The best towns and small cities in the US: Des Moines, Iowa


Iowa’s state capital is shaking off its staid reputation through re-energised arts venues and a ‘growing’ food scene

Bill Bryson didn’t help his hometown’s reputation with the opening to his breakthrough book, The Lost Continent. “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” One million copies later, the world may still believe that Iowa’s capital – in the middle of the most Midwestern of states – is the place where you “settle down with a local girl called Bobbi and get a job in the Firestone factory and live there for ever and ever.”

Des Moines’ dominant businesses (banking and insurance) once kept it a conservative, staid place. Today those same industries are fostering a social revolution. After years of losing their best and brightest inhabitants to, frankly, anywhere else, city leaders began investing in local arts and culture to stem the brain drain, including remodelling the riverfront and building an amphitheatre to host a summer-long programme of outdoor gigs and concerts.

Meanwhile, a new wave of farmers have been transforming the city’s food scene. As the second-largest agricultural producer in the US, with more than 90% of its land used for farming, Iowa is at the forefront of modern agronomy. Its enthusiastic embrace of the farm-to-table philosophy has turned Des Moines’ restaurant business into one of the best-kept foodie secrets in the US.

“There aren’t a lot of chains in the metro area,” says Jenny Quiner, whose urban farm, Dogpatch Urban Gardens, supplies to local restaurants, as well as the Iowa Food Cooperative. “And the neighbourhoods are just as cool as downtown: East Village, Ingersoll Park, even nearby suburban cities such as Clive and Altoona; they’re all benefiting, not just one portion.”

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