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Topeka Is No Joke

True story: When we realized we were moving back to Kansas, my wife and I briefly considered moving to Topeka.

Really. After eight years in Philadelphia, it seemed like Kansas’ capital city might be a good match for us. It’s more urban, more working class, and less white than the state surrounding it. That’s terrain we’d gotten used to. Lawrence, for all its advantages — a smart, educated population, as well as kick-ass music and arts scenes — can sometimes seem insulated from reality, a mini-Portlandia on the Plains. Topeka seemed like a refreshing dose of reality.

The notion lasted about 24 hours. Our friends are in Lawrence. And that seemed to be what we needed most.

Then, right before we moved back, this happened:

Expressing his displeasure with City Manager Tom Markus' budget recommendations, including cuts to the Lawrence Arts Center and the lack of funding for the proposed East Ninth Street project, Commissioner Matthew Herbert made some comparisons between the Lawrence and Topeka arts communities that were not intended to flatter Topeka. 
The Journal-World's Nikki Wentling quoted Herbert as saying: “Congratulations, we just became Topeka, Kansas. I live in Lawrence because it's not Topeka, Kansas. I don't want my legacy to be that I helped to make Lawrence Topeka.”
Herbert later apologized. But his comments weren’t that unusual. Topekans — and Kansans generally — have long decried Lawrence as “Snob Hill” a place where effete liberals gather to sip chardonnay and, well, you get it. Lawrencians have in turn dismissed Topeka as a cultural wasteland of sorts, a place where it’s easier to get mugged than to get a mug of quality coffee. During my first go-round in Lawrence, I participated in the back-and-forth, a rivalry created by, I dunno, the fact that they’re two of Kansas’s biggest cities and they’re just 20 miles apart.

But I’m going to refrain from being a Topeka basher this time around.

Truth is, I should’ve known better: Before we move, my wife and I would occasionally take day trips to the capital city. We enjoyed the fabulous library there — had cards and everything — as well as the Real America dining spots around town: Bobo’s, Porubsky’s, the Mexican cafe that also doubles as a stop for the bus that comes from Guadalajara.

Everybody needs somebody to shit on, I guess. Pennsylvanians had Philly, which in turn had New Jersey, which in truth is lovelier than outsiders really know. Topeka’s a real place with its own treasures, some of which I enjoy. For better or worse, it’s not so insulated from the real world as other places are. I live in and love Lawrence. But Topeka is no joke.


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