Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Charly Wilder discusses New York Times piece, '36 Hours in Kansas City, Mo.'

Posted By on Tue, May 18, 2010 at 6:00 AM

click to enlarge The lovely and talented Ms. Wilder
  • The lovely and talented Ms. Wilder

By now, everyone and their mom has forwarded you Sunday's New York Times travel piece "36 Hours in Kansas City," by KC native Charly Wilder. The New York University grad's portfolio is impressive; her work has appeared on the NYT's In Transit blog, in Spin Magazine, at Salon.com and in the Village Voice. We asked Wilder what it was like to pen a story about being a tourist in her hometown.

Was a travel piece on Kansas City a tough sell?

It wasn't so tough, actually. My editors are always looking for stories about places that have changed drastically in recent years, and the revitalization of downtown and the Crossroads District made Kansas City a pretty easy sell.

You grew up here, so you probably had a good idea of where you'd

spend your 36 hours. What destinations did you absolutely know you had

to visit?

I knew I'd go to the Nelson and that the Power & Light District

would at least need to get a mention (even if you couldn't pay me

enough to spend a Saturday night there). Of course there'd have to be a

barbecue joint, but I originally thought I'd endorse LC's, the gold

standard as far as my brothers and I are concerned. But then a few

weeks after I finished reporting, LC's got shut down for health code

violations, and my editor shockingly couldn't get into the idea of recommending a place where rats burrow tunnels through loaves of bread. So I went with Oklahoma Joe's.

Not that I'll stop eating at LC's. The rats just have good taste.

Did your plans change once you got here? Did you discover anything new?

Yeah, these articles always tend to throw you a few curves. I was thinking of writing about Lulu's as a good, cheapish lunch spot, but when my friend Caite and I went to eat there, our aggressively sullen waiter slapped down plates of food that might impress if you'd paid three dollars in a shopping mall food court. Maybe we hit them on an off-day. Who knows. On the other hand, I had never heard of Ortega's until my mother's friend Lou Jane Temple suggested I check it out. It was such a great surprise. Really authentic, cheap, and the family that runs it is so sweet. A class joint all the way.

What strikes you about KC when you return after spending time in Europe and bigger U.S. cities? Are there things you only notice when you've been away for awhile?

The city has changed a lot since I left for the last time, I think in 2002. Back then, downtown was completely dead, of course. But one of the things I love about Kansas City is that there are certain places that just really stay the same. I can go to Broadway Cafe and get a coffee from Kim or Asia, say hi to Venus at Arizona Trading Company and then go drink a High Life at Dave's Stagecoach, where the pool cues are still falling apart and John's still behind the bar. My mother [Deputy Court Administrator for Jackson County's 16th Judicial Circuit Court, Harlene Hipsh] grew up in Brookside, and once in a while one of her old friends will even stop me in a bar or restaurant and ask if I'm Harlene's daughter. I love that. I only left New York a couple of years ago, but most of my neighborhood haunts there are already becoming unrecognizable.

In writing about KC, were there any stereotypes that you hoped to correct? Say, if people assume it's a cowtown, did you make a point to go somewhere sorta metropolitan? (Conversely, were there any stereotypes worth enforcing? Personally, I don't like barbecue. Just sayin'.)

Nadia, that's blasphemy! Then again, I've always hated football, so who am I to talk? Yeah, I mean other than having to constantly explain that my Kansas City is actually in Missouri (I went to high school in Kansas, but was born and raised in Brookside and lived for a year in Westport), there are certain stereotypes that pop up constantly. A lot of New Yorkers like to think that the entire swath of land between Sacramento and Richmond is some overfed, illiterate wasteland, and though Europeans tend to find my Midwestern origins interesting and exotic, they still register surprise that I don't speak with a twang or have comprehensive knowledge of, I don't know, butter churning. So yeah, in part I wanted to show the sides of KC that upend those stereotypes. But at the same time, Kansas City is not New York or London. It's a bit rough around the edges, but there's a looseness and a homey kind of charm that is really what makes it special.

What's harder: writing a travel story about a place you're just visiting for the first time, or writing about a place that you're already familiar with?

Definitely the latter.

Any anecdotes from your 36 hours that didn't make the cut in the article?

There was this one incredibly decadent night at Le Fou Frog, where my father [politically savvy Kansas City attorney Harris Wilder] told the owner I live in Berlin, and we ended up getting an extraordinary (if somewhat manic) serenade in German from the pastry chef. I really wanted to get the restaurant into the article, because I think it's one of the best in KC, but ultimately it was one of the things lost in the editing process.

Do you know what destination you might pitch next?

Well, I just did a piece on boating in Berlin -- I think that comes out in June -- and I wrote a small article on this great quasi-souvenir shop in Athens that comes out next Sunday. As far as what's next, I'm in London right now, staying in Brixton, where I might try to do a piece on a big Jamaican food market. My boyfriend, Tod, used to go to school in Manchester, so we're thinking about heading out there, where I'd like to write about the music scene, some 20 years after the house scene hit mainstream. A couple guys from New Order and Factory Records just opened up a rock club, and there are a few other new ones cashing in on Madchester nostalgia.

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