ON THE ROAD; Pleasures in the Heartland ... Kansas City, MO!

Once this was the edge of American civilization, a portal to the unknown. The Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails all started in Independence and Westport, two small frontier towns long since melded into greater Kansas City, and in the 1840's brave souls gathered there each spring for the arduous journey by Conestoga wagon to the golden West.

Today Kansas City is the metropolis in the middle: 1,435 miles from Boston on the Atlantic, 1,577 from Los Angeles on the Pacific, 829 from New Orleans to the south, 768 from the Canadian border to the north. The precise geographic and population centers of the country are both nearby.

But more than geography makes this the capital of Middle America. There is probably no such thing as a typical American place, but Kansas City comes close. That's why old-time wire-service reporters were always told to write for a mythical ''Kansas City milkman,'' and why John Updike once said he aimed his words ''toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.''

Before we go any further, Toto, I should emphasize that the Kansas City we're talking about here is not the one in Kansas. The older, bigger, more vibrant of the two Kansas Cities is in Missouri, east of State Line Road (although a Kansas suburb, Overland Park, has captured the biggest construction project currently under way in the country, a $700 million, 3.1-million-square-foot world headquarters for the Sprint Corporation).

This Kansas City is a plain-spoken place, a big-league town with a small-town feel, whose favorite son was the President who more than any other embodied the sturdy virtues of the common man, Harry S. Truman. He grew up in Independence, rose through Boss Pendergast's Kansas City political machine, an honest man in a spectacularly crooked organization, and carried the accent and attitudes of the Midwest with him all his life.

Perched on a bluff above the Missouri River, laced with fountains and boulevards, graced by unusually handsome public buildings, this city survived the vicissitudes of recent decades better than most. It remains a recognizable exemplar of the turn-of-the-century City Beautiful Movement, and it has spent liberally in the last few years to refresh Beaux-Arts and Art Deco landmarks and build modern ones.

William Rockhill Nelson, the imperious founder of The Kansas City Star, did more than anyone to shape his adopted hometown. When Nelson arrived in 1880, the city struck him as ''incredibly commonplace and ugly,'' and he resolved ''that if I were to live here, the town must be made over.'' Such was his wealth and his willpower that when he died in 1915, he left behind a city so transformed that it dazzled country folk who flocked here to work and play.

''Ev'rythin's up to date in Kansas City,'' they sang in ''Oklahoma!,'' the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. ''They've gone about as fur as they c'n go!/They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high --/ About as high as a buildin' orta grow.''

Museum's Treasures

Yet Kansas City still seems like the sticks to many Easterners. Asked recently by The Wall Street Journal why his best steak is called a New York strip and not a Kansas City strip, Chris Gilman, managing director of the Palm, a Manhattan beef palace, replied haughtily, ''You think we would name our steak after a city with what, three people in it?'' To me, that's a bum steer.

It's hard to see how any open-minded visitor to Kansas City can fail to be impressed by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which has few if any peers west of the Mississippi. Lacking private collections on which to build when construction began in 1930, the trustees had to buy everything, and in the Depression years their dollars went a long way. More important, they had the wit to hire Laurence Sickman, then a 23-year-old graduate student in China, who proved to be one of the great curatorial connoisseurs in American history.

Patterning the collection on those of Boston and Cleveland, Sickman assembled treasures of Oriental art, especially Chinese, to rival theirs. The roomful of rosewood Ming furniture, spare and sensual at the same time, draws me back again and again.

So do the glorious groups of Tang tomb figures, including a posse of polo-playing women; an earthenware Wei orchestra, the only one to survive from the sixth century, and an unmatched collection of landscape paintings from the Northern Sung period (960-1127), which were the models for generations of Chinese artists. But until I toured the collection recently with Marc F. Wilson, the museum's gregarious director, who is an Oriental specialist, I had never noticed the charming, intricately carved little cages for singing crickets.

Elsewhere in this vast art hangar, you will not want to miss the rich, posterlike depictions of mythological and regional subjects by Thomas Hart Benton (grandson of a great Missouri senator), whose ''Persephone,'' from 1938, once hung in Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe bar in New York; Monet's ''Boulevard des Capucines,'' from the first Impressionist show in 1874; the courtyard cafe, good enough to be rated by Zagat, or the four gigantic Oldenburg shuttlecocks on the surrounding lawns -- welcome relief from the building's neo-classic severity.

Kansas City has more than a half-dozen theaters, a very lively chamber music scene and the locally based State Ballet of Missouri. It lacks an adequate concert hall, but Anne Manson, the newly appointed musical director of the Kansas City Symphony, has announced her determination to remedy that. Only 36, she has established a reputation as a guest conductor in Europe.

A Center of Jazz

But the city's place in performing-arts history was earned by a distinguished roster of jazz and blues musicians who made their mark here, from Joe Turner and Mary Lou Williams to Count Basie and Charlie Parker.

In the 1930's, a warren of more than 60 smoky clubs in the black neighborhood around 18th and Vine Streets was the very heartland of American jazz. The director Robert Altman, a native son, revisited the scene in his 1996 movie, ''Kansas City.''

Virgil Thomson, the composer and critic, who was also born here, reveled in the happy contrast between dry, ''moralistic'' Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., where, thanks to Pendergast's defiance of Prohibition, saloons stood shoulder to shoulder. ''Just as Memphis and St. Louis had their Blues,'' he wrote, ''we had our 'Twelfth Street Rag,' proclaiming joyous low life.''

Now that era is celebrated in the snazzy new city-financed Kansas City Jazz Museum, which local officials hope will turn the neighborhood from a blighted backwater into a tourist attraction. Major exhibits are built around four jazz masters: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Parker, the junkie-genius whose acrylic saxophone, on display along with Ellington's suitcase and one of Ella's dresses, cost the museum $140,000 in public money. But there is also space for lesser-known local lions like Basie, Turner, the blues shouter Jimmy Rushing and the band leaders Bennie Moten and Andy Kirk, who called his group the 12 Clouds of Joy. Historic recordings can be heard through earphones.

No less gripping for the aficionado is the adjoining Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which commemorates the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Leagues.

It displays uniforms, balls, pennants and a diamond peopled by life-size statues of black stars like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. A highlight: the dramatically told tale of the integration of the big leagues by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians.

(If you're looking for live music, you'll find jazz at the Blue Room, part of the museum complex, four nights a week, and blues across town at the Grand Emporium in Westport, one of the top blues clubs in the country.)

Jazz, baseball . . . and food. The humorist Calvin Trillin, who is white, made Kansas City's proletarian food famous, but it was the blacks who came up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers from the South who created it. Mr. Trillin wrote a quarter-century ago in The New Yorker that ''the best restaurants of the world are, of course, in Kansas City,'' adding, ''Not all of them; only the top four or five.''

Barbecue With Bare Hands

Only two, actually. Winstead's hamburgers, Mr. Trillin's hometown choice, can't compare to Swenson's, the pride of Akron, Ohio, my hometown. Lamar's Do-Nuts don't hold a candle to Krispy Kremes. But Arthur Bryant's barbecue parlor, which Mr. Trillin still prefers to Taillevent after four years at Yale and decades of world travel, and Stroud's, whose fried chicken makes the Colonel's taste like papier-mache, are every bit as good as he says they are.

Especially Arthur's. For a while, it slipped a little; I attributed the problem to the plastic gloves the health police made the countermen wear when handling the brisket. In those dark days, the flavor lost something. But now bare hands are back, slicing a half-pound of slow-cooked meat, slapping it between two slices of gummy white Butternut bread, brushing it with the hot, grainy sauce that cures in big jugs in the window, and surrounding it with the Best French Fries in America, cooked in fresh lard. Expensive, sure, the proprietor once told Mr. Trillin, ''but if you want to do a job, you do a job.''

There are no stockyards in Kansas City. Well, there are still stockyards, but the last time I looked, the pens between 14th and 16th Streets on Genessee were filled with weeds, not steers. But the American Royal Livestock, Horse Show and Rodeo still fills a 180-acre complex each fall, as it has every fall since 1899. This year's dates are Oct. 2 to Nov. 22.

Art Deco Buildings
A more citified entertainment, available year round, is a leisurely stroll through the central business district, which retains a fine collection of Art Deco buildings. Among the best are the Kansas City Power and Light Building at 14th Street and Baltimore Avenue, which looks particularly impressive when illuminated by a system of hidden floodlights at night; the Municipal Auditorium on 13th Street, especially its lobby, and the City Hall on 12th Street, with strips of recessed windows that lend it a bold verticality. All were built in hard times, between 1931 and 1937, yet all display an unquenchable Midwestern optimism in a streamlined, chrome-plated future.

On the edge of downtown, spanning an interstate highway, is the striking new 200,000-square-foot Bartle Hall convention center. Its roof is suspended on 56 steel cables from four towering concrete pylons, topped by four futuristic metal sky sculptures, which weigh 4 to 10 tons each. That method of construction yields a pillar-free central exhibition hall; it also represents a vote of confidence in modern engineering from a city embarrassed in recent years by the collapse of a hotel skywalk and the roof at Kemper Arena.

The skywalk was at the Crown Center, 15 blocks south of City Hall, which was one of the nation's first mixed-use redevelopment projects. The brainchild of Joyce C. Hall, founder of Hallmark Cards, it replaced abandoned warehouses and tar paper shacks around the Hallmark headquarters with a complex of office buildings, hotels, shops, restaurants, apartments and theaters.

It has come to function as the hub of a mini-downtown that will be enhanced by a new science museum, a $234 million project scheduled to open in November 1999, in the restored Union Station. Proclaimed ''the great gate to the West'' by President Woodrow Wilson when he opened it in 1914, the station is a monolithic building of enduring grandeur through which half the nation's soldiers passed during World War II. In an infamous shootout that will presumably not be noted in the museum, Charles (Pretty Boy) Floyd and his henchman Adam Richetti gunned down lawmen outside the station in 1933.

Memories of Truman

Yet another hub in this polycentric city is Country Club Plaza, the nation's first suburban shopping mall when it was built in 1922 by a visionary developer named J. C. Nichols. It is now the heart of a sprawling 20-square-block retail district along Brush Creek, well within the city limits.

Nichols sent his architects to Seville, Spain, and they returned to create beguiling arcades of shops topped with multicolored tile roofs and punctuated by Moorish-style towers modeled on the Giralda. One of the earliest tenants was Fred Wolferman's Grocery Company, which gave birth to the habit-forming double-thick English muffins that are still made in the Kansas City area.

Finally, a few miles east along Truman Road (what else?) you come to Independence. There are three main things to see there. One is the superb new National Frontier Trails Center, which celebrates the courage of those who made the trek west. Among the moving testaments quoted on its walls is that of the historian Francis Parkman, who passed this way just after leaving Harvard: ''We knew that more and more, year after year, the trains of emigrant wagons would creep in slow procession toward barbarous Oregon and wild and distant California. But we did not dream how commerce and gold would breed nations along the Pacific.''

The other two are devoted, of course, to H.S.T.: the modest white frame house at 219 North Delaware Street to which the Trumans retired in 1953, and the Truman Library and Museum, where you can see the love letters that Harry wrote to Bess over the course of a long courtship and longer marriage, exhibits tracing his astonishing, unprecedented comeback in the 1948 Presidential election and the famous sign from the President's desk proclaiming, ''The Buck Stops Here.''

Truman enjoys a popularity today that he never enjoyed as President, at least partly because he epitomizes a saner, simpler era, an era of picket fences, breakfast nooks and morning constitutionals. With its cozy library and eat-in kitchen, trimmed in 1950's green, the house is a window on those long-lost days.

I never go there without remembering the former President's exchange with reporters as he arrived back home in Independence.

''What's the first thing you plan to do?'' one of the newsmen asked.

''Carry the grips up to the attic,'' Truman responded.

The Sights, Sounds and Tastes of a Very American City, With a Side Trip to a Presidential Library

Read more about Kansas City, Mo., and environs:

No comments: