Urban Iowa?

Urban Iowa?

As we begin 2008, I look forward to bringing to you, dear reader, more of my Milwaukee musings in the new year.

As I sit down to write my first blog entry of 2008, however, my thoughts wander for a moment away from Milwaukee to national politics and our often misunderstood neighbor to the west, Iowa.

As the only Midwesterner currently blogging on The Next American City, I feel a sense of obligation to stick up for my cousins in the Hawkeye State. Or is it the Buckeye State? I forget. Whatever the nickname, Iowa is not exactly the vast empty cornfield a lot of people think it is.

This presidential election season has brought more than enough intrigue to make the most jaded political junkie (like me) salivate. But it’s striking how every four years brings the same, well-worn script. This is the time when the candidates and press dutfilly kneel to the Altar of Iowa, to woo the political elites of this largely rural, agricultural, homogenous state, wholly unrepresentative of the rest of the nation. Or so the story goes.

Anyone who has actually been to Iowa could tell you that, yes, the state is a major agricultural producer. But it’s also a state with a proud educational tradition, home to world class universities and colleges, increasing numbers of immigrants, major financial and insurance companies, and several sizable cities.

Yes, that’s right. Cities in Iowa.

Take Des Moines. The last time I was in Iowa’s capital city (metro population 500,000) I was struck at the rapid growth of this prairie mini-metropolis. The sprawl of Des Moines seems to go on forever, and the downtown area, long dormant, has shown signs of revival. In fact, Des Moines is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the Midwest. Even the New York Times recently declared that Des Moines might just actually be a city worthy of a visit.

As Des Moines expands its reach into the rural hamlets and rolling hills of central Iowa, the state as a whole takes on more of a more suburban, if not urban, character. Suburban sprawl with its attendent problems is something an increasing number of Iowans know about. Des Moines is no Atlanta, but when you’re rolling on the interstate through Urbandale, west of Des Moines, the sprawl certainly looks familiar enough.

Still, Des Moines is no big city. Traffic is pretty tame, crime is not much of an issue, and as for an overall urban vibe … well … let’s just say that when the Times called the East Village, the new, hip condo district in Des Moines, “just like [the East Village] in New York,” they were definitely being sarcastic.

No one would mistake Des Moines for Minneapolis, let alone San Francisco. Yet the city grows leaps and bounds, and is emerging as a contender in the finance and insurance industries.Maybe what Des Moines teaches us is that for all the talk of “cool” cities attracting the “creative class,” what really drives sustained growth in most cities is boring stuff like low crime, good schools, and affordable housing.

After today’s caucuses, Des Moines, and the rest of Iowa, will quickly drop out of the American consciousness, to resurface in 2012 (or, should I say, 2011). By then, who knows? Maybe Des Moines will be “cool.” If not, I think we can guarantee that it will still be doing better than most other American cities in providing its residents a decent quality of life.

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