DES MOINES, Iowa—In an old movie theater on 13th Street with lead panels and wavy floors, in the heart of Des Moines' black community, photographs of a larger-than-life state assemblyman hang on the walls next to portraits of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Biggie and Tupac.
Ako Abdul-Samad uses this space as the headquarters for his day job: CEO of Creative Visions, a human-development organization that helps the marginalized African-American community in Iowa's capital. "Des Moines is not bad," says Abdul-Samad, who was born and raised here. "The key is Des Moines is savable."
Des Moines is a surprising city for folks who don't know it well. It's been many years since it was a sleepy, overwhelmingly white, manufacturing town in the Corn Belt. After the Vietnam War ended, then-Gov. Robert Ray opened Iowa's doors to refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—an act that led to waves of other refugees from places like Bosnia, Sudan, and Burma over the years. The town has a deeply rooted and successful Latino community, which—if trends continue—will one day be the majority demographic here. The arrival of well-educated, young professionals, along with significant investments in the downtown area, has made Des Moines one of the fastest-growing economies in the country.
It's also a city with a stagnant black community that accounts for most of the area's poverty.
"Downtown, there's serious development: awesome. East Village: awesome. West Des Moines: awesome. Waukee, Ankeny: awesome. The urban core: pathetic," Abdul-Samad says. "There's no development in the urban core."
The urban core just happens to be where the city's poverty and African-American population are concentrated. African-American families in Des Moines on average make only 38 percent of what white families in Des Moines bring in. That works out to $29,000 in black median family income, compared with $74,000 for white families. This puts Des Moines near the top (27th out of 417) of U.S. metropolitan areas in wage disparities.
How can such inequality coexist with such prosperity? David Peters, an Iowa State University professor who compiled the U.S. Census data, characterizes the city's black population as "statistically invisible," hidden by thriving suburbs and a downtown area. "When you look at the entire metro area, even though many of the areas are very wealthy, it masks and averages out the very poor spots," he explains. It's a problem that many smaller northern Plains regions, such as Fargo, N.D., and Mankato, Minn., have dealt with historically.
At the same time, Des Moines has found itself in the happy position of being in national headlines for reasons other than quadrennial visits by potential presidential candidates. Forbes lists Des Moines as the second-best place in the country for business and careers and the best city for young adults. NBC's Today called Des Moines "America's wealthiest city," and Women's Health and Yelp even listed Des Moines as an "up and coming city for foodies." The city is atop so many lists that locals roll their eyes at the mention of yet another award.
Next to London and Hartford, Conn., Des Moines stands out as an insurance giant, with 81 companies headquartered in the region. It's also home to the publishing conglomerate Meredith Corporation and Principal Financial Group. Its downtown area has gone through a cultural and architectural renewal, accompanied by a booming housing market, burgeoning nightlife scene, and growing start-up culture. Surface-level numbers also show that the Des Moines metropolitan area is thriving: The unemployment rate is below 5 percent, the cost of living is 92 percent of the national average, and nearly 34 percent of the population has a college degree.
The Des Moines region is thriving because the suburbs and wealthier parts of the city—especially downtown and the upscale Beaverdale neighborhood—are doing well. Success happened because private and public officials worked together to make systematic, long-term changes to the downtown area. That level of cooperation fostered long-term investments in infrastructure, parks, and small businesses.
It will take similar coordination and commitment to address the city's income disparity. Education is a good place to start. A majority of the students in Des Moines public schools are minorities, and the school system is making progress despite growing poverty numbers.
Peters argues that more middle-skill, middle-wage jobs are needed for people with little education after high school. "It's glamorous, it's newsworthy to attract tech firms, but that's only going to cause inequality to increase in Des Moines," Peters says. "The benefits in those jobs are only going to benefit households and workers that are already very well off."
Des Moines can be an example for Midwest cities transitioning from rural to urban economies, he says. But you have to address the worst-off in the community before you can celebrate the rest of it.
National Journal recently visited Des Moines to see how an increasingly diverse population—a majority of public-school students are now minorities—and booming economic development have changed this once-sleepy town. This article is part of a Next America series about the reality of 21st-century Iowa.
Janie Boschma and Stephanie Stamm contributed to this article