Derek Johnson Muses

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Heartland Renaissance

There are three demographics articles that I read or heard of in the last year that surprised me, mainly because they’ve mentioned my small home state and the heartland region, as an economic haven. The first was a list of the best cities for young professionals, which included Omaha and Des Moines as number one. The second, which came out this December, listed the top cities to start over in, and included Sioux Falls, Lincoln, Fargo, and Iowa City as number one. Given the small size of Lincoln and Omaha, I never thought much of either city in terms of national importance, but the benefit of being a frugal culture has caused us to recover a whole lot sooner from the economic downturn.

I travel a lot to Michigan and Indiana, the state where my sister lives. It’s not overtly difficult to see why these states plunged into the depths of the recession-too much year-round recreation. Too many middle class families taking too much time at the lakes in winter must have been bad for business. In Nebraska and Iowa, nobody owns summer houses; there is no place within a reasonable driving distance of Omaha or Lincoln to get away to.

I travel a lot in the summer, and I’ve seen a lot of urban renaissance in the mid-sized towns. Sioux Fall, Des Moines, Eau Claire, Dubuque, and Omaha, all have revitalized downtowns centered around rivers, very similar to Twin Cities. None of the shops are as extravagant as Chicago or San Francisco, but each is their own little world. When I see painted park benches overlooking a river or metal statues of wolves and pioneers lining the street, I can really tell that a city cares about its image, and it makes me want to be there.

Statue in downtown Sioux Fall-courtesy of Anita Davis’ blog:

(Direct Link to the photo above)

Even conservative, nice -place-to-raise-the-kids Lincoln has evolved with the times. Since I was in high school ten years ago, the aging Starship 9 second-run theater has been torn down, and finally now, a parking structure is being built to replace it. The Haymarket is a thriving district, although it could use another good restaurant. A couple of rotting building have finally been ripped out of the shady block between 9th, O Street, 10th, and N Street, and hopefully there will be some good replacements. Will Lincoln ever look like the hip college scene that Madison, Wisconsin or Dinkytown in Minneapolis is? Maybe not, but at least things can move in the right direction.

The Lincoln haymarket in the morning.

In processing all this, I am reminded of something that Robert James Waller wrote in The Bridges of Madison County (yes, I’m embarrassed). “The people of Madison County liked to say, compensating for their own self-imposed cultural inferiority, ‘This is a good place to raise kids.’ And she always felt like responding, ‘But is it a good place to raise adults?'”  The answer to that isolationism isn’t to build a fancy downtown in a city of 200,000 and to start new businesses; it is to change from an attitude of isolationism to an attitude of acceptance and mutual support.


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