A Storied Neighborhood with a Brand New Market

By Chase Langos on Tuesday, August 30, 2022


2022 Center Street Farmers' Market photo courtesy of the Oakridge neighborhood Instagram page (oakridge_neighborhood)

The Center Street Farmers’ Market is a new market that not only provides for a community dealing with food insecurity, but that also celebrates a Des Moines neighborhood with amazing history. Learn more about the legacy of one of the newest Double Up Food Bucks partner markets, and what you can see if you stop by on Wednesday afternoons.

A Brief History of Oakridge Neighborhood and Center Street

Center Street and Oakridge Neighborhood in downtown Des Moines is a storied area with deep ties to the African American community. What was once a thriving part of Des Moines full of black owned businesses, entertainment, and nightlife was cut in half and forever changed by urban renewal in the late 1950s. Today, Oakridge Neighborhood is established as a Thriving downtown neighborhood, focused on supporting its residents and lifting up the unique history of the area. One step community organizers have taken is to establish The Center Street Farmers’ Market. Located a block north of Center Street, the market has provided residents and community members with easier access to healthy foods and a place to showcase their own unique products.

The Center Street neighborhood began growing in the early 1900s and wouldn’t reach its peak until World War II. As early as 1907, a well-established business district had taken form in the neighborhood. Around this time, segregation in the U.S. military would bring 127 members of the all black 25th infantry unit to Fort Des Moines which would eventually lead to the creation of the Black Officers Training Camp. Thomas A. Gary, author of ‘The Rise and Fall of Center Street, 1945-1972’ comments on this time in the community, “This large influx of African American men brought civic pride to the black business district, and, in the case of the Black Officer Training Camp, much needed business to Center Street entrepreneurs.”[1]

Center Street and its surrounding neighborhood still had decades of growth ahead. After World War I, the neighborhood continued to grow with the beginning of construction on Keosauqua Way in 1920, causing a boom in property values near the new road. The arrival of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corp, a non-segregated all women unit in Fort Des Moines, brought even more visitors to the neighborhood.

A historic image of Center Street, super imposed on the street today, for “The Center Street Story:

A historic image of Center Street, super imposed on the street today, for “The Center Street Story: An Urban Renewal Retrospective” documentary, produced by Community Legacy Matters Inc. Special to The Register

Between 1907 and 1950, Center Street would continue to flourish. Popular entertainment destinations popped up in the community including the Billiken Ballroom, the Elks Club, and the Sepia Club. Renowned restaurants like Harry Hatter’s and Trotters populated the neighborhood as well as countless local shops. Popular musicians from Des Moines and Chicago came to play in the various venues. The area had become the heart of Des Moines’ African American community.

Yet as Gary states, the dream of a black business district on Center Street began to die between 1957 and 1960. “The street experienced a slow death of ever-increasing vacancies, threats of freeways, and urban renewal,” Gary says. “Each year the numbers of vacant properties grew with each new plan.”[2] Eventually, the neighborhood would be split by freeway construction, with many homes and buildings being purchased, then demolished, to make way for the thoroughfare in the middle of Des Moines.

Oakridge Neighborhood and The Center Street Farmers’ Market

With such a storied history full of culture and character, the current revitalization efforts happening in Oakridge Neighborhood are exciting for one of Des Moines’ most storied communities. Marlee Rutledge, Food Access Coordinator for Oakridge Neighborhood Services, sat down with the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative to cover their brand-new farmers’ market, their adoption of the Double Up Food Bucks program, and the history of Oakridge.

“Oakridge Neighborhood and Center Street used to be as robust as Sherman Hill. Center Street was basically an African American Valley Junction,” said Rutledge. “That’s where musicians would go to perform, that’s where people would come to get their hair done.”

The Center Street neighborhood’s identity as a booming cultural center in Des Moines may have been interrupted by urban renewal, but it was never completely gone. In fact, many kids who grew up in the neighborhood still remember the height of the community's boom as adults. “People still talk about the community that used to occur on Center Street by being around your neighbors, that's something Amal (Amal Barre serves as Vice President - Planning and Strategy for Oakridge Neighborhood) and I try to do for the community. You can have food, but you can also have fellowship,” Rutledge explained. The food and fellowship she mentioned are key tenants in why the newly relaunched Center Street Farmers’ Market came to be.

Market Photo

2022 Center Street Farmers' Market photo courtesy of the Oakridge neighborhood Instagram page (oakridge_neighborhood)

According to Rutledge, the Center Street neighborhood was considered a food desert by the USDA as recently as 2018. “We’re figuring out how to bring fresh and healthy produce into a neighborhood that uses SNAP and EBT more than others,” she said. The problem is further compounded by the fact that there are many residents without access to cars, so bringing the fresh and healthy foods to residents' doors is a huge help.

While the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market is nearby, it doesn’t help solve the food insecurity problems the residents face. Rutledge explained that the community is primarily a refugee population, so large and crowded markets seem daunting to families that don’t use English as their first language. On top of these issues, Center Street has a large 55 and up community, so making trips to the store can be time consuming and hectic. By creating a market considerate of all these barriers, they ensure everyone has access to healthy foods regardless of age, nationality, and ability.

Due to these factors, the adoption of the Double Up Food Bucks program has seen wide usage at the market. Many community members utilize the program, and the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative and Oakridge Neighborhood are actively finding easy ways to expand and better support the market.

As Rutledge mentioned, the food isn’t the only offering at the market however, as fellowship is a priority as well. They have vendors who currently live in the neighborhood and grew up there selling items ranging from athleisure wear to handmade jewelry, as well as community partners like Project Iowa to provide services to the residents. “Being out and about around your neighbors, that’s what we wanted to pay homage to,” said Rutledge.

As for the future of the market and what success would look like, Rutledge had a simple answer. “I would love to see more people that aren’t residents visit the market. Let people know we’re here, we would love to see them!”

The Center Street Farmers’ Market runs on Wednesdays through September 14, from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at 979 Oakridge Drive. Discussions around renewing the market for 2023 have already begun. Make sure to stop by and support this wonderful new market.

If you are interested in becoming vendor please contact Aryn McLaren (aryn@iowahealthieststate.com) at the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative or Marlee Rutledge (mrutledge@oakridgeneighborhood.org) at Oakridge Neighborhood.

[1] Thomas A. Gary, “The Rise and Fall of Center Street “(Ames: 2003) 8.

[2] Thomas A. Gary, “The Rise and Fall of Center Street “(Ames: 2003) 36.