Melinda Henneberger

Why is Kansas City’s ego so fragile? Don’t take USDA employees’ reaction personally

Employees protest plan to move USDA jobs to Kansas City

The USDA’s decision to move hundreds of research jobs out of Washington to Kansas City has triggered a backlash among federal employees. Employees stood in silent protest during a meeting about the move to Kansas City.
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The USDA’s decision to move hundreds of research jobs out of Washington to Kansas City has triggered a backlash among federal employees. Employees stood in silent protest during a meeting about the move to Kansas City.

Kansas City, why are you so down on yourself?

I ask because you’re taking it way too hard — and far too personally — that not every U.S. Department of Agriculture employee whose job is moving here from Washington, D.C., is eager to pick up and start over halfway across the country. Ever since employees turned their backs on the agriculture secretary in silent protest as news of the move was announced, Kansas City has been nursing hurt feelings.

But why? That USDA employees may have children in school and spouses with jobs and commitments to, say, climate research best accomplished in proximity to other researchers, does not by any means mean they look down on you.

I ask, too, because you’re so alive to every perceived slight, no matter just how slight. Former Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez says something nice about the Atlanta Falcons, and that can only mean he doesn’t love you anymore, or maybe never did, and no amount of soothing and cooing will convince you otherwise.

Butt of the joke?

I ask because you do seek affirmation. Question one to a newcomer like me is always, “How do you like Kansas City?” And that’s just not the case in San Francisco or Boston or even poor, tinkled on Brussels, constant brunt of French jokes about the supposed dimness of native Belgians. (Of course you like it, residents of all those towns figure, so why even ask?) Yet when you get that reassurance, Kansas City, you are suspicious of it, too — almost as if you think there’s got to be something wrong with anyone who’d come here without family ties.

And finally, I ask because I don’t know the answer. This is a good place to live, so why the lack of confidence? Apparently, the city’s got a lot more going on now than was the case a decade ago, so is this one of those “lost a bunch of weight but still thinks of himself as someone who needs to head for the husky department” situations?

KC’s secret pleasures

Kansas Citians who move away can’t seem to wait to get back here, and guests like it, too. Friends from D.C. who have visited me claim to have become regular KC ambassadors, and my son who lives in Santa Barbara said we should keep its charms a secret so as not to be instantly overrun. Yet somehow, none of this seems to resonate as much as a stray wrong word or random low ranking.

If you count my rural hometown, population 7,284, this is my 14th city, each with its own personality. Not all have the swagger of Dallas, where some friends felt genuinely sorry for me when I told them I was moving to New York City. But none has Kansas City’s puzzlingly fragile civic ego, either, and I’d like to understand that better.

In the late 19th century, “Kansas City was called ‘the West,’“ says local historian Monroe Dodd. “It was a hub for distributing and warehousing.” But no, the city doesn’t identify with its Western roots, and it has mixed feelings about its cow town past. Other than ironically, “’cow town’ is not a proud banner to wave,” says Dodd. The loss of TWA in the ‘70s was a big psychic kick in the shins, and “that Kansas City is not a headquarters town” like the other city across the state became a big bruise on the city’s sense of itself.

Quinton Lucas came back

Our mayor-elect, Quinton Lucas, who like many Kansas City natives went away and came back, thinks that “maybe you get so used to being passed over, you want to take your ball and go home sometimes. We’re scared we might lose, but there are many ways we can win, and not just on affordability. It’s not as far as an identity crisis, but be proud of the identity you have; it’s something we have to work on.” We do, it’s true, because insecurity is not an aphrodisiac.

Of the USDA employees we’re currently courting, Lucas says, “I don’t take personal offense” to those who aren’t already on Zillow, thrilled by how much more house they can have in Brookside than in Montgomery County, Maryland. “We should say, ‘We welcome you,’ ’’ if you’re en route “instead of, ‘to hell with you’ if you aren’t.”

We who came late to the party do like you, Kansas City; we really like you. But why don’t you ever quite believe that?