[Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art]
The woman working the front desk had chipmunk cheeks and blond hair. She wore a loose pink shirt and black slacks. Two silver-ribbed bracelets dangled from either wrist, and her necklace was a cattle skull. Her nametag said, "Marty." I asked if she was from Kansas City.
"I grew up here. I used to live in New York and work in telecommunications. I moved back here to take care of my parents. And I love it. I love working here. Last Friday, I got home and realized I'd had the best day at work I'd ever had. Ever. Anywhere."
In response to my query whether people in Kansas City were isolated, she said, "Absolutely not. Many people are being transferred into our area and are leaving their families and immediate surroundings. Because of that, our familial community is growing. How long are you in town for?" she asked, and grew disheartened when I said, "not long." She was going to suggest I see something upcoming. I realized several people here had asked me that. "Stick around," they seemed to suggest, "something might happen."
At the American Jazz Museum/Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the woman at the front desk ignored my need to buy a ticket to call out after a lanky older African American man walking ramrod straight and proud toward the exit. "You don't now who he is?" she asked me with a sneer. "That's Buck O'Neil. Played with the Kansas City Monarchs," she informed me.
Inside, I learned even more about local African American culture. After the Civil War, 40,000 African Americans moved here in less than two years. They were penned in the area around Eighteenth and Vine until the defeat of legal segregation in the 1950s. The culture that percolated there brought forth many talents, including jazz greats Charlie Parker and Count Basie.
Out in Brookside, a planned suburban shopping area from the 1920s, now within city limits, I interviewed the African American woman behind the counter of a popcorn shop on the strip. "I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, but came here at age 4 or 5 to be raised by my grandmother. I never saw myself doing commercial sales like I am, but I've been here three years. I used to be very shy. As you can see, I'm not any more. The people around here, they bring that out in you. We're moving in with Baskin-Robbins. As part of that, they want to make me part-time, but I don't want to work part-time. I might quit. A customer said, 'Well we don't want to lose you; we like having you around.' This is a way of showing how friendly people in Brookside are. It's one of the friendliest places I've been."
Remembering that blacks were corralled near Eighteenth and Vine, I asked her if the races are isolated.
"I don't think of the African American community as isolated from the white one in Kansas City. There's white people, there's black people, and they pretty much intermingle in this town."
Out in the Roanoke neighborhood, among million-dollar homes, sat the studio of Hopper's contemporary, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was born in Missouri in 1889, son of Missouri congressman Maecenas Benton and namesake and grandnephew of Missouri's first senator. The studio's northern side sported a huge wall of windows, as did Hopper's Cape Cod studio, and, like Hopper's, it had one big stove. Signs noted other Hopper parallels: Benton read French works in the original and painted many New England scenes. Benton served in the Navy as draftsman, which (as with Hopper) led to a lifelong appreciation of realistic drawing. Benton's home, however, was hardly a two-room shack on Cape Cod. It sat atop a hill and featured stained-glass windows, ornate hutches, huge grated fireplaces, and spacious rooms.
[Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art]Next, I headed to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which sported a huge stylized spider on its façade. The walls of the restaurant inside included hundreds of homages to important works of art, but no Hopper knock-off.