Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Topeka: The Detroit of the Plains

Some of you might not believe me when I tell you how bad Topeka is/was. I'm sure some of my readers have been thinking to themselves... "How can it be that bad?" So...I'm here to get back up on my soapbox...

Trust me. I grew up there. Lived there for 18 years, then for another year or two after college. My father and his wife still live there, as do my brother, step-sister and her family. And I absolutely loathe the place. When I was growing up there, I often told just about anyone I met that I lived in "Topeka: The Armpit of North America" (which, when you think about it, is my own contribution to the slogan suggestions...). Later, when I moved to Washington, I took to the habit of saying I was from Lawrence. Which wasn't entirely false. I did live in Lawrence for several years. My mother and her husband lived there for awhile and now live in Eudora (just east of town) but still operate Jayhawk Bookstore in Lawrence. I like Lawrence. Its a fun town, full of life and passion - everything that most of the rest of Kansas lacks. Certainly its the most un-Kansas town in the whole state. It has a reputation for leftwingers, freaks, and weirdos, and not just from non-Lawrence has a national reputation in that regard. Is it any wonder I liked to pretend that was my hometown?

The sad reality is that I grew up in Topeka. And my childhood and young-adulthood were about as ugly as the city I lived in. It isn't much to talk about, though maybe I'll get around to it one day. Suffice it to say, I hated the place. Its idea of culture was a dirty worn down bar (what would be called a 'saloon' or 'tavern' or just 'dive' in other places) where the lights were perpetually low and nothing but Hank Williams, Jr. on the jukebox. There were never any interesting concerts there - the only venue was the Expocenter, which wasn't built until I was in junior high and the era of arena rock pretty much over. There were never any small clubs to go to - and almost nowhere for a young under-21 person to socialize. Not hard to believe that many of my classmates in high school had early drinking problems. Or that we had way too many suicides at my high school for a school that small.

Topeka has a notoriously inept city government - a toothless mayor held in check by a powerful, do-nothing, bickering city council which has several members whose corruption is/was notorious. A history of corrupt mayors. A police department and a sherrif's department that have seen their fair share of major problems, including a sherrif who was ousted while I was there several years ago (for corruption and for a questionably legal policy of avoidance regarding Mr. Phelps and his gang). Topeka is home to a nationally-notorious gay baiter and his clan of whackos, the "Reverend" Fred Phelps (Note: I went to high school with some of the Phelps, and worked for two years with the husband of one of the Phelps daughters. Otherwise normal people, nice and friendly people - and completely evil underneath. That's what makes them so creepy.). It is a town that has given out a sweetheart deal to Goodyear Tire Co. to keep them from closing the plant there, which employs a large portion of city residents.

Oh! Have I mentioned the horrendous crime rate? That's right, folks - Topeka has the worst crime rate of any city below 200,000 people! Hence, "The Detroit of the Plains." High rates of larceny and robbery. Now that's something to be proud of. Yes - there are parts of Washington that I wouldn't get caught dead in (or rather, if caught there, I might end up dead). But the same is true of Topeka, and that's just sad for a city of that size in that place. It has some serious gang problems and terrible poverty, which are both interrelated IMO.

And then there's the school system. Ah...USD 501. Topeka Public Schools. The employer for many years of my mother, until her retirement as a teacher when she remarried and moved to Lawrence. The current employer of my father, a man who believes in education more strongly than perhaps anyone I have ever known. A school district where there's always money for football and basketball, but never for music, debate, art, drama, or improvements. A district where one high school (Highland Park) is a training ground for thugs, one high school (Topeka High) looks like an abandoned asylum and was showing its age when I was last in it...over 12 years ago, and one high school (Topeka West) that was (when I was there) borderline racist, filled with cliques and fashionistas - where the "counselors" were all about getting kids out of school, not about helping their problems. Where bullying was tolerated.

Topeka Public Schools has seen several different superintendants of schools in the last few years, and that's because of several factors. One is that outside candidates see it as a stepping-stone position - a chance for them to get a better job down the line. Another is because the school board is a notoriously corrupt and has several overt racists on it (black and white). But most of is a school district that is still fighting over a court case that was ruled on by the Supreme Court in 1954 - Brown v. Board of Education (that's right...Topeka Board of Education). After multiple suits by the black community and several people who were in it for public attention, not for bettering anyone, is it any wonder that people are freaked out about race? Is it any wonder that they kept a clearly incompetent superintendant, Robert MacFrazier (guess what high school he was principal of? That's right! Topeka West High School - my high school!), for years and years...despite everyone finding him grossly unqualified and incompetent...simply because he was black? This is a city where both sides - black and white - are fighting a battle that other parts of the country resolved decades ago!

Indeed - race is probably the foremost problem in the city. It shouldn't be. The real problems of the city are poverty, education, jobs, suburban sprawl, urban blight, etc. - all the problems that a city of that size really shouldn't be struggling that badly with. But people in that town can't get beyond skin color. It is the prisim that just about everything in the city is viewed through - politics, education, the police...everything. And I would agree that race is a very important issue - it is something we as Americans (and Topekans, and Kansans) have never adequately dealt with. Racism is horrible. Slavery was worse. But let's also admit that at a certain point, we're talking about things that happened a long, long time ago - and there are certain members of the black community in Topeka who have used racism, segregation, and slavery as excuses for not working hard, improving life, taking care of yourself and your community. Instead - parts of the black community in Topeka appear to be hellbent on cultural suicide.

I could go on and on. A horrible newspaper. A love of NHRA drag racing. A city filled with cruel, sad, empty, lonely, angry and hurtful people. An entire city of victims, where all the smart people can't wait to get out of. And the rest mark time, quietly dying on the vine.


At 9:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hm, would it be disillusioning or comforting if it were noted that this really doesn't sound all that different from the part of the world where I attended high school. Minus the suicides, we just had alcohol induced car accident. And, well, not black people to speak of, so it was hard to treat them badly. Your state got a book, my high school town got featured in the NY Times 2000 census series of articles (how a place that's been lily white deals with an influx of those who are not, influx being a relative term), and trust me it was not flattering.

Anyway, based on your sample, my sample, and a host of John Cougar Mellancamp songs, I would suggest that this isn't such an unusual way for a city to be.


At 12:42 PM, Blogger خدمات منزلية said...

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