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A look to the future, with a nod to our past

If you stand near the intersection of Jefferson and West Eighth Street, you can see Kansas City’s past and present.

It’s a tableau that takes you from meat and wheat to meet and greet.

From stockyards and grain elevators to conventions and tourism, much of what was and is Kansas City is spread before you, a living diorama of history.

On that bluff, overlooking the 76-year-old Municipal Airport site, you can’t see everything, of course.

You can’t see the fiberoptic network that made Sprint the metropolitan area’s biggest employer.

You can’t see the astonishing birth and rebirth of commercial and residential activity just behind you in a downtown that a few years ago was practically given up for dead.

You can’t see beyond the horizon to the suburban office and industrial parks or the residential areas that sprawl into 15 counties, stretching far beyond the core city’s 318.58 square miles.

Neither can you glimpse Kansas City International Airport, or Bartle Hall, or the Kansas Speedway and its surrounding explosive commercial growth, or the resurrected Union Station, or the home of Hallmark Cards and Crown Center, or the Truman Sports Complex, or the up and coming Crossroads arts district, or the famous Country Club Plaza, or any other civic bragging points.

But you can see enough to sense what made the Kansas City metropolitan area. You can imagine its economic evolution, as chronicled in 125 years of The Kansas City Star.

Start with the rivers. Due north below you is the Missouri, where a natural rock levee first beckoned trappers, traders and trails men to dock.

Swing your eyes left to the confluence of the Kansas, the Kaw, where the Village of the Kansa preceded the town of Kansas … Kansas City. Then, as now, the area thrives as a location known for moving people and things.

Time and again, this has been a crossroads of commerce, first fueled by river travel, later by trails, then rails, highways and flight paths. It has always been a magnet for traders and entrepreneurs who built a diverse economic bedrock.

Pick out the railroad tracks below. There are not so many now as there once were, but it’s possible to imagine locomotives steaming into the old West Bottoms train depot after clacking over Hannibal Bridge, the first rail crossing spanning the Missouri anywhere.

Look to your left, to the west. The stockyards and packing houses that once fouled the air are gone. But, despite (and even partly because of) at least four major floods that have inundated the lowland, warehouses and distribution centers now dot the plain, increasingly better protected by flood-control systems.

Farther west, hulking grain elevators announce Kansas City, Kan., just across the viaduct that first linked Missouri to Kansas in 1907.

Follow the interstate over the Lewis and Clark viaduct that allows such passage now, and you could exit toward the General Motors assembly plant, a manufacturing giant in the Fairfax Industrial District. The vehicles made there — and the ones at the Ford Motor Co. plant out of sight in Claycomo to the northeast — tell part of Kansas City’s story, too.

Those cars and trucks gulp up highways that race outward from your vantage point. They traverse a land-rich metropolitan area that’s laced with more interstate miles per capita than any other U.S. city.

But the roads weren’t built solely for metro commuters. Those roads move crops and commodities through the Heart of the Breadbasket, the Heart of America. The metro area lies in the nation’s middle, where goods being carried from coast to coast, and between Mexico and Canada, pass through. Because of that, catalog and distribution centers flourish here.

Subsequently, when the stuff being moved — information — traveled through telephone lines and cyberspace, the area still profited from its spot in the middle. The Central time zone and residents’ predominant manner of speech, freer of regionalisms than some places, made the area a magnet for call and processing centers.

Just over your shoulder are buildings where people — mostly members of the service economy that has supplanted agribusiness and manufacturing — are cocooned in air-conditioned towers.

Even closer behind you, on what’s long been known as Quality Hill, is something else that says Kansas City. It is the River Club, an exceedingly low-profile spot for business leaders to gather, a quiet haven where inherited wealth mingles with self-made success.

But it’s a longstanding characteristic of Kansas City that such men of means have looked beyond themselves. Former residents like J.C. Nichols, Joyce Hall, Ewing Kauffman, and yes, The Star’s founder, William Rockhill Nelson, are legendary for their legacies of philanthropy or civic zeal.

They set standards for entrepreneurism and serving the public interest, using individual and corporate funds to build the community.

That’s not to say Kansas City of 2005 is Eden on the plains. You can’t overlook its socio-economic, racial, cultural, religious and political divisions, nor its nonprofit agencies and food pantries struggling to serve the needy. And, sometimes, if you visit this overlook above the Missouri River, you may share its rock walls with a homeless person who calls the park “home.”

While this is a good vantage point to inventory Kansas City’s past and present, it’s also fine for contemplating which crossroads beckon the city forward.

On the occasion of Kansas City’s centennial, someone penned this observation in the June 4, 1950, edition of the then 70-year-old Kansas City Star. With only modest updates, its words ring true today.

In one brief century Kansas City has grown from village to a great metropolitan center. Agriculture and industry have marched hand in hand to create a prosperous population in homes of comfort and beauty. Religious, educational and cultural institutions have multiplied.

With this splendid heritage Kansas City enters on its second century. All its foundations are still here. It has everything on which to build: immense manpower inspired by the old faith, every natural resource, grain, cattle, coal, oil, gas a vastly widened new empire calling for the product of its industry.

The trend toward centralization and a stabilized agriculture makes this central location in a network of rail, truck and air ways more than ever strategic. Destiny points the road.

What was done by the pioneers can be achieved many times over by their successors inspired by the Kansas City spirit.

Diane Stafford’s maternal grandfather and great-grandparents once lived in the neighborhood that preceded Quality Hill, just a few blocks from the overlook point described here. She often has visited the site, part of Case Park, with her parents, her husband and her children. Stafford is the workplace and careers columnist for The Star. Now assigned to the business desk, she has served in a variety of editing and reporting positions since she joined the staff in 1974. She is the author of the book Your Job: Getting It, Keeping It, Improving It, Changing It. A Kansas City native, she earned her master's and bachelor's degrees at Stanford University. To reach Diane Stafford, call (816) 234-4359 or send e-mail to .