Children of the Corn
Our show is outdoors in a plaza next to the new public library—a building with semi translucent glass walls. At night one can see the rows and rows of books on shelves inside glowing. It’s the pre digital server—a repository of our knowledge and culture. At least the part that was able or deemed appropriate to be written down. (Part of culture is smells, dances, tastes, music, manners—stuff that is unable to be archived, so far.)
I arrive before we’re due to get ready and I wander through the crowd—a better way to hear Yeasayer, who are playing before us. They are using in-ear monitors, as we do, so many of the instruments and vocals can’t be heard acoustically on or at the side of the stage (where VIPs may be expected to view a band). But out front they sound good. I get a little besieged by audience members requesting phone photos. Everyone is very nice, sincere, unaffected. Tom, our tour manager, even commented that the Midwestern hotel staff is more pleasant and accommodating. One couple holds giant turkey leg drumsticks—making them appear a little like some caveman couple. After a while the autographing and phone pix get to be too much, and I can’t watch the band in peace, so I retreat. I was wearing all white and was also on the cover of the local alt weekly here, so I guess I was asking for it.
Later, I have a chat with some of the others in our group about Des Moines as maybe an ideal place to grow up or raise your kids. I got very mixed reactions when I advocated this idea. The town isn’t particularly hip, but I sort of counted that as a factor in its favor—kids would have to discover what they thought was cool for themselves. Or make it up. Or come to the conclusion that trends does not a life make. I did stop at a cool coffee shop (Smokey Row), and two cool restaurants (Proof and HOQ), and there’s the custom bike shop (Ichi Bike) I visited and such, but overall it doesn’t seem a place in thrall to trends.
We had some time off and one afternoon I biked all around town, passing through a black neighborhood with mostly smaller houses—smaller than the middle class midwestern homes scattered around much of the rest of the town. But unlike, say, Louisville, or many other towns we’ve passed through, there weren’t signs of total poverty, boarded up houses or foreclosed homes being sold at auction. When I went through some of the riverside parks on the July 4th weekend I saw Latin and Asian families having picnics and family cookouts. Norteño music was playing in one park pavilion. I have a feeling the wealthier and whiter part of the population picnic in their own backyards. That said, it made a pretty picture—it was festive, relaxing and an example of what public spaces are meant for. I saw people out and about, and I thought to myself—this is America as it’s supposed to be, or close to it. It’s imperfect, but people here seem to have found a way of living that is not based around either extremes of manic striving or desperation. It may not be cool, but it might be beyond cool. Here among the winding creeks and fields of corn they may have arrived at some kind of secret satisfaction.
How did this happen? Why here? Why has this place succeeded in some ways while so many other mid size cities, having “lost” an industry or through a series of bad decisions and bad luck, have become hollowed out shells. I wondered if there were elements in Iowan history that might give me some clues.
I asked Adam Green, an associate professor of American History at the University of Chicago, and he reminded me that Iowa was among the more racially liberal midwestern states from Reconstruction onwards, passing several anti-discrimination measures while neighboring states were limiting civil rights and even implementing Jim Crow laws. More recently, Iowa was among the early enactors of marriage equality. At the same time, he noted that the state’s strong economic fortunes derive, in part, from an embrace of ethanol and the corn-is-king culture, that unholy alliance of agribusiness and government.
I dug a little deeper. In the mid 1800’s, Iowa welcomed immigrants. A movement called nativism had arisen in the United States, let by a political party called the Know Nothings, who were anti-immigration and anti-Catholic (Irish, Italian, some Germans). There were large-scale riots between Know Nothings and Catholics in Louisville in 1855. Iowa, however, resisted the Know Nothings. They welcomed folks of all types to their state.
Not only that, many immigrants imagined that Iowa could be a place where a more ideal society could be built.
Some of these immigrants were socialist Utopians.
[They] came to Iowa in the 1850s to start the communistic colonies of Icaria, Amana, and New Buda, where property was held in common. The goal of the Icarian settlers was to live in accordance with the ideas of Etienne Cabet as a purely socialist community. Amana was a religious colony formed by German pietists in 1855 that practiced communism until 1932. It then became a center of modern manufacturing, especially of household appliances.
[S]lavery never officially existed in Iowa. The absence of legally sanctioned slavery in Iowa did not mean that the state was free from discrimination, however. [African American] immigrants…came in the 1840s; most worked in the mines of Dubuque or in the river towns. Frequently, they came to be free of slavery. (source: Wikipedia)
Iowans were also suspicious of drink.
From 1933 until the early 1960s, Iowans could purchase packaged liquor only. [source: Wikipedia]
Professor Green and I discussed this through email, and he stated:
Much of the Plains Midwest (as opposed to Great Lakes Midwest) I've only encountered driving through in the car. Cities in Kansas and Oklahoma, for example, fit the description of what Des Moines seemed not to be...I recall driving through small towns in southern Kansas back in 2000, and finding what seemed a serial methamphetamine alley all the way through. Maybe I was falling prey to a sort of reverse stereotyping, making negative snap judgments similar to those earlier travelers, driving through inner cities in the 1990s, might have made. Then again, perhaps I was sensing uncomfortable truths about the Heartland that few wanted to speak about as publicly as with other people, in other places and at other times.
Time seems to have been kinder to mid-sized cities like Des Moines. Ethanol production in the state, after all, was an important segment of domestic fuel production prior to recent advances in shale gas extraction, positioning Iowa (ahead of Illinois, among others) as a dominant producer of corn-based fuel. Des Moines was also advantaged by its capacity to attract and retain finance-based industries, in particular insurance companies. (The Midwest may call up stereotypical notions of quiescence and stolidity, but anyone who lives there knows that risk factors —floods, storms, drought, crop failure –abound, creating a great need for businesses that can indemnify.)
No doubt this helped Des Moines revive a mixed economy after deindustrialization and the down turn of the 1980s and 1990s, and likely attracted knowledge workers, young residents, and maybe even a few creatives to live there. Des Moines went in heavy for City Beautiful style large municipal development projects (State Capital, museums, bridges and esplanades, parks, etc.) at the turn into the 20th century, so there was a nice physical plant to work with [this might explain the allocation of the riverfronts as public use areas that I saw, and the many parks], once economic revival returned there.
I mentioned to others on tour (I won’t name names) that I didn’t see the familiar signs of social rejection and disaffection here, the people and things one might see in other towns. No visible homeless folks or folks twisted by drugs, drink or bad luck who couldn’t find a rung to get back up, or never got up in the first place. Society’s rejects don’t seem to litter the downtown streets here.
And as for youthful rebellion and disaffection, it’s true one doesn’t need something specific to rebel against to become dissatisfied with one’s hometown—for some that just happens. For others it doesn’t. And being of a certain generation, the outward signs of disaffection are harder for me to spot now—punk kids or skaters or white adolescents who affect hip-hop looks are all mainstream now. Maybe if kids are more homogenous here then the signs of rebellion end up being smaller? Wearing a different brand of shoe or something?
Life here seems to be more or less middle class (the middle class doesn’t seem to have been gutted here as it has been in many other towns), and there are amenities like the riverfront, bike trail networks, ball fields and water sports that show the city cares about its citizens. There doesn’t seem to be the outsized ambition evident in many other towns as well—no huge class separation where the ambitious strivers trample on those who aren’t as pushy as they are…and then show off their success in ostentatious homes, cultural palaces and in fancy restaurants. Maybe those folks gravitate elsewhere?
The Grateful Dead cover band (Dark Star Orchestra) playing by the riverside the other night, and one or two of the bands playing before us were all vaguely jam bands, so there may be some cosmic mind altering activities going on here and there, but it doesn’t seem to be sad or desperate the way music scenes can be in some towns—they’re often a creative reaction to hopelessness and a sense of frustration.My friends, of course, thought I was crazy. Des Moines, a good place to live? Are you serious? Well, yeah, I think I am (serious, not crazy), and though my impression was brief and fleeting we nomads do have the opportunity to see a lot of these mid size towns…places a lot of folks in the big cosmopolitan cities never visit. And some of it is sad, but sometimes, like here, there seems to be reason for optimism.