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Surviving "Killa City"

by C.R. Hughes 15 days ago in humanity

The tale of a beautiful city with an ugly secret

Surviving "Killa City"

TRIGGER WARNING: Death, homicide, suicide, police brutality

In the "Heart of America" lies a city that is close to my own heart. A city that raised me for fourteen years of my life. To the outside world (at least those who care to know about it) it is known for its top-notch BBQ, blues and jazz music, the rapper Tech N9ne, and recently, the current reigning Super Bowl champs.

But to the city natives, it is known for much more than that. Namely, potholes, the infamous Wizard of Oz references from outsiders, and its high homicide rate that has resulted in the not-so-endearing nickname "Killa City."

That's right, I'm talking about Kansas City, Missouri.

An old Kansas City postcard.

This is (the Heart of) America

... it represents the true heart of the nation now more than ever.

In 1915 when Kansas City acquired the nickname "Heart of America," it was known as a thriving city that was held to the same esteem as St. Louis or Chicago. With its unique contribution to jazz music and landmarks like Union Station, it inspired songs like "Kansas City" (made famous by Wilbert Harrison) and in the first half of the twentieth century, it certainly represented the optimistic heart of the nation.

The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City

After many decades, a decline in national appeal, and a rise in violent crime, Kansas City's nickname, the "Heart of America" was exchanged in favor of what many felt was more accurate: "Killa City." While it is easy to believe that Kansas City no longer fits its 1915 nickname, the truth is that it represents the true heart of the nation now more than ever. After the city faded from its former glory, the underlying issues that plagued it and the rest of the country seemed to surface. From racial tensions to poverty to violence, the smoke and mirrors of the city cleared out to expose what the heart of the U.S. really was: a mess.

Even in the early part of the twentieth century, gangs and organized crime were common in the city, but well hidden behind jazz clubs and the night life. But even though gang activity was not new, the end of the twentieth century saw a spike in homicides, many of which were gang-related. And the twenty-first century saw tensions between city inhabitants (especially Black and brown inhabitants) and the Kansas City Police Department, as well as the inner city divided between a few gangs in a turf war that could have been present in a Grand Theft Auto video game.

In my years living there, the signs were all around, but as a child and young teenager, I hardly took notice. In parts of the city, like midtown, hints of gang activity lined nearly every street. From shoes hanging from electric lines to buildings tagged with gang signs and young men sporting their "colors," it was just something I grew used to. But those little signs that never seemed out of place to me and that I used as landmarks to tell me how far I was from home, told the secrets of the violent activity that took place in the Killa City streets.

Gang-related graffiti in midtown

The "KC Curse"

...get out while you still can.

Even for those who grew up in North Kansas City, which is largely considered a better area to live than midtown, death seemed to be looming around the corner. I've heard many tales about Killa City living up to its nickname since I've left, with the most notable being when an old middle school classmate of mine was found to have been involved in the murder of a local 14-year-old (for which he went to prison for).

Ironically though, most of the friends and classmates that have met premature deaths in my life, were not because of homicide, but reasons like car accidents, sickness, and suicide which led to the legend of the "KC Curse" in many of my social circles.

My old middle school. Several of my former classmates from here have fallen victim to the KC curse.

The KC curse had many people believing that anyone who stayed in Kansas City was destined to meet some tragic end in their young age and it first struck when I was in the eighth grade, while I still lived in the city. The news of a former classmate of mine that had died by falling off of the back of a motorcycle with an older man had spread through our school district like wildfire. Even though I didn't know her that well personally, the idea of someone my age dying shook me to my core. That was the first existential crisis I ever experienced, faced with the scary reality that life is temporary and no one is exempt from it.

Her death caused a dark cloud to hang over me and my peers for weeks afterwards. The school news slid in pieces about stranger danger and vehicle safety for the rest of the school year. People skipped school to attend her funeral in the middle of the week, leaving most of my classes half empty. At our end of the year talent show, after the hysteria about what had happened largely died down, a friend of mine dedicated the song "If I Die Young" to her, causing us to remember though we had tried to push the memory far into the back of our minds. Little did we know that the temporary nature of life was something that would follow us for years to come.

Since leaving the city behind eight years ago, six of my former Kansas City friends/classmates have died at young ages, that I know of. Two from suicide, one from a car accident, one from being shot by police, and two from health complications.

For many of the people I still keep in contact with, they have also left Kansas City behind. Some have gone away to college, others have gone off and gotten married, and some just left because they knew they needed to. Nearly everyone I talk to admits that when living in Kansas City, it's best to get out while you still can. No one wants to become another casualty of the KC curse or a statistic of young 20-somethings that are hooked on drugs or in jail, which is even more common than death where I'm from. And while the city is beautiful and full of history and some manage to make it work for them, the numbers don't lie. And it has left people questioning, why us?

Fact or Fiction?

...if there is a KC curse, then maybe that's it.

Despite the darkness that hangs over my memories of my hometown, I still love it. I still root for the Chiefs and the Royals. I still think Gate's has the best barbecue and Go Chicken Go should be a nationwide chain. I still check in with my old friends and plan to visit the city some time in the future. But I often wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn't left when I did. Would I also be a victim of the Killa City curse?

I'm not sure that I believe there is a curse on Kansas City that causes people to die young. What I do believe, however, is that my hometown has a severe problem with poverty, bad roads, lack of mental health resources, and a corrupt police department. All of these things have contributed to the plight of my beautiful city and the tragic end of many of those who I once knew. And if there is a KC curse, then maybe that's it.

All I know is that my hometown deserves better. Better funding, better resources, better government, and a better reputation. And maybe by bringing some awareness to the problems this city faces, we can break the KC curse once and for all and heal the heart of America.

Kansas City Country Club plaza

Kansas City Organizations to Donate to

Other Resources

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C.R. Hughes
C.R. Hughes
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C.R. Hughes

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