San Francisco Chronicle:
Open Forum: A San Franciscan dreams of Des Moines
By David Prowler Aug. 9, 2019
How can you tell whether a city is successful? Here’s a litmus test: Poor people, rich people and people in between can comfortably live there together. It’s a low bar, but since the birth of cities, it’s been one of their strong points.
Nobody would say San Francisco passes that test. Schoolteachers can’t afford to live here. Neither can dishwashers, artists, writers, laborers or retirees. Unless you have lots of money, San Francisco just isn’t inviting. It doesn’t work for everybody, and we are all poorer for it.
San Francisco may be a Great City, but I don’t consider it a successful city.
I’ve had Des Moines, Iowa, in the back of my mind for some time, ever since I read a piece by the musician David Byrne, formerly of the Talking Heads. He tours a lot and posts on his website about cities (and especially bicycles). Of a 2014 stop in Iowa’s capital, he wrote:
I didn’t sense the huge disparity of income that we often see — famously in the town I live in [New York]. You don’t get the feeling you’re an intruder in a rich person’s playground. I saw folks of different races and folks with different backgrounds enjoying their city — rather than keeping to themselves, isolated, as I have witnessed in many other places. I saw neighborhoods that seemed to be holding their own; a middle class was surviving and many were staying more or less close to the city center, which helped it stay alive and vital. I saw the beginnings of local culture manifesting in some new local restaurants, venues, galleries and shops.
I remember when San Francisco was like that. In 1974, I was a college dropout, a dishwasher in the Haight with a studio apartment. I always had pocket money, and I was part of a creative community of painters, musicians and writers.
All kinds of people can live in Des Moines. You don’t have to be rich. And because of that, it can sustain the creative scene that attracted Byrne in the first place (for the opening of the Des Moines Social Club, “a restaurant, bar, theater, outdoor performance space, classrooms and even a culinary school”). It’s a fairly diverse city,13% Latino, 11% African American — about twice the figure in San Francisco — and 6% Asian American.
With an unemployment rate near 2%, you could probably get a decent job there. And it would likely pay enough to live there: The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Des Moines, about $800, is comfortably affordable to a household earning about $32,000 a year, according to a recent study by Apartment List. It takes an income of about $123,000 to afford the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, nearly $3,100.
Des Moines has a river, an art museum, a symphony orchestra, an opera company, lots of insurance companies and a botanical garden with a geodesic dome. It has buildings by starchitects I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano and David Chipperfield. It has a gay bar called the Blazing Saddle.
I imagine the city is flat and surrounded by big farms, and that it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. People are probably pretty nice, and many of them are probably pudgy.
Des Moines won’t make any list of the World’s Great Cities. It’s no tourist attraction or tech mecca. And it doesn’t make a lot of headlines beyond the presidential primary season.
All I know about Des Moines I learned from the internet. I plan to never, ever visit the city because I prefer to imagine it: the flip side of San Francisco, in a good way – the Des Moines of my dreams.
The piece got picked up by the Des Moines Register: “Though Prowler promised to never soil his dream of Des Moines observing it up close, he has received an open invitation to visit at any time and claims to be taking it into consideration.”
I started getting emails and tweets from people in Des Moines: Come visit us. And after a dinner with a few bottles of wine some buddies and I decided to go.
Here’s what struck me about Des Moines:
It’s not big, just over 200,000 people, which does make it big for Iowa. It’s not part of a big metropolitan area like I’m used to – once you are out of town you really are out of town, in cornfields with some small developments.
You need a car. The modern city, especially downtown, was designed to avoid the harsh winter weather and to accommodate cars. But it’s not like LA where you drive for 20 minutes to two hours to get anywhere. In Des Moines it is a more predictable 10 – 20 minutes.
Then you’ve got to park.
In Downtown Des Moines I saw more places for cars than I’d ever seen anywhere.
Check out these statistics:
|City||New York||Philadelphia||Seattle||Des Moines||Jackson, WY|
|Total Parking Spaces||1.85 million||2.2 million||1.6 million||1.6 million||100,119|
|Parking density per acre||10.1||25.3||29.7||28.4||53.8|
|Parking spaces per household||0.6||3.7||5.2||19.4||27|
|Total replacement cost of parking||$20.1 billion||$17.5 billion||$35.8 billion||$6.4 billion||$711 million|
|Parking cost per household||$6,570||$29,974||$117,677||$77,165||$192,138|
Between the highrises and the parking garages most downtown streets are empty and sterile.
Photo: Des Moines Register
And there really isn’t much reason to be on the sidewalks. There are hardly any stores or restaurants and you can get around in the 4 miles of glassed-in second story walkways that connect 55 office buildings and their parking garages.
There isn’t even retail along the walkways. The big employers – insurance companies, banks, and publishing – have cafeterias. Where would you buy a Band-Aid if you cut your finger? Google Maps lists two drugstores in all of Downtown Des Moines.
There, I sensed the ghost of a former city, with department stores, offices, warehouses, theaters, hotels, all the old-time downtown stuff.
It once looked like this.
By the mid-1980s it looked like this:
In 1987 Downtown had seven blocks of car dealerships.
Meg Malloy, President of the Des Moines Junior League and our super-generous local guide writes:
“It was probably a mix of properties – vacant lots with overgrown weeds and other buildings, some which were dilapidated, but several which were in decent shape but might have been more expensive to bring up to code because of asbestos removal, whathaveyou. A lot of the really cool buildings were (unfortunately) demolished before I was born: the Victoria Hotel, the KRNT Radio Theatre, etc. I suppose nothing is forever where progress is concerned, but it still would have been cool to see Johnny Cash at the Radio Theatre in the 60’s.”
The hollowing out of Downtown wasn’t due to natural disaster, like in San Francisco or redevelopment, also like San Francisco. Malls and highways killed downtown. Lots of buildings came down, buildings that today would be “historic” and that’s kind of sad. But if Des Moines had had a more aggressive preservation movement at the time it would be like a lot of American cities, with decaying vacant buildings and high unemployment. Instead, Des Moines has corporate headquarters and a 2.5% unemployment rate. (Historic preservation has caught on, after the rehabilitation of a 1913 Masonic Temple into restaurants and a theatre and there are some residential historic districts.) Today both young people and empty nesters are moving back to downtown and the adjacent East Village neighborhood, into conversions and new buildings. In the 1990s 1,000 people lived Downtown: now there are 15,000. And they are happy to have, finally, a grocery store.
There is a lot of buzz about Des Moines, as a place for normal people with normal incomes to rent or buy normal homes and lead their lives. In recent years Des Moines has been named the nation’s richest (by U.S. News) and economically strongest city (Policom), best for young professionals (Forbes), families (Kiplinger), home renters (Time), businesses and careers (Forbes). It has the highest community pride in the nation, according to a Gallup poll last year, and in October topped a Bloomberg analysis of which cities in the United States were doing the best at attracting millennialsto buy housing.
Nonetheless, despite David Bryne’s impression of integration, it may not be so great for black residents. We were struck by how few we saw downtown, eating in, or even working in, restaurants and that most people waiting at bus stops for the very few buses were African Americans. Statistics bear out the Des Moines is not a great city for black people.
There’s not much tourism in Des Moines, no double decker buses making loops between sites. No puzzled French people with maps. They make an effort and there is a glossy magazine called Catch Des Moines. Most visitors are from the region. Without destination landmarks, Des Moines has developed a kind of event tourism. There is the spectacle of the Iowa Caucus every four years. But also the Iowa State Fair, Drake Relays, Arts Festival, Opera Festival, 80-35 Music Festival, Hinterlands Music Festival, and this:
The normalcy of Des Moines felt exotic – no Dawn of the Dead streets of drug addicts; no people walking around naked. No cable cars or Statue of Liberty or even an arch like in St Louis – though there is plenty of architecture by its designer, Eero Saarinen and his dad, Eliel.
I really liked Des Moines. People were super-friendly and proud of their city: “Iowa Nice” they actually call it. Everyone we met was patriotic about their home and it is the kind of place people move back to. I asked lots of people what’s the biggest problem in Des Moines and the answer was consistent: potholes. Not gentrification or homelessness (“There’s some over by 6th and Walnut.”) or a housing crunch.
Des Moines isn’t packaged for your entertainment. It’s not a show town like Las Vegas or a Disneyland like those parts of Lisbon that are majority Airbnb or a luxury shopping mall like Soho in NYC.
Des Moines has an authenticity those places lost long ago. It’s a real place.
Enormous gratitude to Meg Malloy and Christopher Disbro who invited me and introduced us to both an elegant hushed restaurant and “the best dive bar in Des Moines”, to Evan Olson of Say Hello to the City for his invitation and for showing us around and to Karla Walsh for her insights.Thanks to John Whitty for orienting me before and after. And thanks to Stinky, the bartender at Blazing Saddle for the round of drinks.
Huge thanks to my buddies Steve Vettel and Rich Hillis for being such great explorers.
Almost too short…but not. Maybe you should write about other cities you never thought to visit and then go.
Anyway, nice stuff.
Next up: Kansas City or Minneapolis! Both are surprisingly cool and very different from Des Moines.
Just super, David. Will forward to all my Iowa friend (singular). I love your eye and balance. I’m thinking about Paris in many of the same terms (though without your grounding in urban history and policy). What most strikes me is that with good public transport and safe, vibrant street life, my septuagenarian social existence is transformed. Going out is no longer an arid car-schlepp, an event, and a return schlepp. Going there and even getting back is an often joyous part of the experience. So I actually go out rather than spend the evening on my couch. Really well done, David.
These words sum up my sentiments exactly. As someone who was born and raised in Des Moines, I can assure you that you painted a picture of us up perfectly. I moved to Austin, TX two years ago (a decision that I think was essential for my career, but a difficult one nonetheless). Often I find myself longing for the ease of my former city and dreaming of the day I move back, should that day ever come. This feeling is hard to explain as Austinites are convinced that the chaos and famous “weirdness” is the only way to enjoy life. It’s true, this lifestyle is fun and chalked full of entertainment, but it will never have that understated, quiet magic that Des Moines has. Thank you for summarizing this city as it really is; simple, quieter, but also a hidden gem that deserves a nod every now and then.