WALNUT, Ia. — Gene Larsen comes to a halt. He lingers just inside the doorway of a silent, dim classroom. His distant gaze suggests a reverie in which he’s the only one who sees and hears some bygone bustle.
“This is the room I was in when Kennedy was killed,” says Larsen, surrounded on this day by a gaggle of his neighbors as well as a handful of officials from out of town. Everybody is intent on seeing this space reborn to become more than a crumbling shrine to childhood memories.
Larsen, 65, is the mayor. Walnut’s school shut its doors in May after 144 years of proudly supporting its own district.
It’s almost as if a question hovers in the air: Should Walnut and other rural communities still hold out hope for revival despite decades of social and economic erosion? Or could vacant buildings such as this help spark a turnaround similar to what we’ve witnessed in the last 20 years in urban downtowns such as Des Moines?
This 77,000 square feet lines a prominent stretch of the “Antique City Drive” that leads south of Interstate 80 into a business district dominated by the secondhand shops that lent this town of fewer than 800 residents its oversized tourism identity.
What at first glance might look to outsiders like derelict property threatening to become an eyesore, in many towns often is a beloved (if not bittersweet) landmark for local residents whose lives have played out in and around them.
“We just can’t ignore this,” Larsen says.
The mayor’s resolve may seem futile considering his school’s only current resident is a dead bird plopped on the hardwood floor next to a cold radiator.
But there’s also a fresh groundswell of support eager to help him.
One of the familiar characters walking down memory lane with the mayor is Zach Mannheimer, 38, the arts and culture evangelist from New York who nearly a decade ago scoured the nation for up-and-coming cities and chose Des Moines as his new entrepreneurial playground.
His flagship became a downtown centerpiece known as Des Moines Social Club, a mixed-use urban magnet overseen by a nonprofit that now houses arts groups, a basement bar/music venue, black-box theater, coffee shop, restaurant and other components…
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