DES MOINES, Iowa—When Cownie Furs opened in 1907, Des Moines was what you'd expect from the capital of agricultural Iowa: a quiet manufacturing town with very few people who weren't white. That store on Ingersoll Avenue is still there more than 100 years later, but the faces walking past the family-owned staple look a lot different today.
Sitting in his store, Frank Cownie, the tall, gray-haired mayor of Des Moines since 2004, proudly describes a city that stands out in the region for its urban renewal, roaring commerce, and growing diversity. Des Moines is not that white town anymore. In a few decades, it won't be even majority white anymore. With its open-door policy toward refugees and immigrants, and longstanding African-American population, the face of the city is starting to match the face of the United States. But as in any changing metropolis, there are some growing pains. This interview with Cownie has been edited for length and clarity.
In the last several decades, Des Moines has gone through a surprising demographic transition. It's really not this farm town like people think, is it?
Des Moines I think to a lot of folks is a really surprising place. People probably see Des Moines and Iowa as a really pretty WASP-y, generic, agricultural, heartland kind of place. And that probably 50 years ago was pretty true. A lot of this change came through the work of former Gov. Bob Ray, who welcomed people from Southeast Asia, especially from Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam. I'm sure out in rural Iowa it looks pretty much like it did 40, 50 years ago, but it is changing, albeit more slowly. But in Des Moines, we see a lot of Latinos that are coming from all over South America. We're seeing people from Southeast Asia. We have a lot of folks fleeing from Africa. And we have a lot of people from Bosnia. So, Des Moines has been pretty open-armed and receptive to people from all over the world.