To become oriented to the historic Center Street neighborhood, the “lost” hub of Black culture and life in Des Moines, it’s important to remember that the street itself is still there, gently climbing the same hill from Keosauqua Way toward 15th Street. But everything else has changed.
In fact, the neighborhood was not “lost” at all—it was intentionally demolished amid the tide of government Urban Renewal programs and the arrival of the freeway in the 1960s. Choices made then have had consequences that echo through the generations of the former neighborhood’s predominantly Black residents. And the neighborhood’s story reminds us of our community’s responsibility to ensure housing justice, stability, and opportunity are for all people.
Despite the transformation of the neighborhood, on October 5, for a time, the old lively scene returned to Center Street, and the stories of the familiar businesses, friends and families were in the air again on a breezy afternoon. Over 100 community members were gathered for the dedication of a State of Iowa historical marker, the 53rd in Iowa, honoring the Center Street neighborhood and community.
Speakers shared stories of kids roller skating, puppy love, and teenagers putting on make-up and sneaking into a jazz club. They recalled memories of a community alive with the sounds of live music Saturday evening and in its finest clothes for church Sunday morning. Though the neighborhood is no longer standing, speakers spoke of the urgency of not letting its memory fade away.
A COMMUNITY’S TREASURED MEMORIES
“You know, some cannot even begin to imagine what this place was,” said local historian and former Center Street resident Richard Duncan, the keynote speaker. “You know, some people look and now they can see the Oakridge community. They can hear the traffic on the freeway, I-235. But when I stand here, and I look around, what I see is a displaced community, a displaced business district. I see it as it was. I see it as it used to be.”
Duncan used his remarks to conduct an oral walking tour of the neighborhood, sharing memories to take the crowd past the beauty school, the funeral home, past the house of a prominent local power couple who broke career barriers for the African American community, and more.
He recalled the construction of Willkie House, a settlement house today known for its youth programs, in 1951. And Duncan spoke of the intersection of 12th and Center Street as a hub of nightlife where people from across the city came to be and be seen. He recalled community social organizations, and the Black churches that were a foundation for the community.
“I thank the people of Methodist Hospital for allowing this spot of ground [for the marker]. This is a spot of ground that means so much to me,” Duncan said.
A PROGRAM OF ‘URBAN REMOVAL’
By the end of the 1950s, the national conversation about urban renewal came to Des Moines, backed by government funding to remove “blighted” areas of communities and to develop new housing and other facilities. Local families decried a lack of communication about the fate of their homes and inadequate compensation when their displacement finally occurred.
State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad told the crowd, “This was the area that—we were so proud. And you saw ‘proud’ in self-esteem, especially in the African American community. And I don't want to offend anyone, but I don't call it ‘urban renewal,’ I call it ‘urban removal,’ because this community was removed. It was painful for us.”
At the same time, segments of the new freeway, I-235, opened throughout the 1960s, including just north of Center Street, cutting the broader neighborhood in half. By 1970, the Center Street neighborhood was largely a memory, with members of the community scattered.
State Representative Ruth Anne Gaines described her experience during the time the neighborhood was demolished. “I went away to school in 1965, and when I came back in 1970, Center Street was gone. And it broke my heart. And I always say when someone says to me, ‘Do you know anything about Center Street?’ I say, ‘Yes. It was a place where Black people could feel free, could feel loved, could feel fellowship, and feel that they were in their own element.’”
A RESPONSIBILITY TO REMEMBER
Numerous efforts have been and are being made to tell the Center Street story and ask the community to remember its responsibility for inclusive decision-making in the future. The dedication ceremony included numerous calls to action for the community to continue to share Center Street’s story and promote a more inclusive community today.
Richard Duncan, the event’s keynote speaker, and his wife Madison DeShay Duncan are working to document and share the history of Center Street. They are producing a documentary called The Center Street Story: An Urban Renewal Perspective.
The Polk County Housing Trust Fund (PCHTF) has released an online exhibit called Redlining in Des Moines, with information and resources about housing discrimination and its consequences locally. Jay Singleton, who serves on the Trust Fund’s board of directors and grew up in Center Street, said the marker dedication continues the effort to help the broader community learn this part of the city’s history.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t understand what happened to Center Street,” he told the crowd. “There’s a lot of African Americans who don’t understand it; there’s a lot of native Iowans who don’t understand that – so I challenge you to tell the story. Don’t let this be one moment.”
A similar historical marker was unveiled in September at Willkie House, one of the oldest African American community-based organizations in Iowa—and an important resource for local youth, located nearby at 900 17th Street, Des Moines. A capital campaign is underway there to seek funds to renovate the facility’s gymnasium.
Des Moines Mayor Pro Tem Connie Boesen also reflected on the broader community’s responsibility to learn from the lessons of Center Street.
“Everyone gathered here today is part of helping to ensure our community reaches its full potential, realizing important goals we have set for equity and inclusion we have set out together, and for holding all of us accountable for the decisions that we make going forward,” Boesen said.
The Polk County Housing Trust Fund gratefully acknowledges the partnership of UnityPoint Health, the Community Jazz Center of Greater Des Moines, the State Historical Society of Iowa, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, and the numerous neighbors and volunteers who supported the marker project.
Here is the text of the historical marker:
People lived and worked here. They shopped and prayed here. They gathered here to celebrate life. Welcome to what was Iowa’s most vibrant Black community — the historic Center Street neighborhood, stretching from 15th Street to Keosauqua Way. Between the early 1900s and late 1960s, this neighborhood was one of the few areas that Blacks could proudly call their own. Black-owned businesses lined Center Street — grocery stores, hotels, jazz clubs, restaurants, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and more. The Crocker YMCA and Willkie House served the needs of youth. One of the first pharmacies in Iowa and the first school of cosmetology — both Black owned — were here. There were affordable homes and apartments where Black residents raised their families. In the 1960s, the city’s urban renewal plan displaced homeowners and businesses to accommodate the MacVicar Freeway (I-235) and public services. Iowa Methodist Medical Center celebrates this historic neighborhood and its people with this marker in Center Street Park.