Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cities Part 4: Caravaggio, Mosasaurs and America’s Hub – Kansas City

My work took me to Kansas City for a couple days last week, and, as is my custom, I have some thoughts about it.[1] Now I can’t say I had high expectations for Kansas City, but I was excited to test my working hypothesis that most places are repositories of wonder and unique flourishes of humanness if you look hard enough. The data confirmed my hypothesis.

The morning before I got to KC, they got 8” of snow. When I arrived it was bright and sunny, but everyone was in winter storm mode, trying to dig out from under the snow. Now the temperature was my first surprise.[2] I have never been to the plains states[3] in the winter, and assumed that they would be warmish, given their smouldering hot summers. I was wrong. It never got above 20 degrees F while I was there.

KC is a river town.[4] The first hint you get of this connection between the population center and the Mississippi’s major Tributary was in the rental car terminal. Like terminal B in the Sacramento[5] Airport, the floor was decorated with an unmistakable riffle-pool design of a great anastamosing channel.

Driving into KC from the airport is impressive. At one point you drive through a stretch with the City in front of you, the great river on your right and a massive train yard on your left, and you realize that this is a city that is on the way to places...the hub of our economic wheel.

Downtown KC is surprisingly fun. There are about 8 blocks of restraints and clubs called the ‘lights district’ and includes some pretty eccentric buildings:

But the second night, I made my way down to ‘the Plaza,’ about 3 miles south of downtown. On the way, I stopped by the Art Museum, which was free and still open. The art museum was situated in Sculpture Park…which is as fun and idiosyncratic as it sounds:

The Art museum was very good…but really the whole experience was dwarfed by a single piece. I walked into the Baroque room, full as usual with a vast array of paintings ‘inspired by Caravaggio.’ Now I have to say, most of the Baroque reminds me of the second and third Matrix movies. Stylisticly similar to the inspired geneius of the original, but actually a pale shadow of its brilliance. But then, a painting on one wall caught my eye. It was undoubtedly the greatest piece in the room and probably in the museum. “It couldn’t be.” I thought…not in Kansas City. But it was. There in the most rectangular of the rectangle states, equidistant from our country’s self proclaimed cultural centers, was just the second original Caravaggio I had ever seen in person:

If you haven’t picked it up, Caravaggio is my favorite artist. In some ways he tries to do with his art precisely what I strive to do with my preaching…place familiar Biblical subjects in their stark, realistic settings, to breath new and accessible life into the horror and grace of it all. I don’t really have any idea what I am doing at art museums. I generally use them to illustrate my timeline of the fits and starts of western Philosophy. But with The Baptist, I tried to just experience it…to let my eyes follow the brush strokes…to notice the detail and take in the whole. I don’t know why I was so shocked to find this painting in this place, but the whole thing struck me as delightfully incongruous. Normally if a painting is the highlight of a visit to a new city, it does not speak well of the city. In this case, it was because of the city. Of course Caravaggio, the master of capturing narrative tension between grace and grit in a single image…the great virtuoso of contrast…would not be best experienced in Paris or London. John the Baptist BELONGS in Kansas City in melancholy contemplation of the hardships and anonymity of the wilderness.[6]

I was told that the Plaza was the place to be in the summer, but it would probably be dead in the snow and cold. It wasn’t. It was fun. The region is built around several old, opulent hotels that tower over a scenic stretch of the Kansas River (a tributary of the Missouri).

The Plaza continued the theme of the incongruous. The architecture of these 8-10 blocks was unified but totally unique:

Yet, these distinctive buildings mostly housed chain stores and restraints. It was an neighborhood that was as personalized as any I had visited in its built environment and yet totally indistinct in its goods and services. Fortunately, I went armed with a restraint recommendation. I only knew two things I wanted to do on this trip before I touched down…and one of them was Barbecue. Now, I have always been a little self conscious about the propensity for cities to highlight their food. I mean, New Orleans is one thing, we all know they’ve got other stuff going on. But a place like Buffalo, for example, it seems like being that proud of food and football is an implicit capitulation to just not being that interesting. I mean, could the BBQ in Kansas City really be that good or is it like the kid in school that was mediocre at poetry but wasn’t good at anything else so he got tabbed ‘the poetry guy.’ Um…the former. I went to Jacks Stacks and got the special and took all the waitress’ recommendations.[7] It was qualitatively better than any barbecue experience I have ever had.

Finally, I was scheduled to go home on Saturday, but Amada agreed to allow me to push my flight back in order to do the other thing I have always wanted to do “in” Kansas City. First some context…In the late cretaceous[8] North America was split in two by a great, shallow sea. Essentially, Kansas, was equivalent to today’s Caribbean except it was overrun by some of the most remarkable Charismatic Paleo-Aquatic-Megafauna that have ever existed. The late Cretaceous Midwest sea[9] teeming with creatures so strange and startling that you’d be sure that they were the careless products of the imagination of a bad-made-for-cable horror movie author, pushing a deadline with ample weed…if the fossils were not captured in a thin chalk bed in West Kansas.

I have wanted to visit the University of Kansas Natural history museum since I read a really interesting book on the Cretaceous seas of North America many years ago when I was contemplating a career change (to paleontology). So Saturday morning I got up and made the one hour drive to Lawrence.

Now, I collect Natural History Museums…so I am hard to impress. In general, because I have been to way more of these than a normal human should, I generally prefer if they specialize in whatever is locally interesting.[10] So, in my opinion, the Kansas museum would be most successful if it had three floors of Mosesaurs and Xiphactinus. But Kansas 6 year olds need to see a Triceratops too. So they only had a few specimens from the Late Cretaceous…but they were worth it.

My favorite was the shark. It looks like the shark’s head is in the middle…but it had just had a bad ass Xiphactinus (see above) in its belly.

Once again, a dull sounding city teemed with the wonder of locatedness and particularity. For all our legitimate concerns about the Walmartification of America, there is something about human community that seems to always manifest a unique signature of its relationship with place. And that is why when I was asked to go to Kansas City, I was genuinely excited…and it didn’t disappoint.

[1] I realize that in the Vegas post I said that New Orleans was coming next. Here’s the problem. I forgot my camera in New Orleans and had to buy one of those disposable cameras with old fashioned film…and I can’t find anywhere to get it developed.
[2] Actually, my first surprise was that most of Kansas City is actually in Missouri.
[3] I refuse to call Kansas/Nebraska/Omaha the Midwest. I arbitrarily reserve that term for MI/OH/WI/MN et al.
[4] It is not an accident that I disproportionately visit river towns…I do study rivers.
[5] Another river town.
[6] Apparently, one of his other Johnny B paintings is in Toledo…which works in precisely the same way.
[7] This is my new trick for trying food in a new place. As much as possible, let locals or watistaff order for you.
[8] Come on, when I offer context, I don’t mess around.
[9] Incidentally, Jungle The Midwest Sea is a very good album by flatfoot 56, but every time I hear it I think of the late Cretaceous…surely there is not a better unintentional description of a paleo-era.
[10] Cleveland is the best example of this. Most of my understanding of late Devonian fish and amphibians comes from their display of Ohio-centric fossils.


You with us said...

Stanford, Stanford, Missouri doesn't get the Midwest title either? You and Tyler may have to have some words...

I was born is Kansas City (Missouri side -- which is why Tyler married me), so I feel an affection for the place like one does for extended family one only sees at weddings. I've only been to KC once as an adult, for a wedding, naturally, and I really enjoyed several of the highlights you mention.

It gives me great pleasure that you enjoyed yourself AND froze you a** in KC. Surely the winter temperatures alone bump Kansas and Missouri into your Midwest category. Just a thought.

stanford said...

Hmm, I didn't think about that. Missouri really is the pinwheel state. It’s not really plains and it did not join the confederacy (my definition for a 'southern' state) and there was just way too much snow. I guess I have to either give it and West Virginia their own category or I could push the 'Midwest' boundary south a little. But not to Kansas. Deal?

JMBower said...

Excellence. I have never been to KC, but have always wanted to pit their BBQ against Houston or Austin's. Given that we were lied to our entire young lives about what BBQ is (not hot dogs and hamburgers cooked on a grill...), I feel a need to delve to the sticky, sauce covered bottom of the issue.

The Caravaggio must have been quite a sight. I can empathize on how it feels to see that one piece that blows everything else away. The last time that happened to me was Furini's Saint Christina, in (of all places) the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. I guess if you're rich enough, you don't need to have good taste, you just need to collect enough paintings, and some are bound to be gems.

Joel said...

How were the people? I've always wanted to visit Kansas (Metropolis, specifically, for obvious reasons) but have been leery of the state as a whole because I'm constantly reading news stories about creationism in the schools and Westboro Baptist Church and I fear being trapped in a state full of crazy people or people that will be unkind to me.

stanford said...

Justin, The law of large numbers applied to Art? Nice.

Joel, I wasn’t there long enough to form an opinion. My interpersonal interactions were uniformly pleasant. I’m generally resistant to the idea that things like goodness or kindness correlate to geography, though. I think people generally suck and people are generally beautiful, and those things seep out in different ways in different cultures, but on sum result in approximately equivalent levels of beauty and brokenness across cultures. So I'm not sure I have much to offer.