A Tale of Two (Kansas) Cities
In the 1933 movie International House Professor Henry R. Quail—as played by the inimitable W.C. Fields—flies a bizarre pagoda-looking vehicle into Shanghai, glances around, and utters the second most famous movie line to use the word “Kansas”:
“Is this Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri?”
This piece is written to help our readers, should they ever find themselves in a comparable pickle, answer that question.
For the record, the more westward of the Kansas Cities is the third largest in the state of Kansas with 145,757 people. The more eastward of the two is the largest city in Missouri—five times as large and one-third more populous than St. Louis—with 442,768 people.
For half of their roughly 10 mile common boundary, the more populous half, the two Kansas Cities are separated by nothing more than a state line. For the other half, the Missouri River does the honors. The high growth city of Overland Park, Kansas—population 160,368—would challenge the dominance of the two Kansas Cities in the metropolitan area. So might Lee’s Summit, Missouri, population 77,052 and growing.
In the way of background, Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO) was first to the name, first to the name “Kansas” for that matter. Settled in 1821, KCMO did not have a corporate name until 1845. Legend has it that the city rejected would be names like Port Fonda, Rabbitville and Possum Trot before settling on “Kansas,” after the Kansa Indians who inhabited the Indian territory just beyond the United States border and the city limits, which were then one and the same. When the town was incorporated by the state in 1853, it became the City of Kansas, and in 1889, it officially became known as Kansas City.
Locals likely started calling the burg “Kansas City” to distinguish it from Kansas Territory, which came on line in 1854, and then the state of Kansas, which entered the union two years later.
In the 1880s, civic leaders in Kansas bundled several little river towns together and called the resulting entity “Kansas City, Kansas” (KCK). In so doing they hoped to share in the success of KCK’s prosperous namesake in Missouri. If success did not come immediately, confusion surely did and has lingered to this day.
For more than a century KCK played poor cousin to KCMO, which got the ball teams, the airports, the art galleries, the theaters and the symphonies. KCK meanwhile got some heavy industry and the immigrants to work it.
As late as the turn of the 21st century this unequal relationship seemed locked into place. What made the competition even sadder is that both cities seemed to be deteriorating, at least in their downtowns, with KCK deteriorating even quicker. Then, lo and behold, everything changed.
That change began quietly enough in 1997 when the City of Kansas City, Kansas consolidated its government with that of Wyandotte County, one of the few counties in America to yield so. The result was “Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas City Kansas.” That historic move has resulted in economic progress for businesses and taxpayers alike.
The most striking symbol of that progress is the Kansas International Speedway on the northwestern quadrant of I-435 and I-70. The $208 million project covers 1,000 acres, features a 1.5-mile oval and a grandstand that holds 75,000 auto racing fans. This has proved to be a great stimulus to the county’s transformation and has spurred the development of the surrounding tourism district now called Village West, already the leading tourist attraction in the state of Kansas. Indeed, no development in the last 20 years has done more to reorient the economic power of the area than this complex.
A counterweight to the development out west in Wyandotte County is a resurgent Downtown Kansas City, Kansas with new hotels and convention facilities and a still thriving industrial district nearby. The county is home to four excellent school districts, many fine private schools and strong community colleges.
That a huge tract of land remained largely undeveloped at the intersection of two interstates only 15 minutes from Downtown Kansas City, Missouri speaks volumes about the potential of Wyandotte County’s infrastructure. The county is crossed by two north-south Interstates and one east-west. Few urban areas in the world face less congestion. The county also has quick and easy access to both Kansas City International Airport and the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport.
KCK has not caught up with KCMO only because KCMO has also surged ahead. Most encouraging of all new development is the resurgence of the city’s historic heart, especially in the residential sector from the River Market south through and around Downtown to Crown Center through Westport to the prosperous Country Club Plaza.
The Central Business District at the heart of the historic Downtown now boasts a new, state-of-the-art Sprint Center and an entertainment district. The arena is located between 13th and 15th Streets and Grand and Oak Streets in the center of Downtown. This, coupled with a planned Performing Arts Center to the southwest, will help bridge the perceived gap between Downtown and the Crown Center area—re-energized with a vast new IRS complex and a new Federal Reserve Bank—and establish a uniquely diverse and vibrant five mile stretch of urban living unmatched by a city of this size anywhere in America.
What keeps the area in balance is the center’s accessibility. No city in America is better served by the Interstate system than Kansas City. The flow into the city from east, west, north and south is smooth, fast, and almost always unhindered. This ease of access makes it possible for residents of surrounding counties who live 50, 60 or 70 miles away to feel very much a part of the metropolitan area. Save for a few moments at rush hour, 65 miles in greater Kansas City equals one hour.
For all the new prosperity, however, the name question remains unresolved. The one thing KCK has not done right in the last decade is to rechristen itself. “Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas City Kansas” remains the most ungainly geographical designation in America so locals continue to call their city “Kansas City, Kansas” or more likely, “KCK.”
On the Missouri side, locals call their city just “Kansas City.” They don’t need to use the state name because, like Dorothy, they just “have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
And yes, that is our most famous movie line.