Kansas City @ 2054

By Jack Cashill

American history in mid-century recalls how a wave of voter sensibility in the nation’s heartland became the spark for a 40-year renewal of the things that once made the nation great. With its fiscal house in order and its social decay arrested, the United States once again is a shining city on a hill. Hey . . . we can dream, can’t we?

Looking back, urban historians point to the date of Nov. 5, 2013, as a turning point in the fate not just of Missouri, but of the nation. That was the day when 84 percent of the voters in the dependably blue Jackson County, Missouri, overrode the alleged wisdom of their betters and voted to reject a 20-year sales tax to fund translational research at several local hospitals.
Empowered by that vote, citizens of Kansas City, Missouri, gathered enough petitions to override the wishes of their City Council to force a public vote on the proposed $2 billion reconstruction of the passenger-friendly Kansas City International Airport. Despite the resistance of several council members, an election was held in April of that year, and 86 percent of the voters rejected that $1.2 billion boondoggle.
Corporate site selectors started paying attention to Missouri. They had long had their eye on Kansas, whose commitment to tort reform, right-to-work, and entrepreneur-friendly fiscal policy had made it an attractive place to set up shop. In 2016, spurred in no small part by the electoral victories in the western part of the state, Missouri elected a governor who promised to keep pace with the pro-business environment in Kansas and other surrounding states, and she was as good as her word.
The timing was right. A new era was about to be born, the era when “sanity” and “stability” became the buzz words in urban growth and job creation. The days when cities all competed to attract the so-called “creative class” with frills like light rail, highly-subsidized loft living, Whiggish business practices, frequent tax increases for dubious projects, and aggressive social policies that rubbed outstate taxpayers wrong were coming to an end—much more abruptly, in fact, than anyone anticipated.
There is no need to dwell here on the “Cataclysm.” That story is well-enough known. Some trace the date to Jan. 1, 2014, when socialist Bill de Blasio was sworn in as mayor of New York City, but the unraveling had been in the works for decades before that. The major moving-van companies had seen it coming. For some time, people with the means to hire vans had been moving out of California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan and other states high in debt and taxes and low in opportunity. Far fewer people were hiring those vans to move back in. The center could not hold.
When California began defaulting on its debt in 2015, the dominoes started to fall elsewhere. Deeply indebted states could no longer sustain their entitlement programs or their pension payouts, and many of America’s major cities, especially on the coasts, collapsed into a chaos unseen even in the 1960s. Now, there were not enough moving vans to go around—and they were all heading inland.
Fly-over country had suddenly become drive-to country. A series of brutal winters from 2016-2020 disabused all but the eco-warriors of their global-warming anxieties, and America embraced the internal combustion engine as enthusiastically as it had in the 1920s. Kansas and Missouri were about to come into their own.
To its good fortune, St. Louis had more highway lane miles per 1,000 residents—1.07 to be precise—than all but one metropolitan area in America, in the world for that matter. The No. 1 city, of course, was Kansas City, at 1.26 lane miles per 1,000 residents. In fact, metro Kansas City had 50 percent more freeway miles per capita than any city anywhere not in Missouri.
Before the Cataclysm, when virtually all urban planners strove to turn their local cities into clones of high density, mass transit-happy Portland, Kansas City’s vast highway infrastructure unnerved them. So did its pioneering development of multiple retail and lifestyle centers like Zona Rosa, Towne Center Plaza, Village West, and the granddaddy of them all, the Country Club Plaza.
With so much freedom of mobility, citizens resisted planners’ efforts to herd them into tight spaces. They liked two-car garages and yards for their kids to play in. They liked the ability to come and go as they pleased, when they pleased. They like the safety and security of an automobile.
During the roughly four years of the Cataclysm, people appreciated the safety and security of an automobile more than ever. Public transportation became a risky proposition. In some cities, systems simply broke down. With public transportation now unreliable, even dysfunctional, site selectors ruled out Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, even New York City a priori.
The automobile industry got a boost from the development of new oil fields ranging from Alaska down through what was becoming known as the “Energy Corridor,” the six vertically stacked states from North Dakota to Texas, with Kansas smack dab in the middle of them.
To service the Energy Corridor, and the highly productive agricultural states that flanked it, Kansas City’s two major intermodals finally cranked into high gear. As part of the cranking, they shed their cumbersome monikers—to wit, the “CenterPoint-Kansas City Southern Intermodal Center,” aka “the former Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base” and the “Logistics Park Kansas City Intermodal Facility” in Edgerton—and simply became Southeast Intermodal and Southwest Intermodal, respectively.  
In 2024, BNSF and Kansas City Southern collaborated on a high-tech, aviation-oriented intermodal on the open acreage surrounding KCI, the KCI Intermodal.
Although Kansas City lacked the population base to become a major hub for a commercial airline, it capitalized on being one of America’s premier cargo facilities. The intermodals made that possible, and the bounteous highway infrastructure made the intermodals possible.
Looking back, contemporary urban planners, especially those who came of age post-Cataclysm, scratch their heads in wonderment trying to figure out why, in the age of the automobile, anyone thought it was a good idea to send the greater part of a metro work force to the same
place at the same time each weekday. In 2054, they called this phenomenon the “Myth of the Downtown.”
For at least 50 years, maybe 60, Downtown Kansas City had been flirting with obsolescence. It had been retooled many times but never seriously rethought, and it survived on heavily subsidized life support.
Still, as its defenders pointed out, had the core not endured, it would not have attracted the federal facilities that began their relocations during the Cataclysm. The Department of Agriculture moved here first, followed by the Department of Transportation, each of which had shed nearly half its employees in the scaled-down federal government.
Some whole departments failed to survive the austerity budgets, including the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Commerce, and Energy. But among those that did survive, only State and Defense—as well as Congress and the White House—remained in D.C. Most of the other departments, as history showed, came to the Kansas City area.
Wanting to show its support for urban America, but not wanting to overwhelm Downtown, the federal government began buying up properties on the vast stretches of urban wasteland that flanked I-49 as it came into Downtown. To make this work, MoDOT finally eliminated the street crossings up and down the old 71 Highway, and this was cause for celebration all the way to Joplin.
The entity formerly known as “Downtown” became part of a larger, L-shaped area called “Civic Park,” an auto-friendly greenscape that housed much of the local government facilities and a substantial chunk of the federal government.
The new facilities were linked to the already considerable federal base in Kansas City and were easily accessible by automobile. Now, too, the parking was ample as it had to be. By 2054, earlier actually, the word “Downtown” had all but faded from the Kansas City vocabulary.
Similar realignments were taking place throughout the rural areas, particularly on the Kansas side. Although Kansas was prospering overall, its small towns were dying, because those lacking good highway access no longer served a useful function.
Instead of trying to prop up these dying towns with subsidies and gimmicks, county governments began to consolidate and move their county seats to interstate access points. This, of course, caused some major pushback from older residents, but the improved services and lower taxes had a way of offsetting the understandable sense of nostalgia.
For at least a few years, Kansas City had been trying to position itself as an entrepreneurial capital. The presence of the Kauffman Foundation and the Bloch School at UMKC made this a realistic aspiration.
Offsetting these advantages, however, were a Kansas City, Missouri, City Council that was often hostile to free enterprise and a Missouri state government that catered to big unions. The spectacular failure of the powers-that-be to impose a sales tax for translational medicine and the even more spectacular failure to sell a new and improved KCI led to a house cleaning at City Hall. When Jay Nixon was termed-out as governor, the stage was set for Kansas City to embrace the entrepreneurial leadership role with vigor.
The ruinous failure of health-care reforms between 2014 and 2018 provided the opportunity to do just that. While health providers scrambled and the politicians dithered, Kauffman Foundation and the Bloch School collaborated to design a largely free-market solution that stabilized health-care delivery. A desperate Congress embraced the idea as far preferable to Obamacare, as the failed reform program had come to be known.
When the Cataclysm hit full force, Congress turned to these same institutions for a domestic Marshall Plan to revive the cities and states that had collapsed under debt and mismanagement. The “Kauffman-Bloch Plan” as it would be known, called for some serious tough love. As with the original Marshall Plan, funding went to those cities and states most willing to embrace free markets, streamlined government, and squeaky-clean politics.
By 2054, although economic and political power had shifted irretrievably to the center of the country, most of America had regained the sanity and stability that the heartland never lost. Leading the way back was California, in part due to its natural amenities and the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley.
The real catalyst for revival, though, was a phenomenon known as the “Third Great Awakening.” If the First Great Awakening revived the American spirit and prepared us for the Revolution; the Second Great Awakening saved the Scotch Irish of Appalachia and points west from nihilism and lawlessness. The Third Great Awakening did the same for the more chaotic parts of America, and none more chaotic than California.
The original leadership came from within the ranks of the Hispanic Christian community. Dismayed by the spread of socialism, separatism and materialism and disheartened by the subsequent breakdown of the Hispanic family, the new evangelists turned back to the faith that had given California’s cities names like “Los Angeles” and “San Francisco” 300 or so years prior. Hungering for stability and meaning, people embraced the message. It soon spread outward into other ethnic groups, then eastward across America.
Tattoo parlors went out of business across the fruited plain. Piercing enterprises had to survive on ears—and girls’ ears, at that. Doctors found something better to do with their time than breast implants and nose jobs, let alone abortions. AIDS and STD clinics shifted their
attention to unavoidable diseases. Emergency-room staffers focused on the victims of accidents and illnesses—shootings, stabbings, and overdoses consumed them no more. The police and other first responders did the same.
Drug cartels took their business elsewhere. Prisons became museums. Pimps and pornographers closed up shop. Street gangs shifted from larceny and other louche behavior to lawn care, and cut the need for illegal immigration along with the grass. Payouts for welfare, housing, food stamps, and Medicaid shriveled. Taxes fell, and still there was additional revenue for infrastructure, schools, universities, and, yes, even new green technologies.
The Awakening found a receptive home in Kansas City. Family formation, always strong on the Kansas side, took hold once again on the Missouri side.
The presence of good jobs and the decline in government incentives to drive away fathers made two-parent families eco-nomically feasible once again.
Miracle of miracles, test scores began to climb in the KC school district. Educators discovered that it mattered little how old the buildings were, how many kids were in the class, or how well the teachers were paid. What mattered, finally, was not what the parents demanded from their schools, but what parents demanded from their children.
This was a lesson not soon forgotten.