Des Moines

Do the Most Hipster Thing Possible - Move to Des Moines

Oct. 16, 2014, 11:10 a.m.

DES MOINES, Iowa—This is too nice a place to spawn a war cry. But if the city had one, it would be the sen­ti­ment heard across a down­town pop­u­lated by baris­tas, tech start-up founders, mu­si­cians, and non­profit pro­fes­sion­als alike: “It’s Des Moines against the world.”

Young people here know what you think of this city. It doesn’t need re­peat­ing. But am­bi­tious minds are in the pro­cess of build­ing a new Des Moines, a tech hub in Sil­ic­on Prair­ie, an artist­ic cen­ter in the Heart­land, a des­tin­a­tion for people who want to cre­ate something mean­ing­ful out­side of the lim­its im­posed by an over­sat­ur­ated city like Chica­go or New York.

That’s ex­actly what former Brook­lyn­ite Zachary Man­nheimer sought sev­en years ago. Man­nheimer, 36, had launched res­taur­ants and theat­er pro­jects in New York, but he wanted to find a city where he could tap loc­al artist­ic tal­ent and re­vital­ize a stag­nant urb­an com­munity. He vis­ited 22 cit­ies in eight weeks dur­ing the sum­mer of 2007, and fell for this Mid­west­ern cap­it­al, where he foun­ded the Des Moines So­cial Club, a non­profit cen­ter for the arts. The So­cial Club is now lodged in an old fire­house built in 1937, and has a theat­er, classrooms, bars, art gal­lery, and ad­join­ing res­taur­ant—and it hosts events every night of the week. An av­er­age of 20,000 vis­it­ors come through every month, per­haps for a WWE-style wrest­ling match or an aer­i­al arts class or a punk show. 

Man­nheimer cre­ated something that would have taken the rest his life and $300 mil­lion to com­plete if he’d stayed in New York. It took him sev­en years and $12 mil­lion. He also left his crappy, ex­pens­ive apart­ment in Brook­lyn for com­par­at­ively lav­ish digs in Des Moines. Now, he wants people liv­ing in New York or Chica­go or Wash­ing­ton to think about do­ing the same. 

“How much are you work­ing every day? How much are you be­ing paid? How much is your cost of liv­ing?” Man­nheimer asks. “What if I told you we have per cap­ita the same amount of cul­tur­al amen­it­ies here that you do in New York? Get over your, ‘How do we even pro­nounce Des Moines?’ and ‘Where is it?’ and ‘Why should I even care about it?’ Get over it, and come out here and vis­it.”

Be­sides, he says, “In the world of hip­sters, is there any­thing more iron­ic than com­ing to live in Des Moines, as op­posed to liv­ing in Brook­lyn?”

On pa­per, Des Moines has the as­sets to back up Man­nheimer’s pitch: Cost of liv­ing is six per­cent­age points be­low the na­tion­al av­er­age, me­di­an salary is $51,200, job growth is 2.9 per­cent, there is one com­pany with 500 or more em­ploy­ees for every 612 people, and mil­len­ni­als are pour­ing in­to Des Moines at a high­er rate than they are na­tion­ally. For­bes even lists it as the best city for young pro­fes­sion­als.

It was a nor­mal night at the So­cial Club when we vis­ited. The art gal­lery was open, just next to Capes Kafe cof­fee shop and com­ic-book store; up­stairs, nine people in a com­ic-book draw­ing class watched an ec­cent­ric, gray-haired in­struct­or in skinny black jeans and thick-rimmed glasses draw a car­toon about a re­tired Elvis im­per­son­at­or named “Sid.” Out on the pur­posely graf­fit­ied porch with rope-spool tables, dozens of mem­bers of the loc­al Young Non­profit Pro­fes­sion­als Net­work chapter met to net­work, drink, and take pro­fes­sion­al head shots.

Look­ing out over the court­yard marked by an old tele­phone tower and mur­als, Bri­anne Sanc­hez and Danny Heg­gen, both 29, de­scribe the chapter they foun­ded in 2013 for monthly cof­fee meet­ings. It has turned in­to a group of more than 550 mem­bers that suc­cess­fully draws mil­len­ni­als down­town to con­nect and help each oth­er out. It’s a quint­es­sen­tially Mid­west­ern mix of self­less­ness in a deep pool of am­bi­tion and drive.

“We al­ways joke that Des Moines is a big small town,” says Heg­gen, a pro­ject man­ager for a firm that trans­forms old art deco build­ings in­to new apart­ments. “But really, Des Moines is a large liv­ing room. There’s this homey feel. What I most want is every­body around me to be suc­cess­ful. And I be­lieve that every­one wants that for me, as well.”

Sanc­hez, too, moved to Des Moines “to start build­ing things, to do something big­ger than your­self.” Her hope in start­ing a chapter, she says, was that maybe more young pro­fes­sion­als would move to Des Moines. Or to bor­row a line from a movie based in Iowa: If you build it, they will come.

Talk­ing Heads front­man and Des Moines fan Dav­id Byrne touched on that idea at the So­cial Club’s launch party in this same court­yard, where he pondered why a mu­sic scene or an artist­ic scene or a theat­er scene de­vel­ops in any city. “What makes it hap­pen?” he asked the crowd of 500. “It’s hard to say. There’s no guar­an­tees, but it is pos­sible and it’s cer­tainly not go­ing to hap­pen un­less there are places like this. And, sad for me to say, it’s not go­ing to hap­pen in Man­hat­tan any­more, which means it’s up to you guys.”

Geoff Wood thinks this mod­el could work for start-ups too. He foun­ded Grav­it­ate, 6,000 square feet of of­fice space in the heart of down­town for emer­ging tech start-ups. Of the 12 floors in this build­ing on 6th and Mul­berry, five house start-ups. Wood cur­rently leases space for 40 en­tre­pren­eurs, and could take 60 more look­ing to take ad­vant­age of the re­laxed ac­com­mod­a­tions with artsy fur­niture, hard­wood floors, and ample desks. Those who don’t go in for tra­di­tion­al of­fice set-ups can try the stand­ing desks paired with Indo Boards. 

Iowa has the homegrown tal­ent. Ben Sil­ber­mann, the founder of Pin­terest, was raised in Des Moines. Marc An­dreessen, a lead­ing ven­ture cap­it­al­ist, is from Ce­dar Falls. Tom Pre­ston-Wern­er, the cofounder of Git­Hub, grew up in Dubuque. The first di­git­al com­puter was even in­ven­ted at Iowa State Uni­versity. Wood wants to give people like this an op­por­tun­ity to find a home in Sil­ic­on Prair­ie be­fore they de­cide to move to Sil­ic­on Val­ley. “I want them to al­ways feel like if they choose to, they can come back or they could in­vest here,” Wood says. “We choose to be here.”

Tech­no­logy leveled the play­ing field with start-ups. Geo­graphy doesn’t mat­ter any­more. They read the same blogs, use the same ma­chines, and are con­nec­ted to the same In­ter­net as every­body else in the in­dustry. The only dif­fer­ence is that in Des Moines, they do it for much less, ex­plains An­drew Kirpa­lani, a product man­ager for Bunch­ball, a gami­fic­a­tion com­pany with a satel­lite of­fice in Grav­it­ate.

“For a com­pany in Cali­for­nia, we are a cheap­er re­source,” says Kirpa­lani, stand­ing next to a uni­cycle, as his team­mates blast mu­sic be­hind him. “It’s easi­er to find of­fice space here, you don’t have to pay as much, and our salar­ies—while very com­pet­it­ive and even premi­um to Iowa—are not ne­ces­sar­ily as ex­pens­ive as they might have to be in Cali­for­nia. We, as de­velopers, end up in a situ­ation where we get whatever we want be­cause it’s cheap here.”

These start-ups are cre­at­ing a com­munity, grow­ing an eco­sys­tem of en­tre­pren­eurs in the middle of Iowa, a state that provides sup­port for com­pan­ies through dif­fer­ent funds sponsored by the Iowa Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity, and of­fers re­l­at­ively low tax rates and busi­ness costs. Dwolla, an on­line pay­ment sup­port com­pany that’s gained na­tion­al at­ten­tion in re­cent years, star­ted and is still based in Des Moines. Rüster Sports is an­oth­er small busi­ness based here that’s turn­ing heads na­tion­ally.

The most aero­dy­nam­ic ra­cing bi­cycle in the world is made in a busi­ness park five blocks from down­town Des Moines at Rüster. The bike runs $6,000 at the ba­sic level, or $10,000 with all com­pon­ents. Eth­an Dav­id­son, the 24-year-old chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer, wants to build a cul­ture here that chal­lenges the old way of think­ing—that man­u­fac­tur­ing world-class products should hap­pen else­where. “Why not here?” says Dav­id­son, walk­ing through an of­fice with desks wel­ded and bikes craf­ted in the same space. “Why not man­u­fac­ture car­bon fiber com­pos­ite products right here in Des Moines? It is hap­pen­ing here. It’s real.” 

And that en­ergy goes bey­ond start-ups. Amedeo Rossi uses en­tre­pren­eur­ship to boost the mu­sic scene in Des Moines as the pro­gram man­ager of the 80/35 Mu­sic Fest­iv­al. Named after the two in­ter­sect­ing in­ter­states that go through Des Moines, the sum­mer fest­iv­al fea­tures sev­er­al loc­al bands and big­ger acts like the Avett Broth­ers, Wu Tang Clan, and Cake. It star­ted in 2008 us­ing funds from the city’s de­part­ment of parks and re­cre­ation and the Com­munity Found­a­tion of Great­er Des Moines. For Rossi, there’s a big­ger pur­pose to the fest­iv­al.

“If you im­prove the mu­sic scene, you get more bands to stop here,” he says. “Hope­fully it will im­prove the loc­al scene as well, and some of these people will break out a little bit. It’s helped raise the level of mu­sic.”

This could only hap­pen be­cause of the in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment in Des Moines, Rossi says. Earli­er this fall, work began on a $49 mil­lion real es­tate de­vel­op­ment pro­ject in the East Vil­lage, a trendy neigh­bor­hood down­town that was once just home to an old Chev­ro­let shop, a few eat­er­ies, and some tav­erns that couldn’t even gen­er­ously be called dive bars. Com­bined with a $40 mil­lion sculp­ture garden, a 16,000-seat arena for con­certs and sports, 700 miles of con­nec­ted trails and bike­ways, an am­phi­theat­er along the river­front, and count­less new mu­sic ven­ues, res­taur­ants, and bars that neigh­bor thriv­ing in­sur­ance and fin­an­cial com­pan­ies headquartered here, the down­town area is pleas­ingly aes­thet­ic, liv­able, and big enough to host large events like the Farm­ers Mar­ket, the Arts Fest­iv­al, and 80/35.

There’s a T-shirt shop and com­munity staple in East Vil­lage called Ray­gun. It’s cush­ioned between food­ie res­taur­ants and base­ment bars, and provides iron­ic wear for the oth­er­wise earn­est cus­tom­ers who fre­quent the neigh­bor­hood. One of their most pop­u­lar shirt designs is a per­fect ex­pres­sion of the am­bi­tion and slight ex­as­per­a­tion of the loc­als here: “Des Moines, Iowa: Let us ex­ceed your already low ex­pect­a­tions.”

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited Des Moines to see how an in­creas­ingly di­verse pop­u­la­tion—a ma­jor­ity of pub­lic-school stu­dents are now minor­it­ies—and boom­ing eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment have changed this once-sleepy town. This art­icle is part of a Next Amer­ica series about the real­ity of 21st-cen­tury Iowa.

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