Kansas City – American Travel

IF you will take a map of the United States and fold it so that the Atlantic and Pacific coast lines overlap, the crease at the center will form a line which runs down through the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. That is not, however, the true dividing line between East and West. If I were to try to draw the true line, I should begin at the north, bringing my pencil down between the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, leaving the former to the east, and the latter to the west, and I should follow down through the middle of Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri, so that St. Louis would be included on the eastern map and Kansas City and Omaha on the western.

My companion and I had long looked forward to the West, and had speculated as to where we should first meet it. And sometimes, as we traveled on, we doubted that there really was a West at all, and feared that the whole country had become monotonously “standardized,” as was recently charged by a correspondent of the London “Times.”

I remember that we discussed that question on the train, leaving St. Louis, wondering whether Kansas City, whither we were bound, would prove to be but one more city like the rest—a place with skyscrapers and shops and people resembling, almost exactly, the sky-scrapers and shops and people of a dozen other cities we had seen.

Morning in the sleeping car found us less concerned about the character of cities than about our coffee. Coffee was not to be had upon the train. In cheerless emptiness we sat and waited for the station.

While my berth was being turned into its daytime aspect, I was forced to accept a seat beside a stranger: a little man with a black felt hat, a weedy mustache of neutral color, and an Elk’s button. I had a feeling that he meant to talk with me; a feeling which amounted to dread. Nothing appeals to me at seven in the morning; least of all a conversation. At that hour my enthusiasm shows only a low blue flame, like a gas jet turned down almost to the point of going out. And in the feeble light of that blue flame, my fellow man becomes a vague shape, threatening unsolicited civilities. I do not like the hour of seven in the morning anywhere, and if there is one condition under which I loathe it most, it is before breakfast in a smelly sleeping car. I saw the little man regarding me. He was about to speak. And there I was, absolutely at his mercy, without so much as a news-paper behind which to shield myself.

“Are you from New York?” he asked.

With about the same amount of effort it would take to make a long after-dinner speech, I managed to enunciate a hollow : “Yes.”

“I thought so,” he returned.

It seemed to me that the remark required no answer. He waited; then, presently, vouchsafed the added in-formation: “I knew it by your shoes.”

Mechanically I looked at my shoes ; then at his. I felt like saying: “Why? Because my shoes are polished?” But I did n’t. All I said was, “Oh.”

“That ‘s a New York last,” he explained. “Long and flat. You can’t get a shoe like that out in this section. Nobody ‘d buy ’em if we made ’em.” Then he added : “I’m in the shoe line, myself.”

He paused as though expecting me to state my “line.” However, I did n’t. Very likely he thought it some-thing shameful. After a moment’s silence, he asked: “Travel out this way much?”

“Never,” I said.

“Never been in Kansas City?”

I shook my head.

“Well,” he volunteered, “it ‘s a great town. Greatest farm implement market in the world.” (He drawled “world” as though it were spelled with a double R..) “Very little manufacturing but a great distributing point. All cattle and farming out here. Everything depends on the crops. Different from the East.”

I looked out of the window.

It was different from the East. Even through the smoky fog I saw that.

“Kansas City!” called the negro porter.

I arose with a sigh, said good-by to the little man, and made my way from the car.

The heavy mist was laden with a smoky smell like that of an incipient London fog. Through it I discerned, dimly, a Vesuvian hill, piling up to the left, while, to the right, a maze of tracks and trains lost themselves in the gray blur. Immediately before me stood as disreputable a station as I ever saw, its platforms oozing mud, and its doorways oozing immigrants and other forlorn travelers. Of all the people there, I observed but two who were agreeable to the eye : a young girl, admirably modish, and her mother. But even looking at this girl I remained depressed. “You don’t belong here,” I wished to say to her, “that ‘s clear enough. No one like you could live in such a place. You need n’t think I live here, either; for I don’t! Most decidedly I don’t !”

We got into a taxi, my companion and I, and the taxi started immediately to climb with us, like a mountain goat, ascending a steep hill in leaps, over an atrocious pavement, and between vacant lots and shabby buildings which seemed to me to presage an undeveloped town and, worse yet, a bad hotel.

My companion must have thought as I did, for I re-member his saying in a somber tone : “I guess we ‘re in for it this time, all right!”

Those are the first words that I recall his having spoken that morning.

After ascending for some time, we began to coast down again, still through unprepossessing thorough fares, until at last we slid up in the mud to the door of the Hotel Baltimore—one of the busiest hotels in the whole United States.

On sight of the hotel I took a little heart. Break-fast was near and the hostelry looked promising. It was, indeed, the first building that I saw in Kansas City, that seemed to justify “City.”

The coffee at the Baltimore proved good. We saw that we were in a large and capably conducted caravansary—a metropolitan hotel with a dining room like some interior in the capitol of Minnesota, and a Pornpeian room, the very look of which bespoke a cabaret performance at a later hour. From the window where we sat at breakfast we saw wagons with brakes set, descending the hill, and streams of people hurrying on their way to work : sturdy-looking men and healthy-looking girls, the latter stamped with that cheap yet indisputable style so characteristic of the young American working woman—a sort of down-at-the-heels showiness in dress, which, combined with an elaborate coiffure and a fine, if slightly affected carriage, makes her at once a pretty and pathetic object.

In Kansas City one is well within the borders of the land of silver dollars. Dollar bills are scarce. Pay for a cigar with a $5 bill, and your change is more than likely to include four of those silver cartwheels which, though merely annoying in ordinary times, must be a real source of danger when the floods come, as one understands they sometimes do in Kansas City. Not only are small bills scarce but, I fancy, the humble copper cent is viewed in Kansas City with less respect than in the East. I base this conclusion upon the fact that a dignified old negro, wearing a bronze medal suspended from a ribbon tied about his neck, charged me five cents at the door of the dining room for a one-cent paper—a rate of extortion surpassing that of New York hotel news stands. However, as that paper was the Kansas City “Star,” I raised no objection; for the “Star” is a great newspaper. But of that presently.

Later I found fastened to the wall of my bathroom something which, as I learned afterward, is quite common among hotels in the West, but which I have never seen in an eastern hotel—a slot machine which, for a quarter, supplies any of the following articles: tooth paste, listerine, cold cream, bromo lithia, talcum powder, a toothbrush, a shaving stick, or a safety razor.

Counterbalancing this convenience, however, I found in my room but one telephone instrument, although Kansas City is served by two separate companies. This proved annoying; calls coming by the Missouri & Kansas Telephone Company’s lines reached me in my room, but those coming over the wires of the Home Telephone Company had to be answered downstairs, whither I was summoned twice that morning—once from my. bath and once while shaving. I had not been in Kansas City half a day before discovering that monopoly—at least in the case of the telephone—has its very definite advantages. A double system of telephones is a nuisance. Even where, as for instance in Portland, Oregon, there are two instruments in each room, one never knows which bell is ringing. Duplication is unnecessary, and where there are two companies, lack of duplication is annoying. Every home or office in Kansas City provided with but one instrument is cut off from communication with many other homes and offices having the other service, while those having both instruments have to pay the price of two.

It always amuses me to hear criticisms by foreigners of the telephone as perfected in this country. And our sleeping cars and telephones are the things they in-variably do criticize. As to the sleeping car there may be some justice in complaints, although it seems to me that, under the conditions for which it is designed, the Pullman car would be hard to improve upon. It is the necessity of going to bed while traveling by rail that is at the bottom of the trouble. But when a foreigner criticizes the American telephone the very thing he criticizes is its perfection. If we had bad telephone service, and did n’t use the telephone much, it would be all right, according to the European point of view. But as it is, they say we are the instrument’s “slaves.”

That was the complaint of Dr. George Brandes, the Danish literary critic. “The telephone is the worst instrument of torture that ever existed,” he declared.

“The medieval rack and thumb-screws were playthings compared with it.”

Arnold Bennett, in his “Your United States,” tells of having permanently removed the receiver from the telephone in his bedroom in a Chicago hotel. His action, he declares, caused agitation, not merely in the hotel, but throughout the city.

“In response to the prayer of a deputation from the management,” he writes, “I restored the receiver. On the horrified face of the deputation I could read the unspoken query: `Is it conceivable that you have been in this country a month without understanding that the United States is primarily nothing but a vast congeries of telephone cabins?’

Now, the thing which Mr. Bennett, Dr. Brandes, and many other distinguished visitors from Europe seem to fail to comprehend is this: that, being distinguished visitors, and therefore sought after, they are the telephone’s especial victims, and consequently gain a wrong impression of it. They themselves use it little as a means of calling others ; others use it much as a means of calling them. Furthermore, being strangers to this highly perfected instrument, they are also, quite naturally strangers to telephonic subtleties. Mr. Bennett proved his entire lack of knowledge of the new science of telephone tact when he tried to stop the instrument by re-moving the receiver. Any American could have told him that all he need have done was to notify the operator, at the switchboard, downstairs, not to permit him to be disturbed until a certain hour. Or, if he had wished to do so, he could have asked her to sift his messages, giving him only those she deemed desirable. He would have found her, I feel sure, as capable, on that score, as a well-trained private secretary, for, among the many effective services of the telephone, none is finer than that given by those capable, intelligent, quick-thinking young women who act as switchboard opera-tors in large hotels and offices. I am glad of this opportunity to make my compliments to them.

If an American wishes to appreciate the telephone, as developed in this country, he has but to try to use the telephone in Europe. In London the instrument is a ridiculous, cumbersome affair, looking as much like an enormous metal inkwell as any other thing—the kind of inkwell in which some emperor might dip his pen before signing his abdication. To call, you wind the crank violently for a time, then taking up the receiver and mouthpiece which are attached to the main instrument by a cord, you begin calling : “Are you there, miss? Are you there? I say, miss, are you there?” And the question is quite reasonable, for half the time “miss” does not seem to be there. In Paris it is worse. Once, while residing in that city, I had a telephone in my apartment. It was intended as a convenience, but it turned out to be an irritating kind of joke. The first time I tried to call my house, from the center of town, it took me three times as long to get the connection as it took me to get New York from Kansas City. In the beginning I thought myself the victim of ill luck, but I soon came to understand that was not the case—or, rather, that the ill luck was of a kind experienced by all users of the telephone in Paris. The service there is simply chaotic. It is actually true that I once dispatched a messenger on a bicycle, calling my house on the phone, immediately afterward, and that the messenger had arrived with the note, after having ridden a good two miles, through traffic, by the time I succeeded in talking over the wire. However, in the interim I had talked with almost every other residence in Paris.

The telephones in France and England are controlled by the government. If that accounts for the service given, then I hope the government in this country will never take them over. Bureaucracy makes the Continental railroads inferior to ours, and I have no doubt it is equally responsible for telephone conditions. Bureaucracy, as I have experienced it, feels itself intrenched in office, and is consequently likely to be in-different to complaint and to the requirements of progress. When I called New York from Kansas City I was talking within ten minutes, and when, later on, I called New York from Denver, it took but little longer, and I heard, and made myself heard, al-most as though conversing with some one in the next room. As I reflect upon the countless services per-formed for me by the telephone, upon these travels, and upon the very different sort of service I should have had abroad, I bless the American Telephone and Telegraph Company with fervent blessings. And if I said about it all the things I really think, I fear the reader might suspect me of having received a bribe. For I am aware that, in speaking well of any corporation I am flying in the face of precedent and public opinion.

Toward noon, the pall of smoke and fog which had blanketed the city, vanished on a fresh breeze from the prairies, and my companion and I, much inspirited, set forth on foot to see what the downtown streets of Kansas City had to offer. We had gone hardly a block be-fore we realized that our earlier impressions of the place had been ill-founded. We had arrived in the least agreeable portion of the city, and had not, hitherto, seen any of the built-up, well-paved streets. “Petticoat Lane”—the fashionable shopping district on Eleventh Street between Main Street and Grand Avenue—has a metropolitan appearance, and the wider avenues, with their well-built skyscrapers, tell a story of substantiality and progress. But the most striking thing to us, upon that walk, lay not in the great buildings already standing, but in the embryonic structures everywhere. All over Kansas City old buildings are coming down to make place for new ones; hills of clay are being gouged away and foundations dug; steel frames are shooting up. Never, before or since, have I sensed, as I sensed that day, a city’s growth. It seemed to me that I could feel expansion in the very ground beneath my feet. Looking upon these multifarious activities was like looking through an enormous magnifying glass at some gigantic ant hill, where thousands upon thousands of workers were rushing about, digging, carrying, constructing, all in breathless haste. Nor was the incidental music lacking; the air was ringing with the symphony of work—the music of brick walls falling, of drills digging at the earth, and of automatic riveters clattering their swift, metallic song, high up among the tall, steel frames, where presently would stand desks, and filing cabinets, and typewriter machines.

“Did you ever feel a city growing so?” I asked of my companion.

“Grow!” he repeated. “Why it has grown so fast they have n’t had time to name their streets.”

The statement appeared true. We had looked for street signs at all corners, but had seen none. Later, however, we discovered that the streets did have names. But as there are no signs, I conclude that the present names are only tentative, and that when Kansas City gets through building, she will name her streets in sober earnest, and mark them in order that strangers may more readily find their way.

The “slogan” of Kansas City suggests that of Detroit. Detroit says : “In Detroit life is worth living.” Kansas City is less boastful, but more aspiring. “Make it a good place to live in,” she says.

As nearly as I can like the “slogan” of any city, I like that one. I like it because it is not vainglorious, and because it does not attempt cheap alliteration. It is not “smart-alecky” at all, but has, rather, the sound of some-thing genuinely felt. And I believe it is felt. There is every evidence that Kansas City’s “slogan” is a promissory note—a note which, it may be added, she is paying off in a handsome manner, by improving herself rapidly in countless ways.

Perhaps the first of her improvements to strike the visitor is her system of parks. I am informed that the parked boulevards of Kansas City exceed in mileage those of any other American city. These boulevards, connecting the various parks and forming circuits running around and through the town, do go a long way toward making it “a good place to live in.” Kansas City has every right to be proud, not only of her parks, but of herself for having had the intelligence and energy to make them. What if assessments have been high? Increased property values take care of that; the worst of the work and the expense is over, and Kansas City has lifted itself by its own bootstraps from ugliness to beauty. How much better it is to have done the whole thing quickly—to have made the gigantic effort and attained the parks and boulevards at what amounts to one great municipal bound—than to have dawdled and dreamed along as St. Louis and so many other cities have done.

The Central Traffic Parkway of St. Louis is, as has been said in an earlier chapter, still on paper only. But the Paseo, and West Pennway, and Penn Valley Park, in Kansas City, are all splendid realities, created in an amazingly brief space of years. To make the Paseo and West Pennway, the city cut through blocks and blocks, tearing down old houses or moving them away, with the result that dilapidated, disagreeable neighbor-hoods have been turned into charming residence districts. In the making of Penn Valley Park, the same thing occurred : the property was acquired at a cost of about $800,000, hundreds of houses were removed, drives were built, trees planted. The park is now a show place; both because of the lesson it offers other cities, and the splendid view, from its highest point, of the enterprising city which created it.

Another spectacular panorama of Kansas City is to be seen from Observation Point on the western side of town, but the finest views of all (and among the finest to be seen in any city in the world) are those which unroll themselves below Scaritt Point, the Cliff Drive, and Kersey Coates Drive. Much as the Boulevard Lafayette skirts the hills beside the Hudson River, these drives make their way along the upper edge of the lofty cliffs which rise majestically above the Missouri River bottoms. Not only is their elevation much greater than that of the New York boulevard, but the view is in-finitely more extensive and dramatic, though perhaps less “pretty.” Looking down from Kersey Coates Drive, one sees a long sweep of the Missouri, winding its course between the sandy shores which it so loves to inundate. Beyond, the whole world seems to be spread out farms and woodland, reaching off into infinity.

Below, in the nearer foreground, at the bottom of the cliff, is the mass of factories, warehouses and packing houses, and the appalling web of railroad tracks, crammed with freight cars, which form the Kansas City industrial district, and which, reduced by distance, and seen through a softening haze of smoke, resemble a re-lief map—strange, vast, and pictorial. Beyond, more distant and more hazy, lies the adjoining city, Kansas City, Kas., all its ugliness converted into beauty by the smoke which, whatever sins it may commit against white linen, spreads a poetic pall over the scenes of industry—yes, and over the “wettest block,” that solid wall of saloons with which the “wet” state of Missouri so significantly fortifies her frontier against the “dry” state, Kansas.

So far, Kansas City has been too busy with her money-making and her physical improvement, to give much thought to art. However, the day will come, and very soon, when the question of mural decoration for some great public building will arise. And when that day does come I hope that some one will rise up and remind the city that the decorations which, figuratively, adorn her own walls, may well be considered as a subject for mural paintings. I should like to see a great room which, in-stead of being surrounded by a frieze of symbolic figures, very much like every other frieze of symbolic figures in the land, should show the splendid sweep of the Missouri River, and the great maze of the freight yards, and the wonderful vistas to be seen from the cliffs, and the rich, rolling farm land beyond. How much better that would be than one of those trite things representing Justice or Commerce, as a female figure, enthroned, with Industry, a male figure, brown and half-naked, wearing a leather apron, and beating on an anvil, at one side, and Agriculture, working with a hoe, at the other. Yes, how much better it would be ; and how much harder to find the painter who could do it as it should be done.

In view of the enormous activity with which Kansas City has pursued the matter of municipal improvement, and in view of the contrasting somnolence of St.. Louis, it is amusing to reflect upon the somewhat patronizing attitude assumed by the latter toward the former. Being the metropolis of Missouri, St. Louis has the air, sometimes, of patting Kansas City on the back, in the same superior manner that St. Paul assumed, in times gone by, toward Minneapolis. It will be remembered, however, that one day St. Paul woke up to find herself no longer the metropolis of Minnesota. Young Minneapolis had come up behind and passed her in the night. As I have said before, Kansas City bears more than one resemblance to Minneapolis. Like Minneapolis, she is a strong young city, vying for State supremacy with another city which is old, rich, and conservative. Will the history of the Minnesota cities be repeated in Missouri? If some day it happens so, I shall not be surprised.