Deciphering the Identity of Sioux City

Faded letters on the terra cotta-clad, red-brick-walls of downtown buildings remind passersby of some of the dozens of businesses that have come and gone in Sioux City’s economic history. Pelletiers, Aalf’s Wallpaper Company, and Hotel West – they all, at one point, were part of Sioux City’s economy. Over time, these businesses have given way to other businesses, and the letters on the walls have become witnesses to the process of modernization and diversification that the city has gone through.

The people who have lived here for a long time know that today’s Sioux City is drastically different from how it was in years past. According to George Lindblade, photographer and long-term resident of Sioux City, there is no comparison between the city of past decades and the city today.

“Sioux City was what they call a blue-collar town,” he recounted, “It was more industrialized. We had the Sioux City stockyards, many packing plants, and lots of factories.” Those factories included companies like Sioux Tools, a power tools manufacturing company; Kari-Keen, an automotive and airplane producer; as well as the Hawkeye motor truck company.

Additionally, for a long time, Sioux City was the location of several brickyards and functioned as a distribution center for all kinds of other goods to smaller cities. “All types of goods from the East Coast would be brought into Sioux City, and they would be distributed out of here to the smaller towns around here,” Lindblade said, and added that as a result, “the economy was very good.”

Even though the city’s economy has always been powered by a variety of different industries, the story of Sioux City has not been one of uninterrupted success. The city has gone through high points but has also experienced major setbacks. In the late 19th century, Sioux City’s growth was interrupted by the Silver Crash of 1893. Later on, Sioux City, like the rest of the world, went through the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Throughout much of the 1900s, the city was thriving economically because of the stockyards. New and easier ways of transportation, however, made the stopover in Sioux City superfluous, and farmers and meatpacking companies gradually stopped bringing their business to the city.

In addition to that, the city experienced several major natural disasters like tornadoes and the Floyd River floods of 1892 and 1953.

Despite all the ups and downs, one aspect has persisted throughout time. Sioux City reacts to setbacks with resilience and weathers the problems that are thrown at it. Historical advocate Jim Jung said, “Sioux City has always had a work ethic. I think that’s what makes it strong.” 

President of the Sioux City organization Unity in the Community, Monique Scarlett, agreed and called Sioux City a survival city. “No matter what’s happening on a national or international scale, we have a sense of when we know it’s getting too close when we need to pull together a little bit tighter to protect ourselves,” she said.

The city’s work ethic and mentality of survival have led to the city reinventing itself many times over, all the way from an industrial town to one of progress and diversity.

Despite blue-collar industries continuing to be an essential pillar of Sioux City and its community, the city’s economy is not as exclusively focused on blue-collar industries anymore. The stockyards are long gone, most of the meatpacking plants have left, and instead, Sioux City has become a starting ground for the development of small businesses. Industrialization has given way to collaboration and innovation in the economy, paired with a strive for diversification and inclusiveness in the community.

Sioux City has had a diverse population for many decades, but the mix of nationalities and ethnicities has changed over time. Lindblade recalls that there used to be a very large Jewish economy in Sioux City. He said, “We had, at one time, probably 3000-4000 Jewish families here. And these people were the backbone of Sioux City.”

According to him, this part of the population dwindled after World War II. Upon return to the US, a lot of the city’s young Jewish population who had gone to war were discharged to New York or Chicago and stayed there because they could see the growth of those communities.

Similarly, Jung recalled that the numbers of some other nationalities have decreased. Sioux City used to have a lot of German, Swedish, and Italian residents. Furthermore, the city featured a considerable Lithuanian population, of which a big part worked in the stockyards and built the 2007 demolished St. Casimir’s church.

According to Scarlett, another event that significantly changed the makeup of the population was the destruction of the South Bottoms neighborhood after the 1953 River Flood. Re-channelization efforts displaced hundreds of residents, most of whom worked in the close-by packing plants. 

“The South Bottoms were primarily the foundation for the diverse ethnic groups. It was a huge melting pot, and then people began to move away,” Scarlett said, and added, “The South Bottoms were just flooded out, and then it was just gone. And then it [Sioux City] became a predominantly white city, with your few black people still on the East Side and West Side.”

Today, those changes in the population are still reflected in Sioux City’s community. It is as diverse as ever, as much in nationalities and ethnicities as it is in cultures, beliefs, and opportunities. The city’s community features representation from different ethnic groups, nationalities, and the LGBTQIA+ community. Festivals such as the Asian and African festivals, as well as the Sioux City Pride, have become staple events of Sioux City’s celebration of its diverse population. 

Besides the changes in its population and economy, one of the biggest changes made over the last few decades has been Sioux City’s visual appearance. With the opening of the Southern Hills Mall in 1980, major department stores like Younkers moved their operations from downtown to the mall. As a result, the downtown area became considered due for urban renewal and revitalization in an effort to rekindle interest among businesses.

In the process, several old buildings were torn down in what Jung called a “perfect storm” of urban renewal. Since then, many people have realized the merit and value of the older buildings, particularly those that are built in a Richardsonian Romanesque style that was popular in the 1800s.

When preservation efforts began, there was little money to sustain them. However, in recent years, the improved economy has allowed more funding to be available for preservation. Because of that, Sioux City’s Preservation Commission was able to save some of the downtown buildings.

With its rich history, Sioux City’s identity cannot be put in just a few words. Its change in businesses, population, and visual appearance has been too diverse to obtain a clear answer today. What is certain, however, is that Sioux City has come a long way since its early days, when it was a place for travelers to restock their supplies along the Missouri river on their way to the Pacific Northwest.

By Emily Rotthaler

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