Story and Photos by Kristin Brighton
As someone who was born in Manhattan, Kansas, graduated from Manhattan High, and then spent six years as a college student here before finally graduating (twice!) from Kansas State University, after I finished my schooling, I couldn’t wait to leave and explore the greater world.
However, after four years in the big city, my husband and I eagerly moved back to the region in 2003. With fresh eyes, the grass truly just seemed a little greener than it did before. Four years of urban living (and hundreds of hours wasted in commuting) was enough time away to realize that MHK is a pretty exceptional place to call home. Here’s why.
We’re not too big, not too small — and very friendly
After nearly 20 years of marketing this region, I’ve learned that most newbies to town soon discover how comfortable it is to live here. This is a small town where you can feel like you know everyone, yet still manage to (sometimes) go to dinner and remain anonymous. With a large military base and a Big XII university, we enjoy a constant stream of new people moving in and out from all over the world. To cater to the diversity of our population, we offer way more in shopping, dining, community events and culture than your average mid-sized, Midwestern town.
We often hear people describe the residents of The Little Apple (a riff off the classic NYC ad campaign) as friendly. We hear that descriptor so often on surveys and in focus groups that it’s become a cliché. (I mean, truthfully, what community promotes itself as standoffish or hateful?) As someone who grew up here, I always thought it was just common courtesy that, when you pass someone on the sidewalk, you meet their eyes, smile and wish them a pleasant “Morning!” Now I realize, this isn’t all that common a courtesy in many places.
Students who come to K-State often report that when they made their official college visit, they quickly felt at home. People here, on the whole, are just welcoming. We’re used to newcomers, and we’re proud they choose to join us here, whether temporarily or for life.
This atmosphere must be a factor in why K-State students have been declared some of the happiest students in the nation.
The beautiful Flint Hills
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, no one talked about the fact that Manhattan is nestled in a beautiful river valley, carved over eons into gently flowing hills by prehistoric oceans. Everyone just took the way our countryside looks for granted.
However, sometime in the ’90s, people began to recognize the uniqueness of our landscape — and that the native grasses and species that populate the lands from southern Nebraska, throughout the eastern half of Kansas, and into northern Oklahoma — make up the last remaining swath of tallgrass prairie in North America.
(Yes, prairie grass can be a stunning claim-to-fame — especially when you watch it roll like waves in the summer breeze!)
Throughout the year, our region’s landscape changes significantly by time of day and season. (Sometimes I’m amazed how much our spring hillsides remind me of the British Isles!) And while I know I’m biased, many would argue Kansas has some of the most stunning sunrises and sunsets in the United States. (And you can actually see the stars at night, an experience that often shocks new visitors.)
As a region, we’ve come together to educate people about the importance of preserving and appreciating our fragile ecosystem. I never went out for a hike on the prairie until I returned as an adult. Now, the Konza Prairie Biological Station’s public walking trails are in great demand, attracting hikers, runners and naturalists year-round. In 2012, Manhattan opened the fascinating Flint Hills Discovery Center as the centerpiece of our prairie-promotion efforts.
Manhattan was built where two rivers converge. Today, these calm rivers are frequented by kayaks (another activity no one ever participated in when I was growing up here), and several hiking trails provide scenic views of the water. We also enjoy two significant man-made reservoirs and state parks close to town — Tuttle Creek and Milford — that provide opportunities for boating, fishing, camping, mountain biking, hiking, swimming and other forms of outdoor recreation.
I think this renaissance in our appreciation of our natural surroundings stems from seeing the reaction of outsiders. There’s way more to enjoy in Kansas than the black-and-white parts of The Wizard of Oz would have you believe!
A feeling of comfort, ease and safety
After living in the quagmire of a sprawling metropolis, I still think it’s funny to hear people (including myself) complain about our “traffic jams.” A traffic jam here might constitute a five-minute delay, probably due to a fender-bender or a malfunctioning traffic light. The average commute time here is about 14 minutes.
While we do lock our doors at night and when we’re out (unlike in some smaller Kansas towns), for the most part Manhattan is very safe, with minimal crime and a high police-to-citizen ratio. People trust and support the police here (many of whom are retired military). When a rare violent crime does occur, people expect justice and support the family of the victim.
Whether you live in the historic downtown near campus or the newer neighborhoods on the east or west sides, you’ll see kids playing outside with their friends. The community is filled with lots of parks, and many neighborhoods are very walkable; we also love our Linear Trail that circumnavigates almost the whole city. On an average day, you’ll see multitudes of people out walking their dogs, riding bikes or enjoying our newest mode of public transportation — e-scooters.
A strong emphasis on education
A group of abolitionists established our community in 1855, and a few years later (1858) they opened Bluemont Central College, which became the state’s first university. In 1863, the college became Kansas State Agricultural College, the first operational land-grant university in the nation, dedicated to meeting a growing demand for agricultural and technical education for both men and women.
Manhattanites have always been great supporters of all levels of education — from early childhood to higher learning. Manhattan kids go to school in the Manhattan-Ogden USD 383 school district. While as a product of these schools, a parent of two school-aged kids and an elected member of the USD 383 board of education, I’m biased, the data speaks for itself. Our district continually performs above state and federal averages. The Washington Post has regularly named Manhattan High School (with more than 1,800 students) as one of America’s Most Challenging High Schools.
Our city has a long history of investing in public education; in 2021 and 2022, we’ll be opening a new elementary school, significant additions to our two middle schools, and two new early learning centers. Plus, at the time of this writing, a major expansion of the high school is in its early stages.
For those who prefer a smaller or faith-based school option, our city also offers Manhattan Catholic Schools and Flint Hills Christian School. Award-winning, smaller public school systems are available in neighboring communities, including Riley County USD 378, Rock Creek USD 323, and Wamego USD 320.
In addition to Kansas State University, Manhattan is proud of the skilled training and associates degree programs available at nationally ranked Manhattan Area Technical College, Manhattan Christian College offers faith-based degree programs and has many partnerships with K-State. Nearby cities boast strong community colleges, many of which offer 2+2 programs with K-State to help students matriculate to a bachelor’s degree.
A diversity of ideas, people, religion, food and entertainment
Because K-State and Fort Riley bring people here from all corners of the globe, Manhattan is much more culturally and racially diverse than many other cities in Kansas. Our people speak many languages, worship in churches, a mosque and a temple, celebrate a diversity of holidays and enjoy a variety of dining choices and leisure activities.
Our region continues to strive for increased understanding, acceptance and inclusivity of all people. Local leaders want people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community to be successful here and live fully authentic lives. In 2019, the Human Rights Campaign named us one of the most inclusive cities in Kansas, and K-State has received the Campus Pride Best of the Best LGBTQ-Friendly Colleges and University award for several years.
Politically, we tend to be more independent or liberal than much of the rest of our red state, electing both Democrats and Republicans to represent us in Topeka. Our dynamic mix of academic faculty and military personnel brings together plenty of folks from “both sides of the aisle.” We work hard to cooperate for effective government at all levels.
While college sports are perhaps our biggest visitor draw, our arts and cultural offerings — both on campus and in the community — showcase artists in all media. We embrace all types of music, community events and festivals, exhibits and live performances. On a regular basis, we offer opportunities to see both big-name headliners and talented locals strut their stuff in the spotlight of our various performance venues.
In recent years, our downtown has experienced a rebirth in shopping and entertainment, and we’re cultivating a growing reputation as a foodie (and imbiber) hotspot. Whether you’re in the mood for small plates, gourmet tacos, or fine dining, we’ve got that — and there’s rarely a long wait to get a table. Murals and other public art enhance your stroll through downtown.
Aggieville — the entertainment district just off campus — is well-known across the country as the place where Wildcats go to play. Generations of alumni (and fans of our sports rivals) have memories of celebrating legendary wins (and drowning the sorrow of losses) in Aggieville’s many eclectic restaurants and bars.
Take us for a test drive
While Manhattan’s a long way from any ocean, and it’s about a day’s drive to the Rocky Mountains, we offer many harder-to-quantify assets — light traffic, short commutes, friendly neighbors, four seasons, old trees, gorgeous sunsets — that people often must experience firsthand to fully appreciate.
Please, don’t judge us by what you think Kansas is like. Come see for yourself. Spend a long weekend here and try us out. Here’s are a few suggestions for things to do while you’re in town:
- Take in a show, sports event or festival. There’s almost always something fun going on!
- Explore Aggieville or Downtown, enjoy dinner and a local brew, and take a stroll around Blue Earth Plaza.
- Watch the sun rise from Bluemont Hill. Bring coffee and some Varsity Donuts.
- Take a walk on the gorgeous K-State campus, largely constructed of native limestone.
- Experience a sunset hike on the Konza Prairie or cycle our linear trail.
- Ask a realtor to talk your ear off about all that’s going on in town between checking out a few houses. Be sure to visit at least one newer neighborhood and one historic one.
- Window shop along Poyntz Avenue, or hammock for a few hours in City Park and count the dogs (or e-scooters) that go by. Don’t forget to take a selfie with Johnny Kaw!
If after doing all this, we don’t seem like a good fit, then leave knowing you’ve done your due diligence. But if at the end of your weekend you feel a bit more relaxed and excited about the possibilities awaiting you, then you’ll know there’s something special in Kansas awaiting you.
Kristin Brighton is one of the co-founders and owners of New Boston Creative Group LLC. She is a past chair of the board of the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce and serves on the USD 383 school board. She can be reached for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.