Safe and friendly, but frustratingly conservative. Too much congestion, yet hardly any traffic.
By SARAH SMITH NESSEL
Special to The Star
You can learn a lot of conflicting things about Johnson County from an idle Facebook inquiry and a casual conversation with neighbors. Our housing prices are either unbelievably low or way too high, depending on where you’re moving from. The people? Refreshingly authentic or infuriatingly pretentious — take your pick.
Perspective is everything, of course. Kansas natives from small towns see Joco in an entirely different light than natives of major coastal cities, although pretty much everyone sees that Old Town Lenexa and downtown Overland Park are starkly different from Leawood and Mission Hills.
If you don’t think moving from one part of the county to another can reshape your life, just ask the friend of mine who fled what she called the financial stress and isolation of Olathe for the convenience and peacefulness of old Overland Park.
Joco certainly manages to bring out some pretty strong emotions, given that it’s a fairly typical suburban area in an average-sized American metro. One Dallas transplant was astounded at how “we got so much more house for our money here” and added that “we lived there for 10 years and it never, ever felt like home. We lived here 10 minutes, and it did.”
She’s apparently unaware that she lives in “big-box suburbia HELL,” as another friend put it. Hell’s northern boundary is 87th Street, in case you were wondering.
It’s those big-box stores dominating the southern part of the county that always generate the most emotion. Well, that and the “in-your-face religion,” as an acquaintance called it a few months ago, shortly after she’d moved here from Philadelphia. (And she hadn’t even been here long enough to know about our big-box churches.)
Sometimes, it’s the little things that throw people. Like most native Midwesterners, I’d consider it extremely rude not to say hi to a stranger on the sidewalk, and I often strike up conversations when I’m in line at stores. That’s what weather is for, after all.
But as I’ve been told repeatedly through the years, you simply do not say hello to strangers back east. Ever. So I can see why ultra-friendly Kansas suburbia can be a bit jarring if you’re a newcomer from, say, New York. Eventually, you’ll realize we’re not trying to start a fight or sell anything. We truly are just being friendly. And as my husband learned upon moving here from the other coast, that thing some drivers do is not a rude hand gesture. It’s called a wave. It’s a form of greeting. Relax.
You’ll have plenty of opportunity for that relaxation, since everything here closes at an outrageously early hour. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know, since I’m one of those early-to-bed people for whom Johnson County apparently was designed. That’s why I honestly hadn’t noticed, until someone pointed it out, that Joco also lacks a bit in the live-music department.
I do have vague memories of being annoyed, back in my night-shift years, that there was no place near my house to grab some decent carryout at 1 a.m. Delicious, hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, the kind that have been in the same family for generations and draw a crowd of regulars, barely exist here. And Kansas liquor laws? Those were written by people who apparently indulged in a bit too much of the substance they were trying to regulate.
But the biggest drawback about Joco — and the Kansas City area in general — is the lack of rail transit. There comes a point in everyone’s life when it’s time to hang up the car keys, and if I’m lucky enough to reach that age, I intend to do the responsible thing. Don’t waste your time trying to get me on a bus — not gonna happen. The lack of any option that doesn’t involve tires and gasoline may well send me packing when it comes time for retirement, if not sooner. And I’m not alone.
Until then, though, I will appreciate the good schools, the cleanliness and the safety that Joco offers. (I was going to add “and the beautiful trails and green spaces,” but then I looked at my notes and realized that some people consider Joco a “concrete jungle.” Those are people who love nature far more than I.)
I’ll continue to say hi to strangers, and to roll my eyes when people complain about “traffic.” I’ll keep trying to find good restaurants that aren’t owned by some distant, faceless corporation. I’ll brag about my son’s school, and I’ll take deep, calming breaths as ultraconservative legislators keep getting elected. I’ll wonder what will happen to that school, and all the others in Kansas, if elections keep going the way they have been.
No place is perfect, I’ll tell myself. Right now, the good things about Joco outweigh the bad, at least for the two-income parents of a child in elementary school. I hope things stay that way.
Freelancer Sarah Smith Nessel writes The Bubble every week.