Touring Kansas City
by Steve Hartridge | 05 February 2020
Kansas City was built by concrete – lots and lots of concrete,” says our guide, who calls himself Tommy Holiday.
“In the 1920s and 1930s Kansas City was controlled by an unelected political boss called Tom Pendergast, an Irish immigrant. He effectively ran the city and his associates included gangsters, municipal officials and police chiefs,” says Tommy.
“He also owned a concrete company and ‘won’ all the important construction contracts – which is why the walls of City Hall and the County Courthouse are six-feet wide and the runway at the airport was laid on concrete 35 feet deep!”
I am on a Kansas City Gangster Tour and Tommy, dressed in a grey and black pinstripe suit, wearing a bowler hat and ‘puffing’ a wooden cigar, is telling us all about a period when the city was a metaphor for mob killings, underworld rackets, illegal gambling dens and had over 300 brothels.
As our tour moves through the city's neighbourhoods, we see historic hotels, grand suburban houses and mansions and drive by some of the city's 200-plus fountains ('KC' has the second most of these in the world, after Rome).
Our gangster tour had started at Union Station, a striking limestone and granite building with rose-brown marble floors that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Look closely and you can still see the bullet holes from the night in 1933 when four unarmed FBI agents were gunned down by gang members. Today it is the second-largest working train station in the country after Union Station in New York City.
Inside the station we enjoy fine dining at Pierpont’s, a classy restaurant known for its perfectly-aged steaks and seafood. Come Sunday morning we are back, this time at Harvey’s for a gargantuan brunch buffet featuring oysters, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, shrimp cocktail, waffles, cinnamon pancakes, fruit, eggs and more.
Across the terminal's Grand Hall, families are heading to Science City, an interactive attraction that will open a new Children’s Museum this spring, and a Genghis Khan exhibition featuring at the Bank of America Gallery. There's also a five-story ‘Extreme Screen theatre and a Planetarium.
Union Station was also where, due to its central location, U.S. troops gathered before heading off to fight two World Wars (heading west for the grim battlefields of Europe, or east for the horror of the jungles of Japan and the Pacific).
It’s fitting then that just across the street is the National WW1 Museum and Memorial. The 217-foot-tall Liberty Tower is a deliberately stark affair, perhaps something you would expect to see in Kazakhstan rather than America's Midwest. Inside the museum is a moving series of exhibitions on the war, its devastation and ultimate consequences. The museum is also the best place to see views of the city, which spreads out below all the way to the state line with Kansas.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition, when federal agents toured the country, closing down bars and smashing up distilleries and beer barrels. Between 1920 and 1933 alcohol consumption was literally driven underground - but not in Kansas City, where Irish Tom owned several breweries and distilleries and where there were more underground bars – or 'speakeasies' – than anywhere else in the U.S.
Today the Prohibition era is kept alive on Main Street where we sip bourbon-based Old Fashioned cocktails in Manifesto, a modern speakeasy housed in a building that dates from 1915. On the wall above one of the urinals in the gents is a plaque which says: “Al Capone pissed here”.
All that Jazz
Close to the Missouri River, in an area called East Bottoms, one of many city neighbourhoods being regenerated, we sip whisky at J. Rieger and Co. Before Prohibition this was the largest mail order whisky house in the U.S. and the area was called 'the wettest block in the world'. In 2014 it was brought back as Missouri’s first new distillery in almost 100 years.
We watch a video about the history of both the city and the building and see how the spirit goes ‘from grain to bottle’.
Kansas City trumpets its jazz heritage and in clubs like The Phoenix, close to downtown, we listen to the J. Love Band playing a mix of jazz, blues and soul. We visit the American Jazz Museum in the 18th and Vine Historic District. Here, underneath a collection of original neon signs that lit up this part of the city in the 1940s and 1950s, we learn all about legends of the genre like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and others.
In the same building the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum tells the story of how, between 1920 and 1955, black Americans had to play the nation's 'favourite pastime' in a league of their own as they were excluded from the all-white pro teams.
Along with jazz, Kansas City is also known for its barbecued meats – called BBQ. Jack Stack, housed in a converted building that was once a freight warehouse, is one of over 130 BBQ restaurants in the city.
Over a bottle of Boulevard beer, brewed a few blocks away (tours and tastings are available) Jack Stack's owner tells me how Kansas City barbecue is all about the dry rub with spices, and smoking the meat over a variety of woods for up to 18 hours before it is smothered with a thick tomato-based sauce.
Book it with... Vacations to America
A three-night break in Kansas City, with British Airways flights (via Chicago), accommodation at the Fontaine Hotel and a free Segway tour, is priced at £1,159pp, based on two adults travelling on August 6. vacationstoamerica.com
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