Historic Neighborhoods, Where the Action Is

Parking garage with skywalk to office building in Des Moines

During the 1980s we lived in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Iowa, about a 2-hour drive from Des Moines. We read the Des Moines Register, and all through that period there were articles mourning the loss of a beloved bar or restaurant as the old downtown was torn down to make way for bank and insurance towers. The street level became dominated by featureless walls and parking garage entrances. Pedestrian commerce was supposed to migrate to the second-floor level, where skywalks connected buildings and allowed people to cross streets out of the weather. A tall condo tower was built downtown, spurring hopes of revitalized activity. But the skywalks and connecting corridors within the buildings never developed a life of their own. They housed a few basic convenience stores and restaurants for the office workers, and at night they were empty.

Court Ave.

We returned to spend a few days in Des Moines in 2015, and the skywalk system was even drearier after the closure of the downtown Younkers department store. But what was most impressive about the city was the vibrant life that had developed in the few neighborhoods that managed to survive the rush to build high-rise office buildings. The Court Ave. district started out in the 80s with a few bars and restaurants, and now was full of them, especially sports bars. New low-rise condo buildings accommodated the young people who wanted to live nearby.

The other, larger neighborhood was East Village, across the river from the main downtown, between it and the Capitol. The old buildings, which were run-down 30 years ago, housed interesting and eclectic shops, from kitchen supplies to antiques to an eco store to clothing boutiques with their own unique style — and of course, several coffee shops. There was a sense of fun there; it was in East Village that we saw people dancing in front of a tiny Lebanese restaurant, and witnessed the beer wagon, a bar on wheels powered by bicycle pedals fitted to each barstool. New condos and a hotel were under construction there.

And here’s an amazing thing: while the property tax revenue per acre (first map below) is greatest in the high-rise district, the retail tax revenue per acre (second map) is greatest in the East Village.

(Source: Greater Des Moines: the Dollars and $ense of Land Use by Urban3, 2015. http://www.urban-three.com/.)

High-rise condos, Des Moines

I have noticed in Des Moines, and in St. Paul as well, that high-rise residential buildings don’t seem to have the positive effect on street-level commerce that low-rise residential buildings have. You would think that a condo tower with hundreds of people would generate the need for businesses, but residents in 3-4 story condos seem to interact with the neighborhood a lot more. Maybe the high-rise residents take the elevator to their parking garage and drive to the suburbs; I don’t know the answer.

Low-rise condos, Des Moines

Over on the other side of downtown is a sculpture garden (actually a sculpture lawn) created after a large block of old buildings was demolished. Across the street there were a few remaining row houses with a sign describing the fight to save them when the city wanted to demolish that block too.

I have a picture in my mind of small businesses fleeing the soul-less office park that downtowns have become, and gathering in the those few neighborhoods left intact. And it is neighborhoods that matter, not individual buildings or even blocks. Where there is a block of historic buildings with blank walls and parking lots across the street and next door, trying to create vibrancy there is like trying to make a fire with a single log. At least if there are historic blocks facing each other, the sense of enclosure makes pedestrians feel welcome.

If you want small businesses and a little fun and night-life in your town, do save some historic neighborhoods.



Maine, the Oak Tree State

The islands and cold, windswept coasts of Maine have traditionally been covered with spruce-fir forests, their dark, pointed profiles gracing countless photos and paintings. There are even some islands near Bar Harbor called the Porcupine Islands because of their spiky trees. But lately I have been noticing a decline in these forests and an increase in hardwoods.

I have been going to the same town in Hancock County, Maine for over 60 years. It is on a peninsula in Frenchman Bay. The islands and the part of the peninsula that faces west have forests that include spruce, fir, pine, striped maple and birch. This is an ecosystem that is adapted to cold climates. But just a little further inland and on the more protected coasts, the vegetation is primarily hardwood forests dominated by red oaks. The difference in microclimate must be quite small between these two vegetation types, so a small bit of climate change could lead to a change from one to the other; that is my theory.

Hardwoods among declining evergreens

For the past few decades, the spruces have been looking very unhealthy. The branches die from the bottom up, making the trees look thin and bare. Light green lichen covers the branches and light green moss called “old man’s beard” hangs from them. There are even some ghost forests where all the trees are dead and bearded with moss. This summer I visited one such area on an island where the dead evergreens had started to fall down and leave sunnier openings; I saw 20-ft. oak saplings growing among them. When I look at the islands and coastline from the water now, I often see gray and brown, sickly evergreens, with the brighter green of hardwood trees billowing up behind and among them. I expect soon the hardwoods will overtop the evergreens and take their place.

Oak seedlings

In the past, along the roadsides and in the cut-over woods, small spruces and firs would spring up and quickly fill the area. The little 2-inch spruce seedlings were like weeds to be pulled up around the house every summer. But this summer, 2017, something different happened. The roadsides and areas alongside the house were filled with little oak seedlings! Very few spruce and fir seedlings could be seen. I would guess climate change is the cause, but there could be other explanations.

When I ask people what is happening to the spruces, sometimes they say the trees are just reaching the end of their life span. That doesn’t make sense to me, since I can see many larger spruces around town. Another explanation is that the woods were all logged in the past and the trees are even-aged, crowding each other to the point where they thin themselves. Or maybe acid rain is depriving them of nutrition. Perhaps last year was a “mast year” when the oaks put out vastly more acorns than usual, so that could explain the numbers of oak seedlings. There just happen to be a lot of foxes in the area this year too; maybe they ate so many squirrels that the squirrels couldn’t make much of a dent in the acorn population. More likely, more acorns meant more squirrels, which meant more foxes. At any rate, the squirrels didn’t eat all the acorns. But that doesn’t explain the lack of spruce and fir seedlings.

I think I am seeing climate change at work.