(KC 1900 Series: # 3)
I had always wondered about the phrase “Kansas City Spirit” – where it came from, and what it meant. I knew the former wouldn’t be too hard to find, but I figured the latter would be impossible to answer. Still, when I learned that it was commonly accepted that the phrase emerged from the Kansas City Convention Hall fire story, the whole phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes motif, I decided it was a good time to explore those questions in the context of this event.
In upcoming posts, the subject of that spirit comes up often, which gives a chance to see the small, singular ways the theme of Spirit is used to a purposes other than rallying the citizenry. This story is more about humans than buildings. We’re guaranteed to run into occasions when the people are tested and prevail, as well as occasions where “better angels” are ignored in favor of expediency, pecuniary interests or personal aggrandizement.
The Spirit of Kansas City by Clara Virginia Townsend
First, let us recognize the poem for what it is – a distinctly 19th century poem filled with nods to romanticism, individualism, natural beauty, myths and legends, wholly dependent upon meter and rhyme, and unapologetically in praise of place. It extols history even as it glosses over it. And it was very, very popular. I found this poem by Clara Townsend as the opening entry in noted local history tome, Charles Deatherage’s 1928 Early History of Greater Kansas City. The poem was the winner of a local poetry contest in 1915. The phrase “Kansas City Spirit” was certainly applied to the rebuilding efforts of the Convention Hall in 1900, but it was not the first time. The phrase was used in both the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Times as early 1885, in reference to earlier efforts at becoming an exposition city.
Some point to the opening of the Hannibal Bridge, the first train bridge to cross the Missouri River, as the probable source. Well it may be, but I have found no contemporary document that uses that phrase. Whether it’s either of these choices or another entirely, two things are clear: the use of the phrase “Kansas City Spirit” clearly predates the construction and reconstruction of the Convention Hall, and its earliest uses all pertain to characteristics having to do with commercial and industrial projects and the city’s skill at using such projects to promote itself.
But I’m really less interested in the “when” than the “what” and “why” of the idea of a Kansas City Spirit. And because of its association with the Convention Hall of 1900, I’m going to look for it in its various forms in some of these Convention Hall stories. I don’t expect to answer anything definitely, but it’s still worth exploring. The idea of having “spirit” allows for broad interpretation of meaning, making the phrase both practical and poetic. “Spirit” is the can-do attitude, a warm aura of optimism and determination. It’s also the fighting spirit, akin to “can-do” but decidedly more about advocacy. “Spirit” is ephemeral in nature, too. It evokes thoughts of resurrection, and themes of firm resolve and overcoming hardships. In short, “spirit” captures all that we all want to believe is within us. But to embrace the idea of a “Kansas City Spirit” based on the earliest experiences with self-promotion requires us to embrace the less-than-honorable efforts that also made the construction of a major bridge and a spectacular hall possible – political maneuvering, side negotiations and the investment of power and authority in those who sometimes abused the position. It takes a lot of things to put the “do” in “can-do.” Not all of them are pretty.