Merriam Lane: A drive through Middle America

by Jennifer Wetzel

As I drove down Merriam Lane, my eyes darted from side to side across the street, taking in the bizarre diversity of commercial and industrial spots that line the busy two-lane road. Residents familiar with Kansas City, Kansas, Shawnee and of course, Merriam, are conspicuously aware of this thoroughfare that hugs I-35 to the West from Mission Road to Shawnee Mission Parkway. For commuters, it is an alternative to highway clogs or general aggro traffic. For laborers, it is a one-stop shop for materials. For older generations, Merriam Lane holds nostalgia, such as the Boulevard Drive-In or distant views of Skate City. Semi-forgotten Turkey Creek is visible and even beautiful in stretches.  

While I’ve typically — perhaps stereotypically — thought of this area as traditionally Hispanic, there is no shortage of American flags here, flying proud adjacent to most business’ signage. Since Trump’s electoral victory, I’ve come to the conclusion that most remaining flag-flyers are staunch Republicans, willing to maintain a silent outward showing of national pride while our pretend actual democracy crumbles before our eyes, every day.  

Former Merriam Lane staple Quick’s BBQ, one of several BBQ joints on the Lane, has since converted to Quick’s Guns (“give the people what they want!”)  The street name designation changes from Merriam Lane to Merriam Drive inexplicably at D&D Statuary/ American Auto Credit (not an intersection, but perhaps where Wyandotte and Johnson Counties meet). Other commercial offerings include thrift shops, Dollar Stores, Nigro’s Western Store, K.C. Strings (specializing in custom-made string musical instruments, and self-proclaimed “Home of the Guitar Lamp”), and a Sonic Drive-In. Thanks to the neighboring convenience of the railroad, industrial spots offer a broad selection of wholesale goodies; Airgas Dry Ice Store, and competing stone suppliers House of Rocks and Stone Solutions.

Part of my fascination with the odd semblance of Merriam Lane is that it presents a stark example of the real Middle America. This vantage is not the America that I’ve touted to out-of-town (or foreign) visitors. I generally stick to the European-influenced civic assets, i.e. the Streetcar, Country Club Plaza, Downtown, Crossroads Arts District, Union Station. When my British friend came to visit KC (his first time in the USA), I was anxious to show off how modern and cultural the “real” America could be, not the one that The Guardian sneered at on their front page, not Fox News, not all guns and inequality and gross suburbia. I focused on showing him the things that I was proud of: the friendliness of neighbors, American-kitsch firework celebrations and Mexican food selection, and the few scenic urban vistas our lovely KC offers. But when I think back to my mid-2016 perspective of my community, it is clearly not an accurate or honest perspective.

A drive down Merriam Lane would be a perfect trailer for documentary titled “America in 2018.” We are drowning in our past mistakes and a perverted, bygone worldview — culturally, economically, socially.  Not all of Merriam Lane is horrid, however. Parts of it are charming, and additionally representative of our current society.  Tami, owner of The Peddler’s Daughter which is a Pie and Garden shop, welcomed me with conversation and told me they had been on Merriam Lane for 13 years hocking seasonal fruits, jams, pickled veggies and of course, pies. The Amish people from “south of here” provided much of the inventory. Also hugging the Merriam Lane corridor is the very pleasant shared use trail, Turkey Creek Streamway Park.

Still, cruising Southwest down Merriam Lane/Drive can be depressing. The Streamway path itself is a blatant representation of contrasting views of society.  Turn one direction and you’ll see views of idyllic parks, benches, creeks, playgrounds, farmers’ markets. Glance the other direction and you’ll see used-car dealerships, shady Clark’s Motel, and the Go Chicken Go corporate offices.

I wish I could say this piece was a call-to-action, inviting the two conflicting sides to take a streamway stroll in the shoes of the other so that we could figure out compromises to help bridge the divisions. But I feel that the trajectories of each side are fairly established at this point. I’m not sure what circumstances need to be in place to have healthy, effective conversations. My short-sighted, seasonal wish is that spring arrive (quickly, please!) and people awake from their winter hibernation with a renewed spirit that says, “What we did in the past didn’t work. What we are doing now isn’t working.  Let’s open our minds, let down our political guard, and try something new.”