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Kansas City, Mo., gives heritage a hip twist

In a city with nearly 200 fountains, the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain’s cast bronze figures were created in 1910 for a Long Island, N.Y., mansion garden. Discovered in a salvage yard around 1951, the fountain was restored and dedicated in Kansas City in 1960.

ROBIN SOSLOW FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

In a city with nearly 200 fountains, the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain’s cast bronze figures were created in 1910 for a Long Island, N.Y., mansion garden. Discovered in a salvage yard around 1951, the fountain was restored and dedicated in Kansas City in 1960.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It would be a sin to use a hotel gym in this city, given the eye candy outdoors. Here’s a sampling from my jetlag-busting jog around Mill Creek Park: fantasy film-worthy birds, butterflies, and bunnies; sculpted stallions leaping through sun-sparkled spray; folks stretching and flexing on orange trail-side contraptions; a tai chi master striking moves beneath a shade-tree; and an illusionist spinning hoops. No treadmill beats this free show.

Clearly, Kansas City culture goes beyond its barbecue, beer, and baseball.

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Compact enough to tour on foot and bicycle, this Midwest city burbles with nearly 200 artful fountains, the first ones built in the early 1900s by the local humane society to refresh horses. Abundant parks brim with romantic flora. Shop windows flare with wild graphics and quirky objects. And block upon block there are architectural gems: Italian Renaissance Revival, Moorish, Art Deco.

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

Robin Soslow

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Warning: Ask directions and ever-helpful residents will press you to see their favorite fountains (penguins, Bacchus, seahorses, cherubs, mermaids, magic balls, angel with a wristwatch), parks (Loose’s amazing rose garden, Kauffman Legacy’s floral paradise, Discovery’s 11 acres of prairie, wetlands, and wildlife habitat), and museums (StoryTarium, Nelson-Atkins, Toy & Miniatures).

The glittering sails of Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts draw me to the Crossroads Arts District. Opened in September 2011, architect Moshe Safdie’s dazzler resembles two huge accordion bellows on its north side and a huge glass terrarium on its south. Steps away are free penthouse views — just plop down on a bench by 18Broadway’s hilltop kale beds and stormwater collectors. How does an urban garden rate such real estate? The site was intended for a luxury highrise before the economy tanked, says Steve Tulipana, who recently opened retro-themed MiniBar down Broadway. These days, there’s more demand for cocktails than condos.

Crossroads galleries, cafes, clubs, and shops animate time-worn industrial buildings. Locals pour from lofts in splendidly restored brick-walled warehouses. Lines have formed at Cafe Gratitude since it opened in May. At Sherry Leedy Contemporary, I fall for an exquisite Kansas City Royals-blue gown; unfortunately, it’s doll-size and ceramic, as are the sensuous creatures by local artist Steven Gorman. Late night, the back door of Manifesto, a reincarnated speakeasy, leads to absinthe and savory pepper elixirs.

Wandering pays; mini-dramas spill forth from random walls, many featuring street artist Scribe’s raucous animal characters. Complementing the old-new vibe, they cement the town’s reputation as a “graffiti playground.”

Building on, not over, its rich past, Kansas City proves that progress and preservation can happily coexist. Here, heritage is hip.

In the historic 18th and Vine district, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum displays memorabilia, photographs, and a diamond studded with statues. Stories unspool about Kansas City Monarch Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Satchel Paige, suitcase porter turned super-pitcher in his 40s, or 50s — his age remains a mystery.

At the adjoining American Jazz Museum, I slip on headphones to hear still-visionary bebop riffs from Charlie “Bird” Parker. A library of vintage films includes a 1929 cool-cat Duke Ellington number. By night, jazz concerts pack the museum’s Blue Room. Blocks away, all-night jam sessions rock the Mutual Musicians Foundation’s old pink stucco lodge, a tradition from the ’20s.

On weekends, fresh produce and local-mades like jalapeno fudge draw crowds north to City Market. Continuing to the Missouri River, I pedal east past bridges, joggers, and dog-walkers at Riverfront Park, then westward 10 miles on the Riverfront Heritage Trail. A freight-train rumbles just feet away before the trail arcs to cross the Kansas River beneath the Lewis and Clark Viaduct Bridge. Sculpted iron penny-farthing high-wheel bikes gate this hidden, and very cool, hike-bike passage, which is lined by oddball sculptures.

I spin awhile on KC’s Kansas side, then return to Missouri, veering south past warehouses, a West Bottoms cluster of welded-scrap sculptures commemorating the exodus of slaves, a crumbling bluff-top promenade overlooking industrial patchwork (ugly can be scenic), the elevated Hereford Bull monument, Quality Hill’s Queen Anne manses, and West Terrace Park’s nod to diversity, a statue depicting Lewis and Clark with Native American guide, African-American servant, and dog (a Newfie). I pass the new Westside fountain, eventually reaching Penn Valley’s rolling green hills. Where people and dogs now romp, pioneers headed west on the Santa Fe Trail.

Just north, a tower pierces the sky: Liberty Memorial, completed in 1926. Its base, built bunker-like into a hill, houses the National World War I Museum. Donated artifacts from howitzers to toilet paper bearing French propaganda recount the war, with a kaleidoscope of narrative gathered from eyewitnesses. “The museum doesn’t take sides, and it doesn’t glorify war,” explains a docent.

I find more peaceful spectacles at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. A day slips away between its 1933 Beaux-Arts building and 2007 sleek contemporary wing, which the achy-footed can traverse in the hand-built, eerily silent Birdcage shuttlecart. Permanent-collection masterworks include a stunning 1,000-year-old polychrome wood sculpture of the bodhisattva Guanyin and Caravaggio’s 1605 “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” a large-scale canvas aflame with the bursting-off-the-wall style that today animates street art such as Scribe’s. Outside, the 22-acre Kansas City Sculpture Park’s enchantments include super-sized shuttlecocks seemingly dropped from an intergalactic badminton court.

Fountain-spotting continues en route to food — dancing jets, rainbow lightshow, and a 2,155-pound floating red granite perpetual-motion “kugel” (sphere in German) that spins on a thin film of water.

Other senses demand attention, stoked by the ubiquitous aroma of slow-smoked barbecue. Steeped in a century-old tradition of rich tomato sauce sweet-tart with molasses and vinegar, local chefs are slathering new frontiers for the city’s heritage food. Under the hammered-tin ceiling of FÜD in Westside, I savor jackfruit-based BBQ, tangy with roasted jalapeno and poblano peppers. Oh, and a fresh blueberry-housemade caramel smoothie. Calories burn fast dashing to all the “gotta see” places. Plus I want to play on those cool orange workout stations — and catch the illusionist’s next rehearsal.

Robin Soslow can be reached at
rsoslow@gmail.com.
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