Monday, June 05, 2006


If you're not from around here, Des Moines is like most urban areas, in that its aging infrastructure is collapsing, metaphorically speaking, as more and more people move to the suburbs. Every city has to deal with this situation; there are many reasons, good and bad, why people choose to live in the burbs. If people won't live there, the people in charge of city planning must come up with something to draw them back, a reason to come spend there money here.

The brilliant plan they came up with in Des Moines was a library.

Not just any library, mind you. No, this would be the centerpiece of Des Moines' ambitious Gateway Project, a beautiful Urban Lifestyle Area that would welcome new visitors to the city as they come in from the airport.

So far, it ain't much. The library is a typical glass and steel monstrosity that meanders along for a couple blocks, situated on a flat, grassy area scattered with benches. We were told while this was under construction that this Urban Lifestyle Area would rival Central Park in its simulated natural beauty, but so far they haven't even been able to conjure up a tree, much less anything resembling a park.

And then there's the interior of the library, which has all the welcoming ambience of a Sam's Club. It manages the neat trick of seeming to waste a lot of available space while at the same time feeling claustrophobic.

To me, this new white elephant was best exemplified by its periodicals section. In the old downtown library, the one that this replaced, newspapers and magazines were housed in a room they shared with research materials, a large open room largely lit by natural light, with long wooden tables that invited you to stay for as long as you wanted.

Now the magazines and newspapers are shoved into a corner on the second floor, with only a few (uncomfortable) chairs and small, personal-sized tables. The massive glass windows, which were supposed to offer "commanding views" of the city, in this case overlook a bar, a porno shop and a Chinese restaurant. I guess that could be considered scenic.

I'm no expert on urban planning, but if this is how Des Moines plans to get people to come back downtown, they might as well throw in the towel right now. (Oh, and here's the kicker: This brand new fabulous be-all and end-all is closed on Sundays!) Even if the library was more successful on its own terms, it's just a library. By itself, it won't give people a reason to come in from suburbia.

I live here. I'd rather live in the city than suburbia. But in this case, I'm starting to feel like a maggot living off a corpse.