The gentrification of Sherman Hill has been on my mind
Photo © 2009 Stan Brewer
By Shoshana Hebshi
Last weekend, my friend Casey and I were strolling through Sherman Hill during the last weekend of its annual tour of homes. It had been a great morning, gray and chilly, like fall (and summer) days in my last homestead of San Francisco, but full of newness and excitement.
I wouldn’t consider myself particularly “into” architecture or historical preservation—I don’t even like to paint my own walls, much less rip them out and start over. But I was in awe of the many people we met along the way who had done just that. They had taken an old home, which often times had been chopped up into seedy apartments and was in complete disrepair, and restored it with many new modern touches while retaining the bulk of the old, historic character.
From what I’ve been told, Sherman Hill had fallen into disrepair. And during the early 1980s, a pioneering group of homesteaders moved in to take back the neighborhood. They bought these old jalopies, renovated them and began to better the surroundings. Eventually, over the course of the past two decades the bulk of the degenerates who populated the hilly district just west of downtown, moved out. The drug dealers found other slums to fill. The addicts followed the dealers. Crime diminished and, all the while, a new community was forming.
The new Sherman Hill neighbors were interested in returning these stately homes to their former glory, and they helped each other, as good neighbors should, along the way.
All of this transformation had Casey and me thinking as we crested the top of the Hill and made our way to the old church on Crocker Street, now called the Kathedral. We wondered how the neighborhood would change on a socio-economic level, due to all the new money moving in and renovating these homes.
Was it bad that some of these relatively new owners were bringing a different kind of vibe into the low-key and welcoming community? Would it change the dynamic? Would it make Sherman Hill a more exclusive area? Would it become one of those inaccessible, uppity neighborhoods that cared more about appearances than good, old-fashioned Midwestern hospitality? Did it all really matter anyway?
It’s something to think about, and I have been thinking about it quite a bit, as we have experienced a few unseemly incidents in our neighborhood during the course of the summer. Where do I feel comfortable living? What kind of neighbor do I want to be?
A Des Moines Register op-ed last week talked about the sprawling Des Moines suburbs and how indistinguishable they are from each other, but how they have grown exponentially during the last decade and continue to attract the bulk of the population growth in the metro. Des Moines is no longer the population center. People seem to find the suburbs, like West Des Moines, Urbandale, Clive, Waukee and even Ankeny and Altoona, to be more enticing. These suburbs also have growing office parks, and downtown Des Moines is gaining vacant office space. In fact, when the insurance giant Aviva transfers its headquarters from downtown to West Des Moines there will be a lot more vacant office space downtown. But perhaps that will shorten commutes for many of Aviva’s workers.
I can’t help but try to contrast the choices to live in a place like Sherman Hill with a place like West Des Moines. There is clear appeal for both locations, such as what kind of house to live in, old or new? What sorts of schools are nearby? Suburban or urban? Where is there less congestion, noise and more room to spread out? What is closer to the Jordan Creek Mall?
Preferences are simply preferences, and they vary as much as Iowa’s weather. But I do think it would make for a good sociological study to delve into the reasons behind the choices people make in where to live and how they come to distinguish the important factors that ultimately make that choice for them.
For me, I think the work the Sherman Hill homeowners have done to clean up the neighborhood is a boon to the city. It has been transformed into a true historic district that is pleasurable to walk in, tour its homes and learn about the history. It’s enough to make for an after-school special or a profile on the HGTV network. And, it’s always a great thing to see a community coming together.
Shoshana Hebshi is happy in her 1936 Tudor-style on an old, broken down street somewhere in Beaverdale with a bunch of wacky neighbors, old, huge trees and a tag team of squirrels for entertainment, though someone should really think about working on those old pipes and http://shebshi.wordpress.com.
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