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Kansas City, here it comes: Arts center symbolizes new city core

Billions in recent investment help a former cow town dream again of becoming the Paris of the Plains.

November 25, 2011|By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
  • Kansas City's $413-million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts symbolizes a comeback for an old city center that was on the ropes.
Kansas City's $413-million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts… (Jim Barcus, Kansas City…)

Reporting from Kansas City, Mo. — Kansas City's flirtations with the fine arts have always been a little mixed up in its bluer-collared tendencies.

This Midwestern hub was known as the Paris of the Plains back in the 1920s and '30s, mostly for being an island of Prohibition denial whose outrageous night life attracted minds both brilliant and debauched. Paris had Igor Stravinsky, Kansas City had Charlie Parker, and both had enough booze and sex for everybody.

Today, Kansas City's known more for its tailgating and its barbecue. But perhaps it will now be known for something more — the $413-million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a much-celebrated set of massive, steel-jacketed clamshells that resemble a pair of sonic booms whose motion has been arrested and encased in cement.

"It looks like the building is breathing, and it's absolutely sensational," said Michael Stern, music director for the Kansas City Symphony, which now plays in one of two new performance spaces that 55,000 visitors stood in line — some for hours — to see on a rainy September opening weekend.

But more than being an architectural and sonic marvel — the work of Canadian architect Moshe Safdie and Yasuhisa Toyota, the acoustician who engineered Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall — the Kauffman Center's arrival signals the late stages of another familiar Midwestern downtown revitalization plan to transform former working-class areas into havens for the creative classes.

By the end of the 20th century, Kansas City's urban core, like those of many midsize metro areas, had been hollowed out by suburbanization and the decline of American industrialism. The city's huge meatpacking trade faded away, as did much of the downtown night life.

"Our downtown just slipped into a real state of neglect for many years," said Mike Hurd, director of marketing for the Downtown Council of Kansas City.

But over the last decade, public and private investment — totaling $6 billion, according to the council — has erased blocks of blight by adding white-collar anchors and neon moneymakers, such as the 18,000-seat Sprint Center, an expansive new bar district and H&R Block Inc.'s corporate headquarters.

On top of that, throw in the imminent arrival of the exclusive Google Fiber project — expected to bring Internet speeds up to 100 times faster than usual and bolster the city's attractiveness to tech start-ups. It all has local officials believing Kansas City could very well be the Paris of the Plains again.

Setting the tone is downtown. "It's really kind of serving as the flag-bearer for Kansas City's new identity as America's creative crossroads," Hurd said.

Not that everything's perfect: Improving public transportation remains a struggle, and some officials would like to see a landmark convention hotel.

But Kansas City's mainstream arts institutions, as in other cities undertaking similar revitalization, have benefited from officials hoping to use them as levers for broader civic and economic growth.

"I think for 20, 30 years there's been a movement to create these big campuses — these big, multi-facility, multidisciplinary arts campuses — based loosely on the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts [in New York City]," said Holly Sidford, an analyst for nonprofit organizations and president of the Brooklyn-based Helicon Collaborative. "There's a mind-set where you can't be a serious city and not have one."

Kansas City chipped in $47 million for the Kauffman Center's parking garage; the rest of the cost was footed entirely by a small army of private donors led by local philanthropist Julia Irene Kauffman, who put up more than $100 million of her family's fortune.

"It wasn't just built for them," Kauffman said of her fellow financiers. "It was built for everybody."

Almost everybody in this former cow town seems to like its new fine-arts palace. On the opening weekend in September, when the symphony's Stern sneaked into the back of the center and peeked at the waiting throngs, he was caught off guard by the response.

"I saw the lines, and I saw the faces of the people standing in line, and I thought, 'Oh my God, we hit a home run,'" he said. "Things are definitely changing in Kansas City."

Pearce writes for The Times.

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