In 1935, legendary Kansas City “boss” Tom Pendergast set his Ready-Mixed concrete company to the task of paving over Brush Creek, a project that would stand as Kansas City’s most gratuitous for eighty years until challenged by the launch of the downtown streetcar line and the proposed new single terminal at KCI.
Pendergast’s Brush Creek project, part of the city’s larger ten year plan, had at least the underlying logic of providing jobs during the Depression and putting cash in the boss’s pockets. The presumably “better KCI,” like the downtown streetcar, is grounded in no such logic. Both are rooted in Kansas City’s historic insecurity and its soul-gnawing anxiety about what other people will think of us.
Four years ago, Mayor Sly James explained his motive for a new airport thusly: “We’re either going to be on the cutting edge or we’re going to be left behind. We can make this a purely, strictly, really cool Kansas City icon with all the stuff that we now know from every other airport that’s been built.” Translation: We want to be just like all the other cool kids. We’ve got a downtown just like theirs now. We have light rail just like theirs, if a little stupider. We have a Science City like theirs. And now we can have an airport just like theirs, too.
Pendergast would not have understood this argument at all, but what he would have admired is the way James and other city leaders marshaled all available forces–government, civic, media, racial minorities–to steamroller the opposition and sell a project few thought useful or necessary.
Pendergast would have admired too the way the BetterKCI people made stuff up like the promise of more direct flights. He would have admired how City Hall electioneered through its own internal communications systems. He would have admired how the Kansas City Star held “town halls” in which no opposition was allowed a seat at the table. He would have admired how the City Council jammed through a proposal that left almost all key variables unaddressed.
On November 7, Kansas City residents will not be authorizing the construction of a new terminal. They will be writing the city a blank check in the hope someone figures out what kind of terminal to build.
Pendergast converted a pleasant little creek into an open sewer that failed badly even in its stated goal of flood control, but he at least succeeded in his real goal, lining his pockets. The mayor and pals have no goal quite that concrete. They are just afraid not to be like everyone else. It is that simple.