How the humanities welcomed us home
Originally published HUMANITIES MAGAZINE
The first time I ate at AJ’s New York Pizzeria in Manhattan, Kansas, I have to admit I cried a little. I walked in with my kids, looked at the menu on the wall (set in white Helvetica on black) with pizzas and salads named for iconic New York neighborhoods (the SoHo, the Tribeca, etc.) and the tears just welled up.
A week later, I was unpacking the last of our books when Jay Z and Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind” came on the radio. My daughter climbed into my lap and said through tears of her own, “I’m ready to go home now, Dada.” Oy.
We moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas, for my wife’s work. A talented dancer and choreographer, she took what may well have been the last tenure-track teaching position in the arts, as chance would have it, at Kansas State University in Manhattan.
We’d talked over the move in the tiny kitchen of our fifth-floor Brooklyn apartment. We did the math. We debated. Then we heard our two-year-old jumping in the living room and the muffled “What the f***!!” from our downstairs neighbor. We looked at each other and knew we had to go.
I wanted to support my wife for her talent as much as to pay back her years supporting my career in NYC’s crazy branding and communications world. But, it was the naming coincidences that somehow sealed the deal for me.
Consider this: We moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. We went from the Big Apple to the Little Apple. (Yes, that’s really what Kansans call it.) We found a 1920s bungalow on Houston Street (which people here pronounce Hew-stun rather than How-stun as any good New Yorker would). We live a block off Central Park Road, which meanders neatly through the city’s primary green space.
We moved 1,330 miles from Brooklyn to live on Houston Street in Manhattan. Kansas. Somewhere in this tornado-prone sky, high above the rolling, astonishing prairie, the gods must have been giggling.
Meanwhile, the tears-‘n’-sniffles kept coming. No matter how sweet our neighbors, how delightful our yard, or how breathtaking the sky, I missed my rumbly ride on the B train over the Manhattan Bridge to work in SoHo, the local lingo for the area south of Houston Street. I missed the diversity, the energy, the architecture, the food, the coffee, the friends, the volunteer opportunities. I missed former colleagues and clients. I missed making a difference doing what I love—creating brands and communications for mission-driven organizations like the Child Mind Institute, NYU Steinhardt, and the Tenement Museum.
While my wife settled into her work, I landed a job as a brand strategist at a design agency in the neighboring town of Wamego, home to all things Oz—the Wizard of Oz Museum, Toto’s Tacos, and a yellow brick sidewalk.
Each morning, instead of rattling across the Manhattan Bridge over the East River, I started driving across the Manhattan Bridge over the Kansas River. In this Manhattan there is no rush hour traffic, there are no lines at the movies, and there is never a wait at the restaurants. (There aren’t any bagels, biscotti, or baklava either, BTW.)
My neighbors and colleagues embody the best of the Midwest—kind to a fault, curious about the coasts, and utterly dedicated to their kids. People welcomed us with a genuine warmth that was a little unnerving, to be honest. I missed the unapologetic I’m-doing-me-so-get-out-of-my-way New York attitude.
Slowly, we made friends and explored Manhattan. We hiked the Flint Hills. We marveled at the way the incomprehensibly big sky cascaded into the endless, emerald prairie. We started an afterschool children’s service club to contribute to our new community. We roasted marshmallows at dusk with neighbors, and stared in wonder at stars we could never have seen in Brooklyn.
My work progressed as I got to know the marketing and communications culture in a very different social and business landscape. I was grateful for my new job and wonderful colleagues, of course, but itched for the ideas and impact you can create in a cultural capital like New York.
Then one day, a Request for Proposal landed on my desk from the Kansas Humanities Council. They had a smart way of describing their need for a new brand, website, and communication platform. I read the words, “We believe that democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens—and that the humanities provide a way to gain both,” and I was all in.
I met with the organization’s leadership team, and we eventually won the work. Over the next six months, I got to know a Kansas that is anything but “fly-over country.” I went to the Smithsonian’s “Water/Ways” exhibit at the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City and attended an artist talk at the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita. I was blown away by the depth of the presentations and the passion in the conversations that followed. Both events made me feel that I belonged. I met talented people dedicated to bringing Kansans together to explore big ideas at a time when our politicians and media seem dedicated to pulling Americans apart.
It turns out that Manhattan, Kansas, was founded by abolitionists from New York City who got stuck on a sandbar in the Kansas River. They came to help found a free state at a time when the nation was being pulled apart by conflicting ideas of freedom. Now, 164 years later, this New York transplant to the heartland was feeling deeply inspired by a movement of ideas that I couldn’t have imagined at my kitchen table in Brooklyn.
Working together with the council’s team, we transformed the Kansas Humanities Council into Humanities Kansas. We turned their messaging on its head, leading with the organization’s “why” rather than its “what.” We crafted a cause-driven brand built around the power of stories, and hatched a plan for a “movement of ideas” in Kansas designed to inspire people to strengthen their communities and, by extension, our democracy. It was a set of ideas about humans being human, inspiring each other to see the world in new ways.
I loved the process. It felt like home.
We launched the brand with a website any New York City organization would drool over. I showed it to my wife and children. They were impressed. We watched the video, and then went to AJ’s New York Pizzeria to celebrate. My kids each ordered a slice. My wife and I ordered salads, she the SoHo and I the Tribeca. We talked about the power of ideas as we ate, and we laughed as we remembered our tears the first time we ate at AJ’s.
It might seem simple now, but who knew the humanities and Humanities Kansas would not only strengthen our new state but help us find our way “home”?