Main Street at Work in Des Moines’ 6th Avenue Corridor

“We don’t like what you did and we called the manager to complain!” That was the running theme of the feedback we received after completing 10 hours of landscaping work through the Rock the Block neighborhood cleanup project. We hoped our hard work to beautify 13 properties on 6th Avenue would inspire others to improve their businesses and homes. That was not the case, at least not initially.

As the executive director of our Main Street Urban Neighborhood District, I anticipated my greatest challenge would be to raise millions of dollars to fund a streetscape improvement effort or entice developers to see 6th Avenue as the next greatest area for commercial property development. By far, understanding the most effective way to engage the people is the most interesting piece of the puzzle.

After hearing the opinions of seemingly every Des Moines resident on how to transform 6th Avenue, I decided one more opinion couldn’t hurt. So, I asked one of the residents to specifically identify what he did not like about the landscaping job. We listened to each other’s perspectives and eventually compromised on the choice of the plants and their placement. He decided to help with the landscaping project on the spot. I helped him sort the plants and showed him different ways to arrange them. Meanwhile, he invited several of his neighbors over to hear about our revitalization plans.

By the end of our conversation, he shared his vision to have neighborhood picnics that would bring the community together. I promised that if he put together a committee and gave me a budget, my organization would help sponsor the neighborhood event. Two days later he reported back to me that he came up with a draft budget and that a neighbor was working on a flier for the event. He even asked if I had extra materials for landscaping the garden in the back of his apartment building. He was eager to meet again to plan the rest of the event. It was at that point, I realized I found one of the neighborhood’s leaders.

It’s the people that create the memories and make the buildings important. It’s the residents whose purchases will sustain existing and new businesses in the district. I came into this work with the idea that I somehow needed to change things; however, to make meaningful change, the first order of business is to work with the people and resources already there. With the help of the community, there is so much exciting progress on the 6th Avenue Corridor — from partnering with the Public Art Foundation in order to design art concepts for the streetscape to achieving a zero vacancy rate to creating 7 new businesses and 13 new jobs.

Revitalizing one of the lowest income and most diverse communities in Iowa has its challenges: fundraising, planning, and recruiting volunteers, to name a few. Although challenging, the most rewarding part is engaging the people. As much as revitalization is about giving new life to a community, it’s also about celebrating the life that already exists.