An elegy for the Fourth and Court parking lot9/6/2017
These days as I drive east into the downtown area, I marvel at how fast the new Kum & Go headquarters is coming together. I give a mental hello to the yellow crane that has marked the horizon of the Western Gateway for the past few years. This particular evening, I drive to the Des Moines Social Club, where I am going to an art show. The DMSC, a marker of progress itself, occupies an old fire station. I pull into the parking ramp across the street; it offers free parking on weekends and evenings. This is my new go-to parking downtown, and for some reason on this occasion, I am reminded of my first parking lot love. Five blocks east now stands a newly constructed commercial and residential building. A sparkling Hy-Vee market opened its doors where the parking lot at Fourth and Court once stood.
I was raised in the western suburbs amid wide blue skies, cookie cutter houses and manicured green lawns. In the early 2000s, downtown Des Moines held little draw. Besides catching an Iowa Cubs baseball game, visiting the gold-domed state capitol, or seeing the occasional show at the Civic Center, it was out of mind.
At 16 when I obtained my driver’s license, I had off-limits areas. “Don’t drive downtown” mainly. When I mustered the courage to maneuver one-way streets, I did, as you would guess, drive downtown. Once there, my young friends and I learned of an exciting place called Court Avenue. This is where we discovered Vaudeville Mews, which remains a beloved dive of a music venue to many Des Moinesians. As a high schooler, I would go there to watch my cool friends play in bands at the all-ages shows. Those early days downtown were mostly spent walking the skywalk, riverwalk and the steps of the capitol, taking advantage of our little freedoms.
The hub of this activity was the parking lot at Fourth and Court. It was far from majestic.
The part closest to Court Avenue was paved and had angle-in parking, the primo spots. A few were usually occupied by green and gold dumpsters. Behind this small lot was the wasteland, the catch-all, the best parking in downtown Des Moines. In one word, free. In many words, a remnant of the years of disuse and disrepair downtown Des Moines suffered. This back lot consisted of three narrow lanes of unpaved parking. The gravel was small and dusty; I could walk 25 feet, and my shoes would look like I walked a mile on a back road. There were huge potholes in every lane, and when it rained, the puddles lasted for days.
Despite its shortcomings, this parking lot was the safe spot my friends and I counted on as our worlds widened. It was where I went to take terrible, too-close photos of graffiti on dumpsters and cracks in the sidewalk. It was the location of my final goodbye with my best friend before we left for separate colleges. We lingered, leaned on our trunks, held our car keys, and gave each other one more hug. Unspoken, we were eager for the future, yet sad to leave the last four years behind.
When I left for college, I had no intention of returning to my hometown, like many others I knew. But after a few years out in the world, I found my way back to Des Moines, and I liked what saw. I could count on landmarks that had been there before, and I rejoiced in the new.
The revitalization of the downtown area started in the early 2000s and actually gained steam after the 2008 recession. It gave people a reason to stick around, instead of running to metropolises elsewhere. Des Moines had continued to change and adapt.
One thing that had stayed the same was the parking lot at Fourth and Court. Its central location made it easy to walk anywhere in Downtown Des Moines. To the west stands the courthouse, to the south the Business Publications Corporation, an old brick building that once served as a train depot. Behind that is the Science Center of Iowa. To the east, restaurants, bars and newly constructed residences on the top of those commercial spaces. To the north, a parking ramp that one had to pay to use. It was as if it didn’t exist until the most dire of moments. As of January of this year, the ramp closed to make way for its successor. This welcome renovation will include a movie theatre, a gap that had not been filled in downtown Des Moines since the River Hills-Riviera Theatre was razed in 2000 to make way for the Wells Fargo Arena.
As the progress in Downtown Des Moines continued, the lot was as important as ever.
The sources for entertainment in the area boomed. At busy times, this parking lot was dog-eat-dog. I would drive up to the parking lot and visualize a free spot just for me in the paved portion. Upon driving up to a full lot, I would quickly adjust my fantasy parking spot to any row of the wasteland but the farthest. The farthest, you see, was only accessible by Fifth Street, not Fourth, and the most narrow. If, for some desperate reason, one drove all the way to the end hoping a spot would materialize, a dangerously long back-up would have to be performed as extraction.
It was the rendezvous point. Many a cell conversation started with, “Where are you?” and end with, “In the parking lot.” It was a place to get away from the crowds and have hushed conversations, to loiter after catching a show at Vaudeville Mews, to watch people puke, and to get door dings.
In 2014, rumors started going around that the lot was to be developed. As urbandsm.com called it, “The 420 Court Avenue Mixed Use Project.” The proposals consisted of more residential and commercial space, a movie theatre, an indoor farmers market and a Hy-Vee grocery.
My initial reaction was less than excited. “Say it isn’t so!” The last bastion of free parking, the wild west free-for-all was to be no more. Des Moines would be relegated to pay for parking. In a way, it was a defining moment: Des Moines had arrived. In November of 2015, the lot was fenced off, and construction began on the “Hy-Vee market, 81 apartments and a parking deck.”
I grew accustomed to parking elsewhere and really didn’t think of the lot for quite some time. Life moves on, after all. I found myself anticipating the new market; it was necessary to support the residences downtown, and convenient for all.
I wondered if I was the only person nostalgic for the hapless lot. I asked a few of my peers how they remembered it. Their answers ran the gamut from, “Oh, I do miss that parking lot,” “We were spoiled to have that for so long,” and “All in the name of progress,” to “I don’t have any good memories of that thing,” and “My car was broken into twice in that lot.” A recent search of “Fourth and Court parking lot” brings up only talk of the completed Hy-Vee that now stands where the parking lot was. I come across Urbandsm: The Des Moines Development Forum. There I find an overview of the project and a photographic timeline from 2014 to now. I scroll through different artist renderings and construction photographs. At the bottom of the page, I find what I am looking for: pre-construction parking lot pictures. My heart skips a beat. It is nothing special, but I notice there are trees between the two parts of the parking lot, and a barrier of shrubs between the lot and the sidewalk — things I’d already forgotten.
In February of this year, the Hy-Vee finally opened its doors. On my first visit, I walked the aisles of the new market and found myself closing my eyes to remember what used to be where I stood. In the new Hy-Vee, by the olde-time candy display, I imagined myself in the middle of the old parking lot again, saying goodbye and again eager for the future. ♦
Shannon Bussone-Rue lives in Des Moines with her husband and her cat. She is currently enrolled in the University of Iowa’s writing certificate program.