Blue River Road is a scenic, tree-lined roadway that stretches through east Kansas City for about 10 miles — or at least it was until 2010, when heavy rains and flooding partially washed it out. Rather than repair the road, the city erected concrete barricades on either side of a .7-mile-long section and simply left them there. While the rest of Blue River Road remains open, the closed-off area (known as the “annex”) has been slowly overtaken by nature, debris and a variety of legal and not-so-legal human activities.
Blue River Road Annex is also the subject of exploration for artist-researchers Matthew Brent Jackson and Trey Hock, two professors who formed the Blue River Investigators. The duo has been exploring and leading tours of the Annex every Saturday as part of the Open Spaces art exhibit and will be doing so from now through October. I joined in the tour this weekend with a dozen or so other people, and while it didn’t feel particularly dramatic at the time, the walk provided a great opportunity for observation, reflection and discussion about the complex relationships between society and nature, legality and illegality, progress and decay.
Probably the most exciting part of the walk is the anticipation of pulling up to the gravel parking lot beside some mostly neglected soccer fields and following Jackson and Hock (both carrying walkie-talkies and wearing neon vests with “ARTIST” on the back) to the start of the route. Looking past the barricades into the overgrown roadway reminded me of the haunting early scenes of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” when you first glimpse the edge of the forbidden/radioactive/supernatural area known as “the Zone.”
The Blue River Annex is less foreboding — at least during the daytime — and the walk itself reminded me more of one of my favorite parks in Berlin, the Naturpark Südgelände, a former freight depot abandoned during the war and overtaken by nature in the following decades, eventually designated as a nature preserve with many of the original train tracks and industrial features still intact. Both the Südgelände park in Berlin and the Blue River Road Annex in Kansas City can be seen as examples of a “new wilderness” that springs from abandoned or unused urban-industrial areas — spaces that might not yet have any official designation, but which people will inevitably find uses for.
Jackson and Hock point out the natural species growing along the way (semi-comically referring to a humble plant as “old glory” and a patch of shade as “Little Valhalla”), but they are more interested in exploring the human activities that take place in the annex. During our tour, we saw dirt bike trails, firework debris, an abandoned tent with an open bible left beside a makeshift fire pit, road signs covered in bullet holes and graffiti — all kinds of evidence that closing the road to cars has opened it up to other uses. While the Investigators’ official attire and use of artspeak/academic language can feel a bit tongue-in-cheek (the annex is “a kind of national park” and the 1-435 underpass “a sort of cathedral”), their central question is a serious one: What happens to a road when it no longer serves as a road?
To explore this question yourself, join the BRR Investigators any Saturday at 4 p.m. through October starting at the lot by the soccer fields (I had some trouble finding the spot, but created a map link here). And for my friends and readers who aren’t in the area, I’d be curious what “new wilderness” areas have sprung up in your own home cities. Exploring spaces like this requires curiosity and caution, but is ultimately much more engaging than scholarly articles, podcasts or post-apocalyptic films. What you see on your walk will be different than what I saw on mine, but you’re guaranteed to see something. As Jackson and Hock are fond of saying, “the road always delivers.”
The other day, while reading a news article about millennials, I realized that I don’t know whether I am a millennial or not. Even Google gave me mixed messages. Some sites said the oldest millennials were born in 1982, others said 1981, and others just “early ’80s.” I had always assumed my affinity for Gen X sensibilities (clove cigarettes, coffee shops with bad coffee and good music, sarcasm, the Lower East Side) put me out of millennial range, but now I wasn’t so sure. For years I’ve viewed myself as millennial-adjacent, standing up to the haters by applauding millennials’ interests in sustainability, transit, gardening, craftsmanship, all-natural materials, technology, sincerity, etc. On the other hand, I appreciate having a certain remove. For example, if a twentysomething runs over my toes on a BIRD scooter while posting an Instagram story, I can raise my fist and yell “curse you millennials!” like an angry old man. While to some degree a label is just a label, what category we are placed in really can affect how we view ourselves and our place in society. It was topics like these that were on my mind as I walked around one afternoon and recorded the series of voice memos that became this poem published last week on Kawsmouth. Millennials: strange new species or just like us? If that isn’t a good subject for a news article, poem or blog post in the 21st century, I don’t know what is.
Recently our daughter (age 6, first grade) drew me a picture to hang up at work. It features a kitty, a desk, our family, some names, and a wonderfully detailed, green-clad, female wood elf.
In my lifelong doodling career, elves appear more than any other figure. I’d always drawn cartoons and enjoyed fantasy/adventure stories as a kid, so by the time I read Goethe’s “Erlkönig” in high school, elves, dryads, wood nymphs and fairy-folk had become my unofficial doodle-mascots.
So it is with great delight that I looked at her drawing and could see she has already eclipsed me in artistically rendering this same subject. Artistically, at least, my evolutionary purpose is essentially complete. Anything else I do in life can be considered gravy. Or better yet, salsa. I am really more of a salsa guy.
So it turns out that today is my half birthday. I never knew this, and never once thought about it until my kids asked about their own half-birthdays a couple weeks ago. But now that we’re here, I want to designate this as a starting point. The first entry in what I hope will be a “twilight of my thirties” bulletin of fun and interesting commentary, insights, jokes, musings, music recommendations, and marginalia. I’m sure you have other better things to read, but frankly, I need the exercise. Rather than a lengthy re-introduction here, I’ll leave you with the brief, unresolved meditation below, which I found in a recent notebook. Thanks for reading, and more soon.
I am my own start-up every day I get up and try to face the music hoping it isn’t too faint
Why do I mute it? drown it out? why don’t I listen
How a month-long concert bender restored my faith in humanity
Reality has been a bit much lately. Fires, floods, shootings, Trump: Each morning I look at my phone to see if it’s all over, but it only seems to get worse.
I’ve tried various palliatives — overeating, football, ibuprofen — but nothing seems to do the trick. At times I wish things would just go back to normal, but then I think about how, for many others less fortunate than me, “normal” has never had a positive connotation.
I have, however, found at least one reliably soul-restoring activity lately: live music. While it doesn’t blot out the darker aspects of humanity, going to a concert feels like a healthy immersion in its best qualities — a way to pull oneself from the brink of despair while also having a good time.
For these reasons, as well as the quirks of the concert calendar, I’ve been to more shows in the first few weeks of fall than I did the entire spring and summer.
My KC live music bender actually began in LA, where I saw a headlining set by Kevin Morby, an Overland Park native whose songwriting and stage presence have improved with each tour. Morby’s band includes Meg Duffy, one of the most interesting lead guitarists in indie music, whose ornate, soulful guitar lines give each song a sparkle not found on Morby’s earlier efforts.
These days, Morby and pals call Los Angeles home, and several people in the Teragram Ballroom crowd seemed to know all the words. Between songs, a guy behind me said to a friend, “He’s got like this Midwestern, Kansas City vibe going. I’m digging it!” Somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut. LA digs the KC vibe? Coolness, it would seem, is a moving target.
To my Midwestern eyes, Morby looked serious and focused, his songs straightforward and perfectly on point. During a short acoustic set, he played “Beautiful Strangers,” his song addressing the Paris attacks of 2015, the Orlando nightclub massacre and the police killing of Freddie Gray. Part folk song, part prayer, the song urges listeners to keep calm in the face of violence and terror.
Why is no one else writing songs like this? I wondered. Probably because it requires exceptional skill and heart. I’d always thought of Morby as a good songwriter, but this was great.
The song was still in my head a week later, when it became all too relevant once again. Reading the headlines about the massacre in Las Vegas, I felt instantly numb — the brain insulating itself from what it would prefer not to understand. Morby’s lyrics echoed: “If the gunmen come, or if I die too young, I’m full of love.” Midwestern? Yes. Better yet: human.
The next day, I bought a couple of discounted, last-minute tickets to see The XX at Starlight. It would be my first visit to the venerable Swope Park venue since I saw the musical “Camelot” as a 5-year-old (which, come to think of it, probably explains the Arthurian nostalgia I feel every time I catch a glimpse of the Swope Memorial).
Thirty years later, Starlight is still beautiful, its trees, fountains and faux-Venetian architecture a welcome relief from bars, televisions and the real world. It was a perfect setting for The XX, whose songs about vulnerability, empathy and hope somehow sound even more intimate amplified from the big stage. The music was much clearer than I would have expected from the outdoor stage, with intricate light displays refracted in rotating, mirrored panels.
In the dimness, I focused on objects that captured the light — a pink glow from the stage lights in someone’s cup of beer, a moth pirouetting above the orchestra seats, a nimbus moon holding court in the clouds left of the stage. This is full-on sensory escapism, I thought, realizing that I felt OK again. Everything was still wrong in the world, but the concert had put it all on mute. I knew that not everyone had the same privilege, but I decided to indulge anyway.
The band did not dissuade me. Bassist Oliver Sim told the crowd they hope people can leave at home whatever is causing them pain so that they can have a good time at the show. Each band member thanked us for being there, sounding sincere in the way only the British can. It’s hard to know how much Las Vegas (or Paris, or Manchester) were on their minds, but The XX seemed keenly aware of the physical and emotional vulnerability of performing in public, and genuinely grateful we were taking those risks alongside them.
Two nights later, at the Angel Olsen show in Lawrence, the vibe was more festive. It was Thursday night in a college town, and people were there to party, the triple homicide that happened outside the venue a week earlier seemingly forgotten. With her glittering jumpsuit, teased-up hair and playful stage banter, Olsen was in sassier form than her 2014 visit to the Riot Room, calling for tequila shots and joking about retiring to become a librarian.
Her music, however, sounded solemn, beautiful and very much of its time. On the climactic verse of “Woman,” a searing number about love and loss, Olsen sings: “I dare you to understand / what makes me a woman.” You can hear so much in that final syllable, which she stretches out with anguish, her voice soaring before plunging back into the noise of the band. It’s a dare (white, male) listeners like me may be willing to accept, while also acknowledging that we will never truly understand.
The local acts I’ve seen this past month have been no less impressive. At a reunion of Lawrence musicians in town for an October wedding, I was reminded of how special a performer Suzannah Johannes is, how weird and fun a Drakkar Sauna show can be, how perfectly a Fourth of July song pairs with PBR and a nagging sense of regret.
A showcase of local composers at the Folly Theater, hosted by the Charlotte Street Foundation, reminded me of how much musical innovation is alive in Kansas City. During a three-song set of new music, J. Ashley Miller ran his mythology-inspired lyrics through a vocoder, while Pat Alonzo Conway musically weaponized cell phones in the audience to stage an unexpected intro to the meditative tones of his gamelan ensemble. The upbeat, joyful compositions of Bolivian musical polymath Amado Espinoza showcased the scorching violin solos of Tina Bilberry, and bassist Jeff Harshbarger debuted a composition that appeared in his head while suffering from viral meningitis, performed by a dozen guitarists obscured in the recesses of the balcony level.
On a much smaller stage, a DIY showcase by local bands The Shy Boys and The Fullbloods, and Chicago group J. Fernandez reminded me that the best shows are often $5 and require drinking beer in an alley because the venue has no liquor license and nobody want any heat from the cops. I saw a lot of people I knew, or knew by sight, although none of us wanted to talk through the music. It was an ordinary weeknight show that managed to feel like something special, if for no other reason than KC’s own Kyle Rausch adeptly played drums in all three bands.
But much like my beer buzz that night, the invigorating effects of my concert bender eventually wore off. After a show at the Bottleneck by Brooklyn band Big Thief — my second show in a row that week — I woke up with a headache, an empty wallet, and a wife who had run out of patience. It was a good run, and I’d gladly do it again, but for the time being it was back to the more customary evening routines of loading the dishwasher and reading stories to the kids.
Still, it had felt good to stand in a crowd of strangers and friends — drinking, smiling and nodding along to the beat. Watching performers of all genres, genders and geographical origins share their talents, I was reminded of how our species, while capable of hate, destruction and violence, can also produce moments of profound beauty, harmony and vision. Even in times likes these, the shows must go on. And we, for our part, must keep showing up.
Addendum: Two new releases I’m super excited about — “Nothing Valley” by Melkbelly, the Chicago band my brother James plays drums in. It’s an amazing record. They’ll be in Lawrence Nov. 17 and KC on March 6. Earned some nice write-ups from The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Reader and Pitchfork. I also really like the new John Maus record. If you fit into that weird venn diagram of people who like leftist neo coldwave synth jams and also watch football unironically, this video will be perfect for you. And in case you’re wondering where the title of this blog post is from, allow me to (re)introduce you to my good friend Kevin Ayers.
Tonight I am up late in observation of this being the last night of the Entercom radio tower dotting the neighborhood skyline. Sectional dismantling of the main tower is scheduled to begin tomorrow. The Mayor of Westwood sent out a message the other day detailing the deconstruction process, pointing out that a radio tower has been on site since 1933. For a city of just a couple thousand, this is truly a historic event.
The tower’s peak has been a familiar presence in my backyard reveries, blinking red through the tree branches, a pattern whose meaning — if there ever was one — I never discerned. Once in a while you could see it get struck by lightning. The tower has kept good company over the years and I’m going to miss it. Still, if the school district does wind up building a new elementary school on the site, it would be hard not to call that an improvement. Only a few years ago they weren’t sure if Westwood View would stay open at all. Fortunately it looks like it will, and our daughter starts Kindergarten there next fall.
In the meantime, I’d like to propose that the smaller tower be preserved on site. Even if no longer functional, it’s like our own mini Eiffel tower, certainly much nicer to look at than the power lines and water towers that dominate residential skylines everywhere else. Once the main tower is gone, its cables cut and mounts uprooted, I would also like to see a good portion of the land restored to its pre-tower purpose: sheep farming. So far I have brought up the sheep farming idea to a few colleagues and even the mayor, though I’m not sure they took me seriously. But I actually think reintroducing sheep farming, or other agrarian activities, would be a progressive move. Look how popular Overland Park’s Deanna Rose Children’s Farm is. Families flock to that place like it’s the last working farm on earth. In addition to wool, the Westwood sheep would also provide a humble terrestrial counterpoint to the now-outmoded tower’s sonic, sky-spanning grandeur.
Even with the small tower, new school and working sheep farm, there might even be room for a few new houses. Possibly even — gasp! — a tasteful townhome or two. Whether to allow multiple family dwellings is currently a big issue of contention in my neighborhood, where people display “No Medium Density!” signs as if promoting some humorless new fad diet. I even thought about dressing up as “medium density” for Halloween last year just to spook the neighbors, and a couple times I’ve even sketched the words MAXIMUM DENSITY in the driveway using my kids’ neon sidewalk chalk. When I see the “no medium density” signs, I can’t help but wonder who exactly we are trying to keep out. Will it really destroy the fabric of the city if a few families who can’t afford several hundred thousand dollar homes are able to live in Westwood? I know there are good reasons to be wary of residential zoning changes, but I also think we should be open to discussion on the issue. (As always, feel free to do so in the comments, provided you use your real name).
My main argument, whether it be for sheep, diversified housing, or some other issue, is that a city’s character necessarily changes over time. We might not always like it, but we can make an effort to shape that change for the greater good. I’ve talked with developers, city planners and consultants who were impressed by progressive attitudes and approaches in Westwood, yet also taken aback at how much public opposition there is to things like townhomes or bike lanes. I’ve talked with residents who appear baffled by the notion that anyone would even consider challenging the single-family status quo. I’ve fallen on both sides of these issues myself at times, often rolling my eyes, if occasionally in opposite directions.
Cities and neighborhoods also go through cycles. Urban areas are becoming denser again, which has a ripple effect on inner ring suburbs like Westwood. The KC streetcar doesn’t extend to 45th and State Line like it did in my grandparents’ time, but at least there is a KC streetcar again. New business are opening, bolstered by people’s desire to walk somewhere close or locally owned. People ride bikes to work and want (deserve, I would argue) protected lanes. Even Woodside Village, the upscale apartment building I wrote skeptically about years ago on this very blog, has proven viable in attracting residents and tenants, while also encouraging new investment along the 47th Street corridor.
Earlier this evening I walked past the tower with my family and saw the sun set behind it for probably the final time. I’ll miss the tower’s gravity and lightness, the way it seemed to be a divining rod for whatever mood or atmosphere was hidden in the clouds. I realized I will *definitely* never climb it now, and not just *most likely never* climb it (a bit of a somber thought, as a former schoolmate died years ago after falling from its summit). On a positive note, I will finally be able to play my Fender wah-wah guitar pedal without signal interference from talk radio, sports scores and weather updates, which my 13-year-old self would be delighted by.
Yes, change comes to us all, even here in Westwood. Tomorrow the communications tower comes down, but the communication itself continues. More than any outward landmark, it’s what defines us as a city.
UPDATE: At 10:37 p.m. Tuesday evening, the tower was still standing. Now it is raining. I suspect it will still be there tomorrow, if maybe not the next day.
(All links courtesy of Shawnee Mission Post. In lieu of defunct radio stations and print newspapers that no longer cover neighborhood issues, I highly recommend subscribing to SMP for Westwood-related news and updates).
Recently a design of mine was featured on the MoBank Arboards, a double billboard canvas that features rotating visual art, photography and design from Kansas City artists. On the other side are two images by artist Jillian Youngbird. You can find them at 125 Southwest Boulevard near the old Hamburger Mary’s spot, just down the street from the westernmost Town Topic. My design will be up until June or so. I was excited to be part of this program, which is one of my favorite public art initiatives in the city. Thanks to MoBank and the Charlotte Street Foundation for the opportunity, installation, and overall support of local artists. Below is my statement about the Artboard, which you can either read or ignore in favor of drawing your own conclusions. I suppose there is no good reason you can not do both.
It’s easy to say what you would do in someone else’s shoes, but what about our own? What keeps us from doing what we want to do? From being who we want to be? Are these forces external, or do they come from within? To entertain one question is to invite a host of others.
For my Artboard, I wanted to present something that at first appears to be a marketing campaign until the viewer realizes it’s not actually advertising anything. Instead it poses a surprisingly personal question in order to encourage contemplation.
The backdrop is a panoramic photo I took in 2016 on the Rozarks Trails, designed by community volunteers near the memorial arch in Rosedale, Kansas. It’s a scenic place, but not overly dramatic — in the middle of the city, yet unseen by most. The natural beauty, light and detail are a reminder that the search for self is also reflected in our our outer environments.