171 Des Moines, IA: Automat

Des Moines, Iowa: Automat

"Des Moines insures risks; Des Moines does not take risks," an art gallery owner in that city told me. "We are the third-leading insurance city in the world, and bankers and insurance people don't take risks. Also, Des Moines is made up of small-town Iowans who think they've moved to the big city now. An organization did this campaign on how to promote Des Moines. They came up with this 'Change Your View' campaign. Not 'Des Moines is great.' But 'Change your view.' I see that as such a negative statement."

I had ducked into the first art gallery I found downtown, advertised on a high-rise's door, and found the building and gallery space concrete, cavernous, and spare. The woman behind the desk who I was interviewing was Karolyn, in her thirties and slight, with black shoulder-length hair and green eyes topped with dark gray eye shadow. She wore an all-black outfit, and a huge pewter Zodiac hung down to her navel; on her left hand glittered two large diamond rings, one on her marriage finger.

"Here's another example," she steamed. "The Des Moines Public Art said, 'well Des Moines doesn't need any more "plunk art" like the Claes Oldenburg [downtown Des Moines's 37' x 37' x 58' sculpture of an umbrella]. If we're going to have manhole covers, how come they can't be painted manhole covers?' You call our Oldenburg 'plunk art'? Then you call painted manhole covers 'art'? People in Des Moines just don't get what is fine art. There's a new coffee shop showing local artists; I've had many people say to me, 'What about your new competition?' We [the gallery] generally have mid-career artists. A lot of our clients are international. A lot of people come here if they want to sell something and they don't want all the New York City market to know they're selling. When I tell people we're on the eighteenth floor of a building in downtown Des Moines, they go, 'You mean Des Moines has skyscrapers?' I'm like, 'Well, if you call twenty-five-story buildings skyscrapers.'

"I never expected to live in Des Moines," she sighed. "If my kids didn't live here, I'd be gone. Downtown has the skyway [an above-street series of covered walkways]. It was the brainchild of one of the best-known architects in the city. But anyone who opens up a retail store has a very big dilemma. Normally street level is the place to be. But when 50,000 walk around the skywalk every day, then that's the place to be. I'm not sure that it is a benefit to the city. I always thought 'this is pretty cool; I can wear suede shoes in the wintertime and not worry about them getting ruined.' But a customer once said, 'The skywalk is a perfect example of how awful the weather is in Des Moines. It's too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, so we have the skywalk system. All it really says is, "our weather sucks."'"

[Des Moines Skywalk]

The skywalk did seem more peopled than the downtown streets. Instead of a city within a city, it seemed more like a suburban mall: neon, chain stores, and stalls hawking cookies and knickknacks. I found it disorienting. I ended up heading the wrong direction for the visitors office because I had no street-level visual clues to orient me (intersections, doorways, signs, etc.). I met someone's eyes and was about to nod in greeting, when they veered and I realized they were on a different branch of the skyway and separated from me by several glass walls.

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