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Neighborhood faces challenges, changes, and crime

Story by Lauren Horsch and Taylor Soule

The Drake community is more than just a university. It encompasses the area from Interstate 235 to Franklin Avenue, and 42nd Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

Between those bounds lies a historic district, a business district and, of course, an academic district. The Drake neighborhood is one of the most densely populated and culturally diverse areas in Des Moines.

The community has faced economic, commercial and cultural challenges but still maintains a robust attitude and an important role in the metro area.

Lingering effects from crime plague the neighborhood despite efforts and changing attitudes.

The Drake neighborhood has faced many obstacles en route to a cultural, social and commercial overhaul in recent years.

In the last 20 years, the neighborhood has faced an economic slump, a national housing downturn and persistent poverty. Despite challenges, the neighborhood boasts a lively business district and a diverse,
friendly culture.

“The Drake today is not the Drake of 15 or 20 years ago,” Drake Neighborhood Association President Deric Gourd said.

The area is a work in progress, though, as residents try to preserve local history and repel big businesses in favor of locally owned shops and restaurants.

Gourd said the diverse, supportive population drives the neighborhood’s signature

“We have some difficulties, of course, some struggles, but we’ve still had quite a lot of success recently,” Gourd said. “We’re seeing crime continuing to go down across the neighborhood. We’ve seen quite a turnaround.”

The growth of local commerce reveals that turnaround.

Businesses cycle in and out of the area, but the neighborhood consistently draws owners who prefer the people to the pay. Though many franchises have taken over small business districts, the Drake neighborhood has seen the opposite as locally owned businesses like Mars Café, Jethro’s, Gazali’s and The Varsity Theatre thrive.

Drake students play a role in local businesses’ success, too, both when they buy locally and even when they go to class.

In the fall of 2012, a group of Drake students in the “Methods of Social Research” class teamed with the Drake Neighborhood Association to survey area businesses. The survey asked local business owners how the neighborhood could best support them.

Sophomore Domenic Lamberti, who administered the surveys as part of the class, said
neighborhood business owners were eager to participate in the students’ research.

“They were very receptive to Drake students,” Lamberti said. “Basically, if we were able to go to a business and there was someone there, they responded to us, were really cool to us and were willing to work with us.”

As local commerce thrives, diversity thrives in the area as well. A blend of people from an array of backgrounds calls the
neighborhood home.

“In every level you look at, whether it be education, classes, whether it be income, whether it be business, everything, we’re a very diverse, very large, very concentrated neighborhood,”
Gourd said.

Obstacles accompany that large, dense population, though. Gourd said the Drake neighborhood has high numbers of college dropouts and high levels
of poverty.

Despite economic, educational and class divisions, the neighborhood sustains a friendly, cooperative culture, especially between residents and Drake students.

Gourd said while residents in other college towns resent students, Drake students and locals have a bond.

“It’s great how everybody walks everywhere, and we get along together and you don’t have any resentment of the residents or the students,” Gourd said.
“You have everybody enjoying each other.”

That mutual enjoyment fosters a safe, active Drake neighborhood culture.

“Drake today is a vibrant, living place where people can walk,” Gourd said. “They can walk to work, walk to the store, walk to where they want to go and feel perfectly safe and happy and comfortable. It’s an area with a lot to offer as far as entertainment, activities, restaurants. The Drake neighborhood is more than I think most people realize it is.”

But, a day doesn’t go by where Drake University students don’t hear the sirens of emergency vehicles blaring from the streets. They’ve become accustomed to the Bulldog Alerts telling them an incident has occurred near campus. They’ve become accustomed to emails from Drake Security announcing a situation has arisen, and been taken care of. Yet, most students haven’t grown accustomed to knowing what happens in the neighborhood.

Gourd knows this all too well.

“It’s pretty easy to find a bad story about something that happened in the Drake neighborhood, just because we have so many people here,” he said.

The Drake neighborhood catches a lot of flak for crime-related issues.

On March 29, the Des Moines Register published a report saying the Drake neighborhood was the scene of multiple shootings over one week.

The report cited shootings on the 1500 block of 16th Street, the 1200 block of 15th Place, the 1500 block of 22nd Street, the 1200 block of 13th Street, the 1100 block of 14th Street and the 1700 block of 10th Street. Only one of those locations, 1500 block of 22nd Street, is located in the Drake neighborhood.

“There was a recent series … about crime in the Drake neighborhood, and in fact, it focused on events that weren’t even in the Drake Neighborhood because it’s much easier to say, ‘Bad things happen in the Drake neighborhood’ if it has a reputation from 25 years back,” Gourd said.

In the past, the neighborhood had been known for a shooting that happened at the Drake Diner in November of 1992. A shooting that resulted in two murders. A shooting that shook the
neighborhood. Since then, the association has worked to combat crime in the area.

“Neighborhood security is one of those things we have to keep on top of, I think, with a large neighborhood like this,” Gourd said.

Drake junior Erin McHenry spent her first semester this year studying abroad in Austria. Upon her return, she moved into a house on the east side of campus with four other girls. While McHenry was abroad, her roommates were robbed at gunpoint on their front porch.

McHenry said her mother was worried for her safety abroad, but with her roommates having just been robbed, she thought it was a good time for her to study abroad.

“I was worried (to return),” McHenry said. “It didn’t help that the second night here the alarm went off.”

After the armed robbery, her roommates decided to put a security system in the house as a precaution. McHenry said the alarm makes her feel safer at home, but it’s the outside environment that makes her cautious.

With her various on-campus involvements, McHenry finds herself on campus late at night, and not always with someone to walk home with her. She said walking home at night could be a scary situation, especially alone.

McHenry said crime wasn’t a big factor in choosing her house.

“We also just kind of thought that all of Drake is unsafe,” McHenry said. “I love the place and our neighbors are great, but for me the fear is not worth the other parts of it.”

She and her roommates thought about looking for a new place to live, but they couldn’t find one, so they’re staying in their current location. Luckily, the security system provides a certain sense of protection that lets her stay in her home.

“We see a turnover with 25 percent of our neighborhood every year. Students come in, students come out,” Gourd said. “We have a big population of people who come to the neighborhood, not because they’re students but because of the other apartments we have, so it’s one of those things that as soon as you get on top of it, as soon as you think you’re safe, all the good people and new people move in, and you kind of have to start it all over again.”


Horsch is a junior news/Internet and rhetoric double major. She serves as the TD's Editor-in-Chief. She has been on staff for three years and has been the editor since January 2012.

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