How Air Conditioning and Air Travel Kept a Lid on Kansas City

Being an American today requires an understanding of how technology changed the way the nation’s mid-section is viewed.


By Jack Cashill


Being an American today requires an understanding of how technology changed the way the nation’s mid-section is viewed. 

If you watch a lot of old movies as I do, you might notice that movies from ’30s and ’40s mention “Kansas City” a lot, probably more than any city other than “New York” or “Chicago.” The mentions are usually in passing, but that is how media hot shots knew Kansas City—in passing, which is better than they know it now.

The Kansas City that people passed through in 1940 was a peppier  place than today. In 1940, for instance, Kansas City was the 16th-most-populous metropolitan area in the United States. By 2010, it was the 30th.

In 1940, the Kansas City metro had more people than the metropolitan areas of Dallas, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, Tampa, Charlotte, Orlando, San Antonio, Sacramento, or Las Vegas, all of which are more populous than metro Kansas City today. Heck, even humble Riverside, Calif., has left us in the wake of its demographic growth.

Metro Dallas, which was smaller in 1940, is now fully three times larger. I have attended many a development forum in which local business leaders have looked at numbers like these and gnashed their respective teeth.

They ask themselves why Kansas City has not maintained the same growth curve experienced in cities like these and often settle on “the state line” as the default. The state line, however, has not moved in the last, oh, 77 years or so. Nor has anyone built a wall there. It is no more an obstacle now than then.

The actual answer is actually pretty obvious. Two technological advances have allowed other cities to blow by Kansas City, and neither is light rail. Of the two, the most important is that underrated game-changer, air conditioning. As it happens, it was in the era of Kansas City’s greatest clout—about 1940 or so—that Americans began to install air- conditioning units in their homes and offices. 

By 1955, one in every 10 southern homes had air conditioning. In public facilities, the percentage was higher still. Driving from New Jersey to Florida in the summer in 1960, my family and I marveled at the “air conditioning” signs posted prominently on motels. The times, they were a-changing.

The change just wasn’t doing Kansas City much good. In 1940, no metro larger than Kansas City’s was hotter in the summer. Old timers with keen memories may recall the summers of 1934 and 1936. Nationwide, 1934 was the hottest year on record, one of the byproducts of which was the Dust Bowl. Add record heat and massive clouds of black grit to the Depression then in full swing, and you will understand why Grandpa always thought you as something of a wuss. 

In this area, 1936 was steamier still. On one August day that year, the temperature in Kansas City topped out at a balmy 113 degrees, a record that still stands. Western Kansas reached 121, a hotter temp than even Phoenix has recorded. In 1936, Kansas City experienced a will-sapping 53 days with temperatures above 100 degrees, and almost no one or no building had air conditioning, not even the movie theaters.

These were hardier souls back then. For cooling, thousands of them slept outside, either on their front or back porches, in their yards, or even in city parks, Swope most notably. On the plus side, no one stole their sleeping bags, and their weathermen just talked about the weather. To hear about the apocalypse, people went to church.

n 1940, this metro area had more residents than Dallas, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, Tampa, Charlotte, Orlando, San Antonio, Sacramento, or Las Vegas. Not so today.

As I write this in late July, Kansas City is flirting with its first 100-degree day. The high to this point is 96. In 1954, the area experienced 80 days above 90 degrees, 52 above 95, and 31 degrees above 100. And still only a handful of people had air conditioning. Looking back, what impresses most about Kansas City’s growth is how well the city did despite its summers. 

For Kansas City, though, universal air conditioning had a down side. It canceled our advantage over natural hell holes like Dallas and Phoenix.

In 1940, Phoenix had only 65,000 people. With an average July high of 106 degrees, one can only wonder why—or  even how—that many people managed to survive there. As hot as Kansas City could be, the rest of America did not view it as too hot.

By 1970 or so, the rest of America did not view Kansas City as having too much of anything. We all know people who moved to states like California, Arizona, Florida, Texas and even North Carolina “for the weather,” but as far as we know, no one in recorded history has come to Kansas City for that reason—crazy little women maybe, but not the weather. It is as cold here in the winter as it is in Buffalo, albeit free of the lake-effect snows.

People come to Kansas City for a mix of reasons, few of them intentional. Once here, people discover the area’s virtues, but once they’ve had that experience, they no longer have a reason to come through here. And that brings us to technological advance number two, commercial aviation.

In 1940, if you were traveling from Hollywood to New York, you probably stopped in Kansas City. Fast-forward 30 years, and you were flying over. Despite the city’s pivotal role in the history of aviation, air travel has been almost as tough on the city’s growth as air conditioning. Being in the middle, at least then, was  not nearly the advantage it used to be, and would again be with the relatively recent discovery that logistics operations make more sense here than almost anywhere else.

After the November election, and the emergence of forces that propelled Donald Trump to the White House, some of the bi-coastal opinion shapers sensed that, just maybe, they had missed something about the culture here when viewed from 35,000 feet.  To brush up on their Americana, media crews have begun exploring the country, not unlike Indiana Jones turning over old rocks.

“We want to know,” the editors of HuffPost tell us, “what does it mean to be American today? To find out, we’re hitting the road this fall to interview people about their hopes, dreams, fears and definition of ‘being American.’”

One of their pit stops is Kansas City. When they get here, try to remember not to go full chimpanzee and throw, um, foul materials at them. If we’re well-behaved, they might even put us back on the map once again.  

 

About the author

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at jackcashill@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.

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