Proving Des Moines is NOT boring

Des Moines: Beyond Cool

David Byrne, world traveler and rock legend, seemed to be really impressed with Des Moines during his band’s stop here for the 80-35 festival. He wrote about our city on his blog, and it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever read about Des Moines. Here’s an excerpt of David Byrne’s reflections on what he saw in Des Moines during his visit:

I saw people out and about, and I thought to myself—this is America as it’s supposed to be, or close to it. It’s imperfect, but people here seem to have found a way of living that is not based around either extremes of manic striving or desperation. It may not be cool, but it might be beyond cool. Here among the winding creeks and fields of corn they may have arrived at some kind of secret satisfaction.

That should be our new tourism/economic development slogan – “Des Moines: Beyond Cool.”

I loved this article, and I think everyone in Des Moines should read it. It reminded me of so many things I love about Des Moines, and why I have decided to make my home here and raise my kids here.

David Byrne said (my emphasis added in bold):

There doesn’t seem to be the outsized ambition evident in many other towns as well—no huge class separation where the ambitious strivers trample on those who aren’t as pushy as they are…and then show off their success in ostentatious homes, cultural palaces and in fancy restaurants.

David Byrne at 80/35 2013

David Byrne rocking at 80/35. Photo by Thompson.

This is one of the things I love about Des Moines – it’s laid-back and egalitarian. The middle class seems to be a lot larger. There are fewer extremes of wealth and poverty in Des Moines than there are in many other cities in America. The culture here in Des Moines isn’t driven by wealth and career achievement; we’re not all supposed to be trying to become investment bankers or movie moguls or empty-suited influence peddlers, clasping our sweaty palms onto the bottom rung of some unclimbable ladder of vapid social climbing and meaningless status competition.

You can live comfortably in Des Moines without having to be a workaholic. You can have a cozy house in a nice middle-class neighborhood without having to subject yourself to a time-sucking commute. You can raise a family on one income here, even if your one income is that of a lazy insomniac peanut butter cup-addicted freelance writer/comedian. The status symbols and class distinctions and trappings of success that are so important in so many big cities just don’t really matter here. And I LOVE that.

And here’s another excerpt that I loved:

Later, I have a chat with some of the others in our group about Des Moines as maybe an ideal place to grow up or raise your kids. I got very mixed reactions when I advocated this idea. The town isn’t particularly hip, but I sort of counted that as a factor in its favor—kids would have to discover what they thought was cool for themselves. Or make it up. Or come to the conclusion that trends does not a life make. I did stop at a cool coffee shop (Smokey Row), and two cool restaurants (Proof and HOQ), and there’s the custom bike shop (Ichi Bike) I visited and such, but overall it doesn’t seem a place in thrall to trends.

I love this. I totally agree with this part – I love the fact that Des Moines isn’t “hip.” I love the fact that we’re not Portland or Austin or Seattle. (Although we’re definitely better than Minneapolis.) I love the fact that young people in Des Moines are creating their own unique local culture for themselves, without being bound by anyone else’s expectations and standards. We’re discovering and embracing what we think is cool, for ourselves. That is so powerful!

Have you seen some of these great local musicians and artists like Trouble Lights and Mumford’s? Have you met people like Mickey Davis and heard about the great things they’re doing at the Des Moines Social Club? Have you seen a Max Wellman concert? Have you been to see the Revolver Comedy Revue on Monday nights at the Gas Lamp? I am constantly impressed by the caliber of talent and the level of creative ambition and the quality of sincerity on display from so many young performing artists in Des Moines. The kids are all right.

And the thing that impresses me most about the Des Moines cultural scene is that everyone who is part of it is helping to create and grow the scene as we go along. All of these musicians and artists are also serving as community builders and organizers – planning events, building buzz, getting people to come out and contribute to the momentum of this fun, exciting thing that we can all share. People aren’t just trying to latch on to take a piece of something that is already successful – they’re working with a spirit of generosity to “grow the pie” and make bigger opportunities for everybody.

It’s that same spirit of egalitarianism that David Byrne picked up on, that same sense that we’re all co-existing and sharing this city and making our own fun and reinventing our own sense of what’s hip, without constantly having to step over each other to get ahead. I feel like we’re beating the system, in a way. We’ve figured out our own formula – our own way to create a prosperous and growing community, with a surprisingly vital cultural scene, but without all the layers of crap and conflict and cynicism that you have to put up with in so many other cities.

Des Moines is “beyond cool,” and I’m proud to live here and work here and create here. Thanks, David Byrne, for noticing and articulating so many of the things that make our city great.

And hey – if you like what you’ve read here, if you feel resonance with the ideas that David Byrne expressed about Des Moines and about what it means to create a more harmonious and culturally lively city, please keep coming out to support your local creative people. Please come to our concerts, come to our shows, come watch us, come pay attention to us. Every person in the audience makes a difference. The audience is truly more important than the performer – we appreciate you, every one of you, more than you know.

Ben Gran is a Des Moines writer and comedian. He did not attend David Byrne’s show at 80-35 because he was not hip enough to get child care that weekend. Follow Ben Gran on Facebook.