A City With Its Economic Bones Revealed: The Look of Sioux Falls

What factories, cathedrals, outdoor sculpture displays, and even brewpubs tell us about a town.

Cities are always more interesting if their look is connected to the work they do, or the story that brought people there in the first place.

Suburban office parks and housing developments, plus strip malls, are depressing wherever you see them, because wherever you see them they look the same. But housing patterns, street layouts, even building styles that are obviously related to local natural or industrial features  (a waterfront, a mountain ridge, a giant factory or a mine) – these make a city’s visual texture much more engrossing

Sioux Falls, South Dakota, illustrates this principle at three levels. One of them is obvious and driven by history; the second reflects a deliberate, modern civic decision; and the third is subtle and came as a surprise at least to me.

1) Living history. As every visitor to the city knows, its downtown is still dominated by physical features that spell out its history. Falls Park itself (below), recently restored as a recreation and tourist area. The century-old John Morrell slaughtering center and packing house, which has been a central part of the city's economic and social history and about which there will be more to say. (News update: CFIUS, the U.S. government commission that rules on certain foreign investments in American firms, has just approved -- as it obviously should have -- the sale of Smithfield, parent company of Morrell, to the Shanghhui food company of Shanghai.) The state penitentiary is next to them; stately century-old houses are being restored in a downtown historic district; the skyline is still dominated by the cathedral and the wonderful Henry Richardson-style courthouse, some of which you might make out in this view over the Falls toward the old downtown.

 

2) Intentional revitalization. Like several of the other cities we have visited, Sioux Falls is in the middle of a very deliberate effort to revitalize its downtown as a retail, entertainment, and residential zone. It has the hallmarks of similar efforts elsewhere: public-art projects, like the Sculpture walk and other outdoor statuary; restaurants and coffee shops; brewpubs; a work-in-progress riverfront walk; a resurrected performance center called the Washington Pavilion; and a lot more.  Public art:

Outside Monks House of Ale, one of many brewpubs:

 

The territory surrounding Sioux Falls is flat and farm-like, rather than the rougher territory of the "West River" half of the state from the Missouri River on to Rapid City and the Black Hills. The city has created an extensive network of bike trails over these flat lands, including a 20-plus mile loop route that we followed one day. It is shown in yellow, and the other trails in red, on this map.

At its highest point the loop trail has a commanding view of the downtown and the packing house. It snakes by the river at many points, including a bow-fishing location.

 

3) The "fringe city" phenomenon. This leads to the aspect of Sioux Falls's development that was personally most surprising to me. This is an important enough point that I don't want to rush in explaining it. And the practical circumstances of my life just at this moment mean that I have to leave to computer a few minutes from now.

So in the spirit of "serial journalism," let me do a segue for now by saying that the map at the top of this post, prepared by Esri's Allen Carroll and showing the big-box retail malls on the edge of the city, combines with the map below to set up the discussion for our next installment. This last map shows projected population change across the plains states in the next few years, hint at this aspect of Sioux Falls's growth. Blue shows areas that are gaining population; red, areas losing. Sioux Falls is near the bottom center. More to come soon on what these patterns mean and how they affect the culture and economy of a town.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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