Remember when we worried whether Kansas City was becoming a second-class city? Those were the days. Today, with the winter not nearly through, I am worried that Kansas City is becoming a second-world city.
To put this worry in perspective, at a neighborhood Christmas party I struck up a conversation with a UMKC grad student who hailed from Kurdistan. I asked him what life was like there, and he was pretty upbeat about it.
The electricity, he explained, usually worked, and most people in the cities now had indoor plumbing. Other than when the country was being bombarded, the fellow told me, life there was pretty okay. The problem, alas, is the Kurds get bombarded a lot. In fact, for the neighboring Turks, Iranians, and Syrians,
and the stray ISIS or al Qaida cell, Kurdistan serves as sort of a Montana-sized piñata.
Before I could regale this fellow with my stock of Kurd jokes—did you hear about the Kurdish guy who was helping a sheep over the fence?—a neighbor wandered into the conversation. “Did you see what the city is doing with our sidewalks?” he groaned. Hearing this, I turned to the Kurdish fellow and said,
“That, my friend, is a first-world problem.”
Until recently, Kansas City only had first-world problems. That has changed. Driving down Ward Parkway this winter, I imagined that a Baghdad Road in Downtown Kirkuk could not look much more daunting even after a bombardment.
On Kansas City’s historically classiest boulevard, there are now potholes large enough to swallow an Austin Mini. And there are hundreds of potholes, literally, so closely spaced that I found myself wondering whether a meteor shower had hit when I wasn’t paying attention.
Cars have taken to driving in Ward Parkway’s middle lane. The potholes are not as frequent, and the drivers have room to swerve in either direction if a crater yawns open in front of them.
Across the State Line Divide
After a recent ice/snow/hail/sleet/golfball storm, I drove down State Line Road, hoping it would be in better condition than Ward Parkway. It was—at least heading south. When I looked to my right, I saw a series of feeder streets so pristine you could roller skate on them. When I looked to my left, I saw streets that would challenge a dog sled.
It was then I had my epiphany: While Johnson County, for all its imagined problems, remains a first-world stronghold, on a snow day Kansas City devolves into a second-world hellhole.
To be clear, there is a difference between a second world hellhole and a third-world s***hole, to borrow the president’s formulation. Think, say, of Bulgaria for the former, and Haiti for the latter. For all of Kansas City’s shortcomings, we don’t have pigs roaming the streets, and I only lost my power twice
this winter—well, power once, cable the second time, which is almost as tragic.
Living in a second-world city would be much more tolerable were there not a first-world enclave just a long three-iron (hit by someone other than myself) from my house. This winter, I have had a sense
of how it must have felt to live in East Berlin before the wall came down.
Snow removal and pothole fixing were obviously not high on Mayor Sly James’ to-do list.
James bet on the airport as his legacy project, and I suspect it will be. The airport will be remembered,
however, not as a medal on his chest but as an albatross around his neck.
The question remains as to whether any of the 11 candidates vying to succeed him—yes, 11—will condescend to worry about the things that worry their future constituents.So far, the outlook isn’t brilliant. In a KCUR article on the candidates and their priorities, the word “pothole” does not appear. Nor does the word “snow.” Councilwoman Alissia Canady wants increased funding for mental-health programs. Councilman Quinton Lucas wants “to motivate developers to build more affordable housing.”
Councilman Jermaine Reed has been advocating for the perpetually flailing 18th and Vine District and has pushed a measure to bar employers from asking about criminal histories. Councilman Scott Taylor wants to “increase jobs and economic development in neglected parts of the city.” Councilman Scott Wagner has an interest in the Jazz Museum and a rental inspection program.
The sixth council member in the running, semi-favorite Jolie Justus, tells us on her Web site that she led “the fight for a new, single terminal at KCI” as well as the fight to “expand Kansas City’s Downtown
streetcar line.” For this voter, that’s two strikes against her.
Of the non-politicians, two have a shot at winning. The long shot, Phil Glynn, “finances and supports housing and development projects in American Indian communities.” The not-so-long shot, attorney Steve Miller, “is focused on improving the city’s infrastructure.”
Hoping against hope, I checked Miller’s campaign Web site but could find nothing about snow or potholes. His painfully cliched campaign video shows images of the airport and streetcars and talks about Miller’s proven leadership and his urge to build tomorrow together. After a quick review of the field,
I think I am leaning towards perennial candidate Clay Chastain. He, at least, has an imagination.
There’s More at Stake
Here In truth, potholes are not the city’s worst problem. They are simply the most obvious and the most symbolic. I would not be surprised if the citizenry forces the candidates to start talking about them on
the campaign trail. From the efforts the candidates have put forth at this point, a citizen uprising might be what it takes. The most serious problem, the most tragic, goes unmentioned in the KCUR
article. It goes unmentioned in any obvious place on the Web sites of any of the four
leading candidates—Miller, Taylor, Lucas, and Justus.
It is the one category in which Kansas City not just edges out Johnson County but outperforms it by a factor of thirty. It is the one phenomenon that truly makes us seem at times like a third-world city.
That problem, of course, is crime. Shhh!