Downtowns are back. Downtowns are hip and cool. Downtowns are the new suburbs. They are the future of America. That seems to be more and more of the conventional wisdom.

I wish it were true.

Yes, downtowns are coming back and, yes, they are trendy, but they are not necessarily the destiny of our built environment. They are just one more node in the pattern of what Lars Lerup has called the “stim and dross” of the American landscape. I was reminded of that situation by a recent trip to Des Moines, Iowa.

Des Moines
Ron Reiring Flying over ...

There are few fly-over cities of a more respectable size than Des Moines. My hosts even gave me a helpful sticker that reminded me to “Wave next time you fly over.” I used to travel there when I was employed (part time) by the Meredith Corp., the magazine publisher based there, and remember the forlorn blocks downtown, as well as the mostly empty warehouses of the so-called East Village, a stretch of brick structures between the Des Moines River and the hill on which the Iowa State Capitol sits.

Des Moines Public Library by David Chipperfield Architects
Mike Linksvayer Des Moines Public Library by David Chipperfield Architects

Now everything is different. Downtown is not quite a forest of cranes, but it is the site of several new towers and office buildings, as well as a downtown library designed by Sir David Chipperfield that is glad, for some bizarre reason, head to toe and all the way around in gold panels. There’s also a new headquarters for, of all companies, the Kum & Go gas station chain, designed by no less an architect than Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA. Even better from an urban perspective, a lot of the construction is for residential projects, and the usual rental laagers of Type 3 construction, adorned with the usual postmodern pastiche Tyvek covering, are going up and getting filled with those well-paid professionals who are now flocking to new regional offices for the likes of Microsoft and Google.

East Village, near East 5th Street and East Grand Avenue
Tony Webster East Village, near East 5th Street and East Grand Avenue

And then there is the formerly forlorn East Village. I was there on a beautiful spring day, and the small streets of that neighborhood were filled with people enjoying the restaurants, bars, and shops filled with high-design objects. Most of the surviving structures had been restored to within an inch of their life. New hotels and residential developments buttressed the central core. Beards and bikes abounded. This was not the Des Moines that so depressed me in the 1990s, nor is it even the city that was slowly renovating itself and gaining a few Starbucks a few years ago.

Parking garage going up in Des Moines
Mike Linksvayer Parking garage going up in Des Moines

It is important to put all of this in perspective. I was in the city to give a lecture, and people who made good use of all of these stores and bars were the ones showing me around. It is easy to forget that the percentage of the Des Moines SMA (Standard Metropolitan Area) who lives downtown is still miniscule and will remain that way. Downtown still depends on massive highways, parking garages, and skywalks to channel its suburban commuters and visitors. There are no downtown department stores, but the suburban malls are still booming. In fact, most of the new buildings, ranging from residential and office complexes to new data centers, are being built far outside of the core.

What is going on is the construction of a cocoon, a cocoon for a certain class of people that links them together under a protective web of same thinking and buying, fueled by a niche culture and social media circles. Those people who like and contribute to what we think of as urban culture now have a place to go, just as churchgoers have their mega-churches and suburban shoppers and workers have their “edge cities.” If the East Village is connected to anything beyond itself, it is to a global network of people who might either live there or in a similarly sheltered urban environment in another city.

New mulitfamily development in Des Moines' East Village
original by Mike Linksvayer New mulitfamily development in Des Moines' East Village

Yes, Des Moines certainly looks and works a lot better than it has in a long time. But we do have to see this and similar places for the white-dominant yuppievilles that they are. That is not necessarily a bad thing, although we should remember that those who most need a concentration of services the likes of which you find downtown—those without the means to pay for cars and the other luxuries that has allowed the wealthier classes to commute in—do in fact suffer from getting pushed out of these areas to make way. And no urban area in the United States has yet figured out how to solve that conundrum.