Kansas City

Big Town on the Prairie

March 5, 2013

Most people think there are two Kansas Cities, in Missouri and Kansas. But a visit reveals that there are many more—cities within the city that straddles the state line. Begin at the fast-reviving Kansas City Power and Light district and downtown business district in Kansas City, Missouri, a stone’s throw from the Missouri riverbanks. From the Crossroads arts district at 19th Street, head through historic Westport to the 1920s-era Country Club Plaza, with its Spanish-inspired architecture, to Mission Hills in Kansas, a planned community. Developer J.C. Nichols bragged it was where “the formal meets the frontier.” These differently flavored districts share a passion for the arts, fed by the Kansas City Art Institute and the world-class Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

But for visitors it’s all about experience—and a gentle spelunk through vintage storefronts, galleries, and boutiques. Stopping for barbecue washed down with an artisanal beer, or a farm-to-fork fine dining experience in a classy restaurant, or a picnic harvested from one of the many urban farms and farmers’ markets, will set your compass for a memorable time.


Way downtown—any further and you’d be in the river—is City Market, with a farmers’ market every weekend, and nearby, the kind of old-fashioned general-store-cum-seed-merchant that gardeners love to poke around in. Called Planters Seed and Spice Company, and established in 1924, it still offers a wide range of practical and occasionally peculiar merchandise to the discerning garden shopper.

Head south, and tucked behind the train station and radiating out from the area between 19th and McGee streets is the Crossroads district (and also the area where an Irish farmer named McGee, one of the city’s founding fathers, built a log cabin and further extended the town’s boundaries).

First Friday weekends in the Crossroads are a monthly art festival, with gallery late-evening openings, street food, and live music. Here, too, is the Belger Arts Center; the Belger family’s Cartage Service corporate office is on the second floor of the century-old headquarters building, but the gallery, exhibiting contemporary American art, and the Red Star Studios, specializing in ceramic art, take up the rest of the space.

Just west of downtown is the West Bottoms Business District, where treasure seekers scout vintage shops like Bella Patina, Bottoms Up Antique Market, and Good Ju Ju.


Further south, in the Westport District, is Kansas City’s first green hotel, the Q Hotel and Spa. It offers yoga classes free to guests, so it’s easy to breathe away the tension of travel, and when you’re ready to head off, the hotel has a shuttle service—in a hybrid car, naturally—to the city’s main attractions. Cross the state line to suburban Westwood to discover the Eastern treasures of Asiatica’s shopfront and workrooms; their unique garments, many “upcycled” from vintage kimono textiles and other rare goods, are a mix of bespoke and readymade. There are also droolworthy handwoven and dyed scarves, art jewelry, and objets d’virtu to tempt you further. 

Several Kansas City restaurants are notable for their eclectic spin on farm-to-table. There’s Blue Bird Bistro, where a seasonal meal includes bison with blueberries, and rose-infused pound cake, made from organic flowers gathered locally—the neighbor’s garden! And Füd, serving organic vegan dishes prepared by owner chef Heidi VanPelt-Belle, who oversees the restaurant’s kitchen garden. Bluestem restaurant’s location, tucked into a corner at a busy intersection, may not look promising, but the food is full of surprises—a bit like the town itself. Owned by James Beard Award–nominated chef Colby Garrelts and his pastry-chef wife, Megan, Bluestem has menus that change regularly to reflect seasonal produce, often sourced from the Garrelts’ farm in Parker, Kansas.

Turn toward the east, and the century-old Arts and Crafts–style home of Project Living Proof is identifiable by its raised vegetable gardens in the front yard. Open for touring, the 3,665-square-foot home has been renovated to showcase sustainable building practices. The home boasts rain gardens outside, a solar-powered heating and cooling system inside, and environmentally conscious building materials throughout.

Head south and east some 30 miles to experience Powell Gardens, Kansas City’s botanical gardens, which include the 12-acre Heartland Harvest Garden. The largest edible garden of its kind in the country, it’s modeled after the famed French potager at the Château de Villandry in the Loire Valley and opened just 3 years ago. To get a bird’s-eye view, climb to the barn’s silo observation deck to fully appreciate the four stunning formal gardens laid out like a patchwork quilt, each one planted with fruits, vegetables, herbs, and native grasses and flowers.

Sample a spring recipe of Pea Soup with Crème Fraîche from Bluestem.

Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine April/May 2013.