Kansas City, Missouri: the city Gone Girls Amy loved to hate - Halong Junk Cruises

Kansas City, Missouri: the city Gone Girls Amy loved to hate

Sculptures on the lawn at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Sculptures on the lawn at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Photograph: Alamy

Giant shuttlecocks lie, feathers in the air, on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It’s a statement of intent – at an institution more renowned for old masters – and a challenge to the preconceptions visitors might hold about Kansas City, Missouri. This, after all, is “Cowtown”, stranded in the midwest among the Great Plains. And it is a region that in Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s novel and the new David Fincher-directed film, the protagonist Amy Dunne resents for the people she calls the “nice enoughs” and for its lack of Manhattan hipster cool.

Flynn’s Missouri-set thriller is about Amy’s disappearance and the attempts made by police and her husband, Nick, to find her. But it is also about displacement. Before a forced move, the couple were happy New Yorkers, and Amy’s diary entries reveal her less-than-contented thoughts on moving to a “soulless” Missouri. But a real Amy would be wrong, particularly about Kansas City. And just to be clear, Kansas City, Missouri, is not Kansas City, Kansas – though they are only three miles apart and are separated by a state line.

The city’s downtown skyline is filled with public buildings, characterful warehouses, towering office blocks and new concert venues. Beyond them rolls the mighty Missouri river. This is a place eager to show off its renewal. It is where a $ 9bn investment programme has reinvigorated a previously ghost-town-like downtown and districts known for art (Crossroads), music (18th and Vine), food (River Market) and nightlife (Power and Light) are flourishing.

My visit offers a chance to show city-slicker Amy that KC is bursting with culture, often at a fraction of NYC prices. So, first up, I plan to check out the art scene. In KC the car is king – though congestion isn’t – and away from downtown, pockets of activity include the outdoor shopping districts of Country Club Plaza and Westport, and suburban neighbourhoods such as Brookside and Waldo. But if its lack of pedestrians feels eerie, don’t worry: there are people around. There’s a happy throng on that lawn with the shuttlecocks at the Nelson-Atkins, 10 minutes’ drive south of downtown. The museum’s collections encompass Chinese, Japanese, African, European and Native American works and can easily soak up a day’s visit. I enjoy an exhibition (running until 15 February 2015) of lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton, marking the 125th anniversary of the Missouri-born artist’s birth. If it’s contemporary art you want, the Bloch building next door boasts works by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and many more. Admission to both is free, as is a walk in the adjacent Donald J Hall Sculpture Park – all 22 acres of it.

Union Station and the downtown skyline, Kansas City
Union Station and the downtown skyline.
Photograph: Robert Hull

I take a short stroll along East 45th Street towards Warwick Boulevard and another free-entry gallery with artistic smarts, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Its permanent collection includes works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andrew Wyeth, and there are rooms devoted to changing exhibitions of new works.

Back in downtown, the Crossroads arts district buzzes with smaller-scale galleries and art collectives. Many of them benefit from huge warehouse spaces, a legacy of the city’s bygone era when the cattle trade was king. KC’s Union Station is an inspiring sight, inside and out, with an art gallery, restaurants and science museum as well as platforms and trains. This year is an important one, its centenary, though you’ll find 1914 marked in more sombre fashion at the Liberty Memorial and National WW1 Museum a little further up the hill. These provide a peaceful and beautiful act of remembrance and the exhibits, art, films, talks and archives deliver a moving and comprehensive view of the conflict.

When it comes to dining, it’s unlikely that Amy from Gone Girl would approve of anything as “unsophisticated” as barbecue, but Missouri is passionate and wise about the stuff. Listening to KC residents discuss the smoke and spices of their favourite barbecue joints, I get the feeling that it’s both an art and a science.

I get my first taste of it in the Freight House district, at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue. This is an upmarket place, according to locals – some of whom think its white-linen tablecloths are a flourish too far – but it’s also a heavenly tender and flavoursome experience. When my knife and fork lie together, I’ve finished The Sampler, $ 22.95-worth of barbecue chicken, pork spare ribs, and a choice of burnt ends, with a side of cheesy corn bake. Sloshing down iced tea ($ 2.75) and declining dessert, I think applause is in order – for me and the chef.

Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, Kansas City, Missouri
Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue.
Photograph: visitkc.com

Oklahoma Joe’s – which recently received an order from President Obama – is not about tablecloths. It’s in an old gas station and has near-constant queues of people waiting to get in. The BBQ dinners, with a side and Texan toast (for mopping), major on ribs, brisket and chicken and start at about $ 10. Joe’s has wised up to the fact it’s not in Oklahoma and will soon re-brand as Joe’s Kansas City.

These are so many barbecue places that I think it’s only right to namecheck some favourites from the KC crowd that I met: Arthur Bryant’s, Danny Edwards Boulevard BBQ, Gates Bar-B-Q, and Woodyard BBQ … the last being a place of some consensus: because it smokes the wood used by a lot of the other restaurants.

But there’s more to the Kansas City food scene than smoke. Local Shanley Cox has her finger on the city’s culinary pulse and blogs at Eat it Kansas City (eatitkansascity.com); she . My standout downtown dining experience was at The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange. Its past was as a hotel for railroad workers but its present is as a restaurant with a stylish mix of tiled floors, dark wood, an open kitchen and dishes including a sumptuous KC Strip steak ($ 32), tasty sides such as fried green tomatoes with remoulade ($ 6), and make-room-for desserts, such as Honey Pie with lavender semifreddo, lemon and Maldon sea salt ($ 7).

Interior of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City
Interior of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Photograph: Alamy

I’m keen to discover what Kansas City can serve up on the culture and nightlife front, too. One building dominates the renewed cultural landscape downtown, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Architect Moshe Safdie’s structure is a marvel of invention, his two symmetrical half shells of vertical, concentric arches house two venues: the Muriel Kauffman Theater, home of the Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera, and the Helzberg Hall, performance home of the Kansas City Symphony orchestra. During an enlightening tour ($ 5), guide Pam Shropshire explains the acoustic and design intricacies behind each auditorium.

Urban regeneration may mean the thump of dance music at clubs in its Power and Light district, but KC does music style and subtlety, too. In the historic 18th and Vine district is the American Jazz Museum, a place that pays more than lip service to legends, including Kansas City native and bebop pioneer Charlie Parker. The museum is a treasure trove of memorabilia as well as an insight into the black 18th and Vine district’s importance for more than music. As I wander past displays, instruments, sheet music, album covers and interactive exhibits, I also manage to sneak in on a private gig held in the museum’s club, the intimate Blue Room. There’s a regular line-up of performances here and over the road at the 500-capacity Gem Theater.

Wanting to keep the vibe going I metaphorically loosen my tie and head to the Green Lady Lounge on Grand Boulevard. Here, the lights are low, the bartender is effortlessly cool and the crowd ranges from ID-wavers to seniors-level jazz cats – while the local brews and cocktails come fast (but not too expensive). The music is the bold and beautiful sound of the Foundation 627 Big Band. I sit up at the long bar, applaud crazy brass and drum solos and consider how tomorrow is going to be all about books and buried treasure.

The Green Lady Lounge, Kansas City, Missouri
Jazzing it up at the Green Lady Lounge.
Photograph: visitkc.com

Since reading Gone Girl, I’ve thought that part of Amy’s opinion of Missouri is tethered to its farming heritage – one that can make it seem homespun. And I confess to feeling a little of that concern as I head towards the River Market, with its stalls, coffee shops and lunch spots, for a whirl around the Arabia Steamboat Museum. The museum tells the story of a steamboat sunk on the Missouri river in 1856 and the 1987 rediscovery of the vessel and its cargo 45 feet down in a cornfield half a mile from the present course of the Missouri. However, the unearthing of this symbol of a past America is actually an engaging, charming and rather uplifting tale and, as with many others, I also marvel at the bravery of the diggers who dared to sample the boat’s 131-year-old pickles.

As a final twist, because I know a character like Amy appreciates irony, I’m going to mention a hip, secondhand bookstore, one that could easily be found on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn. It’s in the district locals know as West 39th, but is officially called Volker. Owner William Leathem’s Prospero’s Books is a place to lose yourself in as you discover precious hardbacks and dog-eared paperbacks. You could even bump into author and KC native Gillian Flynn; William told me she’s been in.

So, while the act of renewal may be hard to pull off, I think KC is getting the balance right and if Amy were willing to eat humble pie, I’d like to think she might have to take a bite. She’d probably think humble pie was a bit too “nice”, though. Her loss.
Accommodation was provided by VisitKC.com at the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center (sheratonkansascityhotel.com, doubles from $ 149). Direct flights to Kansas are available from more than 40 US cities, including New York, Washington, Chicago and Dallas. For more information on holidays in the USA, visit DiscoverAmerica.com

Chasing Amy: a trip to Cape Girardeau

The Gone Girl film crew on location at 'The Bar' in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
The Gone Girl film crew on location at ‘The Bar’ in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Photograph: Aaron Palmer/PR

“This is where Nick and the town hold their candlelight vigil for Amy,” says Chuck Martin, pointing to a wood-framed gazebo, “and down the hill, that’s The Bar, run by Nick and his sister.” Chuck is the executive director of the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau, and his Missouri town was, for six weeks in late summer 2013, the location for the movie Gone Girl.

Cape Girardeau stands in for “North Carthage, Missouri” in the thriller (in UK cinemas from 3 OctoberFriday), which stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Producers used 30 locations around town and its dramatic setting on the banks of the Mississippi, was central to it being “cast” in the role. The Emerson bridge, Riverfront park and former federal building feature in important shots, as does the Common Pleas Courthouse – which was surrounded by tonnes of shredded paper to create a snow scene. Cape Girardeau, which is less than two hours’ drive from St Louis and close to the Trail of Tears state park and Bollinger Mill state historic site, is planning to make the most of its Hollywood moment, too: a driving tour around key locations can be downloaded free at visitcape.com/gonegirl.

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