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A Tale of Two Cities

By Heather B. Long

KANSAS CITY--The city is in Missouri. My suburb, Prairie Village, is in Kansas--and no, it's not a farm.

As I climb aboard the van that will take me and four other newspaper interns from The Kansas City Star on our obligatory tour of the metropolitan area we will be covering this summer, my first order of business is to clear up the common confusion surrounding my hometown.

Being from Kansas City carries with it a distinct heritage. I have a Kansas driver's license, but I was born in Missouri. I cross the state line at least five times a day. And although in a couple weeks I will move from Prairie Village to Overland Park, there is really no noticeable difference, they are simply two names contained within the large, sprawling suburb of Johnson County, Kansas.

Kansas City confuses people. It's probably one of the easiest cities to navigate, but the whole Kansas/Missouri dilemma is perplexing to the non-resident. But after a year away at school, I'm used to the role of geography teacher.

Coming to Harvard from the Midwest, I assumed I would have to dispel some regional assumptions about my home, especially the name "Prairie Village." When people first began asking where I was from, I would say "Kansas." But that's not really true. The heart of Kansas is really the small central and western towns of which my Johnson County suburb is not a part.

And besides, saying I was from Kansas, especially after the Kansas State Board of Education's decision on evolution, was just asking for trouble. Responses varied from, "Oh, so you're from that place that doesn't believe in Darwin" to the standard, "What's it like to milk a cow?"

So then I changed my mind. I was no longer from Kansas, I was from Kansas City. Much safer. I'd tack that extra word onto the end and save myself a lot of explanations about how, yes, I do know what natural selection means and no, my milk comes from the grocery store across the street from The Gap, a store that we actually do have here.

I thought all I would have to do was maintain that, yes, Kansas City is a real city. Downtown has everything from tall, fancy office buildings to inner-city crime-ridden areas. Perhaps I would avoid the cow questions.

But after saying I was from Kansas City, instead of being confused over whether I was a farm girl or not, the first question was always automatically, "Kansas City, Missouri or Kansas City, Kansas?" This is a crucial point of misunderstanding--even a Harvard website had trouble with the distinction. The president of the Kansas City Harvard/Radcliffe Club has an office in Johnson County, but the site listed it as being in Missouri.

It's easy to make this mistake because all the major buildings and landmarks that make up what is commonly known as Kansas City are in Missouri. On our newspaper tour, we pass the Royals' baseball stadium, the City Market and the 18th and Vine Jazz District, home of Count Basie--all on the Missouri side.

This area was named Kansas City, after the Kansas River, before Kansas became a state. Kansas City, Kan., lies directly to the west of the downtown area and is mostly made up of residential areas and some industrial buildings.

I live in Kansas, but not Kansas City in Kansas. The suburbs in my area are mainly associated with Kansas City, Mo., and lie to the south on both sides of the state line. Johnson County is the Kansas side of suburbia and it looks like every other sprawling suburb in America--houses, malls, schools and parks. When we drive through it on our tour, one intern says it looks like suburban Chicago. Another says it looks like Plano, Texas.

After our tour we head back to the newspaper office. By now, the interns are all Missouri/Kansas savvy. Since it's the end of the day, I hop in my car and begin the drive home. After navigating the city area (Missouri), I get onto State Line Road and cross over into Prairie Village (Kansas, but not a farm).

And still no cows in sight.

Heather B. Long '03, a Crimson editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Mather House.

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