One Saturday evening early in the summer, 32-year-old Rachel Cahill went to Kauffman Stadium to see the Royals take on the Indians.
Cahill went to the game with Amy Laws, one of her best friends from St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Rounding out the group was Laws' fiance, T.J. Meyer, and his father. It was a gorgeous night, and as they drove over to the stadium, they joked about Laws and Meyer showing up on the Kiss Cam.
As they parked in the stadium lot, another car pulled in behind them. Out stepped the brother of one of Meyer's childhood friends from Wichita. Surprised by the coincidence, they chatted for a few minutes before the guy from Wichita went into the stadium.
Early in the game, the Jumbotron displayed a shot of Sluggerrr handing out hot dogs to the crowd. Onscreen, Laws saw her cousin and his family behind Sluggerrr. Then, midway through the game, the Kiss Cam operator walked by them, and Laws and Meyer got their moment on the big screen. Laws' phone rang. It was her cousin, telling her that he'd just seen her on the Jumbotron.
Not long after that, Laws and Cahill went to the restroom, where they ran into Molly Brown, the sister of one of their high school friends. "We saw you guys on the Kiss Cam," Brown said to Laws.
Back at their seats, Cahill looked up later to see Brown and her family on the Jumbotron.
"It made you feel like the stadium was supersmall that night," Cahill says.
Kansas City is a big small town. We hear that a lot.
According to some people who grew up here, that means overlapping social circles, smaller degrees of separation and the certainty of seeing familiar faces everywhere. It also means that gossip spreads quickly, people have to tread carefully, and long-held grudges can follow them wherever they go.
Good or bad, it shapes Kansas City.
In summer 2007, Cahill, her high school best friend, Kelly Connealy Bishop, and Kelly's husband, Robert Bishop (an occasional contributor to The Pitch), appeared on VH1's World Series of Pop Culture.
Only 16 teams from around the country made the cut for the show's second season. Cahill and the Bishops were elated to go to New York to compete. During the tournament, their team, Wocka Wocka, defeated three others to reach the championship round. Sadly, they lost the title — and $250,000 — to the Twisted Misters from New York City.
Wocka Wocka wasn't the only local team on the show. Westerburg High, which made it to the quarterfinals, consisted of Lawrence residents Andy Morton, J.D. Warnock and Eric Melin.
The weekend after Wocka Wocka's members found out they had made the cut, the Bishops went to a party in Lawrence and told everyone their exciting news.
"We're going to be on it, too," Morton replied with disbelief.
"It was very weird that we ended up flying to New York with this other team we knew," Cahill says.
Cahill has spent most of her life in the Kansas City area. She grew up on both sides of the state line and headed to the University of Kansas after she graduated from Aquinas. After KU, she moved to New York City, where she worked for MetLife and eventually decided to get a master's degree in education from Fordham University before coming back here to teach.
Living in a big small town, she says, "means that I always have the possibility of running into people I know."
And there are drawbacks. "It can be uncomfortable at times as a teacher," she says. One night at the American Royal, she turned around and saw the parents of a student. "I'm like, how many beers have I had? I felt like I couldn't talk to them."
Dating can be a challenge, too — she feels like she has already met everyone. "Or, when you do meet someone, somebody else knows him and can tell you all about him. It's weird but also helpful. Like that night I ran into a guy I had wanted to date and Robert was able to tell me that he's got a girlfriend."
After World Series aired, people suddenly seemed to know where she and the Bishops went to high school and college. "They were all wanting information about us," she says. Washington Elementary School, where she teaches, flashed her picture on the big screen at its convocation last year. "That was pretty cool that my school district wanted to claim me," she says. "I guess I didn't embarrass them too much."
When KC's Ron Mayer appeared on The Bachelorette last spring, Cahill learned that her sister was one of his friends. Then Cahill discovered that she had met Mayer's ex-wife through another connection.
"That totally makes sense in a town like Fort Dodge, Iowa, where my grandparents are from," she says. But in Kansas City? "We're pretty big. But we still have this idea that we're close-knit."
For some people who grew up here, Kansas City can feel claustrophobic. The urge to get the hell out of town strikes, and they move elsewhere. But there's often something that draws them back — family, friends, job opportunities, the chance to contribute something to their hometown.
It's a hot weekday afternoon, but Carman Stalker looks cool and chic. She's sporting a dark-green embroidered lingerie-style top over jeans, and her dark-caramel-colored hair with blond streaks is partly pulled back. The 34-year-old runs WearHaus, a monthly fashion market. On the first Thursday of every month, she recruits a rotating roster of local designers to sell their creations at the Velvet Dog. In October, she's teaming up with Haute Market to sponsor a Week of Fashion.
"I've always been interested in fashion," Stalker says. "That's the only reason I ever made it to high school every day — so I could show off my outfit." She grew up in Independence and graduated from Truman High School. After getting her degree in communication studies (with an emphasis in PR and marketing) from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, she went to Chicago to work as an event planner for an entertainment company. A couple of years later, she moved to San Diego.
She had trouble finding a PR job in California, though, so she started making and selling handbags. Soon she began to realize that artists and designers didn't know how to promote themselves. Having planned events in Chicago, she knew how to put on a show. "A little show turned into a big show turned into a bigger show, and that's pretty much how WearHaus started," she says.
But she still had trouble finding a job, and San Diego wasn't the cheapest place to struggle. Then her father died. That's when she realized that she didn't want to be so far away from her family. Plus, Kansas City had changed while she was gone — the Crossroads was growing and all sorts of arty events had popped up — and she felt like she was missing out on a renaissance in her hometown. At the end of 2004, she moved back and started the KC version of WearHaus.
Word spread about her new venture. Soon people started contacting her. She now has almost 300 people signed up as designers. She attributes this to KC's small-town habit of spreading news fast.
"It's always the question when you're in a meeting or you're talking about somebody: 'Oh, you know so-and-so? Yeah, she's friends with ...' and you end up realizing how small Kansas City is."
In July, Stalker went to an art show at Fringe Fest. She was walking around and started talking to a couple of the artists. They asked her name.
"Oh, I'm Carman," she told them.
"Carman Stalker? You're with WearHaus, right?" they replied.
"It's like you're like a celebrity in Mayberry or something," she says. "It's kind of nice — it feels good that people recognize and appreciate and support the people who are actually trying to do something good for the city."
Stalker says she recently met with Jeff Fortier of Mammoth Productions, a music-promotion company, and they talked about things they want to do so that Kansas City will be recognized as a cool place to live.
"If all those people who have that vision start aligning themselves and start working together, it could maybe become more of a big city and less of a small town," she says. She says she has seen a slow convergence toward that goal from different artists and designers around town. "Once we do that, the shit's going to hit the fan. In a good way."
For 30-year-old John Teasdale, running into someone he knows is so common that he doesn't even think about it anymore.
He remembers going to Arrowhead for the big Kansas-Missouri football game on November 24 with his two brothers and his sister-in-law. In the vast parking lot, which was packed with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 revelers, they kept running into family and friends. "It was wild — it didn't matter if you had MU or KU on because you all grew up together," Teasdale recalls.
One of their stops was the Orscheln family tent, where Teasdale ran into about 20 people he knew. "It was the whole Rockhurst and St. Teresa's people," he says.
His father, Joseph, was governor of Missouri from 1977 to 1981. John lived in the governor's mansion until he was 2 years old. After Teasdale was defeated in 1980 by Kit Bond, the family moved back to Kansas City. John grew up near Red Bridge and went to St. Thomas More for grade school before attending Rockhurst High School.
He went to college at the University of Notre Dame — then came back to Kansas City after graduation. He's now director of operations at DeLaSalle Education Center, an alternative private high school. He's also active in the philanthropic scene, now in his second term as president of the Bacchus Foundation. Throwing three big events every year as well as smaller parties, the all-volunteer group of young professionals raises money for an "annually selected beneficiary" such as the Rose Brooks Center, the Good Samaritan Project or the Children's SPOT at St. Luke's Hospital. According to Teasdale, Bacchus has raised more than $1.5 million for good causes in its 54 years.
He describes Bacchus as a "connector," a sort of stepping stone for future board members of institutions such as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art or the Lyric Opera. "We try to train people to work on a board, on a committee, to get used to fundraising, because every charity needs fundraising."
Kansas City's small-town characteristics help in those efforts. "Whoever said it's not what you know, it's who you know, is absolutely right," he says. He thinks people in this town value relationships, family connections and school affiliations. "It helps out businesswise and definitely socialwise," he adds. "It's great because a lot of people will vouch for others when those relationships are needed to do business or whatever it might be."
On a drizzly Thursday night, Bacchus hosts a meeting for its volunteers in the basement party room at Re:Verse. About 30 well-dressed people are milling about in the intimate space. A Bacchus organizer has paired everyone off for a get-to-know-you game. Each person is supposed to find out some interesting facts about his or her new friend before introducing that person to the rest of the group.
The mood is congenial. One woman lives in Excelsior Springs. "But she didn't want me to tell you that," her partner says. A woman in a brown T-shirt introduces a guy who turned out to be her high school crush. Another guy presents Bacchus member Mark Hassenflu to the group.
"You may know his mom. She's the Romper Room lady," he says. The room goes silent.
"You have to say that it's a TV show," another guy calls out.
How did Kansas City become this vortex of interconnection?
After all, the place is big. The Mid-America Regional Council defines the metro as covering more than 3,800 square miles across eight counties (Leavenworth, Wyandotte and Johnson in Kansas; Platte, Clay, Ray, Jackson and Cass in Missouri), with a population of approximately 1.8 million people.
Michael Frisch, an assistant professor of urban planning and design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, speculates that our being surrounded by a "rural hinterland" plays a role in shaping Kansas City's social life. As small-town opportunities decline, we get an influx of dwellers from outlying areas.
"I think we have a disproportionate number of people who are just one generation away from rural life here," he says. "And I think there's a higher percentage of that here than on average in the United States." He suggests that after moving here, these newcomers tend to re-create their small-town lives by developing intimate social circles. They also tend to live in places with more open space, like the exurbs.
Frisch, who moved to Kansas City in 2002 from Newark, New Jersey, says the big-small-town phenomenon isn't limited to Kansas City. When he lived in Manhattan, he'd run into friends on the subway. He attributes that to the density of New York as well as the nature of social circles to form in certain places that keep you running into your friends.
But he says Kansas City's small-town element is a little different. "I think it's more that we segregate ourselves into these social circles. It's partly negative — racially, we're very segregated, and it's by class as well." He says he tries to get his students to work in various parts of the city and urges them to meet different community leaders.
Another drawback is that decisions are sometimes made in smaller circles, which he thinks reflects the basic politeness of Midwestern conservatism. "People don't want to have contentious public meetings. So perhaps they [decision makers] figure out where they're going to end up and then say, 'Oh, we'll allow the public to participate.' But the decision has already been made in a small circle."
And sometimes, you have to watch what you say. Frisch uses himself as an example. "I lived in New York. I can be very critical, sort of big-mouthy, being direct. Part of that Kansas City nice, Midwest nice is, you might think before speaking. If you want to survive here, it's a good skill to learn."
Frisch has a few other suggestions to break down these barriers, especially for newcomers who find it hard to break into social circles. One is a call for new entrepreneurs to create new spaces where people can meet and mingle.
"Maybe everyone in Kansas City should think about trying to add two people to their social circle every year," he says. "I actually think that by exposing yourself to a few people who are different from you or are new to you, you're going to be surprised how it can change your outlook on things."
He says he came to Kansas City because he saw so much potential here. "It's big enough that significant things can happen here," he says. "But there are times when I wonder if it's just not big enough, and sometimes we're on that line."
Luis J. Garcia knows what it's like to be on that line.
At a party when the Power & Light District opened this past spring, he jokes, "I saw everyone I never wanted to see in my life again."
The 35-year-old Garcia is founder and creative director of Spyn Studio , a multimedia design and marketing firm; his business partner, Nicholas Segura, is Spyn's marketing director. Garcia is also director of the Base Gallery in the basement of the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center at 20th Street and Baltimore. The white-walled gallery leads to Spyn's office, a cool space that's painted dark red and white.
Garcia grew up in the Brookside-Waldo area. After attending St. Elizabeth School and Bishop Hogan, he moved with his family to Prairie Village so he could go to Shawnee Mission East High School. He went to Johnson County Community College, where he took theater and art classes. He signed with a couple of modeling agencies and began acting in Kansas City, appearing in theater productions, industrial videos and infomercials, but left for Los Angeles to pursue an acting career when he was 22.
In California, he realized that he wasn't ready for the intense acting scene there. He moved back home, then to Chicago. But his grandmother was sick, and he and his fiancée were having problems. He was 27, and he wanted to make a decision about his career. "I didn't want to be a server for the rest of my life or be mediocre at everything," he says. He came back to Kansas City and was accepted to the Kansas City Art Institute, where he studied graphic design.
Segura hails from Kansas City, Kansas. The 36-year-old went to Schlagle High School, then attended the University of Kansas, Johnson County Community College and Benedictine College. Segura stayed in Kansas City and worked in corporate training, sold advertising for Dos Mundos newspaper and did marketing for a couple of local agencies before founding Cultura Communications, which focused on the Hispanic market.
Garcia and Segura are third cousins, but they never met until just a few years ago. Since graduating from the Art Institute in 2004, though, Garcia has seen his social circles expand. He's friends with people from his acting days as well as with artists and advertising types. One downside to these overlapping social circles is that he'll sometimes run into clients with whom he has disagreed or other nemeses from the past.
"But that becomes an issue in itself if you're negative toward that person or you let it bother you," he says. "It's just better to face it or to keep your enemies close. Or something like that."
Overall, though, he thinks Kansas City doesn't have a small-town mentality. The people who live here want to do something more with themselves, he says. About a year ago, Garcia and Segura founded 385 Model + Talent, an ethnic modeling agency. When Garcia worked as a model, he was one of the few Latino male models in the city. He got a lot of jobs, but he couldn't work all the time for fear of being overexposed.
Now, more models are approaching 385, and Garcia hopes to develop a larger, more experienced pool of talent. "If you were to checkmark stuff that a big city would have, an ethnic model and talent agency would be one of them," he says.
One Thursday night, Carman Stalker lounges on a sofa on the third floor of the Velvet Dog. Next to her is her mom, Deborah Gipson. They're drinking beers and vodka and eating quesadillas. It's WearHaus night at the Martini Corner bar, and several designers have set up shop around the room.
In the cozy space, Halliday Bertram has two clothing racks. Her designs include T-shirts embossed with anatomically correct hearts, bowling shirts with leopard-print trim, and girly dresses decorated with heart- and skull-shaped patches. HumaNature Salon occupies two tall bar tables, one of which is topped with four mannequin heads with varying hairstyles. Silpada, the Lenexa jewelry company, is situated in one corner. LOVER cosmetics is giving women makeovers.
The night starts off a bit slow. As late-afternoon sunlight filters through the long windows, designers wander around to chat with one another. Bertram abandons her post to sit at a nearby table with Christian Schuster, who designs neckties for his label, ChristianMICHEAL. He sketches outfits in a blank notebook while she orders an appetizer. A little later, Bertram, who's clad in a strapless red plaid dress, goes over to the HumaNature area to get her hair done. Stylist Price Leatherbarrow starts transforming her shoulder-length red hair into a '40s pinup-girl style.
Leatherbarrow has his own big-small-town story. During high school (he went to Rockhurst, Shawnee Mission North and Lincoln Prep), he frequented the city's under-18 clubs. In the late '80s and early '90s, he and his friends went to Oasis on Bannister Road, Pogo's in Overland Park and Starz on Broadway. "The same people went to all of them. Then everyone turned 21," he says.
He moved to Nebraska when he was 22. Three years ago, he came back to Kansas City and eventually decided to go to beauty school in Gladstone. When he started looking for jobs, he went to HumaNature and discovered that he knew owner Amber Cristman from those underage-club days. "I'm sure we danced to New Order at one point or another," Leatherbarrow says.
"Twenty years later, it's like a reunion for me. They're all grown up, in their late 30s, and we all know the same people."
As the night progresses, more people filter upstairs to check out the shopping. The Silpada reps and their fans are drinking pink and light-green-colored martinis. A trio of women who have been drinking on the second floor come upstairs and get makeovers. The boyfriend of a HumaNature stylist lets another person experiment with extensions, so he has a long, skinny braided rat-tail emerging from his curly hair.
A couple of Stalker's friends from high school show up and join her in the lounge area. They talk about what sort of drinking games to play at a Beerfest-style party that some other high school friends are hosting over the weekend. They're calling it "Little Raytown Days."
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