Rather than just publishing a list of our most-read stories this year at KCUR.org, we've decided to make some observations about what a few of our most popular stories tell us about the communities we cover.
One theme that kept coming up in this year's headlines was that of a divided country, so we've jumped on the bandwagon, sort of. We divided our year-end litany not by red/blue or urban/rural but simply by bad news and good news.
And in the spirit of bipartisanship, we included stories from both sides of our divided metro.
In February, Madeline Fox reported on a foster-care system so overwhelmed that kids had to sleep on couches, futons and cots in foster-care contractors' offices across the state. This followed the previous year's headlines about kids going missing and being harmed while in state custody. By June, the number of kids in this lonely predicament was down, Fox reported, with one contractor attributing the decrease to “our communities stepp(ing) up in many different ways.” Still, in November, several advocacy organizations filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the state violated foster kids’ rights by shifting them frequently, often from one single-night placement to the next, rendering them effectively homeless.
Residents of the Show-Me State endured a sordid spring, starting an hour after rookie Republican Gov. Eric Greitens' first State of the State speech in January. A St. Louis television station's expose of Greitens' 2015 affair with his former hairdresser included allegations of blackmail involving a nude or semi-nude photo Greitens had taken without her consent, and in February, Greitens became the first sitting governor of Missouri to be indicted, facing a felony charge of invasion of privacy. He held on to his office until May, claiming to be the victim of a "political witch hunt." (Attorney General Josh Hawley claimed to have evidence of "potentially criminal acts" in a parallel investigation into Greitens' use of a nonprofit donor list). But the real victim was the hairdresser, called before a legislative committee whose members asked her to tell the story of the affair over and over again, resulting in a graphic report the Republican speaker of the House called "beyond disturbing" and Republican U.S. Rep. Vicki Hartzler called "disgusting."
News about the soon-to-be-former Secretary of State's loss to Kansas Gov.-elect Laura Kelly might be fresher, but considering speculation that Kobach still has a bright future, it's worth remembering headlines from back in the spring. That's when Kobach's proof-of-citizenship voting law went on trial in federal court, where it was covered heroically by Celia Llopis-Jepsen of the Kansas News Service. During a two-week spectacle that drew national media attention, Federal Chief District Judge Julie Robinson (a George W. Bush appointee) repeatedly expressed exasperation with Kobach. She eventually found him in contempt of court (his second such citation), tossed out his law and ordered him to attend six hours of extra legal training after “repeated and flagrant violations of discovery and disclosure rules.”
In September, when the Kansas City Police Board rescinded a commendation it had given to two officers who had been involved in killing Ryan Stokes five years earlier, it was a small comfort to his mother, Narene Stokes. "Today the police department has taken the first step by admitting that they lied about my son and they lied about the circumstances of his death," she said in a statement. In July, Peggy Lowe's investigation revealed a different story from the one police told the public after Ryan Stokes was shot and killed by an officer outside the Power & Light District in 2013: Police claimed Stokes was armed, but he wasn't; they said he forced a standoff, but he didn't. Some policies at the KCPD and the Jackson County prosecutor's office have since changed, but the Stokes family is still seeking what Narene Stokes claims, through a lawsuit, would be "restorative justice" — the truth.
The story of Kansas City's Steamboat Arabia is an epic tale involving the Old West (supplies for living on the prairie had to be hauled out here somehow); frontier danger (the steamboat sank in the Missouri River in 1856); nature's raw power (the Missouri River changed course, meaning the steamboat ended up 45 feet underneath a farmer's field); and human tenacity. David Hawley's family dug the boat's intact cargo out of the muck and built a cool museum that opened in 1991. Now, Hawley is working with Steve Mertensmeyer, who has discovered another sunken steamboat in Malta Bend, Missouri, about 80 miles east of Kansas City. "Not only is this buried treasure, it is historical treasure that is all about, in this case, Missouri," Hawley told KCUR's Central Standard. We're going to need a bigger museum.
Starting in July, when word broke that Netflix's heartwarming makeover series would be filming its third season in Kansas City and its Fab Five stars started posting pictures of themselves in recognizable KC locations, we embraced with characteristic effusiveness the idea that someone from the national media was not only paying attention to us, but really, really liked us enough to spend four months here. Cast members appeared to have made deep connections, adopting pets and becoming fans of Succotash restaurant, whose chef, Beth Barden, styled the food photographs in their new book. By November, when that book launch drew the biggest crowd ever to the Kansas City Public Library, cast member Bobby Berk, originally from Missouri, said he'd thought about moving back. "Mayor Sly (James) always talks about how he can't wait for America to see what it's like," Berk said of the third season (its streaming date has not been announced). "But the world is: 190 countries are going to see how great Kansas City is."
When KCUR's Michelle Tyrene Johnson told the story behind the unique pork tenderloin at Kitty's Cafe on 31st Street in Midtown Kansas City, our readers went hog wild (sorry, but not really). Kansas Citians love food — all types of food, really — but as Johnson reported, the story of Kitty's is also the story of America. Paul Kawakami and his wife Kitty (the restaurant's namesake), opened the place in 1951. They were Japanese-Americans who moved to Kansas City from California after having spent time in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. The business has changed hands several times, but it's always been Asian-American-owned. Some of the restaurant's history has been lost, but fortunately the same isn't true for the sandwich recipe.
The idea seemed overly ambitious: A two-month arts festival spread out all over town, with more than 150 performing and visual artists, capped by a three-night concert. And by the time Open Spaces wrapped at the end of October, it had obviously not been perfect. But as KCUR profiled many of the artists and their projects, including an interview with Kansas City, Kansas-native-turned superstar Janelle Monae, we witnessed people making new discoveries about our city — especially the fact that Swope Park is not the least bit dangerous and scary — and new life literally growing from art, as in the case of Dylan Mortimer's "Tree, Broken Tree." In the end, it was clear that the city had experienced something that gave us a new sense of possibility. Here's to 2019.
C.J. Janovy is KCUR 89.3's digital content editor. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.