One meeting, a visionary planner and old-fashioned Iowan cooperation reinvented Des Moines.
he capital of Iowa has long had a reputation as one of the least hip, least interesting and least dynamic cities in the Western world, a dull insurance town set amid the unending corn fields of flyover country, a place Minneapolis looks down on and the young and ambitious flee as soon as they graduate. “Usually you are born here or marry into here or get transferred here,” says local entrepreneur Mike Draper. “Not many people come to chase their dreams. If they did, you’d be like, ‘What, you want to be an actuary?’”
But unbeknownst to many outside the Midwest, over the past 15 years Des Moines has transformed into one of the richest, most vibrant, and, yes, hip cities in the country, where the local arts scene, entrepreneurial startups and established corporate employers are all thriving. Its downtown — previously desolate after 5 p.m. — has come alive, with 10,000 new residents and a bevy of nationally recognized restaurants. A few blocks away, the uber-cool Des Moines Social Club draws 25,000 people a month — more than a 10th of the city’s population — to take part in everything from Shakespeare and avant-garde theater to live music and aerial gymnastics classes. Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne showed up at its opening in 2014 because he thinks a city once called “Des Boring” may be America’s next creative hub.
The city that a legion of presidential campaign staffers and journalists are now swarming over is not the one many of them might recognize from cycles past. No longer just a drab dateline from the first battleground state, this metropolis is riding high in the polls. In recent years Des Moines has been named the nation’s richest (by U.S. News) and economically strongest city (Policom), its 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 millennials to buy housing. “Never mind California or New York,” Fast Companydeclared two years back. “By some important measures, Des Moines is way ahead of its cooler coastal cousins.” Not bad for a metro area of half a million located hundreds of miles from either mountains or the sea.
Cities don’t, as a rule, change their identities. They might accentuate a characteristic they already possess, but plow horses don’t become thoroughbreds. So how did Des Moines pull off the urban equivalent of a Triple Crown win?
Call it radical cooperation. Des Moines tapped the latent power of the heartland — a cultural ethos of working together and good manners that’s helped account for Iowa’s stability — and harnessed it to an ambitious plan to jump-start downtown by building cultural amenities, attracting creative class types and retaining big employers. Des Moines’ civic leaders realized the city wasn’t going to transform itself without a clear long-term vision, so in an almost hyper-Iowan way they did something almost unheard of. They took it upon themselves to bring in an outside visionary and then tied together the destinies of the various projects he envisioned, forging an almost ego-less, private-sector-driven renaissance that has continued to flower over the past decade.
Seventy years ago, a Saturday Evening Post profile likened Des Moines to “a decent kindly man with a fixed income [who] has learned his station.” Even before the I-235 punched its way through the north side of the city, encouraging a late-1950s commuter exodus to suburban West Des Moines and Altoona, nobody had lived downtown, even though most everyone worked there.
“There were women in hats and white gloves at the tea room or the department stores during the day, and men in hats and ties working in the insurance companies and banks,” Michael Gartner, owner of the city’s Triple-A Iowa Cubs baseball team, recalls of his childhood in the late 1940s. “At 5 o’clock they would get onto their buses and go home.”
Highways killed the downtown department stores, and by the late 1960s the central city had become little more than an office park for its leading industries: insurance, agricultural support services, and government. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city tried to turn things around by installing suburban conveniences, including an enclosed system of skywalks, allowing people to get from building to building and through new indoor shopping malls without putting on their coats, which only furthered the abandonment of the sidewalks and the storefronts. On Friday and Saturday nights, bored teenagers raced their cars through the empty streets, circling the downtown loop from Grand to Locust Avenue over and over again. “This was supposed to be a menace to society,” Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu recalls. They would have been perhaps a greater menace had there been some risk of hitting a pedestrian.
By the late 1980s, the city’s leaders realized they needed to do something uncharacteristically bold. The big private employers — the insurance companies Principal, Nationwide, EMC and Wellmark; publishing giant Meredith (Better Homes and Gardens); Wells Fargo — had a lot riding on the central city, where they maintained offices for tens of thousands of employees. “They said, 'Look, we have a tremendous investment here and we want to be able to attract and retain people,'” says Mary O’Keefe, who was Principal’s vice president for marketing for 25 years. “The business community here is really strong and responsible and they took leadership on these things out of enlightened self interest.” They also realized they needed fresh ideas.
Ironically, the critical link was made by art collector Melva Bucksbaum, whose husband, Martinpioneered the suburban shopping center, founding General Growth Properties, the mall-making behemoth behind everything from Tyson’s Galleria in suburban Washington, D.C. to Chicago’s Water Tower Place. In the spring of 1987, Bucksbaum took a well-timed call from a friend of hers, architect Bruce Graham, whose buildings — including the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center — had transformed Chicago’s skyline. Graham had a colleague to recommend, an innovative urban thinker looking for a Midwestern city to experiment on. Bucksbaum was thrilled. Soon that visionary, Mario Gandelsonas, found himself in a car hurtling up Fleur Drive from the Des Moines International Airport, headed for downtown.
He was horrified at what he saw.
In the summer of 1987, Gandelsonas was a 49-year-old professor at the Yale School of Architecture. Born and raised in Argentina and educated in Paris, he’d long had a fascination with Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations on the social groups and civic associations that give American democracy its distinct bottom-up power. “This civic spirit still exists,” Gandelsonas said, “but I think they are much more visible in a small city in the heartland than in a place like New York.” Graham, his mentor, suggested Des Moines might be the perfect place for him to put into practice his theories that the future of cities might lie in such unlikely places. Des Moines had strong cultural associations, an engaged leadership eager for new ideas and was surprisingly wealthy, meaning there were resources available to implement a good idea.
Gandelsonas’ urban planning philosophy was simple: don’t treat a city like a map that needs to be redrawn and corrected, but as a living organism with its own purpose, personality and innate characteristics. Successful interventions are ones that enhance and enable the organism’s socio-economic metabolism by removing blockages or creating new centers of potential growth. Instead of producing a total and comprehensive master plan for a city, Gandelsonas sought to identify a series of “moments,” civic projects that would enhance its fabric and unleash its potential. Or so the theory went.
The car ride in from the airport was sobering. At the central city’s gateway, what Gandelsonas called its “front yard,” travelers were greeted by a gas station and seven blocks of car dealerships set among radiator shops and pawn brokers. Downtown itself “looked like science fiction,” he recalls. “It was mid-morning and there were no people on the streets. At lunchtime, the streets were still empty, but for about an hour the skywalks were full of people. At 4:30 they started filling up again as everyone rushed to the nearest parking structure and then for half an hour there was a full-on traffic jam as 50,000 people tried to get to West Des Moines. Then the city was empty again. For me this was the perfect picture of a place that was totally dysfunctional.”