The first 22 years of my life were lived in the state of Iowa, generally within a 45-minute drive of Iowa’s capital city. Throughout my childhood, I often heard pretty poor remarks about Des Moines which left the impression that the city was boring and had little to offer, especially for entertainment. The reputation of Des Moines in regional or national circles was one of a sleepy small city in the middle of Iowa where Saturday fun meant avoiding Downtown.
Many of those stereotypes were correct during these early parts of my life in the 1990s. Just like many cities throughout the country, the 60s, 70s and 80s were not nice to the capitol city, especially to its historic downtown. Historic buildings and landmarks were demolished and replaced by concrete parking garages to make automobile access from the suburbs as easy as possible. Suddenly, downtown’s only purpose was to house workers for some of America’s largest insurance companies and state government between 8-5 and be a ghost town after those employees returned to their suburban homes far west on I-235.
In the late 1990s, city leaders had enough. Iowa’s crown jewel needed a jumpstart and its downtown was the center for this change. In order for Downtown Des Moines to become a legitimate destination again, people would need a reason to partake in activities there after 5:00, and one step further, would need to have permanent residents to serve as a base for new growth in commerce, workforce and entertainment. In addition to this base, Des Moines’ outdated Veterans Auditorium needed replaced to put the city back on the entertainment and convention map.
The opening of Wells Fargo Arena and Hy-Vee Hall marked the first big change for Des Moines and its downtown riverfront. The 16,000 seat arena was built to feature major athletic events and concerts (along with new digs for high school tournaments) coupled with the new Hy-Vee Hall which served as the convention hub of the region. Suddenly, having an event in Downtown Des Moines was cool again. Events including presidential campaign rallies, NCAA tournament games, large trade shows, NBA exhibition games and major concerts for the likes of Garth Brooks and Coldplay have since taken place at these two venues and have provided a major spark to the area.
Across the river from the new Wells Fargo Arena, perhaps Des Moines’ greatest turnaround has also been taking place since the early 2000s. Des Moines’ East Village, once an area full of abandoned and hazardous buildings and expansive parking lots for government buildings has seen a renaissance with eclectic shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. A housing boom, similar to areas west of the river, has provided a neighborhood feel to the area which also hosts the state’s lawmakers every spring. Today this neighborhood features one of Des Moines’ most popular new burger joints, Zombie Burger, along with many other great eats. Another common sight in the East Village is the construction crane, as this area is bursting at the seams with new development. Don’t let that sway you from your next visit to the neighborhood though.
A calendar full of events from January through December, whether rain, snow or sun make Des Moines’ Downtown one of the busiest areas in the Upper Midwest. Saturday mornings in the capital city bring vendors from around the Midwest to the streets for the Des Moines Farmers Market in the Court Avenue District. The annual Des Moines Art Festival in Western Gateway Park brings some of the nation’s (and world’s) best artisans to town to showcase their newest and latest work, whether drawn, painted, sung or cooked. As shown above, the 80/35 Music Festival brings some of the hottest musical acts in America to Des Moines during the heat of summer as thousands flock to the area for some music and sun. Numerous other cultural events, parades, charity events and even bar crawls make the area a busy and diverse place full of opportunities for enrichment and excitement.
Artwork and landmarks add breathtaking and interesting sights to see while strolling through Downtown Des Moines. The first of many of these pieces include the Des Moines Sculpture Park, located in Western Gateway Park near new EMC and Wellmark Headquarters. A new arched pedestrian bridge near Wells Fargo provides an added gateway between the East Village and Wells Fargo Arena, in addition to a Chinese Garden along the new Principal riverfront. All along the Des Moines River, new enhancements have been made to the riverwalk, making it an icon of the city once again.
Perhaps the most lively improvement to the city of Des Moines has been a significant expansion of the local nightlife scene, both in the Court Avenue District and in the East Village. Staples of Des Moines’ nightlife include Legends Court, Mickey’s, El Bait Shop (featuring 200+ beers on tap) and the Iowa Tap Room east of the river. These establishments serve as a great meeting place for friends any night of the week, whether before or after an event or game, or just for a night on the town. Numerous restaurants, both old and new, allow a day or night in these areas to be full of good eats and fun times.
As a former Iowan now living in Texas, I write this article out of excitement for my next visit home to the State of Iowa, and maybe out of a little homesickness as well. Our once sleepy and quiet capital city has grown up and is a source of pride for Iowans living at home and away like myself. I can already begin to taste my next sandwich at Zombie Burger in East Village, and am already debating what my next beer on tap will be at El Bait Shop. Now, the only people mocking Des Moines are the misinformed, and any negative stereotypes you hear about the city are false or out of jealousy.
Take pride Des Moines! You’re cool, you’re hip, and you’re looking good. I can’t wait until my next visit home.