Des Moines is reaching a point where you can go walk around on a Saturday night and probably find something cool going on. This hasn’t happened from lack of trying on the part of the Des Moines residents. Over the past few years, the people of Des Moines have taken every opportunity to pull the city out of the “wear a tie or get out” mindset it has been in since before I was born.
I was hanging out in Des Moines one weekend in July when I realized that all the work I heard Des Moines had been doing was actually starting to show. Denise and I were walking around in the East Village near the capitol building and I found myself genuinely impressed with how much had been done. The last time I really hung out in the area was 4 or 5 years ago when I was going to hardcore shows at the House of Bricks. At the time, the area was just a desert of cube-shaped buildings built on the mess that probably once produced a lot of brick and metal in the earlier part of the 20th century. It was the area on the other side of the river, and once the record store moved and the hardcore shows at the House of Bricks started to suck, there was not much of a reason to venture that far east in the city.
As we walked around while waiting for a table at the sushi place, I noticed numerous small businesses that had moved into all of that empty office space. Clothing stores, bars, galleries and music stores (I even saw one that specialized in guitars and fuzzy furniture) filled the place. We headed past a Jazz festival in the streets, toward the river where Devo was playing on one of the bridges, and we were able to walk down near the water in the new Simon Estes Amphitheater, and from the pedestrian bridge, watch all of the various age groups softly get down to old new wave
It is hard to say how much of this is actually a sign of growth in the right direction. A couple of colorful stores run by hip 30-year-olds in thick rimmed glasses is probably better than more insurance places and upscale clothing stores, but is it a sign of culture change or just another small business bound to fail eventually? This depends on the people.
A city can promote all the hip stores and festivals and social gatherings it wants, but the only way to create culture is to have a growing population of people to do it. Des Moines can name-drop its 80/35 music festival and advertise all of their art walks and talk about how youth-friendly the city is all it wants, but the fact remains that a city needs 20-something-year-olds to fill out an artistic and youthful culture. Unfortunately, the average age in Des Moines is 34.
I heard discussion on Iowa Public Radio about something called the Boomerang Effect and how it relates to Des Moines. The concept is pretty easy to figure out by the name. Kids are growing up in Des Moines and graduating (although the dropout rate is alarmingly high) from its schools and then leaving the state to go explore the rest of the United States, likely with the “I’m-never-coming-back” mindset. A large portion of these kids do end up returning to Des Moines in their early 30’s, because it is a safe place to live, both economically and with regard to family life. The speaker mentioned how important this effect is because it expands the experiences of Des Moines residents and mostly prevents cultural inbreeding.
While the idea of Des Moines residents returning with what they’ve learned in order to make Des Moines a better, safer place to live, artistic culture is not about being safe. The day it becomes that way is the day I stop bitching about the lack of it. Yes, there is place for quiet galleries filled with paintings of the Des Moines skyline, but real artistic culture capable of growth needs the youthful interests and aggression that people just tend to lose right around their 30’s.
(This is a Jeff Bonker painting and I stole the image from Google. Figured I should give credit where credit is due. I hope this is okay.)
While I do appreciate the expansion of youth and artistic culture in any form, my real knowledge on the concept does not extend far beyond local music’s role in this whole process. There are bands and there are bar bands. Des Moines… has bar bands—run of the mill rock that takes no chances. Where is everything else? Des Moines does not quite have the youth (both audiences and musicians) to sustain a real music scene. It has a lot of one-of’s and they mostly just take what they can get.
A real music scene has a lot of similar minded musicians making music of all different kinds, experimenting with all sorts of instruments. This isn’t to say you can’t do a hell-of-a-lot with a guitar, bass, and drums, but you certainly don’t see much done with that traditional formula at the local shows in this city. Most rock music is recognizable, safe, and accessible, and therefore could not possibly be more boring than it is.
Des Moines needs variety. Variety in itself creates a music scene, especially in a musical environment such as Des Moines. Any musicians making unique music in a stagnant music scene are way more likely to cling to any other musicians taking chances with their music. This community of artists creates interest and makes for more hype, larger crowds, better shows, and more support overall for the musicians involved.
Des Moines. You have a big music festival every summer. You have started to get some pretty decent bands to play at People’s Court and the Vaudeville Mews. You’ve turned a few heads and created some hype for yourself.
It’s not much, but it’s a start.