World food and music festival

In the early 1990s, the powers that be—that means the local government as much as the insurance and banking corporations—published an initiative called destination Downtown. This document considered the downtown area to be at a “crossroads” facing “significant threats.” Both government and corporate entities were deeply troubled by the lack of a strong tax base in the downtown area. There were the large corporations with their many employees, but after working hours, the people that constituted these businesses returned to their suburban homes to the west, ferried away by I-235.  

In the most western portion of downtown, the Gateway District, two and three-story mixed use buildings occupied by low-income tenants, pawn shops, and bail bondsman lived among different auto parts shops and car lots. It was also the front lawn of some of Des Moines’s anchor businesses: Meredith, Principal, Nationwide and others.

Civic initiatives and downtown revitalization plans became urgent as the end of the 20th century loomed and downtown’s corporate residents demanded incentives to stay. If the environment was not altered to their desires, there was no reason for them not to follow their employees out into the sprawl.

In an informative and deeply condescending history of Des Moines’ downtown development in Politico Magazine, Colin Woodard gave credit to cosmopolitan architect Mario Gandelsonas for dreaming up a fresh new downtown that would appeal to corporations and their employees in the exact ways these entities needed it to. Partnering with the state and local government, moneyed members of the community, and, of course, the corporations that made up the city’s modest skyline, Gandelsonas saw his dreams for a modern Des Moines downtown actualized—for the most part. The consolidation and implementation of tax-increment financing that allowed the local government to pour money into development at the expense of other public services for an indefinite period of time, resulting in the city taking on a large debt, provided the funding for this dream. 

Luxury apartments—built new or form the renovated skeletons of former warehouses and other buildings—now populate downtown along with new restaurants, and new corporate offices. One of the first buildings to be renovated in the downtown area was in the Gateway District. The Masonic Temple was transformed from said pawn shop and bail bond building into a casual Italian restaurant and a Starbucks. The old residents of the downtown area, largely unmentioned and presumably invisible to the powers altering the landscape, are now probably gone.   

The moneyed and landholding entities powering this large-scale renovation found a public name for themselves in the Greater Des Moines Partnership. This entity safeguards the original dream laid out in the destination Downtown initiative, promoting an accessible, “safe” and corporate friendly culture that appeals to the new downtown residents and people throughout the state. The GDMP, funded by corporate donors,  is responsible for all of the landmark cultural events in the downtown area.    

This responsibility includes the World Food and Music Festival, where I ended up for my Friday afternoon lunch break. A collection of white tents sprouted up on the streets surrounding  the central library (designed by the architect David Chipperfield—who also designed the imminent glass temple that is the new Kum & Go headquarters a block away—and built in 2006). Corporate employees on their lunch breaks looking for something other than Jimmy Johns, kids from the schools within walking distance, people from rurality outside of Des Moines looking for some variety—all bound up within a couple blocks to form a crowd.

The World Food and Music Festival is the dream of downtown revitalization manifested. The corporate forces that govern the city produced the cultural attractions they had promised. It’s one iteration of a series of festivals that shut down the area surrounding the library throughout the summer. Each food tent was labeled with its country of origin—the cuisine’s origin, not the ancestral origin of the owner of the restaurant or food truck—and a logo of its own specific corporate donor. The tent with cooking demonstrations was brought to you by Meredith, publisher of several different food-focused magazines (Rachel Ray’s face beams down at you near one demonstration table). A gateway arch—visible at many of these festivals—displayed the logos of all the corporate entities of Des Moines that contributed to this community service of the cultural variety.

The food portion of the World Food and Music Festival attempted inclusivity, but in certain moments felt a little deranged. A variety of barbecue restaurants and food trucks are labeled as “United States” cuisine. This included a tent for the fried chicken fast food franchise Raising Caine’s, inexplicably. The tent that sold kettle corn was attributed to both the Netherlands and the United States (most kettle corn histories place kettle corn’s origin in Pennsylvania Dutch farmers in the colonial era).

For the most part, the festival was a centralizing of restaurants across the Des Moines area, taking places any local can eat at nearly any night of the week and condensing it for convenience. This did, in some measure, create an cultural event accessible to the residents of central Iowa. But unless you drove, it was probably difficult to get there with Des Moines’ limited public transportation, a problem which is unlikely to change due to the way that the supercharged growth of the downtown area has been financed. 

I found a short line for a lamb and beef gyro from the Karam’s Grill tent (Morroco/ Greece), which usually exists as a food truck. I won’t hold it against them, but the whole thing felt a little uninspired. I should’ve gone to the longer line at Sook’s Korean BBQ (Korea), who only seem to appear at festivals and not in a truck or in a static restaurant. It’s an appealing rarity in a city that doesn’t have much of anything in the way of Korean BBQ, tabletop grill or otherwise.  

Outside of the white tent border,  a stage stands dormant in front of the central library. Over the weekend, a variety of local musicians will stand upon it. People slowly wandered away from the crowd of tents and back to their jobs in the nearby office buildings. Some ate their food with their feet dipped in the small river that flows around the library. Any kind of attempt to help people access the diversity of their community must be positive in some way, or that’s the idea anyway. This was the future that so many millions of dollars built.