a charlotte street 15 year anniversary project considering the history and future of artist-driven pioneering in Kansas City and the changing nature of the city's "frontiers"
How is it that you and I are still here? Trying to find the frontier in a town in which all signs of it have been erased. Now all that’s left is a lingering tension, like a catgut tennis string ukulele buzzing in our ears with the highway traffic whooshing by.
How many times have we asked ourselves if we took things far enough?
You know the Kafka quote that the point we need to reach is the point beyond all return. We all like to think that’s where we’re headed. But are we? Or do our efforts amount to no more than furtive sneaks across the border, returning home to wake up safely in our beds the next day.
What was I burning through all those nights? My headphones steaming, my head on fire. Nights of mazurkas and streetlights, long walks I experienced as short films.
At night I find a sense of unity that escapes me in the daylight. I’m at peace with the city and everyone in it, past and present, carrying on imaginary conversations with the people they named the streets after. I’m in the middle of one of those nights right now, but I’m not sure how long it will last.
Last Saturday I walked the long way around the wooded hillslope of Rosedale Park, through the valley of satellite dishes, until I felt a growing disbelief we’d ever populated these hills. Funny that my favorite spots in this city are the ones where you can almost pretend it doesn’t exist.
I’d be lying if I said I ever planned to be here, would be lying if I said I ever had a plan. Are you someone who believes we’re here for a reason? I don’t care just as long as I can find one.
We’ve heard all we ever need to hear about the open doors, the cheap rents, the down-to-earth folks, our immanent and permanent sense of possibility. But still we keep seeking out those reminders, like kids who never tire of their favorite bedtime story.
So what do we do with it? What do we build? Making a din so we’ll get national recognition, and sometimes we do, but the lag between our shouting and the time it takes to reach the coastal capitals is where everything of value happens.
When I called from Europe to ask you what was happening in Kansas City you spoke about it like it was some kind of dream factory. Wandering through a land of quilts, record player and roadkill sculptures, blossoming dances in empty office buildings, ecstatic cheerleads and confetti, zodiac sashes, roasting marshmallows over steaming manhole covers, skateboarding down Beardsley in single-file zigzag patterns.
Chasing a legacy of decadence into the West Bottoms — a system of lofts, spaces and crews I can’t claim any real understanding of. Besides, it would be best if I didn’t talk about it. I’ve learned to let the underground be underground, leave it ready to emerge only if and when it chooses.
They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn, but nobody tells you how long that hour actually lasts. A time of perpetual reckoning: Am I going to keep doing this or am I not? Eventually a new horizon appears or a new deadline arrives. Besides, if I could have seen the end before I started I wouldn’t have set out in the first place.
I got so tired of pictures of fountains and sunsets that I decided to make a coffee table book depicting this city at its absolute worst — boarded-up schools and empty churches, broken bridges, sad houses, strip malls, lonely people, puddles. Instead I found something completely different.
I found hidden murals on concrete and beautiful brick ruins covered in leaves. I found people challenging the way we experience this place, not by what they said but how they lived. Especially people younger than me, unconcerned with the expectations of history or the pressures of the future. Unsure of everything but the need to create.
The art students, filmmakers, poets, cyclists, bloggers, street artists, adventurous and occasionally awful musicians — I had no idea how badly I needed them. Their energy. Their need to be different.
We’re all looking for brilliance, but maybe it’s better to be persistent. To keep living as starving artists even after we have better options. To keep the hidden city in plain sight.
I remember the day I came back from Hamburg, flying in a holding pattern above the Kansas City skyline at an angle I’d never seen it from before. Downtown looked so much more alone than it would ever admit to being. Not tiny, but precious, in the sense that it belonged to us.
You made sure I paid attention to my surroundings — the warped records hanging on the walls of my workplace, the gilded birds pressed into the sidewalk. Actively observing. Curating people, not pieces. I have never been a part of any particular scene, but a sense of community has always been present.
So have we taken things far enough?
Of course not. Of course not yet. That would have required more confidence, focus and patience than we’ve so far been able to muster. For now all we have is our dreams, our drive, and the benefit of occasional unexpected thunderstorms. Where the cold and hot frontiers collide.
Lately someone’s been playing a honky-tonk version of “Summertime” just around the corner from everywhere I’m standing. I’m about to head out on a midnight bike ride through the clouds of firework smoke hovering above county line. I’m not sure if the road does not end or if it just switches back so many times you can’t tell the difference.
For now the living archive is still very much alive. The inner frontier is a shifting destination, and the best way to find it is to stay in motion.
Good luck, and safe travels
“Letter to Kansas Citian” is part of a project called “Road Does Not End” at the Paragraph Gallery, curated by Robert Josiah Bingaman. This letter is written in appreciation of Kansas City artists, musicians and arts supporters, many of whom he first encountered at the Paragraph or at other Charlotte Street-sponsored events. A limited number of designed prints are available to visitors between June 15 and July 7.
Lucas Wetzel is the editor of Kawsmouth, a literary website which he started in April 2012 with his wife, Jennifer.