MANHATTAN, Kan. — The music is soft. Like it's coming from a distance. It's the Kansas State fight song, maybe, or one of those songs the band plays that everyone knows but could never name. Either way it feels like college football Saturday, and it probably should, because the place it's really coming from, a speaker attached to light pole on the corner of 12th and Moro in the heart of Aggieville in Manhattan, Kan., does too.
It doesn't look special, just six square blocks of college bars. If you're not paying attention it's easy to walk right out of the tradition and into an Arby's. (Hint: If you hit any chain restaurant you're nearing the outskirts). There's a giant inflatable Willie the Wildcat, and a bookstore, Varney's, complete with marquee and flashing lights, "Go Cats. Beat the Tigers." But mostly it's just chalk-written specials signs and watering holes.
Plenty of schools boast similar options. There's Green Street in Champaign, Ill., and Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington, Ind. But there aren't many that have their own T-shirts, like Aggieville does.
What has become Aggieville started in 1898, when students at Kansas State Agricultural College were forced to go all the way downtown to purchase their textbooks. During the next 50 years trolley lines helped a single bookstore explode into an entertainment and dining district, and eventually the accessibility and feel of Aggieville has made it synonymous with Kansas State in a way that doesn't happen anywhere else.
It helps that there are two Aggievilles, and that they have enough similarities and enough differences to give six square blocks the sort of complex personality needed to define a town or a school. And that it takes just 24 hours for each version to emerge, fade, and be back again.
The first is born at around 9 p.m. At Kite's, which along with Rusty's Last Chance makes up The 'Ville's most famous set of next door neighbors, the shift is subtle. No one changes seats. The music gets a bit louder. But as the bouncer moves around the bar to shuffle out all those underage, it's obvious. It's bedtime for the quiet college town.
The crowds are fluid in nighttime Aggieville. A bar can be packed one moment and near empty the next. There are no cover charges anywhere, and that means bar-hopping. Maybe dinner at Kite's or the So Long Saloon, a quiet drink in one of the dim lit booths downstairs at Auntie Mae's, and finally dancing at Tubby's. No one stays put.
"We usually start at one end of town, make our way to the other, and then back again," Steven Hammerschidt, a Kansas State graduate now working on his Masters, said. "We probably go to four or five bars in a night."
The variety of a given night is the variety available, Hammerschidt says.
Aggieville is accessible to anyone. And that's not just because no money is needed at the door.
"It's just so friendly here, so close-knit" Hammerschidt said. "Every bar you walk into, you know somebody."
Hammerschidt said he realized what he had in Aggieville when he and a few friends took a trip to Pasadena for Kansas State's game against UCLA. Friendly, familiar faces and crowds dressed in t-shirts and jeans were replaced with an exclusionary upscale setting.
"They had an area like this," Hammerschidt said. "But we just felt totally out of place."
At 10 a.m. Kite's is different. Guinness and Budweiser are replaced with Dr. Pepper and iced tea. A nightlife hub has become a family-friendly environment perfect for game day.
There is purple everywhere. And on everyone. Like, 11-year-old David Fliter, whose Darren Sproles' jersey is fitting, considering his favorite player now is wide receiver Brandon Banks, who at 5'7'' is still one inch taller than the former Wildcat Sproles. Or the elderly couple seated two tables over. Him with a sport coat that looks navy until he shifts in his chair and allows the light to expose the deep royal purple. Her with a sweater embroidered with white "Kansas State" lettering, undoubtedly older than the college-aged woman placing their bill on the table.
Lance Chambers is seated at the bar wearing his own Kansas State sweatshirt. He doesn't have long-lasting Kansas State ties. He's from Minnesota. His daughter is a freshman on the woman's basketball team here. He's only visited Aggieville a few times, but it's hard to notice as he mentions the elderly couple, and how it's amazing how different the people here are, and how each of them is dressed so similarly.
"It's easy to see how it creates such a real sense of pride," Chambers said. "It's absolutely awesome."