I’m standing in a strange, empty parking lot.
This lot, this whole area, isn’t unique hereabouts. It’s probably the third or fourth I’ve passed on the way back home from the Wichita Art Museum, and I finally decided to pull over and see what was going on.
These areas caught my eye not because they’re actually vacant, in the sense of nothing being there. An expanse of zero anything — no buildings, no signs, no stoplights — in a city of over 300,000 people would be something special. Something very interesting.
What’s interesting about this space, and the others like it, is how impressively uninteresting it is. It’s vacant, not of stuff, but of personality. It’s a hollow husk of a neighborhood. A beige piece of furniture you walk by every day, but never notice.
That is to say, there are buildings here. They’re old-ish, but not in the fun, restored-hardwood-floors-and-original-brick-walls style that’s been revitalizing downtowns and former meat-packing districts around the world for the past decade.
This is the sort of old that’s more the result of shoddy, rushed construction than actual age. The architectural style could best be described as ‘American 20th Century Underfunded and Unmaintained Clapboard and Cheap Brick.’ There’s no attempt at flair, no attempt for any particular building to stand out from its kin. There are none of the imposing-but-charming Brutalist structures that surround the Wichita Library-area on the outskirts of downtown.
No, the vacancy here stems from a lack of spirit, not building materials. There’s also the lack of people, though the reason I pulled over was to check my guess that some of these places had to be occupied; had to be something other than derelict.
I walk a few blocks, peeking in windows and poking my head into alleys.
Nothing. No one.
Imagine one of those post-apocalyptic movies in which all the buildings are still standing, but all the people are gone. It’s a bit like that. Except in those instances they typically go out of their way to ensure that everything appears clean and well-kept, to amplify the shock and contrast of a city containing no citizens.
Here you can find all the stuff, zero people, and what seems to be a lack of concern that all these space, these ugly buildings, these pothole-ridden parking lots, are just sitting here. Unused. Unloved. Unnoticed.
An empty space reeks of potential, but a filled space, badly utilized, makes it difficult to imagine such possibilities.
There’s a lot of building going on here in Wichita, and from what I understand, the uber-conservative governor, Brownback, has lost a great number of his cronies in a recent local election.
The sad state of affairs when it comes to economics, education, employment, and just about everything else in Kansas is often tied to Brownback and his attempts to turn the state into a ‘traditional values’ utopia, that term coming tandem with such ideas as trickle-down economics, and other go-to’s from the Reagan-era political playbook.
The repercussions of this choice, and a nearly unobstructed path toward making his every dream a reality, has taken a massive toll on Kansas, and Kansans.
These vacancies — those of real estate and those of population, and resultantly, culture, as people flee to less dystopian parts of the country — have led to these gaps in the city. Between the corporate neighborhoods housing Cessna and Boeing and Via Christia and Koch Industries, you’ll find many places like this one: land and treasure, wasted and crumbling, because of a version of capitalism that gives the term a bad name.
There’s still a lot of the city left to see, and I’ve already visited and driven by many parts of town that are the polar opposite of this: they are alive with people, flooded with magnetic culture. The possibilities are endless, and the people who are making these places tick are making those around them believe; this is bringing in investments beyond the huge multinationals, beyond the military contractors, and beyond the companies that can afford to buy up .01% of a sprawling city and allow it to just sit there; un-traversable spaces on the checkerboard that keep the locals moving in diagonal paths just to avoid them.
It’s fun living in places that are already established — the New Yorks, the San Franciscos, the Los Angeleses of the world — but there’s something immensely thrilling, to me, about living in a place where the best days are ahead.
And not far off in the distance, ahead: right around the corner. Changes in technology, changes in lawmaking, changes in overall national culture, slowly seeping into even the most remote hub — it can all be felt here. I’ve been in the city for all of two weeks, and I can feel that, already.
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next: to the vacant, beige spaces, and to the city as a whole.
This essay was originally published in my newsletter.