When I first tell people I’m from Kansas, I usually get something to the effect of:
“How many times did a tornado hit your farm?”
I then try to explain that Wichita, where I grew up, was and still is the largest city in Kansas, sitting at about 450,000 people, and all of it developed, not rural. True, you can drive about 5 minutes outside of the city limits and be in wide open spaces, but I was raised in a house in one of the oldest neighborhoods in town, on a tree-lined street, next to the river, and a park, aptly called: Riverside Park (in the Sunflower State we don’t see much point in getting fancy with names). The neighborhood is situated in a small plot of land that for a short stretch separates the Big and Little Arkansas River (pronounced Our-Kansas, if you must know- to the point where when I see the state of Bill Clinton’s governorship written out, I have to pause to mentally correct myself). Because of its place in the middle of the river, it has historically never been hit by a tornado. At least that’s what people say the local Native Americans, the Wichita tribe, told the settlers. So far it has proven to be true. Suffice it to say, my childhood, while seemingly bucolic and thoroughly Midwestern, was not some Dorothy and Toto fantasy.
I recently flew home for the weekend to celebrate a milestone birthday of my Dad’s, succeeding in actually surprising the world’s most suspicious human- well, second to my Mom. I hadn’t been home since Thanksgiving, and as the years have gone on, I frankly don’t go home that much. My parents tend to come to DC, or we meet for a trip (usually to the beach), and getting to Wichita remains something of a remote and tedious journey. I tend to get stranded as well, several times I’ve had to rebook flight and gotten back days later. I wanted so badly to leave, it doesn’t want to let me go when I return.
When I started looking at colleges I didn’t look at a single school in Kansas. At one point I’d forgotten something on a drive up to see the college I ended up attending, and my father threatened to make me attend Wichita State University, because I clearly wasn’t capable of taking care of myself. It was a long drive and he was scared of his only daughter moving away, but the threat resonated in my mind for days. Not because WSU is a bad school, it’s not. But it was in Wichita. It was in Kansas. And neither of those places, I was 100% convinced, were where I belonged. Despite an excellent public school education, a loving family, and a wonderful group of friends, I was firm in my deeply held belief that Wichita was a great place to be “from,” but not a great place to “live.” At least not when your life had no foreseeable plans to settle down and start a family, which my life at 18 did not. After I left Wichita, I rolled my eyes at the mention of it, or Kansas. So culturally myopic. Full of Republicans.
But here’s what I didn’t appreciate about Wichita when I left it. It took me making comparisons to towns across the country, up to and including DC, to see it clearly. We had an enviable arts scene (Music Theater of Wichita is legitimately the premier summer stock training ground for Broadway stars, not to mention Music Theater for Young People, Wichita Children’s Theater where I “honed my craft” from an early age; and, our Art Museum has
Nighthawks four Hoppers and a Chiluly for goodness’ sake!), fun outdoor attractions (Cowtown, which is an educational olde timey western town, and Botanica, which is a truly beautiful collection of gardens, not to mention Exploration Place for the kids), a great annual festival (RiverFest- again, we’ve got a river, why get more complicated than that?) and delicious food from many nations (three words: deep fried flour tacos. Three more words: best pho ever).
Those are all great things, but weren’t enough to get me to stay in the town I grew up in. But the Wichita I left at barely 18, like a bat out of hell I admit, was not the Wichita I visited in August. And on this visit, I saw a new energy and vitality in the city that I hadn’t seen before. I could see the ghosts of the town’s former glory, reminded that in its heyday, when the airplane manufacturing plants were going full bore 24 hours a day, so were the movie theaters and bars, supplying a bustling commerce and social scene to young professionals, men and women. The brew pubs, the pop-up parks, the charcuterie bar, the public art spaces, all hallmarks of those great mid-American hipster meccas, like Austin and Nashville. We even have a bridge troll, like in Portland. It reminded me of Parks and Rec’s Pawnee, Indiana after Gryzzl had moved in–unironically.
It’s morphed politically as well. The younger, hipper crowd, those who’ve gone away and come back, or those that stayed and wanted to make it better, have brought with them a more egalitarian ethos that is inclusive and community-minded. Growing up it was the sort of place where people would gladly help their neighbors of any color or creed, but would still react with racism, xenophobia, and hatred towards groups of people in the opinion line calls in the Wichita Eagle newspaper each morning. What I noticed most was a change out into the common spaces, not just kindness on a micro level, but on the macro. In the midst of this vitriolic election, in the most traditional of Red States, I was exceedingly proud of my town for turning a protest into a cookout, with cops and the community coming together. Not that there isn’t a time for protest, there definitely is. But Kansans believe things can usually be solved by looking someone in the eye (preferably over a hunk of meat). Even if CNN did report we were in Nebraska…
Every place my parents showed me, every new building or business, I felt like there were phantom memories-opaque, younger versions of me riding my bike, or singing in my Toyota Corolla, or walking out of class at East High, just out of the corner of my eye. What would those other Halas be doing now, if they’d stayed? Where else might they have gone? If Wichita can reinvent itself, could I? I left because I wasn’t planning to settle down and have a family, I didn’t want to be surrounded by picket fences and ranch houses. But it’s a bit of a chicken or the egg dilemma-do you come (or stay) in places like Wichita because you want that sort of life, or does that sort of life happen when you come (or stay) there?
I’ve been gone from Wichita longer than I lived there. What does it mean to be from a place? Especially when that place has changed. Wichita has grown up a bit, into something hip, comfortable, accessible, and community-minded. But I suppose, so did I. We’ve both softened around the edges. Learned to see more beauty in the middle spaces. And still appreciate the singular pleasure of a deep fried flour taco (Connie’s, Cortez, or Felipe’s, you take your pick).