas City we have seen it. 15 years ago, living in the Westside and MidTown off of Armour was a bargain. Now, thanks to gentrification, people have been priced out of their respective neighborhoods. Yes, there are more restaurants and bars and shops and nicer houses and apartment complexes. However, the soul of the communities are dwindling, nearly gone. Just look at the Westside, as it struggles to fight for the spirit of their neighborhood against developers who are trying to mold it more for economic purposes rather than community ones. That is a risk KCK could experience, especially as a younger population starts to migrate toward that downtown area.

But I think what will make KCK push up against that “community blunting” from gentrification is their community spirit. The neighborhoods in KCMO are part of a huge whole, and really, one district is going to struggle to have a voice in the midst of so many other voices in the big city. The greater good (in the city’s mind) will trump the desires of the small, as is natural in any big city. In KCK, the population is still intimate, and those neighborhoods can have their voice. And we have seen it. There has been an embrace of the changing diversity of the KCK population. It has grown from a primarily Slavic population to mostly Latino one, but you know what? People are still active, and I think the Latino population in KCK is about as active as any in the KC Metro (though the Westside and Northeast certainly are also active). Even with this latest election coming up, we are seeing advocates against some of the new Kansas registration policies that could be deemed as “racist” and “prejudiced” in nature, in order to sway the election toward a party’s “candidate” (you know who I am referring to). These kind of actions demonstrate not only the change in Wyandotte County, but how the community continues to supports one another despite the difference in race and cultural. The old supporting the new is the prime characteristic of a strong community, no matter what the population size or part of the country.

I don’t live in Wyandotte County currently. I work there and if I continue to stay in Kansas City, I plan to move back soon. Wyandotte County is different. It’s a blue dot in a sea of red. The people are working class who offer a stark diversity to what is typical of most communities in the Kansas City metro. There is pride in the work being done within the county, even if most of the stories and reputation of the county tends to focus on the bad, the crime, the poverty and all the other negative noise. And lastly, there seems to be a sense of hope on the horizon. The population and the economic growth in parts of the county where “naysayers” thought it couldn’t be done showcases that rise.

The looks and questions still abound when I tell people I work and used to live in Wyandotte County. I don’t think I will ever shake them.

But they don’t know. They don’t know about the “small town” community of Wyandotte County. They don’t know about the support, the charm, or hidden opportunities this area of Kansas City provides.

I’m glad they’re missing out. Wyandotte County doesn’t need them anyways.

An Appreciation for Rosedale BBQ of KCK

 

“I grew up on Rosedale beef sandwiches…”

It’s a quote one of my friends told me about Rosedale BBQ in Kansas City, Kansas near the State Line of Kansas and Missouri. The area surrounding Rosedale BBQ is interesting to say the least. It is on Southwest Boulevard in the Rosedale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, and is right off of where 7th Street Trafficway (the gritty part of Kansas City Kansas that also goes through Armourdale and Central) turns into Rainbow Boulevard (which is a bit more bourgeois thanks to KU Medical Hospital and West 39th). It is located near railroad tracks, which might be abandoned (I don’t know, I have never seen active trains on it), definitely abandoned grain silos, the Rosedale World War I Memorial Arch (the stepchild to the more well-known Liberty Memorial) and two popular Mexican Restaurants (Taqueria Mexico and Sabor y Sol).

When you think about it, Rosedale BBQ, which has been around since 1934 and is one of the oldest BBQ places in Kansas City not named Arthur Byrant’s or Gates, is a microcosm of modern day Kansas City Kansas: a dying railroad industry, old immigrants meet new, and a blue collar approach to life that can border on slow or “dwelling in the past” to most people who are not familiar with the citizens of the area.

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When I first moved to Kansas City, I settled off 6th and Central Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County through the suggestion of a friend of mine (though people always remarked it was crazy, since it wasn’t really near any major entertainment districts and it had a reputation as a rough area around the metro). It was as if I were transported to a world that was part working class Pennsylvania, part Chicano East Los Angeles. You had people who came from old immigrant families from Croatia, Slovenia and Poland, who came to Kansas to work for the railroad industry and had brought with them their traditions and cultures which manifested in bars, restaurants and Catholic Churches around the area. And then time passed, the railroad jobs became scarce, the housing became cheap, and in came Chicano and first-generation American families from Mexico and Central America, bringing their own cultures and traditions to the KCK area, shaping it into the current KCK and Wyandotte County that is seen today. In my mind, KCK was an embodiment of the American dream slowly developing and shaping to the modern day world, only this story wasn’t happening in Los Angeles or New York or Miami, but in the Midwest in the heart of America, but on the Kansas side rather than Missouri.

As I lived in KCK for over two years before I moved to Midtown KCMO, I slowly uncovered more unique places to eat and drink: numerous taquerias; burrito windows open 24 hours on the weekend; Go Chicken Go; Salvadoran restaurants that specialized in Papusas; Pollo Asado joints that only sold half and whole chickens with beans, rice and tortillas; Italian delis in nearly abandoned strip malls; and no dining room-area Chinese places serviced by really sarcastic cashiers, just to name a few.

But at the end of the day, my favorite place to dine in KCK was Rosedale BBQ. Granted, I liked it because it was BBQ, and as a Californian, I really never knew what “true” BBQ was until I came to Kansas City. To me, BBQ was baby back ribs and dry beef and sausage my family would get every once in a while from Back Forty BBQ in Roseville. I never experienced real brisket or burnt ends or spare ribs, which is the only ribs to eat according to people in the Midwest outside of Chicago. But in all honesty, Rosedale represented that melting pot of KCK, that Midwest blue collar, working class identity meshing with the ever-changing demographics of Kansas City Kansas as well as the Westside Kansas City Missouri community right off of Southwest Boulevard.

To be honest, the food at Rosedale is good, better than it gets credit for according to Yelp, but it struggles with consistency. The beef can be moist and tender one day, and chopped up and fatty the next. The hot BBQ sauce can be spicy and savory as well as the perfect complement to their crisp-fried crinkle cut fries. But on some days, the sauce is over-peppered, tasting as if somebody accidentally dumped way too much pepper in the jar by accident in the sauce, and was too apathetic or cheap to throw it out and simply make a new batch. The ribs probably are the antithesis of what any BBQ snob would prefer: they are untrimmed with a lot of fat and grizzle, fall too easily off the bone, and though they have a nice smoke ring, they may seem to dry to most rib purists’ taste.

But, Rosedale isn’t the place for BBQ artistry. Joe’s and Jack Stack and Woodyard are those places, establishments for backyard suburban BBQ aficionados who want to whet their appetite for real BBQ when the weekend cookout fare didn’t live up to expectations. Those places are for the tourists and the BBQ snobs of the surrounding Kansas City Metro Area who feel the need to justify their food choices and BBQ allegiances based on what was featured in the Michelin guide or what has 5 stars on Yelp. And no offense to those places. They are good, and I enjoy eating at those places on occasion.

However, they are not Rosedale’s.

For starters, they do not have Rosedale’s speed. Even when the place is busy, Rosedale churns out BBQ dinners and sandwiches in record speed. The cashiers don’t write any orders down and have a lingo that is unique to their establishment. (For example “beef deluxe combo, fries extra crispy”, a very popular order you will hear being yelled to the kitchen window consistently means beef sandwich on bun with fries that are put in the deep fryer a little bit longer than usual). Even during a lunch or dinner rush, you can get your order and eat in 20-30 minutes. For the working man on the clock, Rosedale is the perfect spot that will get you back to work with some time to spare, perhaps to get or make a pot of coffee to avoid that afternoon post-lunch coma.

And secondly, no other BBQ place can beat Rosedale’s prices. You can get a slab of spareribs for around 18 bucks and 14 on Monday’s. A beef sandwich, fries and a RC cola will usually ring you in just under 10 dollars. It is common to just get a few morsels of BBQ for around 15-20 dollars at more “popular” BBQ establishments, but at Rosedale one can guarantee to be full not just in the stomach, but also decently so in the wallet or bank account afterward.

You see…that is why Rosedale is quintessential KCK: it is geared toward the working man in terms of area, speed and prices. People can geek all out on the kitchy-ness of a BBQ restaurant in a gas station or a place where presidents dine when they visit KC. But Rosedale is authentic and in an unapologetic way that seems to buck what is expected from other BBQ joints that are sprouting up all over the city. They are not into competitions. They are not going to be featured on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. And yet they still serve food fast at a low cost and continue to bring in a diversity of customers. Whether it’s in the old wooden booths or at the old time counter, Rosedale attracts white working men still in their overalls from a long day of working in various kind of skilled industries, as well as Chicano families who are ordering a slab and a half to go along with a pound of fries (actual terms of the restaurant by the way). It is common to see businessman in button down shirts and slacks rub shoulders with 20-something hipsters in skinny jeans, cleverly designed T-shirts, and bottle-cap glasses. Rosedale attracts the kind of crowd you’d be hard-pressed to see from other BBQ places, and for the most part, they are Kansas City-people, either from KCK or the nearby Westside or Midtown. That kind of customer authenticity is not easily duplicated, and I believe it will be hard to duplicate from other places in the near as well as far-off future.

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When Rosedale BBQ opened in 1934 by Anthony and Alda Rieke and brother in law Tony Sieleman, it was known as the “Bucket Shop” and primarily sold buckets of cold beer and hot dogs. Their catchphrase was “Buy it by the bucket!”. As the story goes, after driving by and smelling the smoke from a BBQ joint in Shawnee, Kansas, they decided to smoke and sell ribs along with beer, and their ribs were so popular that they decided to go into selling BBQ full time as well as beer (hence, dropping the hot dogs from their menu). 82 years later, though the original owners have passed on (the grandchildren of the original owners still apparently have a stake in the place), Rosedale BBQ still sells BBQ and still offers beer by the bucket (though they do sell individual bottles as well), and remain standing in the Rosedale neighborhood and KCK as a pillar of stability despite major changes in the economic and cultural demographics of those respective communities.

And that is a good thing. We hear all this rhetoric about “Making America Great Again” from all kinds of “conservative” Americans, and places like Rosedale not only stand the changes of the times, but embrace and welcome it. These businesses prove how asinine those civic statements are. We don’t need to make our communities “great again” as if we need to recapture some lost magic from 30-40 years ago when America was supposedly “better”. America is already great, our communities are great, and we just need to adjust through minor setbacks and issues to continue to make it great. Take in the new, and mix it with the old and make something fresh, but timeless. Rosedale’s certainly accomplishes that in my opinion in the BBQ industry not just in the KCK area.

A couple of months ago, I volunteered at a nursing home right off the Plaza through work. I met with an African-American lady named Alice in her early 80’s and as she sat down, I took a knee next to her since there were no more seats available. As I asked her about where she was from and where she grew up in Kansas City, she told me she was born in Kansas City, Kansas and grew up in the Rosedale neighborhood and went to school all the way through high school there (when apparently there was a Rosedale High School). As we talked a bit more about the Rosedale neighborhood, I asked her if her and her family had ever gone to Rosedale BBQ.

She laughed and paused for a few seconds before she answered my question:

“Oh yes! BUY IT BY THE BUCKET!”