By Kevin Klinkenberg
About nine years ago, I made a decision to leave Kansas City and move to Savannah, Georgia. It wasn’t an easy decision.
With so many personal and professional connections here, I knew I’d be giving up a lot. But, I felt I needed a change of scenery in the depths of “the meltdown” as some of us like to refer to the previous recession. The years 2009 and 2010 were not the best of times.
Last month, I came back. This time, it’s not just me, since I’m now a husband and a father.
People ask me frequently, how does it feel to be back? My answer: it’s a little strange. In some ways, I’m a tourist in my own town. In other ways, it’s like putting on a comfortable, old shoe.
In just a month or so, I’ve already observed there’s much more positive energy in the city than I ever remember. The civic pride is obvious, and exciting to see. “KC” is everywhere. This just wasn’t the case even a decade ago.
Many more people are experimenting with new ideas and concepts. The entrepreneurship is tangible. There’s a youthful energy that wasn’t present 20 years ago, or even 15.
Improvements in the core of downtown have spurred people to activate more peripheral areas. Places where people tried and often failed 15 years ago, now have a chance to succeed because there’s more critical mass generally of people in the urban core.
West Bottoms, East Bottoms, Columbus Park, 31st and Troost, North KC, KCK – the list goes on. It’s a great case study in why a city needs a strong downtown. Without it, the adjoining areas can’t truly thrive, either. You simply need the bodies.
In our case, it’s also what the city used to have, as recently as the 1950s. It’s not outlandish to think we can at least recreate the urban activity of Kansas City in 1947, especially since the metro population is more than double of that era.
Twenty-five years ago, the city was frankly, depressing. Downtown was not a happy place to be. The focus was still largely on suburbanizing the city.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it, which I’m too old to do now anyway. There’s an awful lot we loved about Savannah. In my not-so-humble-opinion, it’s the most beautiful city in North America (at least the pre-WWII parts of the city anyway.)
For an urban design and architecture geek like me, Savannah is a never-ending delight. I wish KC had a little more of the charm, the timelessness, the walkability and the beauty of Savannah. But I’ll leave that for another day.
The good news is, there seems to be a new attitude here in the Heartland.
I can sense much more optimism, more creative spirit and more urban “want-to” than I’ve seen in my lifetime. The naysayers, those who say people in KC or the Midwest don’t want real urbanity, well, they don’t have much of a leg to stand on anymore.
People are voting with their feet and dollars. Some of us always felt this was the case, but status quo bias is very hard to change.
There’s also still much, much more to do. We’ll tackle that next time.
For now, let’s all revel in how much good has happened in recent years. For those who’ve made it all happen, and continue to make it happen, take a victory lap. You’ve helped KC take the next, important step.
Just don’t get cocky.
Kevin is an architect, urban designer and Principal of K2 Urban Design & Development. His 25 years of professional experience include leading 180 Urban Design & Architecture for a decade and leading a development authority in Savannah, GA.
He also writes occasionally at www.messycity.com. Kevin attended the University of Kansas and lived in Midtown KC from 1993-2010.
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