Postcards from Des Moines: A Trip To RAYGUN

Returning from Minneapolis and on a roundabout, triangular route to Dubuque, I stopped into RAYGUN, the Midwest’s favorite t-shirt shop, for Matterporting. It’s grown a bit since the last time I was in the space, circa 2010. By “grown a bit” I mean “it seems to occupy the majority of a city block.” We had been e-mailing back and forth to see when I might be able to come in and do the thing. I had actually e-mailed them the previous evening during the debate to say that they should make a t-shirt out of Joe Biden’s “will you shut up, man?” They did— the next morning. Such is the benefit of doing most of your printing in-house– upstairs from the retail floor, even. Staff were gracious and did not cast me off the second story balcony as I poked about the space with my tripod and robot camera.

THE SPACE

The company’s flagship store is located in Des Moines’ East Village neighborhood, located just east of the Des Moines River, a stone’s throw from the state capitol. While the neighborhood has been long-defined by historic, low-slung buildings and cute storefronts, it, like everywhere else in this country right now, it seems, seen a major boom in development in recent years. The neighborhood’s stability combined with its relatively low density and proximity to, well, everything, has made it a popular topic of discussion for large-scale development.

There’s an expansive storeroom– really, a series of rooms- behind the main floor. There’s also a connected coffee shop, Mars Coffee Bar.

THE COMPANY

RAYGUN has expanded– from a tiny shop in Des Moines to multiple locations in Iowa and Chicago. One of the things I like about them is the fact that it’s one of very few businesses that are, well, unapologetically Midwestern. They’re also essentially pan-Midwestern. This resonates with me as Handbuilt was essentially conceived under the banner of either pan-midwesternism or pan-Rust Belt, at least. (You know, since we want to be able to include Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Rochester. Even though they’re not, well, actually Midwestern per se). As there is a lively Chicago-Iowa nexus, mostly from Iowegians who depart their home and native land for the big city, and then realize that it’s kind of awful to live in a city with $180 parking tickets and still crumbling infrastructure and high crime and then move back, the O.G. RAYGUN featured a lot of what I might call Chicagiana. I saw one of my favorite shirts– “Chicago: Home of the El Train, which is Spanish for ‘The Train’.”

I contrast the positivity slant of the average t-shirt’s messaging against what one might call stativism, that is, sticking the word “native” on an icon of your state. When the “Iowa native” stickers were released, I remember a quote from the person who first produced them saying, “you know, we were in Denver, and I saw these Colorado Native stickers, and I thought it’d be cool to have ones for Iowa, too!” I remember having a chuckle at that. Colorado has grown at an average decennial rate of 23.6% since 1960, nearly nine times the growth rate of Iowa. In other words: what is the value of promoting your born-and-bred pride as an implicit casting-out of transplants, when there aren’t that many?

This could well be a whole book, so, suffice it to say that the point is really that this contrasts starkly with RAYGUN’s self-effacing, even self-deprecating humor, which simultaneously emphasizes some singular Midwestern pride. “IOWA CITY: ALL OF OUR CREATIVITY WENT INTO THE NAME,” one shirt dubiously proclaims in the company’s ubiquitous script (which FontSquirrel’s Matcherator tells me is most likely Hamburg Serial Bold, identified by the unique, prominent tail of the apostrophe). 

Mars Café, as viewed from the storage loft area, next to where RAYGUN screenprints a bunch of their stuff.
MACRO TRENDS: UNPACKING MIDWESTERNISM

Compared to Iowa, though, Chicago has been shrinking over nearly the past century. Iowan cities, on the other hand, have been growing, for the most part. I looked at this trend in 2010 when conducting research into economic development. Generally, the population centers within even less populous counties were growing, while smaller towns were shrinking or stagnant. Minneapolis-St. Paul? While the individual cities have had relatively flat growth rates in the past 70 years, the metro area has been growing steadily over this time. A development boom in the urbanized areas and inner-ring suburbs of both cities suggests that the 2020 census might reveal an upward trend. Conclusion? A lot of the Midwest is doing alright! Take that, coastal chauvinism! (Contrast that with my current domicile of Michigan, which is defined by a stagnant state economy and a stagnant Detroit Metro. Michigan tees are not entirely- but virtually- absent from RAYGUN’s menagerie).

What is interesting about Des Moines– and pride therein, specifically- is that while it it may appear to be a pretty unexciting place, it’s certainly not a boring city. In the humble opinion of noted pedant and urbanist Nat Zorach, it’s got better food, better topography, better excite-a-ment, and a better built environment going for it than (regionally) proximal competitors like Indianapolis, Omaha, Cedar Rapids, and others. It’s clean. It’s got a Real, Intact, Growing Downtown. It’s got a neat library. While its suburbs continue to sprawl outward, the city is nonetheless still growing. It’s got great beer from spots like Exile and Lua. It’s got the best Vietnamese food in a four plus hour radius. And it’s one of a relatively short list of larger US cities that have a modern flag. In contrast, Cedar Rapids ranked as having one of the worst flags in the United States.

THE RAYGUN CANON

Anyway. Generally, there are a few readily identifiable, running themes in the RAYGUN canon:

  • Midwest pride. No Coast! North Coast! Geographically, this is a tough one. The Midwest has fuzzy boundaries. Do you include both sides of the Ohio River Valley, for example? Does the Midwest extend to Pittsburgh? Is the Midwest distinct from the Great Plains? Are you only “real” Midwest if you’re in Central Time? Indeed, is the identity of ‘place’ defined by its state (Chicago, Illinois)? Perhaps by its immediate geography (Pittsburgh, at the confluence of two rivers, surrounded by mountains)? Or by its hinterlands (Denver, to the Rockies)? Hildegard Binder Johnson observed in 1979 that settlements in flatlands don’t tend to attract much interest from tourists or other outsiders unless, say, they have some majestic, medieval walled city, or something. Interestingly, there isn’t much referring to Michigan, Ohio, or Indiana. It’s much more heavily slanted toward Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and, to a lesser degree, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. A career advisor once told me that “you’re in Michigan, that’s in eastern time! That’s not even the real Midwest! What are you even doing?!”
  • Black Lives Matter. While RAYGUN has long pushed social causes in general, most of the Black Lives Matter material is a product of the broad interest in the movement in 2020. I am gonna give them some more time to come up with some more hardcore material in this category. They do have a pretty great MLK reference one, though.
  • Weird Iowa-specific place pride swag. Some more about names: No Sleep Til Brooklyn, Iowa (in Poweshiek County, and home to, well, not a whole lot). Jokes about the, ahem, cereality of Cedar Rapids’ industrial heritage. Some oddly specific: “Ankeny: If Pumpkin Spice Were A City.” (Ankeny is a sort of unremarkable, exurban suburb of Des Moines). Urban-Whale, a reference to the misleadingly named Urbandale, whose municipal boundaries are actually shaped, bizarrely, like a whale.
  • Iowa Sports Ball. Most references I don’t understand even after spending years in the state. Iowa notably lacks a major league team, so there’s a ton of love for D1 sports– Iowa State, UNI, and University of Iowa. Also, not Iowa Sports Ball per se, but lots of love for Patrick Mahomes.
  • Feminism and reproductive rights. This is a big one, whether shouting out to The Squad, RBG, or Elizabeth Warren, or whether talking about the importance of access to healthcare or birth control. I was bummed that they ran out of these purple heather shirts with hot pink text. What a color combo.

Anyway, enjoy the model and support a Midwestern business.

Des Moines: The Greatest City in the Universe. RAYGUN Shirts and things.

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Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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