Friday, May 20, 2022

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Guest Commentary

Des Moines: 37 years of change


It was just a place my car broke down on my way to Colorado. All the city had been to me was a name, the place where the paper I used to deliver came from. Close by my Quad-Cities home, but not as close as Iowa City. Bigger, more distant. So when I arrived that spring of 1977, I had several impressions. A city unto itself, with its own “skyscrapers” — smaller versions of Chicago’s in my mind.

Fortunately I was able to land a job within a week. Being 19 and eager helped. Being in the computer industry helped even more. Soon, I was working and getting to know my newfound city. The downtown area was not in good shape. The best part was the then-new Ruan center, rusty red with its attached skywalk leading over to the parking garage.

Soon, development took off, fueled by a strong downtown business partnership, and the leadership of then-Mayor Richard Olson. The very company I worked for helped fund a new civic center and plaza, finished by 1979. Then, a new Marriott hotel was built. Other buildings followed. Ruan II, the striking new Wallace building in the capitol complex, 900 Keo addition to Northwestern Bell. By the early 1980s they were putting up skywalks around town, and Capital Square was rising girder by girder. My youthful eyes took it all in, and I was suffused with a glow of civic pride.   I was 25, and employed part-time as a messenger, walking all over a downtown being transformed — it was thrilling.

I moved away, and then back, a couple of times. Development seemed to stall a bit. But then the new 801 Grand rose up, and a parking garage. What a beautiful building that was, and still is. Marble and granite rising up 44 stories, all connected by an increasing network of skywalks. The original vision of city leaders for street-level retail to move indoors to the skywalk system succeeded so well, that nowadays they are wanting to bring back “street-level retail.” So be it. But to walk the entire length of the downtown, north, south, east and west, enclosed by skywalks seemed like science fiction several decades ago, and now it is ho-hum reality. I was, and remain, suitably impressed.

But there was something missing for me. And it became clear when the makeup of our city council changed, most notably with the retirement of one dedicated, yet obstructionist, individual. Suddenly we were able to get a civil rights ordinance passed that protected the LGBT community from discrimination. Now I and others like me had legal protection — we could not get fired or harassed due to our sexual orientation. It was then that Des Moines truly became my adopted home.

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A few synergistic elements really seemed to make our downtown take off. A visionary young man moved to town and opened the Social Club, with some concepts borrowed from NYC clubs. The man on the street, however humble his circumstances, was now automatically included in something of the city. Before this, in the ’80s and ’90s, it was very easy to feel like you were always on the outside looking in, wondering how you could get access to the land of the privileged. The Social Club made many more of us feel like we were finally one of the privileged, at least in a sense.

Then the idea of a sculpture park, proposed by an outside consultant who is very well regarded, took hold. And the resistance of one property company actually added to the appeal. Their row of buildings seemed to add a bit of spice and interest into the green landscape. Now, one can walk around, enjoy new library grounds, waterways, events on the lawn, and take in some refreshment at the cafe or restaurant on 13th Street, before moving on and enjoying modern sculpture art.

The synergy between the Social Club, the downtown that continues to sprout new buildings and condos, and the vibrant arts and music communities is very powerful indeed. All of a sudden this city, once so broken down and decrepit, was referred to as “Dead Moines” or even “Death Moans,” is now the jewel of the Midwestern U.S.

We can count our lucky stars for being here now at this time. I count myself lucky to have stuck it out through thick and thin, to be able to witness this change and improvement.

See you downtown! CV         

Mike Wilson has resided in the Greater Des Moines area on and off since 1977 and has been writing poetry, short fiction and novellas since 2001. You can see more of his writing at

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