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Out and About: The East Village in Des Moines, Iowa

posted on February 1, 2008 at 4:00 PM

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Typically, small communities don't attract multi-million dollar residential and business projects, nor do they find themselves inundated with a lot of new business start-ups and flocks of migrating young people with their cell phones. Yet that is the very experience that is unfolding in a Des Moines "pocket" neighborhood that for years was neglected and overlooked despite its location in the shadow of the state capitol. Make no mistake, as Dan Kaercher explains, that neighborhood may be part of an urban area, but it sees itself as just another small Iowa town.

It calls itself the Historic East Village. For many decades, this area thrived, boasting homes, schools, churches, stores, businesses and entertainment. It was a community. Then, in the later decades of the 20th century, as seems to happen in the life cycle of cities, old buildings were pulled down, and businesses and people left. What was then called Gateway East became just sort of sad and rundown. So, in 1996 some folks formed a committee. John Burgeson of Iowa State Bank, an East Side native, was the chair of the group.

John Burgeson: "We had the city of Des Moines, which put in $50,000. We had the state of Iowa, which put in $50,000, and then we had Downtown Development put in $50,000."

The $150,000 that was used for planning spawned so much more. The city created inviting streetscapes with plantings and new lights. The Historic East Village Organization contributed some unique bike racks. And the state turned an ugly parking lot in front of the capitol into a landscaped terrace, and restored the old Harvester building which is now home to the Department of Public Safety.

New businesses have moved into old buildings and many of the new buildings going up match the neighborhood’s old character. This is Ephemera Stationary Studio at East Village Square. Co-owner Arin Wiebers lives in the loft above the business on the ground floor. Co-owner Karen Brady lives in an apartment on the upper floor. They’re owners who live above the store, just like the old days.

Arin Wiebers: "I really don’t think that you can get any more conveniently located to your place of work. It’s right down the stairs, from sleeping to working."

Karen Brady: "I think there’s a great sense of community here. People really work together and I think it’s a great place to be here now."

It’s not just twenty-somethings who like the setting. Kay Courtade makes her home at the SOHO Lofts across the street. She’s lived in a small town and a big city, but never downtown.

Kay Courtade: "When I came down here, I just fell in love with the whole city scene and the ambiance and the ability to walk to the river, walk to the capitol, to the Science Center, to the Civic Center, to the Botanical Center, to the ballpark and then back again. It’s fabulous."

The East Village is just as much fun if you’re visiting. Take, for example, the shopping. The East Village offers everything, from the funky to the sophisticated to pure Iowa. And then there’s the food – all different kinds. We started our day at the Village Bean coffee shop. Co-owners Kirk and Jennifer Trow, along with a third partner, opened it in 2005.

Kirk Trow: "With the legislators in, and recently with all the campaign staff, caffeine was critical. So, we had a lot of coffee and quite a few red-eyes I think too. You know, the coffee with a shot of espresso in it for that extra jolt."

Kaercher: "I wonder if you influenced the caucuses at all with all that caffeine?" [laughter]

In 1872, Hammer Pharmacy opened in what’s now called the East Village. On January 1, 1900, it opened in its current building and it's still going strong.

Pam Key: "The pharmacy has gone through a lot of business cycles, let’s say, over the years."

The business adapted, as has its building. Today it’s being restored just like the other buildings in the neighborhood. And the East Village is well on its way to becoming a community again.

Tags: Des Moines Iowa

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