Center Street is the unique story of a thriving African American business and residential district in Des Moines, Iowa in the first half of the twentieth century. This story has too long been overshadowed by the larger national story of urban renewal, and is now fading quickly from our collective memory. It is imperative that we capture and preserve first person perspectives from this neighborhood, gathering the rich stories of barbershops and dry cleaners, clubs and churches, businesses and family homes.
You Can Help Us complete a 90-minute broadcast quality documentary and companion curriculum that serves as a statewide model of the long-term impacts of 1950s-1960s urban renewal policies. We want to capture and preserve the Center Street history while we can still obtain it directly from those who lived it. In the process we will add to and enrich the body of knowledge on Iowa’s history. When completed, we can share these stories at the national level to help complete the picture of the impacts of urban renewal.
Every donation will help. Thank you in advance for your contribution to support the completion of "The Center Street Story: An Urban Renewal Retrospective documentary project" - and for making a difference!
"Center Street was a city within a city" (the late E. Hobart DePatten, Business Owner and Civil Rights Activist)
Views of Center Street pre and post 1950s Oakridge Urban Renewal Project
“Rehabilitation really was not a part of urban renewal in the beginning . . . so when you declared an area an urban renewal area, you did it with the thought that it would all come down. Everything!” (Jim Grant, former Director, Department of Community and Economic Development, Des Moines, IA)
Our Journey to Bring this History to Light
Center Street Story: An Urban Renewal Retrospective film, has been more than 10 years in the making. The film has been driven by our passion to shed light on a social, economic and political injustice of the past that is very much connected to the present – and future condition of communities of color. To some the Center Street story – and essentially our documentary – may seem to be about the loss of brick and mortar that occurred in the name of natural progression. To the contrary, for us and all of those that have worked with Community Legacy Matters, Inc. the purpose of this documentary has been to give a community’s voice to a largely unknown part of the patch-quilt of Iowa’s history. That encompasses, not just the demise of a place, but also the experiences of the power of a place developed over more than five decades ago that became “a city within a city”. Largely because of the resilience and desire of Black members of the greater Des Moines populace to have a place to call home “because we couldn’t go to the businesses downtown.”
For us, resurrecting and reconstructing the Center Street Story for the making of this documentary has been both a learning experience and emotional journey. Through a collective of many voices, we’ve walked through, explored and have deeply felt lived experiences of real people’s lives. That include former business owners and residents, musicians, city planners, politicians and academics. The outcome being not just a people’s history about the structures they lived in or frequented. Rather it is a documentary history about “what was happening” in and outside of those structures” told from a greater pool of perspectives of those that lived it. That provide a broader sense and understanding of community life that we can all connect with – but that some have benefited from more than others.
Moreover, the making of this film has been an emotional process as we had opportunity to either experience this history for the first time or relive and rearticulate through our own mind’s eye the power of Center Street as a community on the one hand, and the socially unjust experiences of urban renewal endured by people – businessowners and families that were displaced. We developed relationships with individuals like E. Hobart De Patten, a businessman in his early 80’s when this project began, who, unfortunately, like many others interviewed for the film have since passed away. Mr. De Patten spoke with a sense of pride as he told the story of how he and others were able to borrow and build on a handshake because they lived in a community where word was bond – and it was difficult to do business with mainstream financial institutions. On other occasions Mr. De Patten showed absolute and enduring distress while telling his story, that at times was told holding back tears of anger and sorrow at the thought of how much he lost. However, there were many more times when he and others showed gratitude because after almost five decades someone cared enough to ask and work towards telling the story in a way that hasn’t been told.
Filmmakers, Madison and Richard Duncan in front of the area of 1417 Center Street. Richard's childhood home during the 1940s - 1950s - prior to the Oakridge Urban Renewal Project.
Finally, and perhaps more important now than ever before, for us, the purpose of making this film has come to encompass a story that reveals a time and place that was largely a multicultural community where people co-existed – but that had nestled within it a dominant Black business district where people forged life-long bonds, where children felt safe and where people were instilled with a sense of connectivity and empowerment to achieve – and did.