I grew up about thirty miles southwest of Lawrence. My family would go there maybe once every month or two to visit friends or see a play or visit the garage sales. My mom knew the place and had a feel for it because she had gone to school there, and she passed that on to me unconsciously, let me in on how easily the college kids smiled in passing and how nice it was to live in an environment that encouraged open-mindedness rather than lockstep conformity. Growing up in a Kansas town with a population of less than six grand, it was a breath of fresh air.
In 98 I got the apartment I would have for the next five years and started school at the University of Kansas. Kind of a no-brainer -- my other choices were small liberal arts colleges with no Computer Science to speak of, and Kansas State University with its three-hour distance from anywhere important and reputation for fraternity nightlife being the only nightlife. Out of state was out of the question too, unless I wanted to pay off three times as much student loans afterwards.
So, below I will attempt here to encapsulate everything the city taught me in the five years that I lived there in as few words as possible. Some things will be glossed over or missed entirely, and a totally unfair amount of attention will be paid to my personal favorite parts. Hopefully, though, at least a fragment of the town's appeal (to prospective students or anybody else) and unique personality will come through.
Above any other feature, the University of Kansas (KU to those who attend it) is what sets the town apart from any other in the state. Still, covering it in depth here is inappropriate since a whole, separate node on it needs to be written. On the most basic level, it brings in 30,000-odd kids all wanting to enjoy their newfound near-adult-freedom and push their parents' money into the local economy. It also employs thousands of faculty and staff members, and indirectly brings employment with the many small businesses and franchises that couldn't survive without student patronage.
There is another university in town as well, Haskell Indian Nations University, which brings one or two thousand students in from quite a few tribes scattered around the country. The university throws huge pow-wows a few times a year which attract lots of people from the area. The crowds are virtually immiscible though, with separate bars and hangouts, to the cultural detriment of all.
The universities' greatest influence on the town is the 30,000-odd 18 to 25-year-olds they bring in nine months or so of the year. Those people, in turn, bring their parents' money, along with minds and bodies bent on enjoying freedom from parents and established peer groups for often the first time ever.
Besides the university students, there are about twice as many people who make the city their permanent home -- townies in a less charitable vernacular. Unlike in most places, though, the citizens fall into three quite distinct categories. The first is the kind found everywhere, folks who were born and raised in the city or moved in from an adjacent town. The second is made up of people who came from wherever because of the university, and never ended up leaving. Finally, the most quickly growing segment of the population (despite resentment from the other two groups) are young, upwardly-mobile or family-oriented types who came for low land prices and an easy commute. More and more Lawrence is becoming a so-called bedroom community for Kansas City, which can be reached in less than an hour via Interstate 70 or K-10.
Sure, among the college drop-out crowd there are plenty of stoners and slackers that are going to be content working at a gas station until their livers fail. Every town has its share, and college towns more so than others. However, I've met plenty of folks who stayed in Lawrence after becoming disinterested in schooling because the town simply made them feel at home. Know a couple of guys who didn't deal well with the CS curriculum, but did just fine getting respectable sysadmin positions in town. Know another fellow came to school a while back from Hong Kong; he's been in the city for six years now and doesn't plan to leave.
As for the people who are raised there, they are possibly better off than if they had been raised anywhere else in the state. Though the Lawrence school district doesn't have the financial resources of Johnson County, they have more diversity than virtually anywhere else in Kansas. Instead of the 96% caucasian population found in JC and elsewhere, a full quarter of the school's population identifies themselves as belonging to a minority. Also, because so many professors raise children in the town, school board meetings and parent associations are, as I understand, well populated with people who understand education.
There are tons of secret places near and in town, begging to be found and explored and taken as one's own. Clinton Lake, to the West of the city proper, was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1977 to control the flooding by the Kansas river. It has tons of camping areas, surrounding park areas to be walked through, and a few areas (like the dam) that are open all night and have some parking. A sweet girl once showed me the overlook tower southeast of town, which is three stories high and built at the top of a hill. You can see miles from the top, and it is an impressive view day or night. It technically closes after 9 PM, but there are places on the driveway where a car can be hidden from passing rangers, and the park itself is not actively patrolled.
In town there are too many parks to mention, though a couple are outstanding enough that they really deserve one. The Ryan Gray Playground for All Children is super neat, and anybody with even an ounce of childhood left in them should be able to enjoy it. Downtown features a big, pretty park right next to the city pool, which features plenty of picnic tables, and a huge, authentic steam engine to walk through. Visitors used to be able to climb all over the engine, but presumably lawsuit fears have made them erect a small fence around most of it. This fence may safely be climbed by anybody taller than a meter, though cops drive by the park at all hours. In the Northern part of downtown (think 5th and whatever, South of the river) is a tiny park with a plaque describing it as a hermit grotto, used by a Lawrence hermit in the late 1800's. By just climbing a bit downhill one can escape almost entirely the nearby street noise for a beautiful little creek. Finally, on the North side of West Hills Pkwy, off Emery, there are a couple of trails that lead to little clearings in the bird reserve there, perfect for spending some time in your walk home from campus.
Speaking of campus, it is rich with interesting places, again too many to list. One high point -- or more literally, low point -- is the network of steam tunnels laced under all of the campus buildings. Good entry points may still be found under Learned Hall and Carruth-O'Leary, though as security concerns heighten they get more and more difficult to come by. On the other end of the spectrum is roof access, which is available to probably half the buildings if you're trying hard. The best way to find it is to climb the stairwells as far up as they go, and see if there is a door or a ladder there. Side and janitorial stairwells are probably your best bet.
Broken down quickly: West side (West of, say, Kassold) is for the bedroom community crowd. Area surrounding downtown and West of campus is for professors and middle-middle-class townies. East side gets poorer the further East you consider, culminating in a huge trailer park out on the edge. Student ghetto falls along the entirety of Kentucky and Tennessee streets, and up most of 9th. North of the river is very poor and avoided or ignored by the rest of the city. Some new housing is going in in the South, seemingly randomly targeted at the whole spectrum. There are some strictly cheap apartments, such as the notorious Felony (nee Colony) Woods, split half-and-half between students and the poor, just South of 23rd St.
I personally lived in the student ghetto for the duration of my time in Lawrence, and some time there is recommended for anybody who is or feels under the age of thirty. It's virtually required if you're a student, as the name implies. Many of my friends have lived in the 23rd St. area off and on, and it's a good budget choice too, particularly if you can sleep through whole weekends of wild partying. For those with some flow, there are some simply beautiful early twentieth century houses sprinkled on the state-named streets North of 9th St. At least take a look before buying some developer's cardboard mansion out West.
Elsewhere in this article I've mentioned Massachusetts St., commonly concatenated to Mass. This street's North side is the city's downtown, and has always been incredibly healthy and vibrant, with no signs of slowing down. Some of the city's best shopping can be found here, at least if you're into modern urban gear or hip "re-cycled clothing" styles. Also available is the standard college-area consumable fare, piercings and guitars and bongs, oh my. On the lame side, a Gap and American Eagle have both opened in the past couple of years, so if that's your bag ...
Also worth a mention is the consumption junction centered at 31st and Iowa Streets South of town. This has everything from Wal Mart, through Target, and on to Best Buy and Home Depot. All of the gigantic, evil corporate conglomerates are represented -- there are even a few lots worth of new cars and a McDonalds. This area also features Lawrence's single, awful movie theater, which charges more than enough for its shitty seating and selection of flicks.
For car repair, I've found Harris Auto on 23rd to be honest and pleasant to deal with, and they can usually get to a car within the day that it is dropped off. Dale and Ron's on 7th is also well respected by the locals, though they're often backed up for a few days at least.
Because of the city's diversity, Lawrence has some truly excellent non-chain eateries.
For Mexican, there are now two locations La Familia, which is sort of a Lawrence tradition. Ixtapa is newer to town, and has better food but often rude service. There's also the Burrito King taco stand on 9th st, which sells mediocre (at best) food, but you can get it for $3 per meal and they're open until 4 am. More along the lines of South American fare is the unbeatable, and reasonably priced, La Parilla.
Asian food lovers do pretty well in Lawrence, too. The classic take-out and delivery dive is Jade Garden, which also owns the slightly more upscale (and delicious!) Jade Mongolian Barbecue. For the hungrier crowd there is the yummy King Buffet. Avoid Peking Taste, as a friend who used to work there says they have a severely unclean kitchen. Wa, on Mass St., offers the city's best sushi in a nice, cosmopolitan atmosphere, though it costs a bundle and Kansas is notoriously far from any ocean... Also on Mass is Zen Zero, which is run by the same owner as La Parilla and has terrific pan-asian food. India Palace was in the Zagat top ten national Indian restaurants a few years ago, and is every bit as good as that recommendation would imply.
There are a couple of reasonable BBQ joints in town, namely Pat's Blue Rib'n on 23rd and Gran-pappy's BBQ North of the river. The former has better drink specials, but the latter's food is quite a bit better. Really, since Lawrence is less than an hour from downtown Kansas City, you might do best to just drive to Arthur Bryant's or another famous KC barbecue.
Rudy's is the exemplary local pizza place, and it delivers throughout the city. I've heard Lawrence Pizza Company is good too. Unfortunately, the pizza market in town is really controlled by the chains, though. If you're forced to go with them, I know that Papa John's keeps a clean kitchen from working there for years. Also, Gumby's pizza costs less than air, but tastes like nothing and will tear up your mouth something awful -- avoid.
Italian food lovers have it pretty good too. Some swear by Paisano's on Iowa, though I think it's overpriced and always understaffed, though their food is great. Teller's on Mass is a favorite of the cosmopolitan crowd, and has a great atmosphere and selection. The food at Bambino's is not so hot, but it's cheap and they serve gigantic schooners of booze, which leads to an overabundance of campus greeks dating there.
Of course, one can't forget all of the killer straight-up American food available in town either. On the lower end is Yello Sub, which should be at least a monthly requirement for living in Lawrence -- beware, stoners == slow service. Somewhere in the middle is Paradise Cafe, which is renowned for (and crowded during) their breakfast. Going a bit higher, we get to Free State Brewery, which has decent food and great beer to go with it. Up in the stratosphere is Pachamama's, which prides itself on serving weird food (think: emu steak) as a fine dining treat.
Last of all, donuts. There are two local joints competing to clog your arteries, Joe's Donuts and Munchers Bakery. Joe's has a bit more history in the city, and is undoubtedly delicious. Munchers has places to sit, though, and is open 24 hours.
In a town so overrun by students, various forms of coffee are a necessity, and outlets for them are dotted all over the city. I've mostly only visited the cafes downtown, so I will stick with describing them. Henry's has wonderful coffee, especially their prize-winning Black Forest mocha and the nice, cold Mocha Freeze. Tends to be very crowded, though. Java Break's specialty is cold-press espresso, and there is plenty of room there to stretch out and read or study or whatever. Some complain that their crowd is too high-school, though. Milton's is over-rated. The Bourgeois Pig's claim to fame is the fact that it has a bar inside, and can thus make yummy coffee booze treats.
Speaking of booze, Lawrence loves it, or at least newly minted adult portion of Lawrence does. Bars are open until 2 am, with last call usually no later than 1:45. Due to the amount of competition, each local bar has its own feel and benefits, and sports at least a small crowd of regulars.
Indie rockers and other malcontents would do well at either the Replay Lounge or the 8th St. Taproom. The Replay has a brighter and more lively atmosphere, but the Taproom tends to be much less of an icky punk rawk meat market. Henry's coffeehouse has an extremely nice little neighborhood bar upstairs, with friendly (if slow) service and plenty of tables. Everybody except me seems to like the Red Lion, despite the noise level and televisions. Maybe it's their free popcorn. Raoul's Velvet Room -- or whatever they're calling it this week -- has a wonderful selection of liquor, though you have to drink it with fratboys while listening to trance.