Jeneé Osterheldt

Kansas City, I love you, but it's time for me to move on

1729 Grand Blvd. has been my work home for 16 years.
1729 Grand Blvd. has been my work home for 16 years.

Sometimes Kansas City feels like your favorite pair of old jeans.

They look good, though they carry with them the rips, tatters and wear of life. They know what works and hide what doesn't. You push your hands into the pockets and find memories of joy, anger, sadness and peace. Love is stretched and washed into the denim.

It doesn't matter how much you grow, these are your good jeans. So you lie on the bed and suck in your gut and conquer the zipper and yank the button into the hole. Sweet victory. You're rocking them.

But those jeans don't fit anymore.

Kansas City is prettier than it's ever been since I blew into town 16 years ago with a VW Beetle full of clothes, an iMac and less than $200 in my bank account.

Mary Lou Nolan, head of the features department then and one of my earliest inspirations, lent me a cot to sleep on. I had no furniture.

I was 22 years old when The Kansas City Star hired me. I said I'd be gone by my 25th birthday. I made a pact with my sister-friend Pammy, a copy editor at the time. It was supposed to be a quick two years at our first job. But it's easy to think you have it all figured out when you're 20-something.

I wasn't big enough for my britches back then.

I'd hardly seen much outside of where I grew up, around Virginia, Washington, D.C., and trips along the East Coast. There was much to learn. And the city, the paper and the people were willing teachers. They taught me humility, humanity and the subtle art of happiness.

My first year on staff, we had many features sections, and I wrote for them all, even Kid City Star. I was a nightlife columnist, a music writer, the hip-hop girl and a professional pop culture junkie.

It wasn't about finding the right fit. It was about learning to write for everyone.

It took time for me to break out of my comfort zone of the young, fun and fabulous. But I grew into my voice, even as readers grew to love and hate me. I pushed beyond happy hours and feel-good profiles and started to tackle the oppression, brutality and injustice that birthed the hip-hop culture that raised me. Trayvon Martin changed my life.

When he was killed, all I saw was every black man I know. And every black woman, too. All I could see is the white cop who pulled me over at a red light, blinded me with his flashlight and yelled, “Do you speak English?”

I knew this was not just a Florida problem. This was the systemic racism America is so comfortably built upon. This was why hip-hop was born in the first place, to give voice to the silenced, the marginalized, the poor and the black and brown.

It's not that I hadn't written about racism, sexism or equity before him. But Trayvon's death made it impossible for me to simply sprinkle in the uncomfortable discussions and keep the fun at the forefront.

We made magic, didn't we, Dumbledore? Sharon Hoffmann, my editor, I'll miss you. Tim Engle The Kansas City Star

People who used to love my work because it made them feel good started to cancel their subscriptions. They typed me letters and stamped them with hate. They whined about black-on-black crime, never once admitting that white-on-white crime is just as high. They emailed slurs and reminded me I was half-white, as if I owed them some sort of bigotry pass.

I didn't back down. We get up, put on our pants one leg at a time and push on. There are still people right there with you, marching forward.

You can't really practice life. You just have to live it. Maybe you stay the course. But sometimes growing up means switching things up.

Sometimes, there's no more stretch in the denim. It's not that you're too big. The jeans aren't too small. It's simply time to break in a new pair.

My mama always said Osterheldt women were meant to live near the ocean. So I'm headed to The Boston Globe. I'm off to the land of lobstah and the Celtics and traffic to continue to explore the intersection of arts, culture, identity and social justice in another city. I guess my Nieman year at Harvard wasn't enough. I need to get to know the whole town better.

The Star is home to some of the hardest-working journalists you'll ever meet. I wouldn't be me without them. My voice wouldn't be unapologetically in-your-face without my editor, Sharon Hoffmann. For the love of Hogwarts, is there no spell that allows me to take her with me?

I can't name every name. But they continue to teach me to push harder, dig deeper and be better.

But it's time to say goodbye. I have new ways to grow and new paths to walk. And I'll continue to keep Kansas City in the pocket that holds my heart.

It takes a village to raise a writer. A few from my tribe (from left): Kady McMaster, Kathy Lu, Steve Paul, me and Sharon Hoffmann. Reed Hoffmann
Jeneé Osterheldt, signing off as a Kansas City Star culture columnist. On Twitter: @jeneeinkc